A Brexit deal is in everyone’s interest, says Europe Minister
Foreign policy – Brexit/WTO/United States/China – Interview given by Mme Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to CNews (excerpts)
Paris, 3 October 2019
Q. – Boris Johnson is warning the Europeans in his colourful, blunt language: take it or leave it. Is France taking it or leaving it?
THE MINISTER – France is saying, first, that this isn’t a game, we aren’t at some kind of casino, we aren’t bluffing. We owe it to people – entrepreneurs, businesses, farmers, fishermen, families – to adopt a calm, responsible approach. The fact that some are jittery might give the impression that basically Boris Johnson can tell us what he wants in two hours, when this has actually been going on for two years and we’re having trouble getting organized.
Q. – He doesn’t seem to know, he doesn’t remember. Or it isn’t in his interest to remember.
THE MINISTER – Boris Johnson has a problem in that he’s of course got to negotiate with the European Union, but, above all, he no longer commands a majority in Parliament; Britain’s political landscape is totally divided. And so he’s fighting a battle as much in his own Parliament, in his own domestic political life, as he is with us, the Europeans.
Q. – In other words, there are three countries.
THE MINISTER – The UK today consists of three countries. There are those who want to leave, come what may, and are saying “we never want to see the European Union ever again.” Those are the hard Brexiters. There are those saying “Europe is wonderful. We’ve got to be inside it because it’s our future.” Those are the Remainers and young people. And then you’ve got the socialists in the middle who aren’t quite sure, who think that, basically, economically the UK needs to stay with Europe, but not really politically.
Q. – Yes, yes. But which of the three countries should Europe be speaking to?
THE MINISTER – Well, we talk to governments. We believe in sovereignty. There was a referendum, the British people gave their view. It’s up to the British people, who have their institutions, to find a solution. Boris Johnson’s problem is that he’s telling us to take it or leave it, but who knows what the British Parliament thinks about his proposal? I don’t know as yet.
Q. – He wants to silence it again. He said it’s sitting but he wants to stop it sitting.
THE MINISTER – Well that’s clearly why, you see, we Europeans are of course going to have discussions, we’re of course going to analyse things. We’re talking about an ultra-serious issue. Let me tell you, there are farmers, fishermen, businesses depending on this decision. But we aren’t going to say OK to him straightaway, just like that in two hours, if we don’t even know what his Parliament thinks.
Q. – OK. But do you know what impression you’re all giving? That Europe is afraid of Mr Johnson.
THE MINISTER – We aren’t afraid in the slightest.
Q. – And that a whole continent is at the mercy of Mr Johnson and his whims.
THE MINISTER – It isn’t about fear. It’s about respecting a few strong principles we’ve laid down. One of them concerns standards. I for one don’t want to see antibiotic milk in our markets and supermarkets, or sick cows, or fishermen being subjected to…
Q. – Careful about making accusations. Antibiotic milk means they’re adding antibiotics there and we’re drinking it here.
THE MINISTER – No. What I’m saying to you is that we’ve got very strict standards today enabling us within the European Union to trust one another and for businesses to have fair competition and consumers to be protected. I want the same things to apply in the future, so we need checks, we need to know what’s coming in and what’s going out. So Boris Johnson is making proposals; we need to look, for example, at whether this standards issue is being respected. I don’t want to see a tax haven on Europe’s doorstep either. Why? Because we ask our businesses here to adhere to vital environmental, social and tax standards. We must be able to work in a fair way. You know, the UK will always be 50 kilometres away from us. The tunnel won’t be kilometres longer tomorrow.
Q. – But do you know what his answer was to you? We’re going to hear it. He wants to get out of Europe on his own terms. Boris Johnson: “What people want, what Leavers want, what Remainers want, what the whole world wants, is to be calmly and sensibly done with the subject and to move on, and that is why we are coming out of the EU on October 31, come what may.”
Should we give in to his demands?
THE MINISTER – Give in to what? The fact they want to leave on 31 October? It’s the British people’s sovereign decision. It’s for them to decide. We’ve got a deal on the table which makes it possible to do this in an orderly way. We’d prefer it to be done in an orderly way.
Q. – OK.
THE MINISTER – If they want to do it another way, we’re prepared. We’ve massively invested in the ports and in checks we want to carry out, so we’re prepared. Do I want this? Of course not. Should we adopt a responsible approach so we’re ready? Of course.
Q. – You’re talking a lot to President Macron – yesterday, today, probably tonight, maybe later today. Is he saying that Europe has to do more work, because 31 October is 28 days away, and start issuing deadlines again, delaying things? Or are we heading towards a decisive 31st with or without a deal?
THE MINISTER – The President is saying that we mustn’t panic or be jittery. We laid down principles…
Q. – Hang on. We’re giving in to Boris Johnson, isn’t that panic?
THE MINISTER – No.
Q. – We aren’t panicking but we’re giving in to Johnson?
THE MINISTER – No. We’ve got principles, we’re firm. We said that we want the standards respected; we want peace in Northern Ireland respected; we want a fair relationship in the future. Let me tell you, we can’t have a tax haven on our doorstep. So with these principles laid down, we work, we talk. Either we manage to agree to adjustments: very well, fine. Or we can’t, in which case we’ve prepared. Let me remind you that it’s a British choice.
Q. – So it’s a British matter.
THE MINISTER – Of course it is.
Q. – And there are serious consequences for the whole of Europe.
THE MINISTER – But just imagine if…
Q. – Everyone is going to suffer, but the UK – according to Boris Johnson – can very easily live without us, without the continent.
