France is not a billiard ball

Riots in Place de la Bastille, Paris (picture Mikael Marguerie)

It’s hard to open a newspaper right now without coming across another article on the state of France. What is the future of the French republic? What about the French economy? What lessons can be learned from the Anglo-Saxons? Faced with all this angst, I feel the beginnings of a sense of ennui.

I have already written on this blog about the short-sighted and even self-indulgent protests against the beginnings of economic reform. I have also written about the shortfall in growth that makes it harder to compensate the people who lose out as a result of that reform. The right answers aren’t as easy and simple as commentators and bloggers might like to suggest, but some of the wrong answers are easily identifiable.

The point here is not to discuss the specifics of economic reform – maybe on another occasion – but to reflect on what it might mean for the EU as a whole. The rejection of the constitutional treaty in its referendum last year cannot be separated from the state of French dejection, and nor can any moves to put the constitutional process back on track.

Peter Mandelson’s comments reported by the BBC today capture this rather well. (Read the report here .) A renewal of the EU’s institutions remains as necessary now as it was when the treaty was drafted, but nevertheless people are not ready for what has to be done next. The treaty is a very good basis for the discussion, but more discussion is what is needed.

To that extent, then, the criticisms from Mr Mandelson’s opponents are misplaced. The No votes in the referendums brought the constitutional treaty to a halt but should not be allowed to bring the debate to a halt, too. The pro-European case may not be riding the wave of public opinion right now but that does not mean that it must give up. The current state of public opinion is not the be-all and end-all of politics. If it were, then there would be no such thing as political campaigning or even democratic politics at all. If democracy is government by discussion, then we have to be allowed to discuss.

But this argument is not only a rebuke to Mr Mandelson’s critics; it is also a rebuke to some of his supporters.

The so-called “realist” school of international relations treats states in the international system as discrete and consistent actors, with their actions and policies determined by their interests rather than by their internal structure. What goes on inside does not matter: they bounce off each other like billiard balls.

Federalists have always criticised this approach. The external behaviour of a state cannot be divorced from its internal behaviour. Economically, political, even constitutionally, the internal and the external are related, which is why integration on the federalist model can be so intricate. A shared market or a shared democracy need shared rules.

If this is the case, it cannot be right to suppose that the solution to Europe’s constitutional dilemma lies merely in a differently-worded constitution. It is not merely a matter of waiting for a treaty that contains the right words, or for some other institutional mechanism that will suddenly unlock the door to the next stage of European integration: the problems are more deep-seated than that and will need a different kind of attention.

We actually have to address the problems and concerns of Europe as it is today, as they are seen in each individual country. There is no short cut. The state of France matters to the state of Europe.

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