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Western Press Review: Chirac's Vision Of Europe

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 28 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Much of Western press commentary is strongly focused on French President Jacques Chirac's speech yesterday to the German parliament in Berlin. In the speech, Chirac endorsed the ideas of a future constitution for the European Union and an inner core of EU members willing to push more rapidly than others toward further integration. Analysts assess the import of Chirac's remarks, some seeing them as support for Germany's recent campaign for EU federalism, others as politically calculated rhetoric lacking in substance.


In Britain, the Financial Times says that Chirac's calls for an EU constitution and what he described as a "pioneer group" of member-states favoring integration echoes some of the ideas floated last month by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. "Both men," the paper writes in an editorial, "say their plans go beyond the horizon of the present Inter-Governmental Conference, or IGC, which is negotiating more limited changes to the EU treaty. Mr. Chirac also stressed in his speech that neither France nor Germany envisages the creation of a European super-state which would take the place of our nation states.'"

The editorial goes on: "This is an entirely legitimate debate. Nonetheless, there is a risk that the ideas floated by Mr. Chirac and Mr. Fischer could complicate the current IGC and ratification of its treaty revisions. [A] near-doubling of EU membership in the years to come will transform Europe. France and Germany are particularly keen to assure their publics that a union which they helped create will not end in gridlock with almost 30 members."

The paper notes that "Chirac spoke of a first, not a final [EU] constitution, and one in whose preparation applicant countries [including 10 from Central and Eastern Europe] would be involved." But it finds "[less appealing] the idea of an inner core, [which, it says,] has surfaced every time the EU has expanded its membership. [What] is new," the editorial concludes, "is the talk of formalizing broad cooperation among the inner core -- through a new treaty, suggests Mr. Fischer, through a new secretariat, proposes Mr. Chirac. Either solution would just further complicate the structure of a union that needs simplifying."


The Daily Telegraph also believes that Chirac's speech, in the paper's words, "will be widely seen as endorsing [Fischer's earlier proposal for] a 'two-speed Europe' -- and," the paper adds, therefore "a snub for [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair. And on one level," its editorial says, "so it was. Faced with the might of the Franco-German axis, Downing Street was quick to claim that Britain has never rejected the notion of different groups of countries cooperating on particular matters." Still, it adds, Chirac's speech could not have been welcome to the British government.

The chief problem for Britain, the paper argues, "is that the sort of Europe now being proposed is not two-tier at all, but two-speed. As Mr. Chirac made clear yesterday, France and Germany still see themselves as the 'motor' of European integration. [What] the French and Germans [now] seem to have in mind," it goes on, "would not be a system from which [Britain] could opt out, not least because it would involve amending the EU's institutions and creating a constitution. What they are after is, as Mr. Fischer outlined last month, a much more centralized, federal construction which [Britain] would be expected to accept in due course."

The paper urges the British to stand firm against what it calls this "danger." It concludes: "Making such a stand will not be easy, but it could prove surprisingly popular. [Britain] cannot be the only country in Europe that thinks France and Germany do not have a God-given right to get their way every time."


In a news analysis for the Guardian daily, John Hooper and Michael White say that Chirac "made clear that his proposed 'inner core' of EU states would not -- initially at least -- deal with the big issues of constitutional and institutional reform. The EU is already grappling with an Inter-Governmental Conference, due to end at Nice in December, on ways of streamlining decision-making when the numbers increase."

The Guardian writers add: "[And] enlargement to the south and east is fraught with difficulties, not least for France and Germany, which fear cheap labor and cheap farm produce, as well as the hunch that Britain -- and newer EU members -- want to use the newcomers to 'dilute' the EU into a looser arrangement."


Another British news analysis -- this one by John Lichfield and Paul Waugh in the daily Independent -- says that some French officials "seemed taken aback by the wording of [their] president's remarks [and] denied that [a two-tier] approach to EU progress was the intended meaning of Chirac's sweeping and would-be agenda-setting speech. Other French officials," they add, "said his words went far beyond previously agreed policy in the politically divided French government."

The analysts note further: "French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said recently that any EU 'hardcore' group must be flexible, with a few countries pressing ahead in some areas, and other countries, such as Britain, leading the way in areas such as defense and security. [But] Mr. Chirac's comments, talking of a single 'pioneer group' committed to 'l'ensemble' (that is, the totality) of new policies, went far beyond that position."