THE MINISTER – That’s where the truth has to be told; Boris Johnson has to tell the British people the truth.
Q. – Meaning?
THE MINISTER – Obviously the UK will go on having ties with Europe. The UK won’t find itself in the middle of the Atlantic like some isolated island.
Q. – He’s got Donald Trump’s support.
THE MINISTER – Well, OK.
Q. – That support makes him strong.
THE MINISTER – Well, I don’t see how the five million lorries travelling from Calais to Dover every year to take products into the UK are going to drive through a tunnel or be shipped from the United States. We’ve got very strong relations, cultural relations. There are 300,000 French people in London and 150,000 Britons in France. So the principles we and the President have got are about saying, “we’ve got things we’ve been saying for two-and-a-half years, which we won’t budge on. We’re ready to make adjustments, we’re ready to talk.” Michel Barnier speaks for the 27 EU countries on this, but what matters for me is that we tell the truth. This is a British choice. You can’t have a French minister coming and telling you today, “this is what I think, this is what I want” because that’s called interference and it means there’s no more democracy in Europe.
Q. – What’s the general feeling? You spoke to the Europeans, I think, last night. What’s the general feeling? Are people a bit critical, sceptical, or are they again going to grant Mr Johnson an extension and do him a favour?
THE MINISTER – We all want a deal because we know that having a deal is in everyone’s interest. We’ve all got principles and we aren’t going to abandon today what we’ve been working on for the past two-and-a-half years. So we’re all saying: either we manage to make adjustments because we’ve succeeded, basically, in finding a new compromise, or, if this doesn’t happen, we’ll move to no deal, and we’re preparing, and that’s why we’ve spent the past two-and-a-half years preparing.
Q. – But what do you say to all the French people and Europeans who think we’re afraid of Mr Johnson’s blackmail and threats?
THE MINISTER – I say that’s not how we’re acting. We work for them, for Europeans, for businesses. We’ve prepared. There are 700 customs officers ready in the ports. There are new checks in Boulogne; we’re working with fishermen. Of course we’d really like this situation to stop dragging on. It creates uncertainty, it makes a lot of noise, but it’s not about fear, it’s about responsibility. There are people, there are lives and families, and it’s them we’re working for.
Q. – As you’ve seen, the stock exchange plunged yesterday.
THE MINISTER – Of course…
Q. – Businesses are worried, even though they’re prepared, etc. They think they’re going to lose billions and billions more dollars or euros through customs checks and taxes.
THE MINISTER – But that’s democracy.
Q. – Yes.
THE MINISTER – Sometimes referendums lead to difficult choices. But it’s not my role, the role of the politicians in Brussels, to decide for the British. It’s their own choice. (…)
Q. – Last night the United States imposed $7.5 billion of taxes on imported European products – I saw wines, cheeses, olives, planes –, [taxes] authorized by the WHO by virtue of the subsidies that had been granted to Airbus. Is this a bitter blow for the European economy?
THE MINISTER – Bruno Le Maire said yesterday that the Americans have made a major political mistake. As you know, this trade war process can ultimately mean war, so that’s why we’re calling for a de-escalation, and Bruno Le Maire was quite right. The Americans are telling us: this is what we’re going to do on 18 October, we’d like to negotiate; I think the European position will, of course, be to talk. Now, we won’t be naïve…
Q. – The Americans said 18 October to the WHO, i.e. in a fortnight; does this apply or is there still a negotiation period to prevent it applying?
THE MINISTER – I believe in de-escalation, I believe in political courage, and above all I believe that we’re not going to launch into a trade war like this without reacting, and that above all we should be fully aware it’s also detrimental to the Americans. Why? If you tax Airbus, who will benefit from that?
Q. – But ultimately there’s no need to defend American interests: Donald Trump, who is big enough to do this, with his tweets, said that last night was a big victory for the United States.
THE MINISTER – Fine; above all it was a victory for China, because what ultimately benefits from Airbus being taxed? Chinese planes. I’m not sure that’s what Donald Trump really wants to do.
Q. – When will Europe take reprisals, then? Because you can also tax American products.
THE MINISTER – The European Commission has always said that if this major political mistake were made, it [the Commission] wouldn’t be naïve and we’d be able to react.
Q. – So there would be European reactions.
THE MINISTER – Now, personally I believe it’s essential, as Bruno Le Maire said yesterday, for us to seek a de-escalation and not get into one-upmanship.
Q. – And in the meantime you’ve pointed out that Europe isn’t providing any concrete solutions to the questions citizens are asking about security, immigration, new technologies etc., and that growth…
THE MINISTER – We’re working on that, it is indeed the agenda we’ve set…
Q. – And in the meantime, look at the handful of pictures emerging from China on the 70th anniversary of Mao’s China, and the rise of Chinese power through defence and the army.
THE MINISTER – That’s precisely why, and President Macron has told us that basically [we need] a European sovereignty plan, we must take ownership of our power; it’s clear, as we’ve just discussed, that we’re [caught] between the United States and China, who only want one thing: for us to be obliged ultimately to choose between the two. We’re a great continent. We have 500 million consumers, we have countries with a military presence, we have absolutely cutting-edge technology because…
Q. – Talk more to citizens, involve them.
THE MINISTER – And so what we want to do for citizens is [see] how we create jobs, how we protect you, how indeed we protect our borders; that’s the whole purpose of our agenda with Ursula von der Leyen, it’s the whole purpose of my daily work with all the French ministers, namely creating this sovereignty for citizens. (…)./.