You can also read this interview in French on Le Grand Continent, the journal published by the Groupe d'études géopolitiques.
Although I have always been interested in European issues, fear of hyper-specialisation and disconnection from concrete European affairs has kept me from wanting to work within European institutions. I didn’t become interested in European issues as an activist, but rather through politics and history, especially the former. My earliest political memories are linked to the great upheavals in Eastern Europe : the fall of the Berlin Wall of course, and, above all, the Romanian revolution. These events, which occurred during the 1989 to 1991 period, made me see Europe as a path for openness, reconciliation and hope. Europe, whose details I knew nothing about, appeared to me to be the premise of a great political project. So I would say that I became interested in Europe through events from the fall of the USSR through to the Baltic revolutions, and also from inspirational figures, such as Kohl, Delors, and Mitterrand.
Then my feeling for Europe was enhanced by my studies in modern history, learning German, and my taste for literature. We all have a European feeling, no one gets interested in Europe from reading a course on the euro or on the institutional triangle. In fact, developing an interest in this kind of thing means that the seed has already been sown, whether from dual citizenship, a personal story, a journey, a memory, a book, or perhaps a work of art… I think there is always this emotional basis that triggers an unwavering connection to Europe.
In my case, George Steiner was the one who truly gave me this taste for Europe as it can be touched through culture. His approach was neither political nor institutional, but rather historical, cultural, and scholarly. In this regard, his book Une certaine idée de l’Europe is, I believe, the best representation of what Europe is today. He talks about the cafés, the relationship to history, the relationship to law and to landscapes, which are all common denominators of Europe. This was the emotional starting point of my attachment to Europe.
After a rather traditional academic trajectory, I discovered – somewhat by chance, if truth be told – the College of Europe. It is a historical institution that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Hague Congress. It came into being prior to the creation of European institutions, which, in itself, reveals the very essence of what Europe is all about. At first, the role of the College of Europe was not to teach the workings of European institutions – which were non-existent or, at any rate, embryonic – but to foster coexistence and a common culture between Europeans. This is what Europe is all about, and I do not understand why this human approach should be impossible for Europe, whereas it exists for each national culture.
What was quite atypical, on the other hand, is that I attended the College of Europe all the while knowing that I did not want to work for European institutions. This microcosm, for which I felt neither repulsion nor attraction, was not for me, and I wanted to take a different path, to work hand in hand with Europe differently. So I would say that my year at the College of Europe was more of a year of openness and less a projection into professional life.
I believe so, and I hope so, because I am convinced that it would be the end of Europe if we were to see it from a purely economic standpoint. Since its inception and until the recent crises it has endured, Europe has often been described as an entity « that comes out of nowhere ». As if we could ignore millennia of European culture. Some people argue – wrongly, in my opinion – that it is a technocratic project at its very core, but I think that would offend its founders. We tend to forget that the institutions themselves stemmed from a stroke of political genius, and we would be mistaken if we believed that Monnet, Schuman, or Gasperi were disconnected from political realities.
At present, it is this political reality that needs to be reinstilled into Europe. We act as if talking about Europe in the media were an act of partisanship. I think that it is necessary to both remove this assumption of partisanship that comes with taking an interest in Europe and to put partisan politics back into the ideological confrontation that we must have on the very content of European policies.
In this respect, I think that the current crisis, and perhaps the legacy of the previous ones (the Eurozone, migration, Brexit), has had a positive impact, because it has put confrontation and debate back into an entity that had grown to be perceived as technical and distant. The confrontations between leaders which occurred via the media in the spring were very healthy in this regard, because no democracy can work without debate.
Europe is often reduced to a polarisation between those who love it and stand ready to accept anything from it, and those who deny its very existence, want it to disappear, avoid the subject, or make a scapegoat of it. This black and white understanding is not healthy because Europe is, above all, a political project. We might hate it, we might love it, we might want to reform it, but there is a broad range of opinions whose free expression we must embrace and whose clashes must not be stifled.
