Looking to life after Sarkozy

Tue, Apr 24, 2012, 01:00

THE RESURRECTION after a generation of France’s socialist politics evidenced by François Hollande’s first round victory is a landmark moment not only for France, but for European politics. The election is now clearly Hollande’s to lose in the second round on May 6th, and already capitals around the EU are beginning to examine likely fallout. What will the post-Sarkozy era look like? And, not least, is this a harbinger for the EU left – now that only Denmark has a social democratic government? And particularly for the Social Democrats in Germany, who face Chancellor Merkel in a general election next year?

In the medium term there will be questions about the post-“Merkozy” coherence of the Franco-German axis, critical as it is to the political and economic leadership of the EU. Officials and academics in Paris and Berlin reassure, insisting on the likelihood of continuity, and arguing, with justice, that history shows personal chemistry rather than ideology will determine the success of the relationship – viz Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, or François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl.

But there are immediate differences of emphasis, notably on the fiscal treaty, that may get in the way. While Merkel did not actually campaign for Nicolas Sarkozy, her view was well known. “Sarkozy is the better president for Germany because he shares our view of budgetary discipline, accepts the fiscal pact and rejects eurobonds,” her deputy foreign minister, Michael Link, told the press bluntly.

Now, however, Hollande’s aides are talking not of amending the substance of the treaty, as he has been suggesting during the campaign – a nightmare prospect for other capitals, not least Dublin – but of adding a protocol. And some German analysts have been suggesting that Merkel may be willing to countenance a form of “growth pact” as a protocol to the treaty. That would also find favour in Spain and Italy, among others.

While moving the goalposts on the shape of the treaty, or even suggesting they will be moved, is clearly not helpful to Ireland’s attempt to get a referendum agreed on May 31st, the alternative of a “growth protocol” does have some appeal. To sell the fiscal treaty, branded simply and effectively by No campaigners as the Austerity Treaty, this Government, like others in the union, must sell the idea of the treaty and monetary union as an engine for growth, and not simply an instrument of economic torture, however necessary.

But time is extremely short. Instead of waiting for the outcome of the French second round, the Government should already, as has been argued in these pages, be pressing the case publicly in the EU for both precisely such a growth dimension to monetary union and for a facility to communitise European debt, eurobonds. That is the way to win this referendum.

The imminent prospect of a change of regime in Paris also has the potential to revive dimensions of a social Europe that are in danger of being lost in the climate of economic stringency and neo-liberal orthodoxy. That will be no bad thing.