The future of the European Parliament

This article was published by the Centre for European Reform website

Europe's parliament: Reform or perish?

25 April 2011

What are we going to do with the European Parliament (EP)? Such a question is normally the beginning of an anti-European diatribe. Not for me. I have spent every year since the first direct elections in 1979 to the Strasbourg Assembly defending its role and purpose. I have knocked on doors in campaigns and defended members of the European Parliament (MEPs) against the gravy-train accusations. As a parliamentary private secretary and a minister at the Foreign Office I worked to integrate MEPs into Britain’s political networking in Europe. I regularly visited the giant EP buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg which contrast to the more homespun modesty of the US Congress or the intimacy of the UK’s House of Commons. But the size of a parliament building does not equate to power or legitimacy. Has the time come for pro-European defenders of the EP to say that it needs reform? All democracies, mature and new, re-examine periodically the way their parliaments are formatted, their size, their mode of election, the composition of their members, their powers in relation to other legislatures and whether they have the confidence of their electorate. Britain has just begun a process of reducing the number of MPs, altering constituencies, and holding a referendum on its voting system. Why should Strasbourg be exempt from such a re-examination?

The EU is democratic. But is it a democracy? It cannot join the UN or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe because it is not a state. But if it is not a state why does it need a legislature? Perhaps the time has come to invite the EP to accept its sui generis nature and ask MEPs to consider if they might seek a new relationship with the citizens of Europe? The worrying and inescapable fact is that participation in elections to the EP has gone down even as membership of the EU has gone up. Indeed, participation has decreased in almost exact ratio to the powers the EP has demanded and obtained in successive EU treaties.Today six out of ten European voters stay at home on the day they should elect MEPs. On present trends, after three or four more Strasbourg elections – say by 2029 – voter participation will be a little above 20 per cent and the Parliament will have lost all legitimacy.

In addition, serious questions have now been asked about the composition of the Parliament. This may be unfair on the majority of MEPs who serve diligently and work hard on committees trying to make sure EU legislation and the policy statements of Strasbourg are coherent. Nick Clegg, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the country’s Liberal Democrat Party, has described the Conservative Party’s new allies in the EP as “nutters, anti-Semites, and homophobes” and Michal Kaminski, the Polish leader of the new group, chosen personally by David Cameron, resigned early in 2011 because of “extremism” amongst his colleagues. Even allowing for the hyperbole of an election campaign, Clegg has a point. The EP has become home to some very odd politicians, often at the far fringe of politics, who would have no traction at home but can use Strasbourg to gain legitimacy. Who can forget Ian Paisley, in the days of his extreme politics, hurling bigoted abuse at the Pope, or Jean-Marie Le Pen using his EP immunity to advance his extreme far-right views? The UK’s racist party, the British National Party (BNP), has little purchase in national politics and, according to BNP observers, is in meltdown as the even more obnoxiously racist English Defence League organises street protests against British Muslims. But the BNP’s leader and its chief ideologue are both MEPs.

In countries where MEPs are elected on a single national list they are often placemen or placewomen nominated by the party apparat. The French left daily, Libération, for example, has exposed how little time many French socialist MEPs spend in Strasbourg. In France, seats tend to be reserved for party notables who carry out regional or national secretariat duties while drawing an MEP’s salary. In 1994, 75 British Labour MEPs constituted more than 10 per cent of the EP. Today 13 Labour MEPs have to yield to British MEPs from the BNP and UKIP who use Strasbourg to preach their extreme views but are not full-time legislating or scrutinising parliamentarians in the manner of a US representative or a member of the Bundestag or even a member of a German regional assembly or the Scottish Parliament.

There are two ways to make European parliamentary representation more effective. One is a top-down route which takes as given that more power and presence for pan-European political or supra-national parliamentary activity is the way forward. The other way is to ask how European parliamentary work and scrutiny could be given new life and legitimacy by involving the national parliaments more in EU decisionmaking and European legislation.

