The European elections will be held on Sunday, May 25, 2014. Seventy-four French citizens have to be elected to serve as members of the European Parliament. What is emerging from the current discussions is both disturbing and shortsighted. The talk is only about the abstention rate, which is expected to be high––over 60 percent in the last election––about the rise of the “Front National”, which might come first, and about Euro-skepticism in public opinion. Fifty years of European integration to get to this is indeed a shame.
Why such a situation? Even though France was at the root of the European construction, most elected officials and the various authorities in charge of our nation continue to treat European affairs as a less important issue. Worse even, they have exploited them as scapegoats. As soon as a decision becomes unpopular, Europe is being blamed. The discussions regarding the budget deficit are a perfect example. It is a legitimate expectation to have a balanced budget. It is a suicidal undertaking to believe that we can indefinitely have deficit budgets. Yet, this common sense behavior, which is the foundation of any family or business budget, is being criticized and considered as a flaw. The guilty party has been designated: “Brussels”.
Too often, France gives little consideration to Europe.
Over the past twelve years, a total of twelve secretaries of state for European affairs have been named… No comment! Some of our representatives are knowledgeable, dedicated and hardworking, but in Brussels or in Strasbourg the French members of the European Parliament are mostly known for being the champions of absenteeism. A sad situation, but when it is time to establish the lists for the European election of May 25, it is astonishing to note that the most dedicated have not been rewarded, and that among those who have been able to run for their seat, some had to fight a tough battle to maintain their standing to run in the election. Our television public service, which is never stingy in giving lessons in political virtue, decided not to air the debates between the candidates to the presidency of the European Commission. Distressing!
I am a farmer and the President of the COGECA, the European union of agricultural cooperatives. The Common Agricultural Policy has been a successful and effective European policy. But I am upset and disappointed by the new CAP. We struggled to maintain an efficient CAP, but the facts are before us. The CAP does not provide the impetus to win the battle at the global level. We have real assets in agriculture and agro-food. Our products have found tremendous success in high growth markets on other continents. Instead of being supported by a pro-active European policy, we are almost considering less production and less export. These discussions are unproductive and sorely lacking in ambition. I am convinced that the cause of this situation lies in our lack of commitment, of trust and conviction concerning the European project.
The Euro-skeptics seems to be more effective than the pro-Europeans
The Euro-skeptics know how to ride on fears and conservative opinions. Since insularity is a natural reaction in times of crisis, they know how to exploit it. For their part, the Europhiles have not been able to promote what Europe has accomplished.
By projecting this view, by not highlighting the successes of Europe, what was initially a great opportunity has become the root of all evils for a large segment of the population. The way Europe operates has become baffling and distant. We do not elect the president of Europe, we do not know the members of the European Commission, and its functioning seems impenetrable. All this contributes to turn Europe into a great “thing” that is far from the concerns of French people.
Ironically, the members of the EP who will be elected on May 25 will have more power than before. The citizens’ representatives will name the President of the European Commission––Europe’s governing entity. They will have increased powers in legislative and budget issues.
On the other side, our partners and competitors are giants in terms of population and economic influence. If we want to maintain a genuine ambition and not remain a mere spectator to deal with other nations and continents, we need more of Europe.
Building a Europe with 28 countries––and 30 tomorrow––is not an easy task, and the Union has broken down. Europe is lifeless and nearly invisible. We must give it again a more political importance by clearly stating what we want for Europe in the 21st century. The European model has to be rebalanced; it must better include the concerns of citizens, without forgetting that we are now part of a global economy. The issue is not if we are going to change the model––a typical French discussion––but rather what place are we going to take in the global world. To achieve this, we need to reach some coordination within the Union.
We cannot accept to see businesses relocating to other countries of the European Union for fiscal or social reasons. European nations must act as partners and not as adversaries. It is a must, because the world around us is moving forward, emerging countries are releasing such energy and showing such hunger for progress, that our hesitations are all the more glaring.
Europe is no longer at the center of the world
We need great common ventures that give Europe even more cohesion. We must invest in our infrastructures, develop innovation, be environmentally more efficient, and better in digital economy. We must take bold steps in research. We must assert our social objective. In addition, we should have an interest in developing the EU military potential if we want to maintain a diplomatic influence. The recent events in Ukraine are showing Europe’s powerlessness. European diplomacy cannot be heard without an armed branch. The world is changing, and the United States––with their energy problems now resolved though shale gas and biofuels––are no longer inclined to be the world’s policeman. A few weeks ago, President Obama strongly and very officially advised us to invest in our military forces by reminding us that liberty and peace have a price! In fact, this was one of the goals of the European construction. In one word, we must build up a European identity.
Confronted to these challenges, we must invest in the political arena.
It is therefore crucial to make every effort for these European elections. The theories advocating an exit from the Euro zone and an unbridled protectionism may win over public opinion, but will lead us nowhere. On the contrary, we must elect members who are knowledgeable of the issues and can enforce ideas that are both pragmatic and in touch with European citizens. It is now an urgent matter. In 2013, only 46 percent of citizens are feeling connected to Europe, and the number is down by seven percent.
A united Europe with a common project will play a match in the first global league. A Europe made of nations only linked by the Euro and limited to an open economic area will surely play in lesser leagues. In that case, we may continue to make speeches about global injustice, but can that be enough for us?
1 The complete opinion piece by Christian Pèes is available from his blog :
Christian Pèes is also President of the COGECA, President of Euralis, and a director of Coop de France.