On 18 February 2022, Mr Jean-Louis Bourlanges, President of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French National Assembly, was invited to the University of Public Service in Budapest to discuss the current challenges of French foreign policy with Mr László Trócsányi, Rector of the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church and former Ambassador to France. The event was organised by the Institute for Strategic Studies.
The speakers started by affirming that in French foreign policy having a vision of a united Europe is not extraordinary, and certainly not restricted to this quinquennat of President Emmanuel Macron. Apparently, he wants to incorporate the whole of the continent into Paris’ plans for Europe, which was already a cornerstone of President De Gaulle’s vision as well. Back then, in the midst of a bipolar global order, De Gaulle held that unified action coordinated among the sovereign states of Europe was essential to avoid being crushed between American and Soviet interests. We can certainly see a parallel with those times today, when Paris is once again taking the initiative and is calling on the continent to act with autonomy. But where exactly are the frontiers of Europe, asked Mr Trócsányi, the frontiers of the continent where the very notions of nation state and national sovereignty were formed? What territory of land does Europe mean in effect? Mr. Bourlanges gave a vague answer to the question. Geographically speaking, the continent stretches from the Mediterranean Sea from the South, to the North Pole on the North, and the Atlantic on the West. The East edge is a more uncertain line, which has been discussed and disputed both peacefully and aggressively at length many times in the past. But there is another dimension to Europe, in addition to the geographic one, Mr Bourlanges added. This additional dimension is the pool of values that European nations created and spread across the world. In this sense, there are no borders delineating Europe, as its ideas are and should be available to anyone who chooses to abide by the rules deriving from them. Those who defy and confront them are often depicted as adversaries, as threats to the community of nations such as radical Islamic ideology or authoritarian regimes across the globe, for instance.
According to Mr Bourlanges, there is at least one favourable aspect of uniformization that emerged among European societies, which is the so-called European way of life
However difficult it seems to give an exact definition to Europe, the attempt to unite 27 countries in a European integration has certainly been a success. Speakers therefore tried to explain what “United in diversity” –a motto often recited when referring to the huge differences among member states– means. Despite the confident-sounding slogan, many fear that there is a possibility that the nations that built the EU might decide to dissolve the union, as a result of excessive uniformization and homogenisation. Yet, according to Mr Bourlanges, there is at least one favourable aspect of uniformization that emerged among European societies, which is the so-called European way of life. From the French point of view, the pillars of the European way of life are laicity, religion and republicanism.
In spite of the fact that European countries argue on a number of issues, there still are common interests worth fighting for together, the speakers agreed. Moreover, one single country is unable to meet the challenges of the day ranging from the fight against the illegal trafficking of drugs, weapons and even human beings, not to mention terrorism and illegal migration. The forces uniting Europe lie deep in its societies, which are all based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the fact that most countries emerged from the grave of the Roman Empire and developed into monarchies and nation states thereafter. In addition to religion, the concept of laicity is the other pillar of the European way of life. Born during the French Revolution, it suggests that freedom is a fundamental right of every single human being, based on equality and the alliance established between God and mankind.
The speakers then raised the question of why, despite the above mentioned basic values linking the peoples of Europe, Brexit happened. According to the President of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Brexit might have been merely be a symptom of a major disease attacking the common ground Europeans used to stand on. The erosion of the Westphalian system has triggered fragmentation in Europe, preventing the success of the alliance among nations. It must be added however, the speakers agreed, that leaving the EU is of course possible and permissible, as European integration cannot be kept together by force, the way the Soviet Union used to be.
Ona another note, Mr Bourlanges stressed that a central diplomatic goal of Emmanuel Macron as President of the French Republic is to ensure Europe achieves a strategic autonomy. He often calls this notion European sovereignty, which–as Mr Bourlanges regretted–may be deceiving for many, turning them away from the cause, as traditionally sovereignty belongs to individual nations which derive it from their own people. Some European leaders believe that deepening foreign policy and security cooperation would lead to the formation of a federal union of European states. Europe, on the contrary, is built on the principle of pooling certain elements of national sovereignty and conferring them onto European institutions. The EU is definitely not a federation of people, it is the federation of sovereign nations. What President Macron wants– although he may not be phrasing his intentions clearly– is a stronger foreign and security policy, and a wider military operational independence.