Two expert observers of the European political and parliamentary scene, Sir Julian Priestley, who served as secretary-general of the EP 1997-2007, and Andrew Duff, the Liberal Democrat MEP and long passionate in promotion of the European cause, have produced reports which argue the first position. In ‘European political parties: The missing link’, Priestley calls for pan-European political parties with individual members, delegates elected to congresses which decide policy on a majority vote, and primaries or hustings to designate candidates for the presidency of the Commission. Priestley argues that:

“Party leaders and activists need to understand that a European dimension to party policy is now central to a party’s credibility. Almost none of the traditional policy ambitions of parties
can even be begun to be met by national means alone…Electors increasingly understand that many promises made at national elections cannot be honoured in the absence of EU action.”
Priestley is right in theory. But on the ground the opposite seems to be the case. Leaders at national elections carefully calibrate their European stance to present it in national terms rather than convince voters that their future depends on more Europe. Indeed, Britain’s Conservative Party won seats in 2010 after five years of strident eurosceptic campaigning with promises to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty and on the repatriation of powers from Brussels to Westminster. The two nominally more pro-EU British parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, lost seats. In other European countries a more assertive nationalism is seen across the political spectrum. As national parliamentarians feel patronised by or excluded from European law-making and decision-making, they find it easier to take refuge in assertions of national sovereignty. The more MEPs insist on their power, the more they generate resentment from national MPs who see the EP as a rival and opponent to be curbed or opposed rather than in terms of cooperation and complementarity.

Andrew Duff in ‘Post-national democracy and the reform of the European Parliament’ wants a new all-European constituency of 500 million with 25 pan-European MEPs elected on the basis of pan-EU party lists. Duff believes that this “will lead the way to a confident post-nationaldemocracy” as “the addition of a transnational list elected from a pan-EU constituency would enhance the popular legitimacy of the European Parliament by widening voter-choice.”

Priestley and Duff are both well-meaning but they do not address the fundamental point that European democracy – in terms of its electoral expression – has yet to sever links with the EU’s member countries. Nor is there any evidence that political parties are ready to forgo control over policy expressed in their name. Political parties may claim to be more pro-European than their opponents but they still have to get elected within a national context. The policy stance of the Liberal Democrat Party under successive leaders from Paddy Ashdown to Nick Clegg was always the most pro-European of the main UK parties. But while Ashdown or his successor, Charles Kennedy, supported the creation of the euro and Britain’s adoption of it
in the first flush of enthusiasm for Economic and Monetary Union in the late 1990s, this pledge has never featured in the party’s election literature for Westminster or the EP.

Henri Mallet, the French socialist, recalls negotiating the Party of European Socialists (PES) manifesto for the 1999 EP election with Labour’s Robin Cook. “Robin fought over every comma to make sure there was nothing in the manifesto that might be used by the British press against Labour back in Britain.” It is not just Britain. In the 2009 EP election, the PES’s manifesto omitted any endorsement of nuclear power because of objections from Germany’s Social Democrats; any support for a legal EU minimum wage because of objections from Sweden’s Social Democratic Party; any mention of agricultural reform because of French Socialists’ objections; and any mention of recognising Kosovo because of the objections of Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party. In the final draft there was at least strong language on banking secrecy but this was toned down after Luxembourg’s Socialist Workers Party turned up and announced it would be a bit of a problem for the Grand Duchy if they could not keep vacuuming-up tax-dodging monies from dentists and lawyers in neighbouring Germany.

Nor are the chances high of a socialist president of France in 2014 or a social democratic chancellor of Germany, let alone David Cameron and his fellow conservative leaders if Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel stay in power, giving up the right to designate the EU’s top executive posts. The PES has suggested primaries to designate a candidate for the presidency of the EU Commission. But in private discussion few PES leaders really believe that – if by 2014 the left controls more governments – national political leaders will give-up the power to nominate EU leaders. Today, the European left rails against the centre-right EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso. But his strongest supporters and earliest nominations for a second term in 2009 came from the socialist governments in Spain and Portugal backed by Britain’s Labour government.

Such cross-party contradictions and often lowest common denominator politics may appear unworthy of the high aspirations and noble ambition of idealistic Europe-wide political activity. But they are real. If in America the watchword is ‘All politics is local’, in Europe it might be ‘All politics is national’ or trouble ensues. Successive French governments have presented EU agricultural policy in terms of the support it provides French farmers. Germany defends the EU’s single market by stressing the benefits for German exporters. Poland says that the EU’s structural funds are vital to finance Polish development. In other words, the best way to sell European politics is to cloak EU decisions in a mantle of national self-interest. Neither voters nor national parties are yet ready to surrender control of national policy to MEPs or to the coordinating secretariats in Brussels of the different European political formations. So instead of trying to fit national political realities into a European parliamentary and political procrustean bed might the time have come for European politics to adopt a bottom up approach? Should we not start from the nations of the EU in the search for greater European political and parliamentary legitimacy?

