Hollande in Brussels for first meeting with European Commission

Visit the first by a French president with commission since 1997

François Hollande: a rumour had circulated that the commission wanted to question the president on the speed of French reforms. However, an aide insisted the meeting “has nothing to do with” this. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

François Hollande: a rumour had circulated that the commission wanted to question the president on the speed of French reforms. However, an aide insisted the meeting “has nothing to do with” this. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

 

President François Hollande will make a one-day trip to Brussels today to see President José Manuel Barroso and all 27 EU commissioners, then co-chair a donors’ conference for Mali. It will be Mr Hollande’s first meeting with the commission, and marks the first such visit by a French president since 1997.

The invitation from Mr Barroso was accepted by Mr Hollande “as a sign of support for European institutions”, an aide said. A rumour had circulated that the commission wanted to question Mr Hollande on the speed of French reforms, following the two-year extension granted to France to comply with the 3 per cent budget deficit limit. The meeting “has nothing to do with” the fiscal requirement, the aide insisted.


EU record
According to the commission’s figures, 56.6 per cent of French GDP is in the public sector, an EU record. French deficit spending will stand at 3.9 per cent this year and 4.2 per cent in 2014.

On May 29th, the commission will issue its recommendations to France, the broad lines of which have already been revealed. Brussels wants Paris to reform its pension system, lower the cost of labour and open internal markets to competition.

Olli Rehn, the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, has called France’s 80-page national reform programme “a good summary of what’s been done in the past year, but... a bit weak on the prospective plan”.

The object of today’s meeting, said a presidential adviser, is not to make France’s plan more precise. Details of some reforms were best left to civil servants, he said. But others – mainly the reform of the pension system – are the object of consultations among France’s social partners.

“The president cannot determine in advance the result of this consultation,” the adviser continued. Consultations on the pension system began this week. “These reforms respond to the needs of the French economy... not orders from the commission.”

The commission wants France to open electricity, rail transport and certain “protected professions” such as the law and veterinary medicine to competition. The government has ordered a report on opening the domestic railway market.

“We can’t do everything at the same time,” the aide said. “Advice from the commission is welcome, but ... it is not up to the commission to determine what France should open up to competition. It is France who proposes.”

After lunch with the commission, Mr Hollande will co-chair a donors’ conference for Mali with Mr Barroso and the Malian president Diacounda Traoré. France considers it has rendered the EU a service by intervening against Islamic extremists in Mali this year.

The conference could have been held in Paris, “but we preferred to do it in Brussels, because in the medium and long term, the EU will be the principal partner of Mali for its development,” said another presidential adviser.

Today’s conference will pledge some €4 billion for Mali, nearly half of which will be paid by Mali itself. France is offering €280 million for the next two years. The World Bank and the EU will be the principal donors.