After the presidential and parliamentary victories of Emmanuel Macron and his party earlier this year, many in Europe expect that the EU will rise from the self-defeating lethargy of slow demise. Expectations are high among the EU establishment who have welcomed this as an opportunity to finally press ahead with more integration – expectations that have been reinforced by Brexit and the belief that the EU can finally uninterruptedly embark on initiatives previously frustrated by the government in London. Yet Macron’s presidency will not be defined by the EU alone. Instead it will be dominated by national issues such as the country’s abysmal economic performance. The EU agenda will not be pursued in parallel to the domestic one as two equals – at best the former will be entirely subjugated to the latter and at worst France will pursue its own (economic) interests to the detriment of the EU and the Single Market.
Macron’s rise to power has propelled him into the position of the EU’s poster child. The EU’s very own Barrack Obama who ran on the message of hope and whose potential failure can lead to the ultimate abandonment of the political system in France as we know it. While the domestic economic problems cannot be overemphasised – high unemployment, lacklustre economic growth, oversized and ineffective public sector and indebtedness – Macron’s mandate is built on shaky grounds. Of those who voted for him many were driven not so much by their passion for Macron himself as by their distrust for Le Pen or the establishment. For them, a vote for the former was a vote against the latter and a vote against your enemy does not always mean a vote for your own programme. It is therefore reasonable to expect that much of the necessary but painful reforms promised by Macron during the election campaign will be met with a notable reluctance from the majority of the French electorate.
And it is in this context of proclaimed victory yet with a fragile mandate that one has to read Macron’s commitment to the EU. To put it simply: the European Union is to serve purely as a crutch to help France defend its interests and its interests only. Cutting through the catchy pro-EU rhetoric and symbols embodied by the newly-elected president the question is not whether Macron will engage with the EU but rather how and more importantly at what cost. France will only promote more integration for as long as it benefits France and the logic of self-interest is replicated right across Macron’s European policy, exemplified, for instance, by his moralising tone against the ‘misbehaving’ Central European states and Poland in particular.
Earlier this year during the presidential campaign, Macron visited a factory in northern France whose jobs were under threat of being outsourced to Poland. Trying to outmanoeuvre Marine Le Pen in her natural habitat the then still candidate Macron said the following: “In the three months after my election, there are decisions that will be taken on Poland … One can’t have a country which plays its fiscal and social cards in the heart of the European Union and which is in violation of all its principles.”
The issue of the so-called social dumping, betrayed by the euphemisms of ‘fiscal and social cards’, is familiar to many a politician in the West. It is not a new issue but its importance has been positively correlated to the economic revival of Central and Eastern European states. For as long as the Single Market generated advantages for the more competitive old EU member state economies and for as long as these (labour) markets were out of reach for Eastern Europe the problem of social dumping was rarely mentioned. But once countries such as Poland became ‘too’ competitive the issue could no longer be politically ignored – even if, economically speaking, the EU thrives on healthy competition and should avoid dissing it if it cannot entirely embrace it.
While railing against social dumping is not a novelty, what is new are the accusations that certain countries, in this case Poland are in breach of all EU principles. Not few principles or some. Not even the majority or most of the principles. No, Poland is allegedly in breach of all principles of the EU. If that were true no doubt the Poles themselves would find it inconceivable to remain in the EU and no further encouragement from the French president would be necessary. Except, of course, it is not true and Poland does not break all EU principles. It is certainly a matter of fact that Warsaw has recently got under fire because of the changes to the functioning of its constitutional court and because of the country’s refusal to accept refugees as part of the EU’s compulsory quota system. But to assume that Poland is in breach of all EU rules is a gross exaggeration if not an intentional falsity.
Whether or not one agrees with Poland’s right to determine its domestic affairs without interference from outside or whether it should be allowed to reject the EU refugee quotas on the grounds that it has provided it is unwise, to say the very least, of the French president to pretend that France has any moral high ground from which to preach perfection and from which to chastise the Polish government. For if one demands the best from others he should be prepared to live up to the very same standards himself. True, according to the EU Commission’s own stats Poland is far from being the most efficient in transposing or interpreting the EU legislation. But historically France has performed even worse. In fact, in terms of the infringement procedures launched by the EU since November 2005, France has generated twice as many cases of breaking the EU law as Poland has.
