Change is in the air across Europe. This summer, British member of Parliament Gordon Brown will almost certainly replace Tony Blair as the new Labour leader, and in France, the era of Jacques Chirac will come to an end April 22 when the search for a new president begins.
Despite the possibly premature courting of Brown by European Commission President JosÃ© Barroso and Angela Merkel (working as both the European Council president and German chancellor) in order to gain British acceptance for a new Constitution Treaty, French uncertainty will be the first hurdle to overcome if the European Union is to move forward – especially with the changes that their national elections will usher in. The frontrunners in the race, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist SÃ©golÃ¨ne Royal, are retreating to their domestic constituencies and hoping to gain more support by proposing changes to the European Union that would benefit France at the expense of other members.
Leading in the polls, Sarkozy has blamed the euro for stunting French economic growth and has hinted at a desire to create competition with the European Central Bank, an action that would anger the German hosts of the institution. Mrs. Royal, on the other hand, wants to include more basic social standards to the new Constitution Treaty; this would only to anger and alienate European members who have not matched the other states’ accomplishments.
The problem, though, is not in the difference between the candidates, but with the French themselves. Recent French polls show that 42 percent of voters are still undecided – uncertain about how they want their future to progress. The E.U. leadership should be courting the public instead of the leaders in this election-bound nation because, despite which leader is chosen, there will almost certainly be only slight differences in how they approach the European Union – differences that will not risk the European Union’s 50 years of achievements. While returning to a de Gaullist fold is nearly impossible, these candidates are simply trying to present France as superior to, and independent from, the European Union – as every European leader attempts to do when it comes time for national elections. All this does is reinforce Euro-skepticism within the citizenry and politicians wonder why after 50 years of unity there is still apathy and mild resentment toward a union that is perceived as being nothing more than a bloated bureaucracy.
The leadership of the European Union should be working to change this view and utilize upcoming elections and power transitions to promote a more public role for the European Union in the member states. There should be a refusal by the up-and-coming European leadership to resort to played out domestic fears and to instead embrace the European Union as an institution that has kept the peace and led to enormous economic advances. If there is any way to destroy the views of the European Union, it will have to come from the leaders of the member states who should not let political setbacks derail future advances.