Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The French learn followership

by Charles Grant

For the first time in the history of the EU, Germany is the unquestioned leader, and France is number two. Since the financial crisis struck in 2008, the economic inequality between France and Germany has grown. Although regular summits between Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy maintain the appearance of parity, France's higher levels of debt and public spending, its lower level of exports, its less well capitalised banks and its rising borrowing costs vis-à-vis Germany have forced it to accept German leadership on economic policy.

Last week I talked to officials in Paris about the eurozone crisis. The franker among them admit that on many of the key arguments – should the eurozone be run according to strict rules that minimise the scope for political discretion, should there be a treaty change, should the European Central Bank (ECB) intervene massively to support governments in trouble, and so on – German views have prevailed.

French officials fret about the sustainability of the euro. Their analysis is similar to that of the Anglo-Saxons: they worry that the German medicine being applied to the eurozone ignores the importance of demand and growth, and that few German policy-makers understand financial markets. But unlike the Anglo-Saxons, they think it better not to lecture the Germans in public on what they should do. The French think that the Germans will probably do what it takes to preserve the single currency, in the end. But several officials expressed the concern that, by the time the Germans decide to move, it may be too late to save the euro.

The French are reticent about the German plan to change the EU treaties. They assume that a new treaty will have to be preceded by a convention, as was the constitutional treaty. But when the convention – consisting of MEPs and national parliamentarians, as well as governments – meets, can the Germans ensure that it discusses only the euro, rather than every subject under the sun? Then there is the difficulty of ratifying a new treaty. The Irish, for example, would have to hold a referendum and in their current mood would probably vote no. But the French are going along with treaty change, because they hope that a new treaty with strict rules on government borrowing will make it easier for the Germans to change their current policies on the euro. In the short term that means accepting that the ECB should become a lender of last resort to eurozone governments.

In the forthcoming treaty negotiations, the French want to balance the German emphasis on budgetary discipline with some distinctively French thinking. Officials talk of treaty articles on economic growth and the co-ordination of macro-economic policy, tax rates and labour market rules. They also want to amend Article 136 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which allows the eurozone countries to adopt new rules on budgetary discipline. The French want to broaden the scope of that article, beyond the Germanic preoccupation with budgets.

The French hope that the new treaty will pave the way for eurobonds, but know that collective eurozone borrowing only makes sense once budgetary policy has been centralised, which will take several years. In the meantime the French think that the eurozone needs a European Monetary Fund (EMF) to support countries in trouble. An EMF would, like the IMF, lend to countries that cannot borrow commercially, and set conditions. It would also lend preventively to countries that might face problems. It could be based on the European Stability Mechanism, the bail-out fund that is currently under construction.

Many parts of the French government would be happy to see an EMF become a rival source of expertise and power to the European Commission, though the Trésor has doubts about such duplication. France would like an EMF to take decisions by majority vote, so that it could move quickly and not worry about, say, a potential Slovak veto. But the Germans generally prefer unanimous decision-making on bail-outs.

The UK is in bad odour in Paris. Public lectures from David Cameron on what the eurozone should do have gone down badly (even though the French share much of his analysis). The French think the UK hypocritical: it says it cares about the single market but then wants special protection for the City in any new treaty – which as far as the French are concerned would be opting out of the single market. Would the French accept a special deal for the City in a new treaty? "Not if it erodes the concept of majority voting", said one official.

Like the Germans, the French say that if the UK asks for too many treaty opt-outs, they will go for a treaty that covers only the eurozone, or only countries in the euro plus those which plan to join it. The Germans are keen for the treaty to cover all 27 member-states, if possible, to make it easier for the Commission and European Court of Justice (ECJ) to discipline miscreants; the French, always sympathetic to the idea of a core Europe, are more relaxed about a treaty for fewer than 27. French officials disagree on whether it would be feasible for a eurozone treaty of 17 or 17+ to give the Commission and the ECJ a significant role. But they are all reluctant to see the ECJ involved in fining governments that breach eurozone rules.

At the moment, France and Germany are both hostile to the Commission but the French are even keener to minimise its role in managing the euro. They question its professional competence and worry about commissioners from non-euro countries voting on sanctions against, say, France. Paris wants such commissioners excluded from decisions on eurozone governance. The Elysée and the Matignon (the prime minister's office) are more negative about the Commission than the Quai d’Orsai or the Trésor – which think the Commission has a useful role to play in applying the recently adopted laws on budget discipline and eurozone imbalances.

But they are all critical of President José Manuel Barroso for his alleged "lack of vision". The French accuse the Commission of being invisible during the crisis and of not taking enough initiatives – though one official admitted that if it had been more active France would have complained. Among the criticisms I heard last week were that the Commission should have done more during the last decade to warn of the Irish and Spanish economies overheating; that it has pushed ahead with an EU-Mercosur trade accord, though this will harm French farmers and Mercosur has not offered reciprocity; and that although in July the EU asked the Commission to set up a task force to help Greece speed up reform, the task force did not start work till October.

François Hollande, the Socialist presidential candidate, has not yet said much of note on the eurozone crisis or the future of the EU. But he comes from the pragmatic, broadly pro-European wing of his party and his line on the EU is unlikely to be very different from that of Sarkozy. In fact Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, brackets the Gaullists and Socialists together, saying that they are both - unlike her - for globalisation, the EU, the euro and immigration ( Marine Le Pen and the rise of populism). She is also an unremitting critic of the EU’s 'undemocratic' nature.

French policy-makers know that with national budgets likely to come under greater eurozone control, they will need to have an answer to those who claim that the EU is undemocratic. There is no love for the European Parliament in Paris. But officials talk of giving national parliaments a role in eurozone governance. They support Joschka Fischer's idea for a new committee of national parliamentarians to hold eurozone institutions to account.

The French government worries about Le Pen – who is currently polling between16 and 21 per cent. In past presidential elections the Front National has scored better than the polls predicted. If the euro crisis worsens, and requires France to adopt painful austerity measures, Le Pen's implacable hostility to the single currency could earn her extra votes. She could get through to the second round of the presidential election in May 2012, as her father did in 2002, though she could not win. The presidential election is unlikely to change the broad thrust of France's EU policy, but the euro crisis and the increasingly dominant role of Germany could push the French people in a eurosceptic direction.


Blejs said...

Completely agree with how the text captures the current momentum with the crises.

I can also add that Germany's political domination and the immature democratization of Turkey represent challenge the idea of United Europe

Blejs said...

completely agree with the way how the text captures the current momentum in EU.

I can also add that Germany's political domination and Turkey's immature democratization challenge the idea of United Europe.

Anonymous said...

Great article (linked from the BBC website by Stephanie Flanders). Interesting to see the dynamics between France and Germany and how these are perceived by the French.

Also the view that the UK should "put up or shut up" is refreshing, especially when we are still to get our own house in order. Its a distraction and point of blame for the UK's poor economic performance but the intelligent individuals aware of the economy and the politics know that we were struggling before the crisis and will continue after it has gone.

Recommend those who can watch the two part documentary by Robert Peston (BBC business editor) on "the Party's over" on the west's problems and their route causes.