Whichever candidate wins Sunday’s French presidential vote, Paris has work to do to patch up EU relations; but as a champion for a re-balanced politics of growth around Europe, Francois Hollande would be doing so from a position of strength.
That is the view of leading European Union analyst Janis Emmanouilidis, who sees the political debate having changed right across the eurozone and the EU.
“Angela Merkel is also under pressure, and the government in Germany will also look different after 2013,” Emmanouilidis told AFP after a showcase TV debate against President Nicolas Sarkozy that most commentators agreed strengthened Socialist Hollande’s credentials for power.
“Assuming he completes his victory, Hollande will come into his first talks with Chancellor Merkel in a stronger position, leading efforts supported by a number of countries to re-balance the EU ‘recipe’,” the expert underlined.
The ‘ABC’ of fiscal rigor will remain at the core, he said, but an ‘XYZ’ of policies and investment designed to unlock growth must now be grafted on as well.
While the influential London-based ‘Economist’ magazine has warned readers to fear “the rather dangerous Monsieur Hollande,” academics and the wider media acknowledge Europe is at a crossroads, with opposition to austerity gaining in strength across the continent.
Countries are engaged in a necessary search to adjust the post-WWII business model of national economies as they relate to a fast-changing outside world -- crucially, without undermining the social welfare state.
And in the run-up to the next scheduled summit of EU leaders at the end of June, Hollande now claims “a strong mandate” to shape a new ‘growth compact’ seen as necessary in many quarters to “correct” an over-emphasis on austerity that culminated in a treaty on fiscal rectitude still to be ratified.
At the heart of this change of direction, experts expect an increase in funding for the European Investment Bank, although more than that will be needed to convince the markets that the pain can also lead to gain.
However, “Merkel is already adapting to a new political landscape -- making different noises, showing she is preparing to accept certain mistakes were made... and accept the need to re-balance the overall policy approach.”
Securing the key change on the road to re-booting Europe’s economy may involve sacrifices in other areas during negotiations with European partners, of course.
“There will be a price to pay for France with the EU after this election,” Jean-Dominique Giuliani of the Schuman Foundation, another influential Brussels-based political analyst, told AFP.
Throughout the campaign, both prospective French leaders “did not speak positively of Europe, only in negative terms and that will not be without consequences after the vote,” he said.
“We have seen President Nicolas Sarkozy threaten to take France out of the Schengen passport-free travel area, and also issue threats regarding Europe’s trade policy.”
With Hollande’s treaty-change demand, “picking up the pieces barely begins to describe what’s required,” he said.
The work behind the scenes is already at a high pitch, according to diplomats from other countries in Brussels and in Paris.
“We see the Socialists nearly every day,” said one Western diplomat. “We are not worried about the positions of president Hollande.”
Merkel obtained the upper hand over Sarkozy during his mandate -- their dealmaking machine creating widespread “irritation” around EU capitals -- but Brussels specialists feel a new equilibrium in this power couple offers a chance of a new start.
“The Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, has already had the effect of reining in Merkel’s previous excesses,” said another diplomat, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
“A new face across the table will only cement that process,” he added.