Disobedience, a key to unlocking Europe

By Gaël De Santis

If it obtains a parliamentary majority, the New Popular, Ecological and Social Union (NUPES) intends to break with certain European rules. It is a strategy that aims to transform the EU from top to bottom to get out of the dogma of competition and austerity.

In the flood of attacks on the left since it reunited for the June legislative elections, European question is at the top of the wave. It is the favorite subject of the detractors of the New People’s ecological and social Union (Nupes). A “collateral victim”, according to Daniel Cohn-Bendit and José Bové. An “escape forward”, according to the former socialist minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. And even, as Macronist minister Clément Beaune puts it, to talk about European disobedience is “a sign of unwillingness to govern”. 

Beyond the fantasies of its opponents, if the left wins on the evening of June 19, what will the relations between the European Union and France be like? Will they look like hitting an iron pot against a pot of clay, or rather like an arm wrestling match? The NUPES leans towards the second option, as some of its proposals fit very poorly into the European framework, established by the Treaty on European Union and the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. National laws and decisions are supposed to respect EU law. If they do not, a state may be subject to sanctions. In December 2021, the European Commission sent to states 101 letters of formal notice, reasoned opinions or other referrals to the Court of Justice in the context of infringement proceedings.

If the left comes to power, it will be faced with this dilemma. To bend or to disobey? 

“Our compass is the implementation of our program,” warns Manon Aubry, co-chair of the Left group in the European Parliament. “We have put all our proposals through the prism of European rules, to identify the blockages and have a strategy to remove them. This means being prepared not to apply certain European rules,” explains the deputy of the France insoumise, contacted by l’Humanité.

This approach has not been entirely approved by all the left-wing forces, neither during the presidential campaign, nor at the very beginning of the negotiations for unity before the legislative elections. The Socialist Party (PS) or Europe Écologie-les Verts (EELV), are less supportive of such a policy of rupture.

“To put an end to liberal and productivist course of the EU”

The right-wing is taking advantage of this to cry foul of what would be a “betrayal” of European ideals. Thus, François Bayrou, president of the Modem, said at the beginning of May at the microphone of France Inter: “Behind all this is the idea that France could get out of the EU. This was their project, moreover, five years ago. In fact, during the last presidential election, the France insoumise proposed an exit from the EU in case the other European countries refused to renegotiate the treaties. If you decided that a country as important as France would not respect the rules, that would mean France’s exit and the end of Europe. Look at the other countries – how do you want them to accept that one of the members of our agreement, of our European organization (…) can abstain, to distance itself, to refuse the decisions that we have taken together?”

Here is the left now portrayed as a supporter of a Frexit. However, Manon Aubry reminds us that “the new approach” of the France insoumise “has been drafted so that all the parties can agree to it”. 

And so Socialists and Greens have marked out the ground: there will be no exit from the EU. The agreement with EELV, signed on May 3, stipulates that “France cannot have a policy aimed at exit from the Union, nor its disintegration, nor the end of the single currency”. Moreover, disobedience to the rules “can only be done in the respect of the rule of law”, an assertion that avoids giving arguments to the reactionary drifts underway in Hungary and Poland. The same precautions are taken on May 4 between France insoumise, “heir to the left-wing NO to the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005”, and the Socialist Party, “attached to the European construction”. The common objective is “to put an end to the liberal and productivist course of the European Union”. In the final project, we read:  “what makes our common base: the will to remain in the European Union and also the will to make its rules evolve”, notes the first secretary of the PS, Olivier Faure. A compromise has been found: “Because of our histories, some of us talk about disobeying, while the others prefer <<derogating in a transitional manner>>, to respect he mandate given to us by the French people”. The agreement insists on the need to derogate to certain rules “by working to transform them”.

“We are interdependent; the central idea is that we need a different Europe. If the left comes to power in France, it is already an element of the balance of power,” summarizes former Communist MEP Francis Wurtz.

