Common wisdom has it that France has always been the motor of European integration. If this is the case, then it has always been a rather stuttering and unreliable engine – and rarely able to rise above first gear.
We wrongly have the image in Britain of France as an enthusiastic leader in the vanguard of the European project. Granted, some major European initiatives, not least the original Coal and Steel Community, were initiated by French statesmen such as Schuman. But this has never been a matter of all-party consensus in France: rather each step in the history of the European Union has been a matter of profound national controversy.
In other words, we should not be surprised by the result of France’s referendum on the new European Constitution. It is in line with a long history of deep-rooted euroscepticism in France.
This history of euroscepticism goes back as far as the original treaties. These which were ratified by the French Parliament, but by rather small majorities. Then France rejected the European Defence Community Treaty in 1954, plunging the still nascent European Community into its first major crisis. Later, it ratified the Maastricht treaty only by the narrowest of margins.
For ten years, France held up the first enlargement of the original EC to include Britain, Ireland and Denmark. It also blocked direct elections to the European Parliament for almost twenty years.
For six months, Charles De Gaulle boycotted all ministerial meetings in the European Union, trying to bully the other member states into concessions to France on the CAP and on allowing it to exercise a veto even where the treaty provided for majority voting. This led to the notorious ‘Luxembourg compromise’, whereby member states, at France’s insistence, should not vote whenever a matter was defined as an important national interest – and France defined virtually everything to be an important matter for its own national interest!
It is at France’s behest that the European Parliament is legally obliged to move its entire operation from Brussels to Strasbourg for four days a month, at considerable expense to Europe’s taxpayers. Not even Parliament itself supports this ridiculous arrangement – though it usually takes the rap.
France has one of the worst records in doing what it agrees to do at European level. It has been taken to the European Court more times than most other countries for failing to transpose EU agreements into national law.
Looking deeper into France’s internal politics, it is striking that every European Treaty until the 1980s has been opposed by both the far right and the far left, both of which are larger in France than in any other major European country, and by the centre-right Gaullist party. Together, these elements have always constituted over 40% of the French electorate. Every European treaty has therefore required rock-solid support from the remaining centrist parties and the Socialists in order to be adopted. In the early 1990s, the Maastricht treaty was only ratified when Chirac – who then had some wider credibility than he has now – switched to a pro-European position bringing most (but not all) of the Gaullists behind him.
This is not to say that France is universally awkward when it comes to Europe. The country has strongly supported those aspects of the European project from which it benefits – from Parliamentary sessions in Strasbourg to the high level of funding under the Common Agricultural Policy. All that seems to be missing in France’s European outlook is a sense of solidarity with other countries on matters which are not of direct interest to the French!
If the supposed motor of Europe is stuttering, perhaps now is the time for Britain to take the driving seat?