And this does not take into consideration all the cases for which France did not even get officially charged by the EU Commission – not because it would not have broken the ‘principles’ but because of its too powerful a position vis-à-vis other states. For instance, in 2003 France (and Germany) was found in breach of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) rules by running a higher national deficit than 3% – an act of an economic mismanagement for which Paris (and Berlin) was supposed to face penalties. But justice can be very elastic when you are as big and important as France – an assertion confirmed by the then Greek finance minister Doukas who said that “no-one can impose sanctions on Germany and France. They are the European superpowers.” Simply put, Paris got off the hook because it is somewhat more equal than others. As a footnote one may add that France is currently once again in breach of the SGP rules – and has been since 2009.
Similarly, when we look at the criticism levied against Poland in relation to the refugee and migrant crisis it is obvious that while Warsaw attracts a lot of the EU and French criticism the EU system put in place has been openly discredited and practically ignored at the level of implementation by most of the member states. The European Commission has recently launched infringement procedures against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for having failed to comply with the refugee quota targets yet almost all EU countries have fallen short of their proclaimed commitments, including France. The EU countries have collectively managed to relocate 23% of refugees as foreseen by the Commission but the averages vary from country to country. While France’s 18% is still higher than Poland’s 0%, it is still below the EU’s average and 82% short of the moral superiority that Paris claims to possess. Not to mention that these figures (for political purposes) do not include the fleeing Ukrainians who have since the outbreak of the conflict in the easternmost parts of Ukraine, for the most part, settled down in Poland – something that is conveniently reduced to irrelevance if not ignored altogether by European leaders west of Poland’s borders.
France, having preached water while drinking wine, French wine that is, is not unique in having fallen short of the ideals that it is allegedly defending – but it is unique in the sense of riotousness with which it lectures others. Yet, instead of focusing on cleaning up one’s own act Paris has been busy pointing fingers at others. Worse still, it would be one thing to just point fingers at others but France, in the context of becoming ever less competitive in the Single Market vis-à-vis countries such as Poland, has moved towards intentionally undermining the EU’s very own backbone, the common market itself.
The former European Commissioner for the internal market, customs and taxation Frits Bolkstein has recently criticised Paris for having advocated for changes to the EU’s acquisition rules which would make it more difficult for foreign investors to buy up French companies. The EU has for years tried to undo non-trade barriers so as to facilitate the universality of the Single Market only to see these barriers reinstated through the back door. Consider these suggestions in the context of the newly introduced French legislation (criticised by the EU Commission as incompatible with the EU rules) regulating the haulage services, in essence skewing competition in favour of the domestic truck drivers at the expense of those from Central and Eastern Europe and one begins to see a pattern: France puts its national interests above all else and while using the EU as a means to its own ends it is not entirely indifferent to the idea of undermining the EU if and when it suits France’s goals.
Last week, ahead of the Council meeting in Brussels, Emmanuel Macron met with the V4 leaders where he reminded Central Europe that the EU is not a ‘supermarket’ – one cannot expect to pick and choose what he likes without also accepting some (unpopular) decisions. Reinforcing the image of France being the standard bearer for the EU principles, Macron failed, however, to follow the thought to its logical conclusion: indeed, the EU is not a supermarket. But if any at all, the EU is a Single Market. And one that France has contributed to undermining through its double standards and protectionist measures.
If Macron’s calls for further EU integration are to be taken seriously then he will have to admit France’s own shortcomings first. By pointing fingers and testing the elasticity of the EU’s very own backbone, the Single Market, he is risking to stretch it too far until it snaps. The result would be a paralysed EU. France cares a lot less about some abstract EU values than it cares about its own concrete economic interests. Sugar coating the truth in pleasing and generic pro-EU slogans and symbols will lead to nothing more than further divisions within the EU. It is time for some honesty: if it is indeed true that the EU needs to be saved from Poland then it must be saved from France as well.