To begin with, MEPs should be in tune with the democratically elected governments of the countries whence they come. Instead, the Parliament’s 750 members are presently elected in one fell swoop and often in response to national political sentiment about the government of the day. To Strasbourg, then, are sent the opponents of whoever might be in power nationally. In Britain, elections to the EP have always been protest votes against the Conservatives when they were in power and against the sitting Labour governments in 1999, 2004 and 2009. The same pattern can be seen in many other EU countries. This means that MEPs do not reflect the electoral politics that sustain their governments back home.

The 750 members of the EP are dwarfed by the 9,571 national parliamentarians who sit in the 27 national parliaments of Europe. The latter feel excluded from the European decision-making process, although they are expected to defend EU decisions with equal vigour to the national laws they vote for themselves. This gap is now a major part of the growing deficit in democratic confidence in Europe.

Part of the problem is perception, of course. There is a false polemical debate over the extent to which laws emanating from the European Union replace laws made in national parliaments. Jacques Delors fuelled this with a comment in 1988 that in ten years’ time 80 per cent of economic legislation and perhaps also of fiscal and social legislation would come from the EU. This has been seized on by anti-Europeans of all colours to argue that national parliaments have lost most of their sovereignty and that European law-makers now decide the rule of law in Britain and other member-states. Eurosceptic Conservative MEPs, the BNP and UKIP, along with the europhobic British press regularly assert that up to 80 percent of all UK law is now decided in Brussels and Strasbourg. Yet a comprehensive study by the House of Commons Library published in October 2010 said that “from 1997 to 2009 6.8 per cent of primary legislation and 14.1 per cent of secondary legislation had a role in implementing EU obligations”.

Delors’ 1988 assertion was made in a speech to the EP. Perhaps it was intended as a boast, perhaps an attempt to flatter the first generation of MEPs about their importance. However his assertion has boomeranged as today it is those hostile to Europe who insist that national parliaments are irrelevant as power flows one-way – from national parliaments to the EP and the Commission.

Eurosceptics are keen to peddle myths, but the sense of national democratic alienation is understandable. It does not matter whether one is a pro-European or a eurosceptic. Parliamentarians in the Bundestag or the Assemblée Nationale, in the Cortes in Spain or the Riksdag in Sweden, do not feel that they have much say over the decisions that relate to EU membership – either the decisions taken by national governments on national parliamentarians behalf or taken collectively by the Union.

To rectify this, could we not look at electing the EP in the same way as the US Senate – a third every two or three years – rather than in one fell swoop through an election every five years? Could we allocate some EP seats according to the political make-up of national parliaments so that the representatives in the Parliament more adequately reflect the will of the people as expressed in individual member-states? Alternatively, could we not create an upper house or senate in the EP consisting of representatives from national parliaments? MEPs in the past have rubbished this idea or even claimed that the Council of Ministers acts as the upper house. But ministers at the Council are executive representatives of their nations. They do indeed debate and decide by majority or unanimous votes but they are accountable to their national governments, parliaments and legislatures for the decisions they take.

Paradoxically, we could strengthen European parliamentarianism as a whole if we made the national parliaments partners, rather than after-thoughts, in the EU’s political construction. This bottom up approach based on the principle of subsidiarity would allow the EP to connect to a European demos by means of building in representation from national parliaments. The sense that national MPs – as guardians of sovereign democracy – are less and less in control of decisions taken in Europe and then imposed on their peoples is of growing concern. It does not matter whether the decision is seen as emanating from the Commission or the Council of Ministers or the extent to which it has been debated and honed by the EP.

