Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement on Wednesday that, if elected president of France in May 2017, he would give Britain a chance to reverse the Brexit vote, has raised eyebrows across the European Union. Can such a decision, democratically taken by the people of a sovereign member state of the EU, be overlooked? What's in it for Sarkozy?
The right-wing politician was speaking to 500 business leaders at the 'Primaires de l'Économie', in Paris. A forum organised by five associations of start-ups, investors and business leaders, where five other candidates to the primaries of the right-wing party Les Républicains were also invited to pitch for 12 minutes each about their economic, tax and social plans, before facing a Q&A. The former president, who only used three minutes of the twelve allocated, explained that his big plan to save the European Union was to negotiate a new treaty with Germany that could persuade Great Britain not to leave.
Nicolas Sarkozy at the 'Primaires de l'Économie', in Paris, 27 September 2016. (Credit Twitter © ChefDentreprise.com)
Excusez-moi? (I beg your pardon?) How dare a French politician, a candidate for the French presidency, tell us Brits that we should not leave the European Union when a majority of us voted to very Leave? Shocking! Tea?
Well. The offer is interesting, to say the least. If Prime Minister Theresa May was seeking a way out of the EU referendum result, a way to get out of the Brexit trap, a way to keep Britain in, she may have just found one with Nicolas Sarkozy's offer.
What Sarkozy is showing is a long-term vision of what a modern and refreshed European Union could look like. Sure, it is HIS vision only, but so far no other European leader or politician has come with anything new to offer to make the EU work. In the contrary, all the discussions and speeches from all sides of the political spectrum have been full of the same old rhetoric: "We must change the EU", "We must reform the EU", "We need a new project", "Brexit must be a wake-up call for us all", etc. The only alternative voices and comments we have heard since the EU referendum result have come from nationalists and far-right political parties across Europe, the likes of Nigel Farage, UKIP and Marine Le Pen, claiming victory and wishing for only one thing: The end of the European Union as soon as possible.
If three months after the British EU referendum result "Brexit means Brexit" still means nothing today in London, it is regrettable to see that Brexit means "same old Europe" in the 27 other European capitals. No one has come with a plan to move the EU forward. No one, but Nicolas Sarkozy.
THE LONG JOURNEY.
During the Summer, the former president himself seems to have been on a long journey to elaborate his own vision of what the EU without, or with, Britain should look like. A few hours after the Brexit result, for example, he gave an interview to the French weekly Journal du Dimanche in which he explained how he had expected the Brexit win because of the general "lack of (European) common strategies for growth and employment, the lack of Schengen reforms and the lack of answers on immigration policies", before adding: "If I were president, I would offer Germany to create a five-point project to submit to the other European leaders with no intervention from the Brussels' technocracy". He then later talked about Hollande and Merkel's inability to deal with Brexit and how the British government would take all its time to leave the EU. "Expect 10 horrible months until the French election," he even said at a weekly gathering of his party's MPs. He also talked about Brexit as "a great economic opportunity", a great time to steal the spotlight from the British. He said that it was time "to make Paris the start-ups hub", i.e. instead of London.
Then came Wednesday's announcement to the business leaders: The day after the Presidential result is announced in May, IF elected, he would fly to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to work with her on a draft of a new EU treaty, and the following day he would travel to London. Sarkozy is then reported by the Financial Times as saying: "I would tell the British, you've gone out, but we have a new treaty on the table so you have an opportunity to vote again. But this time not on the old Europe, on the new Europe. Do you want to stay? If yes, so much the better. Because I can't accept to lose Europe's second-largest economy while we are negotiating with Turkey over its EU membership. And if it's no, then it's a real no. You're in or you're out."
The new treaty would mean that the European Union would be:
- Reforming the Schengen passport-free movement zone;
- Restricting the European Commission's privileges;
- Integrating the Eurozone further;
- Stopping the EU membership talks with Turkey.
The very fact that Nicolas Sarkozy has come with a plan - a rare thing for politicians nowadays, it seems (sic) - that would modernise and make the European Union more relevant and that could also accommodate Britain to the point it could eventually decide to stay in the EU is an important occurrence. Again, he is the first and only major European figure to have come with a plan!
