France vs the EU: Bitter war of words escalates

An increasingly bitter slanging match between the members of the French government and EU chiefs escalated on Monday as EU Commission José Manuel Barroso compared France's socialist leaders to the far right for using Europe as a 'scapegoat' for its problems.

France vs the EU: Bitter war of words escalates
Jose Manuel Barroso appears in this photo montage to be aiming a slap in the direction of French minister Arnaud Montebourg. Photo: John Thys/Pierre Andrieu/AFP

Just days ahead of a key European summit an increasingly bitter spat between EU chiefs and France appeared to be spiraling out of control on Monday.

In the latest barb that will no doubt hurt members of the Socialist government European Commission chief José Manuel Barroso denounced 'leftist chauvinists' comparing them to the far-right and also accused France of using Europe as a "scapegoat" for troubles at home.

"It would be good if some politicians understood that they will not get very far by attacking Europe and trying to turn it into a scapegoat for their problems," Barroso said.

"Some left-wing nationalists have exactly the same views as the far right," he said in a scathing riposte to comments by French Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg who had earlier accused Barroso of fuelling the rise of the far right.

Europe is "paralyzed," Montebourg told France Inter radio earlier the day.

"It does not respond to any aspirations of the people on the industrial front, on the economic front, on the budget front, and in the end that plays into the hands of all the … anti-Europe parties in the EU," he said.

Despite the slanging match, Thomas Klau from the European Centre for Foreign Relations (ECFR) told The Local the spat was "more a war of words than substance" between the pair.

"What we can see in this latest exchange is two politicians who are short on moderation and principle and long on making opportunistic statements to make headlines and fuel public debate," Klau said.

Economist Christophe Blot from the French Economic Observatory also told The Local that the row was a "calculated political strategy" to serve their own purposes.

But Barroso is not alone against the French government. Lining up alongside him in Europe's corner is Frenchman and European Commissioner Michel Barnier, who is at the end of his tether with his compatriots.

"I've had it up to here with this and I say that with a degree of anger," Barnier said on Monday.

"I've had enough of hearing ministers in my country, politicians from left and right, saying that it is all somebody else's fault."

The recent war of words has its roots in France's bid to protect the European film and television industry from Hollywood dominance by stalling free-trade talks with the United States after which Barroso fanned the flames when he slammed France's stance as "reactionary".

French President François Hollande said he simply did not believe that Barroso could have made the comment while his Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti said the remarks were "absolutely lamentable".

Row escalates into debate on Europe

The argument, however, has since developed from a debate over the French film industry into a fiery discussion on the whole European Union project.

In response to Barroso's latest jibe, French Housing Minister Cécile Duflot took to the airwaves telling France Inter radio station that she now regarded Brussels as little more than "a form of police service that watches nations from a height, and which doesn't build for the future".

The rift between France and the EU in general, and Barroso and French government ministers in particular, has been simmering for weeks, however.

France falling out of love with EU

In May, Barroso irked many in France when he accused Europe’s second-biggest economy of “spitting in the wind” with its “anti-globalization stance.”

Klau says the theory doing the rounds in European circles is that Barroso is attacking France in order to garner US support for a future bid to earn a top job at NATO or the UN when his EU mandate comes to an end.

"It's a tongue in cheek conspiracy theory but there is a lot of suspicion that this is the rationale for Barroso's words," Klau said.

Earlier that month, a survey by the Pew Research Centre concluded that the mood of the French public towards Europe had drastically worsened in recent years.

“No European country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France. In just the past year, the public mood has soured dramatically across the board,” Pew Research's study concluded.

For some experts, however, the negative attitude among the French towards Europe was not a big surprise.

"The French attitude towards the EU has been heading this way for the last ten years. They have been under pressure to follow a German economic model that they don't want to imitate," Ulrike Guerot, from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told The Local at the time.

"France is a special country in terms of culture and traditions. Other European countries have adapted more quickly to globalization whereas France is still battling to keep its social and economic culture,” Guerot added.

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The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.