PARIS — Valéry Giscard d’Estaing wants to restart Europe — and move forward with fewer countries.
At 92, the former French president and a preeminent architect of the European Union moves and speaks more slowly than he used to. But he’s still trying to shape the future of the Continent.
“We created the European Economic Area under [former European Commission President] Jacques Delors, and the single currency under [former German Chancellor] Helmut Schmidt and myself,” he said.
“We should have continued, but we stopped,” he said. “We stopped halfway.”
Under Giscard’s presidency, France and Germany put in place the European monetary system that laid the ground for a single EU currency, and established the European Council, which is widely considered the most powerful institution in Brussels. It was also under Giscard’s tenure that members of the European Parliament were directly elected for the first time.
He later presided over the drafting of a constitution for the European Union, which was discarded after French voters rejected it in a 2005 referendum.
For Giscard, the EU’s last major step forward took place in 1992, with the Treaty of Maastricht, which laid the foundations for the euro and widely expanded cooperation between European countries. The lack of progress has left the Continent adrift in a world buffeted by ever more rapid change.
“At the time of the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht, China was not as important as it is today and the U.S. was very connected to Europe: We had a common trade policy,” he said. “Today all of this has changed; the world has changed but Europe has not moved forward.”
The bloc is now in a state of “profound confusion,” he said, because it is weak, bureaucratic, and “traditional methods are out of order and no longer produce satisfying and innovative results.”
In a 2014 book, “Europa: The Last Chance for Europe,” Giscard called for a rebooting of the European project, with the “urgent” construction of a “strong and federated” entity of 12 European nations that would include the six founding members (Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) plus Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Austria, Finland and Poland.
The project calls for the creation of specific institutions, a single budget and tax system, without any treaty change.
Today, Giscard says it is not about creating a multispeed Europe. “I am not talking about a multispeed Europe,” he said. “Europa is one Europe at one speed that advances along the historic trajectory of Europe.” He insists the EU needs new ideas to encourage that trajectory in a changing world. In order to provide those, he is launching a new advocacy group called Re-imagine Europa, on April 11.
According to its chief executive Erika Widegren, Re-imagine Europa — which includes OECD head José Ángel Gurría and former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok on its advisory board — the group will focus on Giscard’s “clear-cut vision” of a “stronger nucleus” of EU countries.
She added that the countries Giscard thinks could work together may no longer be the 12 from his book since “things have changed drastically since 2014.”
“Re-Imagine Europa is a modern organisation to prepare the next steps to move towards Europa,” Widegren said.
The think tank’s first proposal, said Giscard, will be to modernize the EU’s fiscal system.
“It is not about aligning existing tax systems, but replacing them,” Giscard said. “We must get back to simpler and more comprehensible concepts.” The EU’s tax systems inherited from the 19th century are “very complicated, and overwhelmed with debt,” he added.
He said one of the major threats facing the EU is migration as it is linked to an overall increase of global population. The number of migrants will increase, he said, while Europe “has reached its capacity to welcome them.”
The EU should also reconsider some of the ideas that were included in his draft EU constitution, he said, including reducing the number of commissioners, cutting back on bureaucracy, and making better use of the subsidiarity principle, which reduces the authority of Brussels over issues better handled by national, regional or local governments.
What Giscard does not advocate is giving more power to European institutions. On the contrary, the bloc’s problems lie in part in the perception that Brussels has overreached in its attempts to wrest power from national governments. This has led to “a deformation of the European system,” which is “what makes it unpopular,” he said.
The EU has “let itself be caught up by excessive ambition because it saw itself as the government of Europe,” he said. “It is not the government of Europe. At the moment, Europe does not have a government.”