The EU Seen from the Inside by a Federalist Journalist

Catherine Vieilledent
Member of the UEF Executive Bureau

Bernard Guetta
La nation européenne [in French]
Flammarion, Paris, 2023[i]

With this title, Bernard Guetta does not beat about the bush: the European nation does exist and it is making its way towards a political Europe, the third moment in its history. One year before the 2024 elections, this is an interesting and enthusiastic testimony of a semi outsider, newly elected to the European Parliament in 2019 (Renew list), where he recounts his first steps, his bedazzlements, his disappointments and ill-contained impatience. Because you do not become MEP in one day, as he explains, even for a journalist specializing in international relations and geopolitics: from opinion to consensus, it takes a full mandate for these MEPs to understand the workings of the machine, as they were sent to Brussels by national parties as troublemakers” too intelligent or too well known to be sidelined from politics altogether. A word of caution to party apparatuses: do not spoil too quickly the skills acquired for the sake of internal political games and career management, as you often do!

This personal and committed narrative retraces the journey of resized ambitions, the difficult learning process of building a collective object, for example by renouncing a project that is close to his heart since 2019: passing a resolution by the European Parliament on an appeal to the Russian people, that is to say, to prepare for the future by addressing the Russians directly, over Putin’s head. The project did not succeed, but resulted in the publication of a call at the end of 2020 in the press of several countries. The three main political groups will finally sign up (the call is reproduced in the book). Another example: the Parliament was debating whom to grant the Sakharov Prize to among the oppressed minorities and martyred peoples of the world. Guetta recounts the laborious struggle, with unlikely alliances and shadow maneuvers, which eventually imposed the cause of the Uighurs. The price to be paid is that, often, one must yield to internal rituals, to institutional rivalries, to petty wrangling, to national conformisms.

Interestingly, the book analyses the European turnaround, especially among the members of Central and Nordic Europe, on the perception of France, suspected of visceral anti-Americanism and, above all, suspected of plotting, with the Germans, an alliance with the Russians at their expense. Until the turn of 2016, when Trump was elected and Brexit was voted by the British people, and Europe found itself naked in the face of the threats from the East, with growing chaos on its southern flank, abandoned by its Atlantic allies. B. Guetta argues that during his meetings and exchanges in Poland and the Baltic countries, he found that the cause of a European defence was finally accepted. He sees it as the victory of the French approach and a first step towards the European mission whose vision he attributes to France and Germany: build the stability and prosperity of the Continent by ensuring respect for borders and the independence of countries.

Back to recent breaks, such as the suspension of the Maastricht criteria due to the Covid crisis, and the Council’s agreement to launch a large common loan to finance large-scale investment plans. B. Guetta celebrates these accelerations where he sees the capacity of the European Union to adapt and react to crises, outside the Treaties and even in disregard of inter-institutional relations. His only regret is that the opportunity was missed, in particular by the European Parliament, frustrated by its exclusion, to highlight this major step forward in the European project towards financial autonomy. But the time has not yet come, he thinks, to lower the role of the Heads of state and government and to equalise powers between the two chambers (Council and Parliament), because the citizens have a profound need to feel assured by their own state, and membership of the Union, as it is now, is very much desired by other states.

There was a similar parliamentary frustration in 2019 at the failure of the Spitzenkanditaten process, which would make the leader of the leading list in the European elections the future President of the Commission. Guetta expresses his incomprehension of the institution, although openly federalist and convinced of the imperfect character of European democracy and the urgency to remedy it. However, he notes that the states remain the absolute masters of the European project (with a cost: opaque and uncomprehensible supreme decision-making mechanisms). And he admits the need to move forward in small steps, through concrete achievements pending the federalization of the institutions, and therefore accepts the status quo which leaves strategic choices only to the national leaders, whereas the European Parliament, for the most part, has a capacity for amendment, obstruction, etc.

Bernard Guetta notes the great lie of the Eurosceptics, who accuse Brussels of imposing its dictates, while in reality strategic decisions are taken, precisely, by national leaders by consensus. But the time, according to him, is not for institutional reforms. Rather, in view of the 2024 elections, he proposes the establishment of pan-European programmes to pave the way to a great political debate in the unity of place and time of the campaign (elections will be held between 6 and 9 June 2024, depending on the countries, things could have been worse...), favouring coalitions of ideas that would place the European Parliament at the centre of the game. It is in these terms that Bernard Guetta calls for a great political recomposition, on one side a regrouping of pro-European democrats and progressives, with the contribution of the liberal centre and the Greens, and on the other the supporters of conservative and identity sovereignism.

Among the perspectives that the book opens, is the idea to make a multi-speed Europe, multiplying enhanced cooperations, and then to institutionalize three concentric circles: a European Partnership with the Balkans, Ukraine, a democratized Turkey or even the United Kingdom around the internal market, the principles of the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights; the current Economic and Monetary Union, without fiscal and social dumping; and finally a European Community united by the common foreign and security policy, defence and an industrial policy.

The book ends with the post-war vision of Ukraine, and the call to rebuild the relationship with Russia, a work of reconciliation that will no doubt be as difficult as it was after 1945, especially for Poland and the Baltic countries. But post-war management, writes Bernard Guetta, unlike after the fall of the wall, must build security agreements binding all the states on the continent in order to guarantee a lasting peace in Europe. We must therefore offer reconciliation, cooperation and peace to Russia, avoiding the break-up of the Federation and the resulting bloody anarchy. In order to rule out any imperial and nationalist nostalgia, not only in Russia, and resume the construction of the ‘common European home’.

One may not always be convinced by certain geopolitical reflections of Bernard Guetta, but what he proposes for Europe, the ambition to be “the indispensable balancing power between China and the United States”, deserves to be listened to.

[i] Bernard Guetta was a journalist at Le Monde from 1979 to 1990, a geopolitics specialist for France Inter from 1991 to 2016. He has been MEP since 2019 (Renew list).

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