“Une sorte de maladie de langueur, de fatigue généralisée”

Thus spake France’s Minister for European Affairs, Catherine Colonna, giving her opinion of the state of the EU to the assembled ranks of the French Ambassadorial elite. Packed with (if we’re honest, fairly astute) criticisms of the current way the EU works, this seems to be a new approach from France, the country which more than any other has driven European integration and reform during the last half century.

There’s French coverage of the speech in Le Figaro, Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur – but for those whose French is even worse than mine, a better translation than I could provide via EU Observer:

“the functioning of the union – and more generally the state of the union – appears worrying to me.

“It is not that there is a crisis, that is not the case, the European Union is rather suffering from a sort of illness of apathy, from general fatigue… [this does] not augur well for its future capacity to respond to the needs of its people.”

But there’s more worrying stuff there for the more ardent pro-EU types, not covered in the EU Observer piece:

“L’Union européenne pourra-t-elle continuer longtemps à décider à ce rythme? …l’Europe peut-elle même encore prendre des décisions cruciales? …une méfiance quasi-générale vis-à-vis de l’intégration” …On constate de même une grande réticence à toute démarche d’harmonisation, qui est pourtant l’une des bases de la construction européenne”

In other words (roughtly)

“How long will the European Union be able to carry on like this? … is Europe still capable of taking important decisions? … a pretty much general mistrust of [EU] integration …You can see a similar reservation when it comes to any aspect of harmonisation, one of the key pillars of Europe’s construction”

This being France, however, you just know that a solution will be suggested (unlike the UK’s tendency merely to complain) and that the solution is not (as it most likely would be in the UK were a government minister making such pronouncements) to pull back from an apparently failing project. Nope – instead the solution is (as always) ever closer union – and exactly the sort of thing to get British Eurosceptics (not to mention our dear Gordon Brown) foaming at the mouth:

“on ne devient pas une puissance en y consacrant 1 % de son PIB… relancer l’harmonisation dans un certain nombre de secteurs… en matière d’imposition sur les sociétés, par exemple, ou pour la protection des consommateurs ou la politique sociale… un salaire minimum européen, dont le niveau serait fonction du niveau économique de chaque Etat membre… Il faut aussi développer une politique industrielle européenne, fédérer des projets de dimension mondiale, investir massivement dans la recherche et l’innovation.”

Which means, approximately:

“One does not become a power by using just 1% of your GDP… [the EU should] re-start the process of harmonisation across a number of sectors… like company taxes, for example, or consumer rights or social policy… a European minimum wage, whose level would be tied to the economic level of each Member State… It is also necessary to develop a Europe-wide industrial policy, to organise multinational projects on a federal basis, and to invest massively in research and development”

Phew… they certainly don’t do things by halves, do they?

The thing is, for all the inevitable knee-jerk reactions, a lot of this is pretty sensible stuff – from the perspective of someone who wants to revive the concept of a continent-wide coalition of economic interests, at least. Especially in this day and age, organising industry and the economy purely on a national level simply doesn’t make much sense if you want to compete on a global level.

She’s also got a very good point about the level of contributions to the EU. Ignore the instant anti-EU reactions (I’m expecting my Eurosceptic stalker Robin in the comments any time now), how does anyone expect the Union to be able to do anything overly beneficial with such a small amount of revenue? 1-2% of each member state’s GDP is a pifflingly insignificant amount when you look at the scale of the post-industrial problems Europe faces. Compare the member states’ contributions to the percentage of our earnings that you and I fork out to our dear national governments each year in tax, it’s ridiculous. (Of course, one could argue that this is a sign that our governments are taxing us too much and are too wasteful with our hard-earned cash – but no one would believe that, surely?)

But whether you agree with her proposals or not (and I lean towards strong scepticism about them), one thing is certain – Colonna’s guts in coming up with something a tad radical is a welcome relief after a good couple of years of the same old nonsense being constantly regurgitated whenever some politico gets it into their head to talk about the future of Europe.

The constitution is mentioned largely to dismiss it. Rather than moan about rebates and the CAP, proposals (however unrealistic) are made to help generate revenue. Suggestions (if not overly sensible) are made for building public support. She’s talking in terms of practical measures that could be discussed, rather than abstract nonsense about whether or not we should include mention of some kind of ill-defined deity on a pointless piece of paper.

The fact that Colonna is close to Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin – who may yet gain his party’s nomination for the Presidency next year ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy – also tends to suggest that this may well be the first stage of a new French EU strategy. Having lost the constitutional vote last year and then fended off Tony Blair’s feeble calls for CAP reform, France looks finally to be heading back on the EU attack after a year of defensive manouvres.

With Angela Merkel – another wannabe-reformer – taking over the EU presidency in January, if France can rebuild that decades-long EU partnership across the Maginot Line we may finally start to see some kind of serious movement after a good couple of years of post-expansion stagnation. I doubt very much that any of Colonna’s suggestions here will ever see the light of day again, but expect her criticisms of the EU’s tiredness and current failures to be raised repeatedly over the next year or so as Paris jostles to re-gain her once unchallenged grip on the EU tiller.

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  2. Colman said:

    I still think that a lot of the problems are traceable not to the EU but to the national politicians that use it for their own ends, taking credit for the good stuff it does and claiming their hands are tied when it does something unpopular.

  3. chris said:

    To paraphrase Ms Colonna the EU is bad, people don’t like it, so lets have more of it.

    1%-2% of GDP might be too small a sum to try and organise the industry of Europe, but then why would you want to? All previous experiments, at the national and transnational level, in organising industry for by some predefined plan have all ended in failure when compared to just stepping backing and letting the market deal with it. Personally I would not like to see any increase in the EU’s budget until it can at least account for where the money that it currently spends goes.