“To reconstruct a more citizen, more solidary Europe”

On the side of Europe Écologie-les Verts (EELV), we note the attacks of a conversion to anti-European the right to anti-Europeanism. They reject them, saying that the demands written in their programme “are explicit. We state very clearly that there is no question of having Europe as it is now or of rejecting it entirely”, underlines Michèle Rivasi, co-president of the EELV delegation in the European Parliament. “What we want is to rebuild a Europe that is more credible, we are waiting for a Europe that is more citizen-oriented, more supportive. We need to be able to criticize the current Europe in order to build it better” she says, refusing the binary vision according to which “criticism develops Euroscepticism”. At EELV, “we can see that it is in the European dimension that we can change things. But we must not imagine that we happy with Europe as it is, with the free trade agreements that promote deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of biodiversity”.

For the EELV MEP, “to change the rules, we need several countries acting together”. She also notes that countries like Austria and Luxembourg expressed a will to question, in European courts, the European taxonomy – which classifies gas and nuclear energy as transitional energy – and that they are now being followed by Germany. “There is disobedience in the EU”, she says, giving this example.

What are these contentious EU rules? “The right to competition is one of the foundations of the EU.This is a problem for public procurement, for example, if you want to give preference to local production in the supply of canteens”, Manon Aubry argues. This block of measures of EU measures makes state aid and nationalizations more difficult, while the return of the energy sector to public property is one of the programmatic demands of NUPES. 

Getting out of a productivist agriculture will also require opposition to the current common agricultural policy, the left-wing poilticians estimate. Indeed, 75% of the aid corresponds to “aid per hectare” mechanism. Making this support conditional could mean going against the big agriculture companies, with a possible confrontation in the European Court of Justice,” believes Michèle Rivasi. 

Another issue on which disobedience could be appropriate, according to Manon Aubry: “The trade and free trade aspect of European policies, which prevents the implementation of protectionism in solidarity”. However, notes the MP, these international agreements are adopted unanimously, which makes it possible to start a fight over them. Several solutions are on the table: safeguard clauses provided for in European law, negotiation with the commission of derogation on the existing texts or a unilateral disobedience. France could then cross swords with Brussels when certain European laws do not respect the international commitments of France and the Europeans in such matters as labor or climate, to ensure that the most demanding standard takes precedence.

“France does not respect the norms when it comes to air pollution”

In reality, contrary to the concerns of the right, the “disobedience”, or the use of force in negotiations are commonplace in Europe.

On 171 occasions between 1999 and 2018, the budgetary rules (3% of GDP public deficit, 60% of GDP public debt) were broken, without any sanction. Moreover, during the Covid crisis, it was the heads of state and government who chose not to respect the Maastricht criteria. As recently as Monday (23 May), the European Commission announced that the decision to suspend these rules, previously presented as immutable, would remain in force until 2023, due to the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine.

For years, Germany and the Netherlands have had trade surpluses of more than 6% of their GDP. This is, actually,  prohibited. Spain and Portugal said they wanted to freeze gas prices; the Commission has just accepted that they do that in breach of the rule. Germany has in the past obtained that public water is not subject to market rules. As for France, it does not respect the standards for air pollution.

The threat of disobedience is a way to move the lines, because it is all a question of the balance of power. It is this factor that is determining, even more in the situation when nobody really suggests leaving the EU. In 1983, François Mitterrand made the political choice of austerity, refusing to leave the “snake in a tunnel” monetary system or to lead the battle to change its rules. “Each time there is an obstacle to the social or ecological progress, it is necessary to fight, to seek allies” says Francis Wurtz, the former president of the European United Left in the European Parliament. 

Proclamation of the NUPES – New Popular Union, Ecological and Social. The united left-wing forces promise to fight battles for a more social Europe inside the European Council as well – if they have a chance to form a government in France.

The program, presented on May 19, announces a will to “fight battles inside the European Council”, in order to adopt the texts supporting social progress, appealing to a strengthened cooperation to move forward in the right direction – when it is not possible to do so with all 27 members. In addition, in order to get out of the budgetary and free-trade locks, the French left will advocate a “European convention for the revision and rewriting of the European treaties”. In order to win this arm wrestling match, citizens’ intervention will be decisive, everywhere in Europe.

This text, first published in L’Humanité, has been translated and republished by Cross-Border Talks thank to co-operation in the scope of the Media Alliance, led by transform!italia.

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