Eighty-three-year-old Michel Rocard, one of the grandest old men of French social democracy, prime minister from 1988 to 1991 and subsequently general secretary of the Parti Socialiste, senator and MEP, has launched a broadside in Le Monde (dated June 5th) against France’s old rival and enemy, la perfide Albion.
Under the headline “Amis Anglais, sortez de l’Union européene mais ne la faites pas mourir!” (Leave the European Union, my English friends, don’t kill it), Rocard first praises the English for their contributions to democracy and human rights and for their success over many centuries in dominating the world, first through sea power, then through finance, for their courage in 1940 and in the following years. He goes on to quote Churchill’s celebrated “Zurich speech” of 1946 but points out that his warm words of support there for a European union – indeed a “United States of Europe” – concerned an entity from which it was clear Britain would stand aside (having its own union, the Commonwealth).
What part of this did you not understand, Rocard asks, before going on to answer his own question:
But you wanted to do business, and that is all you thought of. Once the president of the republic (de Gaulle) was gone, in you came. Never again afterwards – not once – did you allow the slightest step forward towards a little more integration, a little more space where decisions could really be taken communally. The Community is engaged in trading, which suits you, because it calls itself economic, but as regards the heart of the economy, taxation, company law, the representation of social forces, you demand, indeed insist, that decisions can only be taken on a basis of unanimity. What you wanted was paralysis.
Lots of neighbours remark on our initial successes and are envious. They’d like to come in. You support every enlargement – us too it must be said; we hadn’t figured out yet what you were up to: all of this diluted the Community. You would never allow the least deepening. Europe remains hampered and poorly directed, an economic giant and a political dwarf.
Rocard sees the hand of the British working in the various treaties (Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice etc), working, that is, to make them less ambitious, less effective. And he sees it again in British opposition to the candidacies for the presidency of the Commission of the late Jean-Luc Dehaene and now of Jean-Claude Juncker. Rocard himself voted for the Spitzenkandidat Martin Schulz (that is to say he voted for the French socialist list, PS-PRG), but the voters chose instead Juncker, “a courageous and tenacious federalist” (that is to say the Christian Democratic bloc has emerged as the largest in the new European Parliament). Yet the British are determined to block Juncker and to block the operation of a democratic will (however incomplete), without which “Europe is not worthy of itself and will wither and die”. The British, it seems, want to both hobble Europe and to leave it. One or the other please:
And then it seems you want to go: the majority of your people don’t seem to have any doubt about this. But you still have some banking interest in profiting from the disorder you are creating …
Why not leave before you’ve broken everything? There was a time when the word British was associated with a certain elegance. Let us build Europe: you go and rediscover your elegance and you will regain our respect.
There is no doubt that all this is tremendously emotionally satisfying, and not just to the French. There are certainly many people in Ireland too who are heartily sick at having had to watch the Tories (and now the überTories of Ukip) doing their European tease over so many decades (“We’re going to go … I’m warning you, we’ll go unless you give us what we want!” “Byee! Close the door gently.”)
But a few questions remain perhaps: surely Mr Rocard and many others like him are going a little bit ahead of the evidence in claiming that the European people have endorsed Mr Juncker as president of the Commission. Did the 180,000 voters who enthusiastically voted for Brian Crowley in Ireland’s South constituency do so because of their admiration for Liberal Spitzenkandidat Guy Verhofstadt whose colours the Corkman was supposed to be carrying? Chances are that few of them could have told you who he was. What of Slovakia, where only 13 per cent of voters bothered to come out (electing 13 MEPs)? What do we see if we look into their hearts? It is easy (for some of us at least) to sympathise with the wish that Europe should have more legitimacy and that decisions should be arrived at in a way other than the “behind closed doors” one we now seem to be heading towards – particularly if Merkel allows herself to be bullied by Cameron into withdrawing her (ambiguous and apparently reluctant) backing for Jean-Claude Juncker. But it is questionable whether pretending that Europe has legitimacy, pretending that there is a European demos, when the evidence suggests that it hasn’t and there isn’t, is going to get us anywhere. The legitimacy (as opposed to the consent to be governed, itself a bit shakier than it was) has to be built, often in the face of an indifferent or hostile media: remember that the PES candidate in Dublin was actually mocked in our newspaper of record for her apparent naivety, or culpable earnestness, in campaigning on European issues – and lost her seat.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that a British exit from the EU, for all the emotional satisfaction (and relief) it might well produce, might not be in Ireland’s economic interests. But I suppose the interests of an offshore island off an offshore Ireland are scarcely paramount in Mr Rocard’s calculations.