The new British law which mandates referendums for treaty changes across a range of issues is a way of escaping from both European and national parliamentary decisions. It elevates the plebiscite to a new constitutional place in British political decision-making. But other countries may follow the British example. As long as the EP and the European institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg insist on ignoring or relegating national parliaments and European traditions of inviolable national democratic sovereignty, more defence mechanisms like plebiscites will surface. Even in Germany, SPD leaders have hinted at referendums before Germany ‘transfers’ more money to struggling eurozone countries. One does not require too many doctorates in political science to work out how quickly the EU will stall if decisions like treaty modifications have to be ratified by referendums.

In their paper for the Centre for European Reform titled ‘Beyond the European Parliament: Rethinking the EU’s democratic legitimacy’, Anand Menon and John Peet, make a series of constructive suggestions including one for national parliamentary committees to appoint EU policy rapporteurs.4 In a pamphlet I wrote in 2005 titled ‘Britain’s voice in Europe. Time for a change’, I argued that the UK House of Commons’ European Standing Committee (ESC) should be reconstituted into five distinct committees covering economic and finance legislation, internal market and trade, foreign and defence policy, social and environmental laws and justice and home affairs.5 As it stands, the Commons appears incapable or unwilling to organise its work so that EU policy gets mature consideration, apart from the pro- and anti-EU knockabout which fills most of the debating time on Europe. The appointment of the veteran Eurosceptic Conservative MP Bill Cash to the chairmanship of the ESC has hardly helped matters.

The UK government’s decision to abolish the bi-annual European debate held before each main EU Council meeting is also regrettable. Nick Clegg (himself a former MEP) has warned against Britain adopting an ‘empty chair’ approach whereby an increasingly disinterested, not to say isolationist, UK simply opts out of full EU policy engagement. But the Commons is less and less interested in international as well as European policy. MPs who seek to travel and engage with European politics and parliamentarians are pilloried as junketeers and British political parties are starved of funds needed to carry out European political networking. As a result MEPs tend to dominate the European party political structures and they are largely financed by the EP itself. So there is no objective and independent examination of how the Parliament is constituted and whether what it does would re-connect to electorates if national parliaments and parliamentarians felt they had some part-ownership of the European decisions imposed on their constituents. He who pays the piper decides what is important.

The paper by Anand Menon and John Peet and the two reports by Andrew Duff and Julian Priestley show that serious thinking is now under way about the future of the Parliament even if, for the time being, it is by British politicians and commentators. A further debate is needed. The EP regularly proposes reforms of the way Europe works and does its business. Is it too impertinent to suggest it may be time for the MEP reformers to look in the mirror and reform themselves before there are fewer voters than the European parliamentarians they elect?

30th Anniversary of the Election of Mitterrand: What Can We Learn from the French Socialist Leader?

This article was published by Policy Network 

The meaning of Mitterrand

11 April 2011

Many key problems of the contemporary political sphere, from climate change to bank regulation, must be addressed through a commitment to supranationalism and leadership. With this in mind social democrat’s today would do well to understand the political intellect of a neglected European leader, Francois Mitterrand. Instrumental in the construction of the EU, his character remains opaque and his legacy contested. At the Elysée with a unified Socialist Party he moved Europe towards greater Union and forged deep relations with Germany. Was he on the right or the left? Was he ever a socialist?

Thirty years ago, 10 May 1981, European history changed direction. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was getting into her stride, undoing the post-war mixed economy and welfare state settlement. In Spain, a colonel walked into the Cortes and waved his machine gun in a last desperate attempt to restore authoritarian rule in Spain. And in France, Francois Mitterrand, born in 1916, the same year as British Prime Ministers Edward Heath and Harold Wilson, became France’s first Socialist president, bringing to an end a quarter of a century of right-wing rule in the country.

Today fifteen years after his death, Mitterrand is, to paraphrase Churchill, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, largely unknown to the Anglosphere. In December 1980 Mitterrand went to Washington for a meeting of the Socialist International. The New York Times declined to write a report on this French politician running to be president of France in 1981. For the media world of New York and London Mitterrand was a disreputable, somewhat dodgy political character with a dubious past. All that the panjandrums of the New York Times knew was that Mitterrand had made an alliance with the Communists and would make four of them ministers just as Ronald Reagan was denouncing communism as the ‘evil empire.’ . This misjudgment cost the newspaper a scoop. Five months later Mitterrand was president of the world’s fourth biggest power, and was destined to play a lead role in European and world affairs for a longer period than either de Gaulle remained in the Elysée or F D Roosevelt in the White House. 