WHAT'S IN IT FOR SARKOZY?
Threatened by endless scandals in France, the release of a controversial book by one of his former advisors and more recently by newly uncovered documents allegedly showing that he received 6.5 million euros from former Libyan leader Gadhafi to finance his campaign for the presidency in 2007, would Nicolas Sarkozy be using the EU and Brexit as a diversion? Very unlikely. The announcement would certainly not have had any major effect on his campaign.
By somehow 'informally' mentioning the Brexit situation to an audience of entrepreneurs rather than publicly, Nicolas Sarkozy is not really trying to appeal to the French voters - although he would probably need to as his rival, former prime minister and current Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé, looks set to achieve an easy victory in the Républicains primaries, according to a Kantar-Sofrès-One Point poll for RTL/Le Figaro/LCI organised on the last week of September 2016. The figures put Alain Juppé at 39 per cent of the vote, with Nicolas Sarkozy losing ground at 33 per cent.
Sarkozy's vision for the EU has nearly been unreported in the French media. There is a reason for that: The French are far less interested in the British exit from the EU than in the issues of immigration, the fight against terrorism or the recent increase of the unemployment rate.
While it certainly is a flop in France, it is not so abroad, especially in Britain, where the news was first reported by the Financial Times. One could then accuse Sarkozy of trying to woo the French expats in Britain, who mostly voted for Francois Hollande in 2012 (53 per cent of the vote). They rightly are worried about the Brexit situation in which the British Government seems to be prepared to use them and all the other EU citizens living in the UK as a bargaining chip during the Brexit trade negotiations.
The vote of the French expats should not be left unnoticed as they could be the kingmakers when comes the May 2017 election. It is therefore likely a part of Sarkozy's thinking to indirectly tell them: 'I'm thinking of you. I want to help you. I will secure your stay in the UK. Vote for me!'
REMEMBER FRANCE 2005 AND IRELAND 2008.
It might also be interesting, this time, to look beyond the man's usual populist claims and promises. Indeed, in 2005, when 55 per cent of French voters rejected the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe via a referendum decided by the then President Jacques Chirac, the whole of Europe thought it was going to be the end of the EU. Then, in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy became president with a pledge to renegotiate and ratify a new treaty without the need for a referendum. The treaty was to be known as the Treaty of Lisbon, which still governs the way the EU works today. In February 2008, the treaty was voted by the Parliament and ratified.
In Ireland, however, a referendum took place in June 2008 and 53.4 per cent of the voters chose to reject the new treaty. After 16 months of work and negotiations with the rest of the EU countries, Ireland held a second referendum on the same treaty and finally 67.1 per cent of the voters accepted it.
It is worth reflecting on the possibility that, as for the French and Irish referendums just mentioned, if Nicolas Sarkozy is to become president in 2017 and creates a new treaty that could satisfy the British government enough that it would decide to hold a new referendum to decide on whether Britain would remain in the new EU or leave for good and if the British people are convinced that this new treaty would benefit the UK, Brexit would just not happen at all.
POLITICS FICTION OR SCIENCE FICTION?
Nicolas Sarkozy would be hailed a hero across Europe for saving the EU28, a strategic genius. The power of decision in the new EU would not be the usual French-German couple any longer, but a French-British-German trio. Theresa May would be regarded as the woman who saved the honour of Britain in face of an expected Brexit chaos and would easily win the General Elections in 2020 with a large majority in the House of Commons.
One day, in maybe two decades from now, Nicolas Sarkozy would run for president of Europe with the treaty that kept the EU28 together in his pocket and win - thus fulfilling his father's impossible dream of having a son president of the United States of America. (read "The Inexorable Rise of Populism in France")
Well. All this is pure politics fiction anyway. For any of the above to have a chance to happen, the former French president first needs to win his party's primaries. And according to the latest polls, Nicolas Sarkozy becoming President of France in 2017 currently looks less like reality and more like science fiction.
(Originally published in 'Politics Means Politics', J.N. PAQUET's weekly political column at Byline.com, on September 29, 2016.)