As far as a people’s sovereignty is concerned, the speakers highlighted that in nation states it is normally enshrined in the constitution. The constitutional courts in member states, or the Conseil d’État in France, make sure that EU institutions do not move too fast, while on the EU level it is the Court of the European Union that ensures member states comply with their commitments. Of course, in order for any institution, especially the supranational ones, to function properly, its established rules should not be overshadowed by national regulations. But constitutions are not pieces of legislation, rather collections of the fundamental values of societies, therefore most constitutional courts also scrutinize new amendments to the EU treaties to decide whether they are adoptable by the given nation state.
The conversation then shifted onto the issue of subsidiarity, which is a fundamental principle of the EU. It means that even in the most centralised member states, decisions should be made on the lowest possible level, the closest to the people. To ensure this, in the form of political debate, capacities must be distributed to different levels of authority. Subsidiarity, however, is only applied in fields where there are joint capacities between the member states and Brussels, migration being an example. Migration is a major point of conflict between western and eastern members of the integration, but not the only one. New member states prefer a “Europe of Nations” while old member states call for closer and deeper cooperation with more authority granted to the EU institutions.
According to him, in Putin’s mind the scenario where Ukraine becomes a second Poland is a threat to the Russian model as it would mean that NATO could further expand, while the Russian alliance system would stay the same size
Towards the end of the discussion possible theatres for joint foreign policy action were debated. In terms of the Russia-Ukraine conflicts, nobody could have predicted on the day of the discussion that Russia would in fact invade Ukraine, so the parties speculated, without anticipating armed conflict, about what Moscow’s intentions were. According to Mr Bourlanges, the main problem regarding this conflict is that nobody seems to know what President Putin really wants to achieve. From France’s perspective, it is absolutely not the case that the EU or the USA would threaten Russia in any way, but he thought it advisable on the EU’s part to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty. One of the possible scenarios in this turmoil, according to President Macron, was the “Finlandization” of Ukraine. This would mean granting Ukraine a status similar to that of Finland after the Second World War, when it could integrate economically into the western capitalist system, while limiting its liberty of geopolitical action. Mr Bourlanges also stressed the fact that France considers Ukraine’s development an aspiration to support, while its traditional ties with Russia should be accepted and respected. Dialogue with President Putin would be the key to understanding mutual positions and attitudes towards this “common neighbourhood”. According to him, in Putin’s mind the scenario where Ukraine becomes a second Poland is a threat to the Russian model as it would mean that NATO could further expand, while the Russian alliance system would stay the same size. What is scary is that Washington is staying idle, which prompts Europe, especially France, to resume greater responsibility diplomatically. In the long run, a now almost unarmed Europe must consider ways to develop its own independent system of defence.
Another area of conflict with French stakes is in Africa’s Sahel region. Although it is not solely a French project, counterterrorism efforts in the region are traditionally led by Paris; regardless, threats from the region, such as the illegal trade of arms or terrorism, can reach Europe. Counterterrorism does not only target Mali, but also its neighbours in West-Africa. That is one of the reasons why France has recently relocated its troops to other countries in the region, but also because, as the French speaker underlined, Paris cannot leave its troops in a country where the government does not welcome them. Also, West-African terrorism has changed in its character, shifting from a rural to an urban focus, therefore Europe should facilitate democratisation in the Guinean Gulf, he stressed.
In response to questions coming from the audience, Mr Bourlanges emphasized that in France’s vision, building European military sovereignty would only be in complementarity with NATO, not replacing it. He also noted he considered the conference on the Future of Europe to be a great initiative, however, he thought that expanding decision-making to a qualified majority and enhancing fiscal solidarity should be more pronounced. A question related to the issue of nuclear energy was also posed, which he answered by saying that although President Macron was reluctant about endorsing nuclear energy at the beginning of his mandate, now he shows a more pragmatic approach towards the issue. France has an advantage in this regard and Paris will have to build on the nuclear option in energy terms, as there are not many more reliable ones available.
Fanni Korpics, researcher at Danube Institute