The heart of Europe

 The year 2015 was the toughest in recent French history. A country devastated by terrorist attacks and targeted because it represents a model that is undoubtedly central to our Western world.

Discussions over France’s role in Europe have been going on for some time, and the conversation is by no means one-sided. Various points of view overlap. Some see France as having completely lost its competitive edge. Others believe France represents the only hope of achieving European integration, given the weakness of European institutions and Germany’s reluctance to push for greater unity.

Some view France as the only European country with the military capacity to shoulder the EU’s global responsibilities. And still others focus on the muddle in which the French political system finds itself – 2017 could see a rerun of the three-way challenge of 2012, a peculiar situation at a time when the electorate is calling for renewal. As it stands, the two traditional party leaders, Hollande and Sarkozy, will be challenged by Marine Le Pen, viewed as the barbarian whose siege on Rome is getting too close for comfort.

France undoubtedly plays a leading role in the European debate and even in the complex Brexit referendum, which may result in the United Kingdom leaving the EU. At the moment, only Paris seems to be prepared to expose the lie of a united front against Brexit, perhaps reminiscent of De Gaulle keeping London out of Europe for the whole of the 1960s. Cameron is seeking concessions in order to campaign for a yes to Europe vote in the UK. It is thought that when the negotiations come to a head, France will stand strong in the belief that a truly united Europe is perhaps better off without Great Britain.

Whenever Brussels, Berlin, London and Frankfurt bring up the famous structural reforms, France is always mentioned among the structurally unruly countries. And these are only a few of the recurring viewpoints that place France, in many different lights, at the centre of the European debate.

This ‘controversial centrality’ is one of the more interesting points that arise when discussing France and is perhaps the key to understanding both what the French are arguing about and their current role in Europe. At a time when the financial and economic crisis has gripped the continent and placed even the single currency at risk, analyses and considerations link the French to a number of different issues and the outcome of exceedingly complex developments.

French centrality, in any case, is undeniable. It became clear during the unprecedented wave of intense global emotion in the days following the Charlie Hebdo attack and the tragic events of the night of 13 November. The expression of positive feelings towards the French model is the emotional representation of complex bonds that must be carefully assessed. Let’s begin by looking at France in the context of the European community.

Along with references to a general historical continuity, France's centrality is also the result of specific European dynamics connected to the new ‘intergovernmentalism’ that has taken root in the community’s institutions over the past five years. The European Commission has, to its own detriment, watched as the role of the European Council has grown. During the last term, the Commission was superseded by the Council in its central role as the community’s ‘engine room’. And rather than community motions, the Council employs the intergovernmental method.

To coin a slogan, the European Union is being replaced by the Union of European States. The member states prevail over Brussels and the agreements between them set the agenda for the community’s institutions. In this context, the clout of nation states is what matters. As a result, Germany counts more than anyone else because it’s the largest country and its economy currently appears to be the most competitive in the EU area.

But it is also true that Germany can’t accomplish much against France's will or without France’s consent. This new phase of intergovernmentalism has effectively redefined the role of the French-German relationship and gifted France a new standing despite its domestic problems. Germany needs France, particularly in foreign affairs and security, as has been shown in the crises in Ukraine and Syria that are having so many repercussions on the lives of European citizens. If, as a result, Europe discovers a new role for the nation states, France will obviously return to the centre of things. France was one of the EU’s six founding states and an undisputed guide during the first decades of community life, so much so that it managed to impose acronyms and linguistic terminologies – from COREPER to community acquis – that still mark the life of the institutions. But France’s centrality today is different from that of the past because Germany is the country profiting from intergovernmentalism.

Further, on the issue of centrality, France undoubtedly plays a crucial role in military matters and foreign affairs. It is the only European country that did not cut back on its military spending in these years of financial crisis. France has retained a striking power that few in the EU can still boast today. Its military might, and ensuing centrality in the geopolitical power game, is even more pronounced when compared to that of the other three G7 member states. Germany’s reluctance to operate on this front is structural and can’t be changed in the short term. Italy has seen its capacity to take part in international military actions increase over the past 20 years but never as a stand-alone force or with any degree of leadership. Great Britain is perhaps the most special case. It has severely cut its military spending, and the Blair-Iraq issue remains very much alive in the mind of a public that still doesn’t want to see its soldiers involved in new military adventures. Baring in mind its status as a member of the UN Security Council, France is the US’ only direct partner in Europe. The Syrian affair and the French attacks from continent Europe on the Islamic State (IS) are clear evidence of this.

Thus, there are a number of reasons that we should speak of a new central role for France and just as many that point to a controversial centrality, owing to the contradictions that have arisen in recent years in both its economic and political spheres. The many problems that have been bubbling under the surface now seem to be erupting. France hasn’t had to endure the crises that have befallen southern Europe. The role of politics, the state and institutions has never been taken to task as it has in Italy or Spain. Although France has also witnessed the rise of non-political movements and various forms of populism, the strong two-party system has held up, thanks to the time-tested strength of its institutions.

The two main parties have managed to shore up the situation. But they haven’t yet succeeded in shifting gears or neutralising the populist threat of the National Front.

There’s a growing anti-political pressure whose power and tangible effects are hard to predict in the short term.

What will be the likely repercussions of this rising tidal wave? The traditional parties could find a way of infusing fresh blood into their ranks and promoting new leaders. Or these parties could break up, regroup and lead to the formation of new political entities. It also can’t be completely ruled out that the system is unable to cope with the Le Pen phenomenon. Even France could witness a political crisis that might undermine the state and its institutions.

In the end, France’s centrality cannot help but be controversial, full of expectations and problems, highlighted by the dramatic attacks that hit Paris in an attempt to break the model that the French capital represents around the world. The ultimate effect has been to make this model even stronger, confirming and reinforcing France’s controversial centrality in Europe.

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