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The French Vision of European Identity

How does France’s Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, view a common European heritage?

March 3, 2006

How does France's Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, view a common European heritage?

We are in an era of great change, an era of questions and concerns. So I won't present a Cartesian, consummate vision of Europe, but share a few concerns and convictions. Because today we need not so much to pursue a logical process as to display perseverance, humility and imagination.

There is a cloudiness over the EU's future. In less than five years, our continent has experienced three major shocks:

The split between our governments during the Iraq crisis, which revealed Europe's political limitations when confronted with a major international crisis.

The Islamist terrorism, which struck Madrid then London and highlighted our vulnerability in the face of a new threat.

And finally, the rejection of the EU’s draft Constitution by two founding countries, France and the Netherlands.

These shocks hit Europe especially hard, because it has experienced some far-reaching changes.

It has been profoundly shaken by globalization. Rapid outsourcing carried out by some of our industries, the trend towards standardizing our ways of life and the undermining of our social equilibria, these are the challenges we're confronting.

We thought cooperation between nations and peoples was the order of the day. We are still in the era of competition between countries.

And of course Europe has had to assimilate an enlargement allowing it to regain its unity, but presenting it with a genuine economic, social and cultural challenge.

All these changes and challenges have fuelled concerns and doubts. Concerns about Europe's place in the world: Can it still play a major role in the face of regional entities affirming their power more strongly every day? Has it really got a unique character and its own values to defend?

There are also growing concerns about the way it operates. How can the EU address the expectations of people who for the first time seem to be signaling their skepticism and doubts about building Europe?

How can it guarantee the legitimacy of decisions which seem increasingly complex — and at times even far removed from people's concrete concerns?

And finally, there are doubts about a Europe which is enlarging faster than it is deepening, so giving the impression of growing without having the institutional means to act and take decisions.

All the European peoples are asking these questions. But for the French, they were perceived as particularly acute. We are championing a balanced economic model based on a competitive industry, modern agriculture and the development of services.

The dominant impression was that Europe wasn't protecting us sufficiently against the consequences of globalization.

The outsourcing, plant closures and lay-offs were viewed as inevitable and Europe's response to them inadequate.
Like all the European peoples, we are a political people. Nothing is more important in our eyes than the democratic legitimacy of the decisions which affect everyone's lives. Yet for several years now, many European decisions haven't always been understood.

Who takes the decisions? On the basis of what principles? With what objective? These are the recurrent questions we're now going to have to answer.

Finally, France is committed to the idea of the nation. My country has a memory and a history and there was a fear of these being erased in a European entity whose borders were too uncertain.

This particular fear crystallized our country's doubts and was largely responsible for the vote on May 29, 2005. Our citizens didn't say "no" to Europe. They said "no" to a Europe whose mission they no longer understood and in which they could no longer picture their role, or their place.

We need to reset a course for Europe, we have some choices to make today. First of all is the choice of an ambition, to which we must be true.

Europe's political ambition is immense: To find a balance between many different memories and a common future. In Europe, everyone's roots must be in sync with the European will. Individual nations must join in a shared political project.

But we shall succeed only if our nations are strong and self-confident. They form our EU's first democratic pillar. So we must define a new relationship between Europe and its component nations.

With the federation of nation-states, we have very probably got the most appropriate framework for moving forward on the basis of a reasonable sharing of national sovereignties.

There's also the choice of the EU's borders, which we have put off for too long.

There are today three essential criteria for membership: The candidate countries' European allegiance and adoption of the EU's values and rules, and Europe's absorptive capacity. Because of this last criterion we can affirm that the EU does not aspire to keep on extending indefinitely.

As regards Bulgaria and Romania, we are keen for them to join us as quickly as possible on the basis of the forthcoming Commission recommendations.

The Balkans have always acted as a bridge between East and West. They have always been a crossing point and meeting place, but also an area of tension and instability for Europe. The choice we have made and must adhere to is that the Balkans will join the EU provided they scrupulously fulfill the accession conditions.

As regards Turkey, the opening of the accession negotiations is a major political decision which takes on board the geostrategic changes in the region and Turkey's efforts.

We must keep a watchful eye on every stage of the resulting process.

European citizens will have to be kept regularly informed of the progress of the negotiations.

It's a process whose pursuit must depend on the observance of the criteria set by the European Council and the EU's absorptive capacity. In this respect, I welcome the European Parliament's reaffirmation that there will be no other enlargements so long as our institutions haven't been adapted.

Finally, it's a process whose outcome has to remain open until the end of the negotiations. In France, the French will have the final say in a referendum.

On a more general note, we must soon start reflecting on the EU's global enlargement strategy, its pace and conditions. There is no natural or historic right to join the EU. And the promise of accession can't be the only instrument for stabilizing the regions neighboring Europe.

On the other hand, the EU is duty-bound to offer neighboring countries ambitious and generous partnerships, which aren't merely simple free-trade agreements.

There's a question of will, because, clearly, all European citizens are asking what Europe can and wants to do both today and in the next few years. Personally, I am convinced of three simple things.

Firstly, Europe has a duty. Confronted with today's regional crises, the risks of pandemics, threats to peace and the law, Europe can't wait. No other State, no other regional entity will assume this responsibility in our place.

Secondly, Europe has a social and economic model to defend in the face of globalization. Going beyond our differences, Europe clearly has some distinct characteristics.

The importance given to protecting employees, balance between economic dynamism and solidarity, and defense of universal access to health and education.

It's up to us to find the means to adapt these to a new economic context.

And finally, Europe has to defend more effectively its citizens’ and businesses' interests. Yes, I'm an advocate of a genuine European economic patriotism.

The aim isn't to cut ourselves off from the world and hide behind an outdated protectionism. It is to unite our strengths and combine our efforts in order to move in the same direction and resolutely affirm our interests in the world.

By making these choices, we'll do more than reset a course for Europe — we'll assert a European identity.

Adapted from Dominique de Villepin’s speech at Humboldt University, Berlin on January 18, 2006. To read the full text, click here.