They conclude: "It remains to be seen whether this will be the French negotiating position when it takes over the EU presidency for six months starting Saturday (July 1) or whether [the] position of the cohabiting left-right French administration is now [what one diplomat] called 'utterly incoherent.'"


The French daily Le Monde carries a commentary by Raphael Bacque which says a small group of influential advisers has recently converted Chirac -- a long-time anti-federalist Gaullist -- to the idea of a more integrated EU in the near future. Bacque writes that "the influence of these federalists has grown rapidly over the past few months."

In addition, the commentator says, there are domestic political reasons for a change of heart by Chirac. He cites recent public-opinion polls that show that more than two-thirds of the French people favor further EU integration. In addition, he says Chirac does not want to be outdone by center-right political leaders who have been speaking up for a federalist EU. "Finally," Bacque says, "even though the text of his speech was transmitted to Lionel Jospin in advance, it offered [the president] a great opportunity to show his [Socialist prime minister and likely opponent in the 2002 presidential election] that, when it comes to Europe, Chirac can be more energetic than he can."


That's not the view of Britain's Times daily, which questions Chirac's sincerity in what it calls his "brilliantly manipulative performance" in Berlin. The paper says in an editorial that Chirac's praise of Fischer's May federalist speech reflected what it calls a response of "if you can't beat them, join them."

It writes: "[Chirac deftly] picked his way through Fischer's themes, turning them to French purposes. Oh, how deeply he agreed that France and Germany were united in a common vision -- [in Chirac's words], 'not a United States of Europe, but a Europe of united states.' Yes, it was a marvelous idea to form a pioneering group committed to deeper integration, although he did not believe that this would either necessitate a new treaty or that it should 'threaten the concept of the nation state.'"

"Thus was delivered," the editorial argues, "the most delicate of warnings to the German government not to go out on a limb. Even Mr. Chirac's appeal to recover together 'the [EU's] founding zeal' had code embedded in it. Were not," it asks, "the EU's founding geniuses, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, both quintessentially French?" And, it concludes, "German interest in fixing by treaty the respective powers of Brussels, national governments and the 'regions' was passed over in silence [by Chirac]. In France, regions are kept within bounds that are set by the French state and no one else, thank you."


Similar -- if less ironic -- skepticism about Chirac's supposed conversion to federalism is also reflected in a news analysis by John Vinocur in the International Herald Tribune. He writes of the French president's speech that it "offered a limited, middle-term vision of Europe's future, holding out the prospect of a European constitution someday, but proposing no blueprint of a final model of government and sovereignty for the EU."

Vinocur goes on: "There was no mention of a future pan-European government or a European president-to-be or a European parliament assembled by direct vote. In this sense, Mr. Chirac's outline fell well short of the reach of the [proposals of Fischer,] who envisaged an EU with a functioning government on a federalist model in the next decade. [In] this sense, Mr. Chirac's speech gives the appearance of being a response to Mr. Fischer's federalist call, but it [lacks] French agreement with the German position [and also lacks] French substance to counter it."

"Above all," Vinocur sums up, "the approach is that of a holding operation designed to last until after the French presidential election. Then, Europe's ultimate future can be confronted more directly in France."


Finally, the Wall Street Journal Europe sees Chirac's speech as, above all, an effort to repair recent tears in the Franco-German relation. The paper writes in its editorial: "As anyone in a relationship knows, a couple is in trouble when all that either member wants to do is to 'talk about us.' This is more or less where Germany and France are at the moment. After a decades-long embrace that anchored peace in Europe, the 'Franco-German axis' has fallen on some hard times. [Chirac's speech] was no doubt yet another attempt to talk things over."

But, like Vinocur, the Wall Street Journal finds that Chirac's remarks fell far short of Fischer's vision of a federal Europe. Chirac, it says, "was clear [that the] abolition of nation states was [what he called] 'absurd.' In fact, more points of discord than of agreement may emerge between Germany and France as the EU debates weighty questions ahead."

"So," the paper continues, "it will be interesting to see where the Franco-German relationship goes after Mr. Chirac's visit. He enjoined German parliamentarians not to lose their nerve now. 'Let us regain our breath, the founding zeal,' he urged." The editorial concludes: "Other couples have been able to patch things up after growing apart, but it is never guaranteed."