Like many major historical figures who have led their country, what we know of Mitterrand is elusive, changing over time and historical perspective. The essential Mitterrand remains like mercury, impossible to grasp. Was he on the right and then moved left? Was he ever a socialist? Interestingly, the same questions have been asked of the next major leader of Europe in the decade after Mitterrand’s death, Tony Blair. Today everybody can agree Blair imposed himself on British, European and world politics, but like Mitterrand no one shares quite the same analysis and conclusions about where he came from, what he did, what he stood for, and what his final place in history will be.

Unlike the ahistorical Blair however, Mitterrand was rooted in French history. If Paris was worth a mass – as Henry IV cynically put it as he switched from Protestantism to Catholicism to gain control of France in the 1580s – then the anti-communist Mitterrand was willing to support an alliance with the French CP as the left collectively mobilised the post-1968 generation of activists clamoring for a change after the long rule of the right.

Mitterrand knew his history. He grew up in provinces in the 1920s in a France obsessed with the Dreyfus affair. He was a student in Paris in the 1930s during the Popular Front government of the Jewish socialist Léon Blum. He was a résistant and an early anti-Gaullist in the 1940s. In the 1950s he served as a Minister with Pierre Mendes-France, as another Jewish leftist dismantled the French empire in Indochina, Morocco and Tunisia. In his later years he spent his Christmas and New Year break at Aswan on the Nile contemplating the temples and tombs of the pharaohs of Egypt.

Mitterrand’s political persona was also rooted in ‘La France Profonde’. The right-wing French writer, Charles Maurras, liked to contrast le pays reel, the country where real Frenchmen lived, with le pays légal, the Paris political class producing laws and speeches for their own self-satisfaction. Mitterrand’s rivals, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac, strived to present themselves as rooted in the countryside, but they could never escape their image as products of ÉNA (École nationale d’administration), established up in 1945 to produce France’s mandarinate. They passed exams where Mitterrand read books. They spoke English whilst Mitterrand only knew French. From an early age they lived in the elegant apartments France provides its high officials. For a quarter of a century before entering the Elysée, Mitterrand spent many of his weekend in his remote constituency staying in a cheap pension. Unlike the current French President’s ostentatious luxury holidays, Mitterrand was happy to go to his modest second home buried deep in the forests of Bordeaux. Paul Quilles, who managed Mitterrand’s 1981 campaign, notes that Mitterrand insisted he would visit all thirty-six thousand of France’s communes during his bid to be president. This was, of course, an impossible ambition, but it illustrates the fact that his metropolitan Parisian style was subordinate to his being a man with his feet on the ground of his country. 

And still the contradictions go on. People look for clues in his political flirtation with populist rightism in the 1930s. After his risk-taking efforts to escape from German prisoner of war camps, what to make of his work for the French state in the non-occupied part of France? Yet he was also a genuine résistant. De Gaulle looked at him askance when he arrived in Algiers because Mitterrand had been flown out of France to London and then taken an RAF plane to meet the leader of the Free French. For de Gaulle it was an unpardonable mistake to fly in an English aeroplane, though his real anger was aimed at Mitterrand’s determination to return to active resistance organisation in France. Undoubtedly Mitterrand kept friends from the 1940s whom a more career focused politician would not have. He was a French E.M Forster to the extent that he preferred not to betray his friends rather than conform to the exigencies of transient politics.

But a politician and a statesman is not, finally, judged by his character but his contribution to history. Mitterrand’s two major contributions were on economic policy and on the construction of Europe.

In May 1981 it seemed the road was open to the more extreme forms of free market capitalism encapsulated in the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They came to power at the end of a thirty year cycle of post-war economic history which the French called ‘Les Trente Glorieuses’. This apparent golden age was a time in which social welfare capitalism sunk deep roots into European society. By the end of the 1970s, post-1945 welfare capitalism had run out of steam. The question became, was there an alternative to the privatised individual greed promoted by Reagan and Thatcher? Mitterrand showed quite clearly that there was. Setting his economic course against all prevailing winds he nationalised industries including banks to create what, in an unhappy metaphor, he called France’s economic force de frappe- the name given to France’s nuclear arsenal. Underneath the carapace of state ownership there was a remarkable installation of young technocrats put in charge of banks and big chemical, pharmaceutical, aerospace and other industrial companies. They turned out to be every bit as competent, innovative and dynamic as their counterparts in Britain and America, thus giving lie to the claim that only shareholder value and an uncontrolled pursuit of salaries and bonuses on the part of bureaucracies were the key to ensuring business success. 

