Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing presided over the European constitution his compatriots rejected in a 2005 referendum. But at 81, he is still fighting for the European project. One of Europe's foremost architects sat down with NEWSWEEK's Tracy McNicoll at his Paris home to discuss the state of the Union. Excerpts:
MCNICOLL: So the EU is 50. What's going well, what isn't?
GISCARD D'ESTAING: Fifty years isn't very long. Until 1985 or so, we did what we wanted. Created a Common Market, the Council of Europe, elected a parliament, created the foundation for a common currency. So we had quite a complete journey, up until the mid-1980s.
It got more difficult. Britain was fairly cooperative until the 1980s. But when Madame Thatcher arrived, there was a very marked toughening. Then there was the big tremor of '89 and '90. With the fall of the Berlin wall, we went from a Western Europe to a full Europe. You could say Europe had pretty much attained its balance at 12 members.
You hadn't imagined a bunch of new countries coming in?
Nobody had. [In 1978], when I asked the German chancellor, a remarkable man, Helmut Schmidt, about German reunification, he said, "It will happen one day, but not in my lifetime." We didn't see it coming. Yet after it happened, Europe said, "Come in, right away," without reflection, without organization.
Why is that a problem?
Because we had the foundations for little Europe, and when big Europe happened they didn't fit anymore. Now we have 27 commissioners, including one German and three Balts. A founding member and one of the biggest countries in Europe has one, and there are 26 others. It's absurd. In the Council of Ministers, there are 27, with a rotating presidency every six months. It's organized political instability.
Do you think Europeans have lost their will to ask what they can do for their continent?
Yes, they've lost it a little ... There were no visionary statesmen during this period, from 1980 to now. When the state isn't visionary, the people have no vision.
Does Europe feel a bit like a museum to you, especially next to a dynamic Asia?
[Laughs] It's true. And that explains some of the lack of enthusiasm these last 15 years. Unemployment has been high, especially among young people. "We're in a system that's sinking," they think, "and all around there are systems that are rising." But we are an ancient civilization. That can be a good thing.
When you say European civilization, are you thinking about a Christian identity?
In terms of European identity, the Christian element is considerable. Our museums are Christian museums. The paintings are religious paintings. Not all, but, say, 80 percent. The names of cities are the names of saints. Pick up a Michelin guide and, the letter 's,' there's Saint, Saint, Saint. Our secular values today come from Christian values because humanism has Christian origins.
But perhaps 10 percent of France is Muslim.
Yes, it's evolving, but we can't say yet. The Americans think France has a large and very activist Muslim population. That's not quite so. There is a Muslim population because we had a Muslim territory, Algeria. And those Algerians were French—we said it ourselves. So there is a part that is integrated. It seems to me that the Muslims settled in France have moderate religious practices. We don't see them falling into Islamic extremism.
Turkey is another thing. We're told, you have to take in a non-European country that will be the poorest and most populous of Europe. It doesn't make sense. So we have to find a solution—a strong relationship, but not membership.