The fact that this approach has been so late in coming is partly down to the European project itself being built against this idea. Originally, Europe was meant to reconcile countries that had an unhealthy relationship to power. This tendency expressed itself both outside their borders, through colonial adventure, and inside them, through the painstaking cultivation of technological, industrial, commercial, scientific, and political domination. This thirst for power had led to collective suicide. After the Second World War, Europe was placed under the tutelage – and the relationship was, despite its benevolence, a form of tutelage – of the United States. In contrast to what happened in the aftermath of the Great War, the Old Continent then began to build a political framework for cooperation, of which Franco-German reconciliation was the cornerstone, the first collective vaccine against this greed for power. Until the end of the Cold War, Europe was deprived of all the instruments of its power. It then went through a post-Soviet transition period during which it no longer had any enemy, only the same tutelage – though less strong and less benevolent – with the United States, which was legitimately getting increasingly interested by the vast world and less and less by Europe.
What France and other European countries are now shouldering is a new projection towards power, both mentally and practically. This is the challenge of the next fifty years : projecting Europe outward without thwarting its internal reconciliation, combining the return of power whilst preserving the cooperation that was built over the past seventy years.
This is a major shift in the European mindset, because never before has Europe experienced this triangle of being at once global, peaceful and powerful. Actually, I am not even sure that any great non-imperial power has ever undertaken this role.
The Franco-German relationship has evolved significantly over the past seventy years. Nowadays, there is a new, strong and convergent relationship between our two countries that has never been – and is not intended to be – a relationship of equivalence or symmetry. France and Germany are certainly the two countries that have hated each other the most over the last 150 years. It is a mistake to believe that the Franco-German partnership does not work because of its differences : rather, it doesn’t work when we cannot find any common ground to put aside our differences. There is nothing worse than a self-celebrating Franco-German relationship where differences are glossed over when they actually exist. We do not have the same relationship to external power, we do not have the same relationship to Turkey, Russia, the United States, the army, elites, big business, or the economy. But the strength of this partnership lies precisely in getting closer to one another and finding a compromise between two different poles. It is a precious relationship, sustained through hard work, symbols, daily interactions between our administrations, ministers, heads of state and governments.
De Gaulle and Adenauer were convinced of the need for this cooperation, precisely because of these differences. Our two nations have a different relationship to the European project and also to the very idea of power. So our mutual relationship does not mean either dilution or submission, but rather permanent compromise. In general, the European way does not lie in erasing our differences ; instead it is a blending of our disagreements, which we somehow manage to mitigate. The Franco-German relationship epitomises this, and the current crisis has revealed it as well. I believe that there is strength to the current Merkel-Macron couple. They have understood three things : the irreplaceability of the Franco-German partnership, the need to make our disagreements known to the other in order to work hand in hand to overcome them, and, in turn, the ability to bring other partners on board. This is not obsolete in a European Union with 27 members. Often, the tragedy of French presidents lies in needing a year or two to trace back the intellectual path that leads them to realise that the Franco-German relationship is not only useful, but actually irreplaceable. Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have never wasted time looking for an alternative to the Franco-German relationship.
The recovery plan, which started from a disagreement, paved the way for a renewal of confidence between France and Germany. At the onset of the crisis, the disagreement was quite violent : it was not swept under the rug. France reached out to Italy, Spain, Belgium, and others to say : « We need solidarity, we need to mutualise our debts ». Germany was against this measure, so we recreated a negotiation that allowed us to move towards a Franco-German compromise, allowing in turn for a European compromise to arise. We must try to make the most of this renewed confidence so it can benefit other areas as well.
So we should not be destabilised by the imminent prospect of the German election. Political cycles are short, but that doesn’t prevent long-term projects. In the economic realm as well as in foreign policy, we must try to set a number of cooperation projects in stone. Actually, even prior to the recovery plan, we launched the defence-industrial cooperation, the Future Air Combat System (FCAS) and the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS). It was not easy and there will be other hardships, despite the moment of confidence we are currently experiencing. We have a few months ahead of us to make these projects a reality in an irreversible way, to launch a certain number of large joint projects and above all, to redefine the future of our relations with two major partners. I am thinking of the United Kingdom and the United States : while we have disagreements with both these countries, we are not worlds apart. We have seventy years of historical, political and psychological backdrop to build on. In France, we tend to have this exclusive and autonomous relationship to power. Sometimes, we overestimate our strengths : it is part of our national myth. We ought to find common ground, use the milestones that have been achieved in the realms of security and defense, such as the creation of a European defence fund, or greater involvement in international crises.