Compared with those of the Thatcherised British economy, the Mitterrand years display very little substantial difference in average growth rates. Britain was in need of very severe reform in 1979, and France was already comfortably ahead of Britain on most economic indices when Mitterrand took over. During the Mitterrand years, 1981-1995, France outperformed Britain in terms of most international comparative indices: on health care, public transport, support for culture and arts and on quality-of-life the Thatcherite revolution made Britain meaner and more miserable compared to Mitterrand’s calmer economic course.

An important moment came in 1983 when Mitterrand turned his back on protectionism, typically the corollary of nationalisation. Similarly, he refused the favorite drug of the British economic policy maker, devaluation. Instead, Mitterrand maintained the French Franc in the European Monetary System on a par with the German Deutschmark. While Mitterrand had no particular knowledge of economics and received conflicting advice from the usual array of “expert” economists, his rejection of protectionist and devaluationist policies was by far the most important economic decision that Mitterrand took. Maintaining parity with the Deutschmark forced modernisastions on the French economy. France could no longer devalue its way out of a lack of exports. It paved the way for a decade of cooperation between France and Germany without parallel in European history, in terms of an unshakable alliance between two major powers across a range of policy areas.

Mitterrand’s second contribution was in the construction of Europe. Belief in Europe and turning that faith into concrete acts are the most memorable legacy of Mitterrand’s 15 years in power. Certainly, he was never starry-eyed and remained pragmatic on aspects of European politics throughout his political life. As late as 1973 when leader of the French Socialist Party Mitterrand supported a policy of abstention in the referendum to endorse British, Irish and Danish entry into the EEC.

His first period in office after May 1981 was similarly unsteady. Helmut Schmidt, who overlapped with Mitterrand for a short period as German Chancellor, complained that he could no longer use English as a common language as he had done with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Mitterrand had different priorities to Schmidt, who was coming to the end of a long period of centre-left rule. The two leaders, for example, disagreed over the brutal repression of the Polish union, Solidarnosc, in 1981. For German social democrats like Willy Brandt and Schmidt, this represented a restoration of stability after an over-adventurous demand for democracy, whereas Mitterrand condemned the dismantling of Solidarnosc and internment of its leaders. While Schmidt clung to détente-style understanding for Moscow and east European communists, Mitterrand insisted that a European future for Poland based on democracy, freedom and independence from Soviet imperialism was the only policy worth endorsing. 

After Schmidt, Mitterrand found an effective partner in the German Christian Democratic politician, Helmut Kohl, who became Chancellor in 1982. As so often in European politics, these two leaders from opposing political groupings appeared to enjoy healthier relations than with their fellow left- or right-wingers. This first period of Mitterrand’s presidency saw a burst of European activity: enlargement to Greece, Spain and Portugal; Jacques Delors was transferred from the French Finance Ministry to run the European Commission; the Single European Act was passed; and France forged a link with the Deutschmark which gave birth to an embryonic single currency as thereafter there was no variation between the Mark and the Franc.

When Kohl faced his first great foreign policy challenge as the installation of Soviet SS20 missiles was countered by the US by bringing Pershing and cruise missiles to Germany, Britain and Italy, Mitterrand knew which side he was on. Mitterrand went to the Bundestag and told Germany that it was Europe’s duty to stand up against Soviet totalitarianism. It was not a speech Mitterrand had to make, but for a beleaguered Kohl it was an extraordinary lifeline. 

Later there was a wobble over German reunification, but Kohl agreed that the frontiers of the new united Germany after the fall of the war would respect the Oder-Neisse line, and there would be no German claims on its former lands in Silesia or Pomerania. Unlike Mrs Thatcher who embarrassed herself through her hostility to the Germany that emerged after the Berlin wall came down, France was seen as a better friend of Germany. In the following year Mitterrand committed himself to the Maastricht Treaty which moved the status of the European community to a fully fledged union. The Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty were the main transfers of power and sovereignty on a shared basis, with the European Commission and Parliament coming to take over many sovereign prerogatives. Mitterrand submitted the Treaty to a referendum, winning narrowly. From that point on the preparations for the euro continued apace, Mitterrand accepting the more narrow German focus on monetary stability. In the 14 years of his presidency Mitterrand’s contribution to the construction of Europe was of the highest order, and he willingly gave up many aspects of French national sovereignty in order to bind his country with its neighbors. 

