French President Emmanuel Macron has been on a mission since taking office in 2016. Like no other European politician, the 44-year-old has set himself the task of making the EU a capable international player. Macron knows that if that doesn’t happen soon, it may never happen. Accordingly impatient he pushes for a renewal of the Union. Paris took over the EU Council Presidency at the beginning of the year, and the French will elect a new president in April and May. It is very likely that Macron will run again, but it is not yet certain. The “Wiener Zeitung” spoke to Gilles Pécout, France’s ambassador in Vienna and a renowned historian, about the view of the “grande nation” on the EU.
“Vienna Newspaper”: The EU is “divided, incapable of joint projects and on the way to historical irrelevance,” said President Macron at the start of the EU presidency, criticizing the Union. Therefore, “2022 must be a turning point for Europe”. Is that actually the image of the EU that exists in Paris, or is it just domestic political shadow boxing in the run-up to the presidential elections?
Gilles Pecout: There can be no doubt about the need to renew Europe. This has nothing to do with the French Council Presidency and certainly not with the election campaign, but the call for a renewal of the Union was the central topic in Macron’s Sorbonne speech in 2017. We must ensure that young people believe in the future of Europe. The criticism you quote is therefore not about polemics or campaigning, but about the recognition that in order to renew the EU we need to change some of its modalities.
In the next six months, France wants to advance European sovereignty. So far, the idea of sovereignty has been associated with the nation state; what does France mean by this term?
We French understand it to be the same as all other Europeans. We need a powerful, strong Europe, but without hegemonic structures. Being sovereign means, for example, enabling the EU to ensure that all of its member states abide by the rules of the rule of law, that the Union has its own defense and security structures.
However, it is disputed in the EU how the sovereignty of the member states relates to the EU. Poland and Hungary deny that EU law necessarily takes precedence over national law, and the German constitutional court in Karlsruhe, albeit with completely different intentions, is also a vigilant guardian of the democratic principle. Doesn’t the demand for European sovereignty fuel a conflict that is difficult to resolve?
The idea of sovereignty is inextricably linked to the decision-making power of citizens. Herein lies one of the first universal beliefs of the modern world. Seen in this way, the concept of sovereignty, which is based on an intact contract between the rulers and citizens, is inseparably linked to our ideas of democracy and a liberal constitutional state, with hegemony and realpolitik as the opposite.
You project the idea of national popular sovereignty onto the EU, but doesn’t that presuppose the existence of a European people, a European citizenship? Or does one already exist?
That’s a big, important question. We don’t have an answer here, we need to build on what the outcome of the conference on the future of the EU will be. This started in May 2021 and should be completed this year. But back to the question of respect for and enforcement of the rule of law: this means that we can guarantee Europe’s security and protect its borders. We don’t want the EU to become a fortress, but protecting our external borders is essential if we want to develop mechanisms to help us survive crises like the one we are currently experiencing with Belarus.
But European sovereignty is not just about security, it also means that we produce more vital goods ourselves again. This applies to classic industries such as health products. In April 2021, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared that it was unacceptable that “not a single gram of paracetamol” (active substance against pain and fever; note) will be produced. It really can’t be.
EU institutions and member states jealously guard their competences. The existing distribution of tasks is subject to criticism. Is a push under the French Presidency planned here?
We should be careful that the necessary debate about the renewal of the EU is not understood as a fight against national competences. This discussion already exists in all EU countries and can easily be used for populist purposes. We must therefore ensure that there is no conflict between European values, actions and processes and those at national level. There are actors who think and discuss Europe in these categories. That is very dangerous. We are dealing with lengthy processes here, of which I, as a nineteenth-century historian, am only too well aware. The emergence of new nation states after 1815, such as Greece and Italy, was the result of internal state building and of trans- and international networks. European unification after 1945 was based on the concept of “unity in diversity”. This is not just a rhetorical formula, we have to believe in it and work on it. All Member States have their own institutions, but they are linked by common values. And these must be reflected in common actions and institutional mechanisms.
At national level, there is often a belief that the EU is a means to an end, so that states can continue to exist under global conditions. Do you share this view?
Yes. European unification is the way to make member states that share common values and goals stronger. President Macron also says that Europe is not the end of nations. The opposite is true. The EU must not become a hegemonic state model.
We are witnessing the massive increase in military tensions with Russia, but also with China. At the end of 2019, Macron described NATO as “brain dead” and questioned the alliance with the USA. Is that really in the interest of the European Union?
No, it’s not. President Macron’s statements were intended as criticism against a specific background in order to shake up the transatlantic alliance and start necessary reforms. We know that we need the alliance with the US, but at the time the US threatened to lose interest in Europe. That has now changed again. Nevertheless, the dispute with Russia must not become a bilateral matter between Moscow and Washington; the EU must play its own role here – in harmony with our allies, not against them.
Is Austria’s government a partner for the plans of the French EU presidency or a brake?
The governments of both countries pull together on most dossiers, especially when it comes to climate protection, especially when it comes to implementing CO2-Reduction through a border protection mechanism, in external border protection, enforcement of the rule of law, equality between men and women, and the fight against all forms of terrorism. Reforming the Schengen area is not easy, and it is good that Vienna and Paris are standing side by side here.