We should not expect the Americans to manage our relationship to security or the fight against terrorism in Africa. The struggle for influence in the eastern Mediterranean is not the United States’ problem either. We will solve these challenges together, among Europeans. Likewise, we will face the threat of cyber-attacks coming from our neighbors, first and foremost as Europeans. I do not believe that there will be a dramatic swing in policy when the new administration comes in in Berlin. I believe that Ms. Merkel herself has anchored a European « reflex » in Germany that will remain strong.
I don’t think that there will be a single venue, but we do have to invent a common forum. It might start with institutional steps, such as an annual EU-US transatlantic summit, which does not exist today. There is no summit that carries as much political resonance as the one we can have with China or other partners. Insofar as we did not envision this relationship as equals with the United States, we probably thought that the preferred venue was NATO.
It will also be necessary to achieve what we failed to set up with the Trump administration : a common agenda on China and on trade, which are two intertwined issues. Despite his method being rather more destructive than constructive, Mr. Trump’s desire to reform the WTO at least raised the right questions. Namely, that it has become necessary to redefine the rules of international trade and that we have probably been too obsessed with lowering customs barriers and not enough with rebuilding common rules on intellectual property and technology transfer, for instance. In some way, we have suddenly awoken to the impression that China and a few other countries have benefited from the system.
This is an example of what needs to be rebuilt with the United States, but there is currently no venue to undertake this reconstruction. That means we have to be imaginative in order to build a transatlantic dialogue that will allow us to maintain this momentum beyond occasional diplomatic meetings. A great amount of tools for cooperation have been developed in the post-war transatlantic relation : think tanks, for instance, or much-disparaged summits. We need common forums for reflection and cooperation. There is an urge for shared fora for reflection and cooperation. On climate change, for instance, we have yet to tackle the question of how to tie the United States into the Paris Agreement on the long term. I do not yet have the answers to these issues, but it is without a doubt the relationship that we have to reinvent the most. Europe, and more particularly the Franco-German partnership, must therefore focus their efforts on this reconstruction.
We will have the exact same challenge regarding Brexit, because the United Kingdom is leaving a club of daily discussion and far-reaching exchange that goes well beyond the economic field. And so we absolutely must create common forums for exchange, both transatlantic and cross-Channel. This will be one of the major challenges of the French presidency of the Council of the EU in 2022.
That is very true. For various reasons, which may be contradictory but do nevertheless accumulate, there has never been a European cultural ambition. We have remained at the anecdotal level – I don’t say this by way of criticism – with small, very focused projects that nevertheless fit into a much larger overall project. Erasmus is systematically cited ; it is certainly a wonderful project, but it accounts for only 5 percent of European students, which is far from concerning all European young people.
So there have been anecdotal initiatives on the one hand and, on the other hand, some anxiety that by encouraging exchanges and mobility, we would risk creating a big, scary cultural melting pot, a super culture with all the tacit pitfalls that this implies, namely the imperialism of a single culture or the disappearance of national and local identities. In other words, we have ended up with a « light culture » which includes some common traits that are, however, more Western and globalised than specifically European. On this subject, the hard left and the hard right, the hyper-internationalists and hyper-nationalists have come together to reject the idea of a European culture.
Personally, I prefer to speak of a common European identity. Insofar as identity is linked to the state, some will tell you that to speak of a common European identity is indicative of a federalist point of view, likely to lead to a super-state (with a single culture, state, and economy). The notion of a super-state is particularly frightening to France, where national identity and the state largely overlap. Yet I remain convinced that any sustainable political community needs a common identity.
