The candidates' European problem
François Hollande gave a big speech in Paris today aimed at countering accusations his foreign policy is weak and anti-European. The right wing UMP have jumped on his plans to renegotiate the recent European budget treaty - the one that ties states into strict spending limits - as evidence his foreign policy is naive and he won't be able to work with fellow European leaders, a fear that gained traction after rumours published in der Spiegel that the continent's right wing leaders had agreed not to meet him during the election campaign. Members of his socialist party have also been accused of being anti-German after they complained Angela Merkel's government was imposing its will on the rest of Europe, so he was under pressure to prove he and his party are international and outward-looking.
He rolled out the biggest names he could find in left-wing Europe - Italian Democrat Party leader PierLuigi Bersani, German SDP leader Sigmar Gabriel, the president of the European Parliament - tellingly not a very stellar list, which reflects how much most of the European left currently finds itself in the doldrums. They've failed to capitalise on the economic crisis, allowing their conservative opponents to impose the narrative that austerity is the only way, and François Hollande is their great hope; the man who just might win an election, renegotiate the treaty, and pull France out of economic crisis with a policy based on growth rather than cuts. The German and Italian leaders were here to support him, but also because they desperately hope he'll prove it can be done, and thus provide an example they can copy; Mario Monti's caretaker government is due to hold election by the end of 2013, Germany in October next year. For that reason, Hollande had a lot to say about European solidarity, about creating a union based on hope rather than markets. He also took some pretty strong swipes at the neoliberal policies he says caused the current crisis by allowing irresponsible financiers to do whatever they like; they will play well with the 60% (in some opinion polls) of the French who think Paris has handed too much control over its budget to Brussels, but might be a little too much for some of his European allies, especially the German SPD, who've made it clear some of his more radical plans, like a 75% tax on millionaires, won't be making their way into their programme.
Angela Merkel et al can't have been very reassured either by a speech high on leftwing rhetoric and low on concrete detail; and therein lies Hollande's European problem. If elected, not only would he be almost Europe's only leader on the left, but would have to get to work with his ideological opposites straight away on a series of key dossiers currently on ice until election day - including reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the EU budget for the next six years. He's also tied in to a 4.5% deficit cut this year and 3% the next, which his policies can only fulfil if optimistic growth predictions come true, and the European Commission can insist on further cuts if he fails.
He's not the only candidate treading a fine line on Europe - after become synonymous with a certain kind of European unity in 'Merkozy', the incumbent last week promised to renegotiate the Schengen treaty and pass a 'Buy European Act' imposing protectionist trade measures, saying he would act unilaterally if Europe does nothing within a year. That reportedly sparked a lot of worries about dangerously anti-European populism in Brussels, with Herman van Rompuy heard to remark in Paris on Tuesday that the French won't have a positive image of the union as long as their leaders don't seem to believe in it. After this, Hollande is more able to paint himself as the pro-European candidate, but what his European counterparts want is hard to square with what his increasingly Eurosceptic electorate want to hear. Today was his attempt to circle that square - set out a blueprint for a united, progressive Europe - but the kindest judgement one can make is that it's a pretty blurry blueprint.