French case threatens project Europe



Just as European leaders began to believe (prematurely?) that they had resolved the crises in the Eurozone, the European Union finds itself confronting a bigger crisis still – the crisis of political authority. The EU summit in Brussels this month, which was dominated by the open confrontation between French President Nicholas Sarkozy and the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, highlighted one of the key problems in contemporary Europe: its inability to manage migration. It also revived the old European trauma about state policies based on racial discrimination.

This is why the conflict between France and the European Commission is not just about the forced repatriation of Roma to Bulgaria and Romania. It is also about the fundamental values that have underpinned the project of European integration since World War II. It is about what Europe is and what it should be. It is about the purpose of the EU and its source of political legitimacy.

A number of taboos have been broken. One of the main justifications for the project of European unity has been the compelling premise, derived from historical experience, of no more war. The divisive past was never to be mentioned between European partners. The European commissioner for justice, Viviane Reding of Luxembourg, entered forbidden territory when she criticised the French crackdown on Roma with allusions to Jewish deportations.

Yet there can be little doubt that the forced removal of Roma settlements violated the spirit of French republican tradition and the ideals of European integration. The French republican ideal of citizenship stipulates that everyone can become an equal member of the French nation. The EU has expanded on this ideal, pushing it further. European citizenship, if it has any meaning it all, is supposed to make questions of national and ethnic belonging a thing of the past. The practical political expression of this ideal is the freedom of movement that (most) EU citizens enjoy.

Defending its policies, the French government broke with a number of EU conventions. The EU commissioners are supposed to represent European interests, so their nationality doesn\’t matter. The French threat to move Roma to Luxembourg was not only distasteful but against the accepted understanding of EU governing structures.

The EU is held together by the acceptance of common rules, a European legal order that has been created through a series of treaties, beginning with the 1957 Treaty of Rome and finishing with last year\’s Treaty of Lisbon. European unity has been sustained by adherence to these treaties, around which a supranational legal system has evolved. It is a textbook wisdom about the EU that this regime could work only through empowering one of its key institutions, the European Commission, as the guardian of the treaties. This bedrock of Europe\’s unity has now been challenged by France.

Concern for national sovereignty used to be seen as a peculiar British preoccupation. In contrast, whenever France has pursued its national interests, it has done so in Europe\’s name. Not now. Pierre Lellouche, the French European affairs minister, spoke out in defence of French national sovereignty, taking offence at the European Commission\’s treatment of his great nation as a \”pupil in the school\”.

People in smaller member states might be forgiven for asking whether the EU has always been just a clever mechanism for larger member states to pursue their own ends in the name of European interests.

After the economy, it is migration that tears Europe apart. Whether they are willing to admit it or not, national governments across Europe face problems similar to those in France: anxieties about migration. Increasingly, these anxieties threaten the European integration project.