Furthermore, this European identity is already real in many ways. You can see it in the sheer number of great European cultural geniuses and political leaders, who, while being very different from one another, share many common traits. Erasmus is often mentioned, but the interaction of European arts is not limited to him alone. A Flemish painter inspired Italian painting, which fostered the French Renaissance, and so forth. Whether through war or cooperation, Europe has always been – as Steiner expressed very well – a melting pot of encounters. European culture preceded the creation of the ECSC. Acknowledging our European identity is simply a statement of fact ; it doesn’t mean that we want to erase local or national subtleties – to the contrary, Europe has always been an articulation of different scales, from the smallest to the largest. The Italian renaissance, which fed the whole of Europe, was not born from a unified Italy – which did not exist then – but from a few cities (Florence or Rome at the time) whose influence spread out over the whole continent. Amsterdam was also a form of European capital, through banking and trade… Venice, too, in a similar way.
Paradoxically, it was the creation of a stratum of European institutions that erased the idea of a common culture. This institutional stratum can never be the bond that we need :. as Jacques Delors said, « one cannot fall in love with a market », just as one cannot fall in love with the European Commission or with a constitutional court. A common culture is the consequence of a sense of common belonging. That is why the quote often attributed to Jean Monnet – « if I had to do it all over again, I would start with culture » – is apocryphal. As if a founding father could invent European culture. George Steiner provides a thorough demonstration of this notion of a European cultural cement when he writes about the café culture, an institution that is home to lovers’ quarrels, political plots, and friendly get-togethers alike. We have European cultural elements that we must accept, rather than seek to dilute, superimpose, or deny them. We have to bring them to the forefront. Putting faces on banknotes, developing Erasmus, or creating common film production studios : all of these are neither anecdotal, nor a super-construction designed by super-technocrats. They are the recognition of a legacy that should be as obvious to any European head of state as it was to Francis I of France.
There is undoubtedly a need for some form of recognition or verbalisation by European institutions or by some European leaders. One of the initiatives – still embryonic – launched at the beginning of Emmanuel Macron’s term, is the circulation of art works. Fortunately, this already exists (Botticelli’s Venus is shared heritage), but the circulation and exchange of artworks through Europe must be institutionalised. There is no single set of instructions for these initiatives. The idea for the Erasmus program came from a few European ministers who got together, after which European institutions provided funding and further developed the initiative. The Fête de la musique, to take another deeply cultural example, was launched by a French Minister of Culture and is now celebrated by several European countries. The same is true of the Heritage Days or the Culture Pass, which originated in Italy. No one owns European culture. It is regrettable that we feel as though we are recreating European culture and that we feel the need to justify our desire to do so, even though this culture preexists the European political project. Those who built cathedrals did not wonder whether they were European, nor did they necessarily claim to be, yet they were.
To deny or fear the importance of this common belonging, as if it were a superficial veneer or a denial of national and local identities, is a mistake that could lead to the destruction of European identity. Personally, I have no problem with the words « sovereignty », « identity », and « borders », which do not imply the creation of a European superstate. Firstly, these words and ideas are, quite simply, the condition for the survival of the European project. Secondly, they merely acknowledge the existence of a European cultural cradle which did not spontaneously appear in 1950 but has been in the making since Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire through conquests, domination, and, nowadays, a somewhat miraculous form of peaceful cooperation.
I don’t believe in the opposition between past and future. Europe is not a technocratic fantasy. Europe was created as a democratic and liberal political framework, with a pre-existing cultural infrastructure, which does not lock us into the past, even though this relationship to the past is constitutive of European identity. This is a notable difference from the Americans, who are obsessed with tomorrow. Europeans, on the other hand, live with an obsession for yesterday. It is necessary to live with this relationship to the past.
As things stand, for instance, Macedonia and Bulgaria can’t agree on the origin of the Macedonian community. We are obsessed with history, yet this should not be synonymous with refusing the future. Europe has always been a mixture of pride and anguish toward the past. There is no reason why Europe should be a « museum continent » – enjoying Stendhal or contemplating Canaletto should not prevent us from being the best in the world in the space industry or with regards to the development of 5G, new climate technologies, etc. If our relationship with the past prevents us from looking to the future, however, European success will be greatly compromised.
