The rejection by the European Parliament of Slyvie Goulard as French commissioner showed that ‘it’s France’ is not a sufficient excuse for special treatment.
On October 10th, the European Parliament rejected Sylvie Goulard’s candidacy as commissioner for the internal market, industry, defence, space, digital and culture. This is the first time in the history of the European Union that a French candidate commissioner has been refused. The episode will likely remain a landmark in European politics.
It was Goulard’s probity that was questioned by the MEPs who auditioned her. She is the subject of two investigations, one in France, the other by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), for having parliamentary assistants in the European Parliament working for the benefit of the centrist French party MoDem—a prohibited practice. She is also blamed for having been heavily remunerated (€350,000 in less than two years) by a United States think tank, the Berggruen Institute, from 2013 to 2015, while she was serving as an MEP.
Although the contours of legality are sometimes unclear in this type of case, the nature of the known facts was sufficient to place at issue not only the responsibility of Goulard in this regard but also the overall probity expected from a European decision-maker nominated to manage a broad and significant portfolio.
The motivation behind this vote may well not be entirely attributable to the democratic virtue of the actors involved, with perhaps a share of political manoeuvring tinged with revenge. The episode is nonetheless good news for European political practice in at least three respects.
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First, it would be hypocritical to vilify Marine Le Pen unanimously—and have her sanctioned for the fictitious jobs of her then Front National assistants in the European Parliament—on the one hand, and on the other to approve as commissioner someone who has been guilty of the same offence (Goulard has reimbursed the sums involved) because she is known as a warm Europhile.
Secondly, the European political arena has for too long been the backyard of national domains, populated mainly by those playing second fiddle with little prospect of being elected at the national (or regional) level—the ‘has been’ willing to end their career smoothly, or anyone due to be thanked by some powerful persona for their services. How could it be justified that Goulard was not sufficiently ‘clean’ to be part of a French government—she had to quickly resign as minister of defence in 2017 over the EP jobs issue—yet was acceptable as a European commissioner?
Thirdly, a democratically elected institution cannot be taken seriously if it assesses the probity of political personnel by reference to their orientation. The candidate commissioners of Romania (Rovana Plumb) and Hungary (László Trócsányi) were immediately disqualified for alleged conflicts of interest. Given the bad relations of the Romanian and Hungarian governments with the European institutions, which consider them guilty of violating rule-of-law principles, not to rebuff the French candidate in this context would have been an admission of bad faith.
The declaration by the outgoing commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, in 2016 that France cannot be punished for its budget deficit ‘because it’s France’ has done a lot of damage to the union, giving the impression that it works as a system of asymmetrical sovereignty in which the large states benefit from privileges.
The rejection of Goulard is undoubtedly a political defeat for the French president, Emmanuel Macron. Since the beginning of his term, he has endeavoured to assert leadership on the European political scene, initially by proposing a relatively ambitious agenda of reforms largely blocked by the German partner and its allies.
At present, he alone could precipitate a ‘Brexit’ without agreement if he vetoed a new request to extend the deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the EU. With the British on the way out and Angela Merkel approaching the end of her career as German chancellor, the French president seeks to profile himself as a white knight—the unchallenged leader of a democratic and progressive Europe, fighting Eurosceptics and autocrats of all kinds.
But behind his speeches and posturing, Macron is also a strategist. He was actively involved in the political sequence of the European elections, seeking to replicate the way in which he blasted the two big left and right government parties in France, as he steered the creation of ‘Renew Europe’ in the parliament (absorbing the former liberal group). He even exerted much pressure to dismiss the Spitzenkandidaten procedure for the appointment of commission president.
Macron’s aggressive voluntarism, even if adorned with pro-European virtue, eventually grew wearisome and some in the parliament were fed up with swallowing bitter pills. Most political groups (from the greens to the social democrats and the conservatives of the European People’s Party) do not intend that their rights be dictated to them.
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After the fiasco of Nathalie Loiseau’s attempt to assume the leadership of Renew Europe, Goulard is the second ally of the French president to have been ruthlessly put out of play.
If Macron reigns over France, especially due to a lack of strong opponents, he has endured a political lesson: the European Union is not a ‘big France’. In Brussels, no single actor, not even the French president, can rule over everybody else, in defiance of certain principles such as fairness, probity and respect of each institution’s prerogatives.
This time, France was sanctioned—even if ‘it’s France’.
Amandine Crespy is associate professor in political science and European studies at the Université libre de Bruxelles and vice-director of its Centre d'études de la vie politique (Cevipol). She is author most recently of The European Social Question: Tackling Key Controversies (Agenda).