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Europe's Midlife Crisis

Christian Lequesne, political scientist and senior researcher at France's CERI,(1) gives us his insight on the delays that seem to beset the European project.

Failure of the European Constitution, halting membership negotiations with Turkey, differing views on major international issues: 50 years after the Treaty of Rome and the birth of the European Economic Community (EEC), is Europe going through an identity crisis?

Christian Lequesne: I would rather talk about a crisis of legitimacy. One of the explanations is that today, the European project no longer has a message that mobilizes people. Until 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe had a clear raison d'être: to overcome nationalist feelings inherited from the Second World War. But since then, the specter of war has considerably receded–even though the area of former Yugoslavia puts all this into perspective. Yet overall, this message has become less significant. So what new message could be meaningful for 27 nations? Recently, the English historian Timothy Garton Ash suggested that Europe should be built around the notion of freedom. In his view, this is the aspiration that has left its mark on Europeans since the Wall fell. But in my opinion, this wouldn't solve the problem of the legitimacy of Europe in a country like France, where values such as equality and fraternity probably carry far more weight.



And yet, when it comes to solidarity, opinion in France and elsewhere seems extremely reserved toward the new members of the European Union.

CL: It's true that having included countries of Central and Eastern Europe, with the accession of 10 countries in 2004, and more recently of Bulgaria and Romania in January 2007, has caused a certain amount of dissatisfaction–but on both sides. For new member states, Europe, with its regulations, its budgetary aids, and its democratic requirements, will massively accelerate the modernization process. But Europe also demands a tremendous effort to adopt its standards–an effort not always well rewarded. As a result, in these countries, pro-European enthusiasm is not always as high as one might expect. In original member states like France, people are also worried about the necessity of having new countries join. They see it as bringing about a new type of 'social dumping,' as illustrated in France by the myth of the Polish plumber–a symbol of cheap labor flooding the market–which both the far right and the anti-free-market left subscribed to. But what they seem to forget is that overall, enlargement has been excellent for investment, business and therefore jobs in the 'old' member states.



So why does France appear to be on the defensive?

CL: First of all, France feels that Europe's center of gravity has shifted toward the north and the east, where its traditional influence is not at its greatest. France also believes that it lost part of the dominant political position it had before 1989. With the EU now counting 27 members, France and Germany are no longer the driving force they once were–though to this day, no important decisions can be taken without Franco-German agreement. Furthermore, the modernizing elites of Central and Eastern Europe frequently push for a full free-market economy model, something often opposed by France, which regularly advocates placing restrictions on the operation of the market as was the case with the Bolkestein directive. One last point: France has continuously maintained the view that Europe should be autonomous with regard to the United States. But new member states believe that the EU and the United States should walk hand in hand, for reasons which in my view are mainly symbolic, such as the fact that they both belong to the West.



So what should be given priority in order to give the European Union a new lease on life?

CL: The first thing to do is find a solution to the rejection of the European Constitution. For that, a compromise has to be reached between the two countries which voted 'no' (France and the Netherlands), those that have not stated their position, and the 18 countries which voted “yes.” The next step will be to tackle the key issue of globalization and Europe–how the two are linked. Many people tend to blame Europe for unemployment or reforms to the welfare state, thus giving it a negative role in globalization. But Europe and globalization aren't to blame for everything. For instance, in France, company relocations abroad account for just 8% of job losses, the remainder are mostly due to the rigidity of the domestic labor market. Faced with major challenges like climate change and competition in research and innovation, Europe is the most effective way to control globalization. Because it's a matter of controlling it, not fighting it.


Interview by Matthieu Ravaud

Notes :

1. Centre d'études et de recherches internationales (CNRS / IEP Paris). Christian Lequesne also holds the Sciences Po-LSE Alliance chair at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Contacts :

Christian Lequesne
London School of Economics and Political Science, London.


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