Emmanuel Cocher: EU built on culture and yearning for peace

"We are better to go together." Picture: Contributed
"We are better to go together." Picture: Contributed
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In the final part of our series Emmanuel Cocher, Consul General of France in Edinburgh and Glasgow, gives a personal view on the EU

A diplomat’s job is to nurture relationships between his or her government and other parts of the world. However far apart geographically or politically the two countries may be, there will always be something to build upon in order to establish bridges and foster common interests.

Ever since diplomacy emerged in its modern and permanent form, in around the 16th century, the world has evolved from a state of nature towards a state of law, through the densification of bilateral agreements, wider alliances and, since the turn of the 20th century, the emergence of an elaborate international system based on multilateral organisations of all kind, the most accomplished of which being the United Nations as a universal body and the European Union as the most integrated of regional organisations.

Some critics consistently cast doubt over the use of maintaining a diplomatic and consular presence within the EU. One of the answers I give is that our EU partners are certainly among all states the one with the greatest influence on our destiny, and not always as predictable as lazy minds could indulge in thinking.

Twice in my lifetime, I had the opportunity to vote in referendums which asked the French people to ratify new development in the European construction, the Maastricht Treaty regarding economic and monetary union in 1992 and the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005.

The first narrowly went through and the second was rejected. What my votes were is of little importance but these were opportunities to reflect on, and - so we hoped - to influence the evolution of that community of nations which goes so far in structuring our environment, political, legal and economic. I was never faced with the decision whether we should stay in the Union or leave it, even though some of us might have taken the previous two referendums for more or less that and it shaped the nature of the debate if not the outcome of the decision.

Early on in my ‘political’ life, I read Jean Monnet’s Mémoires. Two ideas struck me in this extraordinary life entirely committed to Europe : first the 1940 project of Franco-British Union (designed by Monnet and supported by Churchill) intended at avoiding a French defeat to the Nazis, and, second, the notion of a European construction based on concrete steps creating ‘de facto solidarities’. If the former is buried in history as a utopia that succumbed to French pride and prejudice, the second is very much what happened to our continent since the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950.

Exiting an international organisation is an experience I have ventured into as a diplomat, a few years ago, as we had decided France would no longer be party to the UN Industrial Development Organisation. We found out that, somewhat like after a divorce, the relationship, or at least the liabilities do not disappear as soon as one would like, if they ever disappear completely. Certainly this was not the type of “de facto solidarity” Monnet had in mind ahead of the launch of the Coal and Steel European Community. He meant that our economies, prosperity, growth and many aspects of day-to-day life would be dependent on one another and that is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves.

To stick to what I am in charge of, I am impressed every day by the density of Franco-Scottish exchanges: the strength of French investments in the Scottish economy, the number of Franco-Scottish families, of French students and academics in Scotland, the quality of cultural co-endeavours and relations. What started, ahead of the emergence of modern diplomacy, in the shape of a famous 13th century military alliance designed in a sheer balance of power fashion, went on to be a creative and elaborate trade of ideas and philosophical movements during the Age of Enlightenment. This was the terrain on which the European Union as we know it was built: culture and the yearning for peace, justice and prosperity.

I cannot think of a Brexit as anything else but a return to the state of nature, a deviation from the state of law and regressive step towards the wilderness, in the strong rousseauist sense of these terms. We have a contract, the result of a long collective maturation. Breaking the contract cannot be positive. It cannot be seen from a single member state’s perspective. Britain has had more time than the founding members to decide on the merit of joining the European Community. It was not there during the first major crisis the united Europe experienced after the rejection of the European Defence Community in 1954, a French proposal rejected by France alone. However, it is very much thanks to Britain that France, following the Saint-Malo declaration of 1999, was able to recommit to the ambition of a militarily relevant Europe.

Today’s world is under threat. There are more powers, more competition, more non-state actors (the nebulous terrorist / organised crime continuum), more inequalities, more deadly wars, more financial and economic fragilities than for most of the decades since the armistice of 1940 when France, had it not been for the Free French, all but disappeared from the map.

All states have interests and strive to defend them. But it is only a handful who see world balance and stability, the upholding of an international system, world order, justice and peace as not only a condition for their own prosperity but as a goal in itself. Those nations are the true sons and daughters of the Enlightenment. It is no surprise that you find them among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

This is how close France is to Britain, two sister nations, with a sense of responsibility and a commitment to the rest of the world essential elements of their identity. The time if long gone when our proximity translated into competition and interference in the other’s domestic affairs. Long gone that type of “Auld Alliance”.

The bond of “de facto solidarity” brings us much closer and yet protects our sovereign rights and gives us the means to exert an international influence which is in line with our historical and political stature and goes beyond our present national weight. That is why a British withdrawal from the European Union, a Union in which Britain, as a member state, through its leaders and experts, is so influential, would not only break an outstanding and critical bond. With it the notion of European power would vanish this side of the continent.

It may be in the nature of power to rise and fall but I truly believe that eradicating French and British influence on world affairs, fatally wounding the strongest integrated regional organisation, is a very bad idea, a reckless adventure and the most untimely decision to make.

For the sake of the Franco-British Union of 1940 which saved the morale, if not the short-term interests, of a defeated France in a battled continent, and for the sake of our de facto solidarity and what we have achieved through it, for our own benefit and the benefit of the wider world, we are better to go together.

Emmanuel Cocher, Consul General of France in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and Director of the French Institute in Scotland, writes in a personal capacity