In the history of Europe outside of wartime alliances there has never been a relationship like the Mitterrand-Kohl partnership. They gave an impetus to European construction equal to those who signed the Treaty of Rome. Mitterrand handled his British would-be nemesis, Mrs Thatcher, very differently. Of her, he said that she had “eyes like Stalin but the voice of Marilyn Monroe”.

When the Falkland Islands was invaded in April 1982 Britain announced it would send a fleet and army across thousands of miles of ocean to try and retake the islands. It was as risky a military enterprise as the world had seen in decades. The first person to call Mrs Thatcher and offer complete support was Francois Mitterrand. As Ronald Reagan’s UN Ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, was hobnobbing with the representatives of Argentina’s anti-semitic and torturing junta at receptions in New York and as the US State Department sought some kind of compromise with the military dictatorship in Buenos Aires, Mitterrand, again sensing the flow of history, understood that this life and death struggle was an important moment for European democracy. If Britain could defeat and humiliate these puffed up generals and colonels in their swaggering uniforms then that would send a powerful signal coursing through Latin America that the year of army rule had to come to an end. Mitterrand told the British prime minister he would give Britain the secrets of France’s feared Exocet missile . Backed by this solid assurance from her richer and more powerful neighbour, Mrs Thatcher could send her fleet down to liberate the Falklands while the “special relationship” with Ronald Reagan was delivering, to begin with, very little. 

Mitterrand was equally skilful over the issue of the EC budget. Mrs Thatcher was obsessed with the large proportion of the budget spent on agriculture, from which Britain benefited very little. Her claim for a rebate was more than justified. Mitterrand however resisted her demands until finally, in 1984, she agreed to a three-fold increase in the EU budget from £11.5bn in 1981 to £34bn in 1990 when Mrs Thatcher was removed as prime minister. According to British myth Thatcher’s rebate was a great victory. But looking at the overall picture she vastly increased Britain’s net contribution. The year the rebate was agreed in 1984, the UK’s net contribution to the EC budget was £656m. By 1990 it had risen to £2.475 billion. Mitterrand looked benignly on Mrs Thatcher’s claim that she had defeated the rest of Europe to secure her rebate. In fact she got pennies, whereas Europe and France got pounds.

Furthermore, Mitterrand persuaded her to support the Single European Act by framing it as just as a market opening process. In reality it in the outcome was a significant sharing of power, and represents the biggest transfer of government power over British trade and economic policy ever seen. Again, he persuaded her to endorse Jacques Delors as European Commission President. She watched in dismay as this social catholic politician who had come from the French trade union movement to be Mitterrand’s Finance Minister set about strengthening the so-called Rhine economic model through his ‘Social Europe’ invention. In harmony with Mitterrand’s state control of the economy, Delors steered Europe away from an individualist free market ideology espoused by Reagan and Thatcher. For the British Prime Minister, whose premiership was defined by the claim “there is no such thing as society”, the Mitterrand-Delors collaboration in Europe was intolerable.

In his 1988 speech on trade union rights to the TUC Delors repudiated the Thatcherite programme. At the same time he buried three decades of Labour euroscepticism as the trade unions and the Labour Party countered Tory hostility to social policy by embracing the European values established by Delors and Mitterrand.

In 1989 at the Paris celebrations of the French Revolution’s bicentenary, Mitterrand poured salt into Mrs Thatcher’s Eurosceptic wounds. President George Bush arrived from America with the keys of the Bastille which Lafayette had consigned for safe keeping to George Washington and gave them back to France. Mrs Thatcher’s gift to celebrate the two centuries of the French Revolution was a first edition of Charles Dickens’ counter-revolutionary novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Whilst the representative of the US sat beside President Mitterrand, Mrs Thatcher was consigned to the fourth or fifth row alongside.

