March 12, 2012
EU relations have become a pretty substantial source of contention in the French Presidential race. Socialist candidate Francois Hollande has been calling for a renegotiation of the fiscal treaty, recently signed by EU leaders, since January. Nicolas Sarkozy accused Hollande of playing politics with a sensitive treaty, as the renegotiation, he argued, amounted to rewriting the treaty in favour of the French Left, rather than taking into account the national interests of France. Meanwhile, EU leaders have waded into the debate, publicly endorsing Sarkozy in a move to protect the treaty from a further round of negotiations.
In a sudden turn of events, Sarkozy has replicated Hollande’s tactics, calling for a withdrawal from the Schengen treaty on open borders, if no serious reforms are undertaken. This follows complaints issued by six Schengen states, which have claimed that Greece’s porous borders allow people to pass into Europe, legally or otherwise, unchecked. The Austrian Interior Minister compared Greece’s border policy to an “open barn door”.
Sarkozy argued that the reform of the agreement is “the only way to avoid the implosion of Europe” and added that
“It’s urgent because we cannot accept being subjected to the shortcomings of Europe’s external borders…But if I note within the next 12 months that no serious progress has been made in this direction, then France will suspend its participation in the Schengen accords until these negotiations are completed.”
For good measure, Sarkozy also called for a “Buy European Act”, under which European governments would be obliged to prefer European goods in their purchases, arguing, “that way companies which produce in Europe will benefit from European state money”.
Unsurprisingly, Hollande’s camp was quick to fire back, with Pierre Moscovici, Hollande’s campaign manager, pointing out sarcastically that
“Conservative leaders [read: Merkel], who have been so quick to unite to defend the president, will appreciate his threat to pull unilaterally out of the Schengen zone at the same time that he calls for the signature of the austerity treaty in the name of European cohesion.”
Electoral mud-slinging aside, is Sarkozy genuinely going for an overhaul of the Schengen Treaty and a fresh slew of trade measures to protect European firms? It’s doubtful.
A mechanism to temporarily re-introduce internal border controls already exists within Schengen, bit its precise meaning is vague and limited to “a serious threat to public policy or internal security.” In addition, the European Commission has proposed a clearer, beefed up procedure, currently subject to negotiations between member states. So in theory, it’s possible to ‘suspend’ Schengen (i.e. introduce border controls). This was a discussion that flared up last year in Denmark (which did actually re-introduce some additional controls) and in a border row between France and Italy. But in practice, this would be hugely complicated, as the mechanism only allows a country to keep the checks in place for 30 days, which must be justified on grounds of “internal security.” If Sarkozy did in fact go down that road, he would have an almighty political row with EU partners on his hands, akin to De Gaulle’s “empty chair” episode.
A more likely outcome – in the event that Sarkozy does get re-elected – is some minor reform, such as boosting the budget of Frontex (the EU’s border agency), more money to Greece and other border states and perhaps clearer rules on member states’ ability to take action (as per the Commission’s proposal minus, we suspect, the strong role the Commission sees for itself), which will then allow Sarkozy to claim a political victory. As ever, EU politics is a great avenue for politicians to promise all kinds of stuff, only to let it get lost in the often tedious details of EU law/politics.
On his second ‘ultimatum’ to Brussels, Sarkozy has actually promised different versions of ‘Buy European’ rules for some time. In 2007, he floated the idea of “European champions” to be promoted over global competitors. As ever, it’s unclear exactly what a “Buy European” act would involve, how it would be agreed, and how it would fit with existing WTO and EU state aid laws.
Today, EU Internal Market and Services Commissioner Michel Barnier said that the Commission was working on a proposal to introduce “non-protectionist” measures to favour European enterprises in the allocation of public sector contracts. The measures will allow member states to block non-EU businesses from bidding for public sector contracts if their country of origin does not have open public procurement markets. This is the case in China, for example. This will please Sarkozy, who called for “reciprocity” in commercial negotations between the EU and other states. British permanent representative in Brussels Aled Williams voiced fears that the new regulation could give rise to “tit-for-tat” responses from other countries, fuelling a trade war.
Sarkozy’s pledges were vague and perhaps disingenuous – this is an election campaign after all – but they are significant because they could represent part of a wider shift towards a more assertive French European policy (or perhaps a reaction to recent German leadership). Tellingly, Hollande’s campaign manager accused Sarkozy of giving the impression of someone who “is not a French president…but almost a Conservative British Prime Minister.”
When Sarkozy introduced a Financial Transaction Tax earlier this year, he showed he was willing to flout EU opinion, and, in his view at least, lead the way. This time, Sarkozy has gone one step further, and, in rhetoric at least, suggested that he is willing to actually violate EU law to unilaterally impose his own border and government purchase policy. Other EU leaders have so far ignored his speech yesterday, but it will be interesting to see how they decide to react.
One this is clear, viewed from capitals around Europe, the French Presidential campaign just got a whole lot more interesting.
Open Europe has today published a new report looking at the impact of EU free movement and external immigration policies on the UK. We argue that, while free movement comes with benefits, reform is needed to avoid losing all public confidence in the concept – much of which applies beyond the UK.