France’s Socialist government has discovered a new interest: the European Union, a 28-member block that writes laws, wrangles over debt and was first dreamt up, some time ago, by a few imaginative Frenchmen tired of war on the continent.
The first signs of curiosity were tentative. Emmanuel Macron, France’s economy minister, paid a quick visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week to pow-wow with Socialist MEPs (it was his first such visit since taking office), co-sign a letter with his German counterpart on the EU digital market and huddle with journalists in a cozy, semi-circular arrangement.
Now there’s a more determined effort. After a barrage of stories lamenting France’s loss of influence in Brussels — starting with the diminishing use of the French language in EU institutions in favor of English — Prime Minister Manuel Valls has issued marching orders to his ministers: Get out there, schmooze and mingle with the Brussels crowd, or else.
“In agreement with the President of the Republic,” he told his cabinet this week, according to Agence France-Presse, “I am asking every member of government to participate systematically in EU councils, to maintain a more regular presence at the European Parliament (I will soon go for the first time as prime minister) and travel more frequently to European countries.”
Valls said the French parliament — which tends to forget that many laws it debates come from the EU — needed to take a more active role in European decision-making, and ministers needed to include news about European affairs in their weekly briefings to cabinet peers.
He also urged ministers to appear more in international media.
French officials pointed out that ministers like Macron and Sapin had visited Brussels and other European capitals several times since taking office, meeting frequently with European Commission officials, while their EU counterparts often came to Paris to discuss EU-level topics.
“This European involvement is in the minister’s DNA,” said a spokeswoman for Macron.
The question remains why such visits rarely make top news in France — and why Valls felt the need to remind his ministers that they should get more involved in European affairs
Some have wasted no time in taking up Valls’ EU challenge. After Macron’s preemptive sortie, Finance Minister Michel Sapin visited the European Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs on Thursday to defend French efforts on economic reform. The appearance came just before the European Commission is due to present its recommendations for improving member states’ economic performance.
Sapin also sat down for a joint interview with Eurogroup chief Jeroen Djisselbloem in Le Monde, in which the French minister said that Paris now enjoyed what he called “normal” dialogue with the European Commission. (A hint of what that could mean, according to Commission sources: The economic recommendations from Brussels this time will contain less prescriptive detail on what each country needs to do, reflecting irritation in Paris with advice that felt like orders.)
The French minister also said that he supported further integration in the European Union, as long as that did not imply a new treaty in the short-or medium term.
For many French officials working in EU institutions, the renewed interest from their home country is welcome, if overdue. One complained recently that the government pushed candidates for EU positions based on their record in Paris, not in Brussels, where French graduates are appreciated for their administrative rigor.
Others minimized the fallback, pointing to various EU policy victories — Europe’s banking union was driven by France, as was the EU investment pact — while conceding that things were dire in a European Parliament where Marine Le Pen’s National Front party controlled 23 seats.
Most agree, however, on this bottom line: that the extent of French influence in Brussels will be determined partly by the country’s economic performance, partly by signs that France is willing to play by the same rules as its smaller neighbors on deficit-reduction and structural reform.
On both counts, the signs are mixed. The Commission expects the French economy to grow by 1.1 percent this year, less than the 1.5 percent annually needed to start creating jobs. And France has already been granted three extensions on its deficit-reduction targets — drying up respect from smaller countries that feel France is not held to the same rules as they are.
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