The case of Viktor Orban is also interesting ; he has developed a conservative ideology by capturing two elements that make up his political strength : fear of decline and the relationship with History. But we can use our past glory as well as our fear of (mostly demographic) decline as part of a project for the future. I personally consider that a European demographic policy is desirable and not absurd. The European budget could indeed fund family allowances. It is a project of common interest for decades to come. Many Europeans are anxious about demographic decline. We see it in Italy, where demography is a determining factor with regards to migration. We see it in Hungary and Eastern European countries where up to a quarter or a third of young people have sometimes left the country, often for other European countries such as Germany. This relationship to population and culture is very strong. Let us accept that there is a European identity, let us accept the risk of a European decline, but let us make sure that it’s not fatal nor unbearable, in order to look to the future and create common industrial, climate, and demographic policies. Finger-pointing at certain Eastern European countries or contemplating the past with nostalgia and pride will not strengthen the European project.
There is a logic that is almost similar to that of the founders, who built the European project upon experiments. I don’t think we will wake up tomorrow morning with a European Council that is capable of covering all issues and defining a roadmap for the next five years. We have to be pragmatic. There will always be differences, but we have to define lines of action, instruments of power, and priorities based on the common concerns of Europeans. I have never taken much of an interest in the debate surrounding the name of our union : federation, confederation, community of states… Europe is atypical, but we must not try to reduce it to an existing category, we must accept a form of anomaly or long-term singularity. Let us not waste time trying to find a systematic framework or a “Protected Designation of Origin” for this project.
I am a great believer in differentiation, which goes hand in hand with the notion of policy experimentation. Take the recent example of terrorist attacks in France and Austria : the two countries have, perforce, set a common agenda and are driving others forward through emotion, awareness, and the will to act. Taking small steps is not a sign of weakness. Europe is a peculiar and unique project, without a recipe and without precedent. Clubs, formats, initiatives and various forums must coexist within a global framework. Leadership is also a matter of specific initiatives. Starting with initiatives from a limited number of States, the Commission then makes it possible to extend these frameworks to all Member States. There are many initiatives that confirm this system of operation, the European Arrest Warrant, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, Schengen, the Euro, European universities.
« Looking for a single telephone number, » to use a historical metaphor, is a futile quest. There will be no single number, there will be no President of Europe, not for the moment anyway. When we seek to fill this power vacuum with an institutional response, the problem of leadership is never solved ; hence the need not to drain ourselves out with this kind of effort. On the contrary, isolated attempts of the “spontaneous generation” variety, which foster leadership and launch fruitful initiatives should be encouraged, because it is through such probes that Europe solidifies, stabilises and gains structure, rather than through a single forum. On the other hand, there is a common base, common foundations that must be preserved and maintained because this is the starting point for differentiation. Differentiation can only exist when we stand firmly on our feet. In ten years’ time, the currency may be part of this common base for the Twenty-Seven. Borders, institutions, this sense of belonging, this desire for power : we must have all these things in common.
There is no political offer because many have reasoned statically, convinced that this demand did not exist, and that one could not foster an understanding or taste for Europe. However, there is a European cultural and identity substratum that does exist, as the French president showed when he addressed the hearts of Europeans, when he used symbols such as the Ode to Joy or the European flag. I think that the European sense of belonging is much stronger than we think, and we would be mistaken to deny it or to lock it up within an institutional format.
There are several European formats : a Europe of regions, a Europe of cities… During the crisis, for example, politicians in the Grand Est region of France insisted on the trauma brought about by the closure of the border with Germany. For them, reinstating police control between the two countries was painful. At the same time, there is tremendous gratitude towards Germany for welcoming French patients. This crisis has made us very sensitive to the notion of a multiform and multifaceted Europe which doesn’t limit itself to the German Kanzleramt, the Elysée in France or the Berlaymont in Brussels. This kaleidoscopic Europe brings to mind the deeper meaning of European culture : « united in diversity », this permanent combination of difference and togetherness, whether in Belgium or Italy, to which cultural overlays have been added, somewhat sporadically, ever since Charlemagne. We have to play all these cards at the same time.
Erasmus, the Conference of the Mayors of the Capitals of Europe, the Visegrád Group, the Club of Mediterranean Countries, sister cities and schools… All of this is Europe. All of this brings pieces of Europe into people’s private lives. The College of Europe, among other things, is merely the recognition and extension of a millennial work, with the significant difference that it is now a fundamentally peaceful and democratic process. We must nurture this asset.