On wider foreign policy issues Mitterrand was a strong advocate for human rights. By mentioning the name Andrei Sakharov at a Kremlin banquet he the Soviet regime on notice. He encouraged the new leaders of post-fascist Europe such as Spain’s Felipe Gonzalez and Portugal’s Mario Soares. He reaffirmed his affinity for the Jewish people with the first ever visit by a French president to a Knesset, while pouring French diplomatic energy into the Oslo Peace Accords.On the other hand, he did terrible things, such as sanctioning a secret squad to blow up the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace ship that was irritating France as it observed the by then pointless nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean.

By the end of his first septennat Mitterrand had buried almost everything contained in his 1964 philippic ‘Un coup d’Etat permanent’, which criticised de Gaulle in unforgiving terms: “There are ministers in France. There are even whispers that we still have a Prime Minister. But there is no longer a Government. It is the president who alone gives or makes decisions.” Twenty-five years later in 1988 Mitterrand become the very de Gaulle as described 1964, who alone decides everything. 

For many, Mitterrand should have quit at the end of his first seven year term of office, but he went on and on. Acting as a kind of majestic figure above politics he nonetheless allowed the corroding influence of private money to undermine French politics. Some of his ministers had their careers destroyed and one, Pierre Beregovoy, committed suicide as a result of the pressure. As we see former French President Chirac on trial today for illicit party funding, the failure of Mitterrand to reform political processes does him no credit. Nor did his decision to change the electoral system to a proportional system which boosted the electoral prospects of Le Pen’s racist National Front Party. Unlike Britain which is a parliamentary republic with a monarch as its head of state, France under Mitterrand just as much as under de Gaulle was transformed into an elective monarchy with no parliamentary balance.

Having arrived in the Elysée in 1981 with a unified Socialist Party that since its establishment in 1971 reshaped the French Left, Mitterrand considered party business secondary to national leadership. He poured his energies into Europe and shared Reagan’s anti-Sovietism, though he felt that history would deal with European communism soon enough and was correct. He had done little traveling and spoke no foreign languages, so the rise of Asia and the transformation of world economic relations under globalisation meant little. French foreign policy was reduced to the rayonnement de la France. He created the Francophonie which was a pale shadow of the more vibrant and self-confident British Commonwealth. He took a paternalistic approach to French client states in Africa, and had no policy for the Mahgreb worthy of the name. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were allowed to continue under the dictatorship regimes that were set up there. So long as they didn’t bother France, and in the case of Algeria sold gas and oil, Mitterrand had no policy for reform. 

Though he did join the West in opposing Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, France’s traditional support for Serbia meant that the Elysee failed to understand the Balkans War unleashed by the nationalism of Milosevic after 1990. Mitterrand did travel to Sarajevo, but was ultimately unable to overcome a Franco-French perspective that supported Serbia over all the other countries, religions and ethnicities in the region. Thus, the second septennat, 1988-1995, was an unhappy one. As all of Germany’s energy became absorbed by unification there was no continuation of the creative European construction politics of the middle 1980s. 

Finishing his second term in 1995, Mitterrand was clearly in agony from his prostate cancer. I took trade union leaders to meet him in the Elysee in the summer of 1994. He had given up trying to maintain a nice dentition, and sat with his back against the wall, a short stubby man, with pointed black teeth but nonetheless still speaking with passion about the power of multinational capital and how there had to be a social answer to it. Was this socialism? Or was it just a French nationalism thinking that the peasants and workers and people of his country, and by extension the world, were not getting a fair enough deal from the new notables and aristocrats who controlled global capital and extracted profits much as their ancien régime forebears had owned land and extracted rent at the expense of the peoples’ needs?

In the end we shall never know. He could be seen in the bookshops of Paris looking at every new novel, political history or essay. He hired writers like Eric Orsenna, Jacques Attali and Régis Débray to work with him, and promoted young women or his ebullient Culture Minister Jack Lang. It is in history, art, literature that the clues to Mitterrand are to be found. He kept no diary, wrote no memoirs, and took his own life to the grave. We now live with the Mitterrand that each generation has to reinvent and locate and find. It is a shame that the Anglosphere know so little of him. But perhaps its denizens prefer not to admit other models of democracy and other styles of political leadership not only exist, but can produce results.