By Aline Robert
(EurActiv) — Nominally a supporter of the European project, Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican party has made increasingly frequent attacks on the European Commission, which it accuses of “pushing out the UK and letting Turkey in”. EurActiv France reports.
French politicians have a habit of pushing the boundaries of their European political groups. But with the French presidential election campaign getting under way, Sarkozy has chosen to take a conscious step to the right-wing side of the Republican party, and depart from the more centrist line of the European People’s Party (EPP).
“Pushing out the UK and letting Turkey in”
“Between the Europhiles and the Europhobes, EU citizens no longer recognise themselves in the European project,” Nicolas Sarkozy said at the Republican headquarters in May. He added that “the European project has grown old” and that the EU’s ultimate failure would be to “push out the United Kingdom and let Turkey in”.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Sarkozy would hold Brussels responsible if the UK votes to leave.
On Tuesday (14 June) Republican MEP Françoise Grossetête denounced the EU’s habit of producing “long lists of advances in the single market, which reduce our citizens to consumers.”
“It is high time to leave these technocratic arguments behind and to speak out: Europe is more than a big market, an assembly of sectoral programmes, a machine for producing standards… Europe has a soul, a history, a culture,” she said.
This was clearly designed to be an attack on Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, who published an editorial in the French newspaper Le Monde on Monday (13 June), entitled “For the completion of the European Union’s single market”.
In this article, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, together with Mark Rutte, the premier of the Netherlands, called on EU member states to accelerate the establishment of the single market, particularly in digital sectors. They argued that this would create thousands of jobs.
Republicans propose treaty change
These criticisms reveal the complexity of the French right’s relations with the EU.
“The most exciting time in my political life was when I held the presidency of the EU,” Sarkozy said nostalgically, before making concrete proposals for Europe, some of which would require a revision of the treaties.
At a time of such widespread Euroscepticism, this hardly seems likely to happen. But the irony is that many within his own party buy into much of the anti-EU sentiment that is so visible today. The questionnaire presented to party members last month showed how strongly they agree with their leader’s criticisms of the EU.
According to results published on 25 May, 90% of French Republican activists believe their country should “re-establish national border controls for as long as a new Schengen agreement guaranteeing the effective protection of Europe’s borders has not been reached”.
Foreign border guards?
And the proposals for reform are punctuated with violent criticisms of the current European Commission. The party soundly rejected the idea of a European border force and heavily criticised the Commission’s current plans on the subject.
“Can you imagine Bulgarians controlling the French borders?” asked Sarkozy. He proposed that the EU create a “EuroSchengen” to run Frontex, based on the Eurogroup that governs the euro.
The party also raised questions over the freedom of movement, both for EU and non-EU citizens, and expressed its support for David Cameron’s proposal to withhold migrant benefits for their first five years of residence.
Finally, the party condemned the EU’s migrant relocation scheme, which it judged not fit for purpose. Hungary and the Czech Republic have already attacked the decision before the Court of Justice of the European Union.
A closed debate
“The problem is that there is no real debate, as the questionnaire with closed questions proves: we are only allowed to think like Nicolas Sarkozy,” said one disgruntled member of the Republican party.
Alain Lamassoure, the head of the Republican delegation in the European Parliament, expressed similar concerns. Questioned by EurActiv.fr, he confirmed that he shared many of his party’s concerns, but distanced himself from party strategy.
“The debate is rich and interesting, even if it leads to very commonplace ideas,” said Lamassoure, 72, who is serving his fifth mandate as MEP. He also expressed his disappointment that the party questionnaire was formulated in such a way as to encourage the most obvious answers.
“That is just to make it look like the activists follow the party leader,” he said.
On the subject of refugee relocation, the MEP said he had always had his doubts over whether the plan was workable. “But we have to make counter-proposals to express our commitment to European solidarity,” he said. Such proposals have not been forthcoming.
On economic questions, the positions of the Republican party appear to be less controversial. The need to strengthen the Economic and Monetary Union has been evoked in several reports, like the one by the European Parliament on the eurozone budget, and the report currently being prepared by Pierre Moscovici, European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs.
The Republicans support this reform, which would see Germany and France take the lion’s share of the influence within the Eurogroup. They also joined Angela Merkel in calling for the establishment of a European IMF, where the more federalist left would prefer to see a European treasury.