Brexit ball "back in the British court", says Minister

European Union – Brexit – Interview given by Mme Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France Inter (excerpts)

Paris, 12 April 2019

(…)

Q. – So on the night of Wednesday to Thursday, European leaders and Prime Minister Theresa May agreed on a delay to Brexit possibly until 31 October. Before talking about the substance of the issue, tell us in a word – because we didn’t have access to it – how that night went, that long night of negotiations?

THE MINISTER – It was basically a night when we tried to respond to a letter Theresa May had sent to the European Council President, where she asked for an extension to 30 June. And some Europeans thought the response to give her was to say: “we’re going to delay until 30 March 2020”. Well, we, the voice of France, of the French President, the voice I’d raised at the Foreign Affairs Council the day before, was to say we must be extremely stringent. It’s absolutely necessary that we democratically respect two things. Firstly the democratic vote of the British, i.e. that ultimately it’s not for us, Europe, to decide that Brexit wouldn’t be a good idea and that we only have to put it off in order for it not to happen, as some people might like to think. And on the other hand, we must respect the European peoples, European citizens, who have European institutions which are there to protect them, make progress on very concrete issues, make progress on the border issue, make progress on economic growth, fisheries – in short, everyday issues that require us to ensure Europe continues to function. And so our demand was to say: “first of all we mustn’t create too long an extension, because we could jeopardize the democratic vote of the British, and on the other hand, Europe must function”. And so there was a compromise, France spoke, there were long discussions…

Q. – Including with Angela Merkel, because a sizeable majority of European leaders suggested going further, perhaps to have the hope of persuading the Brexiters to vote for the withdrawal agreement. Basically, only Emmanuel Macron fought for the shortest possible extension. Did France find itself alone?

THE MINISTER – At the end there was a compromise. What I see is that there are 27 countries, which didn’t necessarily read the situation in the same way, all of which nevertheless, in the end, want Europe to move forward, and that’s why they’re there: they don’t go and spend nights in Brussels in order to wonder how they’re going to deal with the British. Moreover, it’s not for us to do it; that would be interference. What we’ve made today is a compromise, we’ve put the ball back in the British court and it’s for them to choose: do they want to organize European elections or not? Are they voting for the withdrawal agreement or not? Are they changing the political declaration or not? But what I have to say to you is that I’m not the Brexit minister.

Q. – No?

THE MINISTER – I was appointed, I was asked to promote a concrete European project. What I…

Q. – Nathalie Loiseau, who held the post just before you, said it was what took up most of her time.

THE MINISTER – Yes. I think we must turn the Brexit page.

Q. – The British have won. Ultimately, they’ve got what they wanted.

THE MINISTER – You know, I’m not sure the British are winning much at the moment. They’re in a deep political crisis. As we can see, their Parliament isn’t currently working as it should. They’re having huge trouble, we can see, coming up with a cross-party message. It’s a major political crisis for them, but what I can tell you is that, OK, perhaps it’ll take a night, perhaps longer, but in the end you have a compromise. You have 27 countries telling themselves: ultimately we must respect the vote by the British and be able to move forward. And so the interesting thing about the 31 October date is that it says the day when the next Commission, after the European elections, begins functioning…

Q. – That’s it: so that everyone understands, the new Commission…

THE MINISTER – The page will be turned, there will be no British commissioner, and at that moment the British, as is proposed, will have left, so that we can turn the page.

Q. – Perhaps, perhaps. So the new Commission should begin functioning or start its work on 1 November. Difficult to know what’s going to happen. Why would the British find a solution in six months which they haven’t managed to find in two-and-a-half years?

THE MINISTER – Look, it’s not for me to answer. What I can see is that since yesterday Theresa May has been speeding up the timetable, and that Jeremy Corbyn said in the House of Commons yesterday that progress was being made. It’s for them to decide. And my role isn’t to focus on Brexit in place of the British. My role is to ensure, with the government, firstly that we prepare for all eventualities, and secondly to prepare for the future too. You see, I’m going to Calais and Boulogne just after your programme. I’m going there, of course, to meet fishermen, visit the port facilities and ensure that we’re ready. But basically the French, above all, want us to be ready to prepare for the future, have a dynamic port business, focus on farmers, focus on fishermen and ensure that our industry is competitive and we protect ourselves from Chinese and American threats. In short, that Europe moves forward. And Europe isn’t about big speeches, Europe’s about ensuring there are 500 million citizens who can live cohesively and that we don’t all wage war against each other.

Q. – 500 million minus 60 million, but briefly, still on Brexit, the British are going to vote in the European elections, so they’re going to be electing MEPs…

THE MINISTER – No, it isn’t certain they’ll vote in the European elections.

Q. – Isn’t certain?

THE MINISTER – If Theresa May reaches an agreement with her Parliament by 22 May, she may choose not to hold elections, in which case this saga will come to an end on 1 June with a withdrawal agreement.

Q. – But it can’t be ruled out.

THE MINISTER – It can’t be ruled out, but it’s for the British to choose. I think it’s quite…

Q. – Basically, Europe is hostage to Brexit today.

THE MINISTER – No, that’s the point. What happened on Wednesday means the choices are yours. It’s not up to us as Europeans, in a room in Brussels, to decide on your behalf what you’ve got to do. You want to hold elections? It’s possible if you want to remain longer than 1 June. If you come to an agreement before 22 May, there’s no election. Which is important, democratically – in France, as you know, 2005 was an extremely important moment in our political life. It was the moment when a minority of the population from the outset said “it wasn’t a good idea, let’s find solutions”. Fortunately, we’ve got the Lisbon Treaty; I think it’s good that Europe continues. But democratically, it’s clear to see that we broke things by calling into question the democratic vote. Our demand…

Q. – For you, the Lisbon Treaty, the one adopted in 2008, is a betrayal of the 2005 referendum.

THE MINISTER – What’s certain is that the French people voted democratically in a referendum and then we changed position. I think that for Europe, fortunately we’ve got the Lisbon Treaty. But I mean, in the decision-making process, the requirement we’ve got to have today is absolutely to make sure we respect the democratic functioning of the United Kingdom and we must also meet the Europeans’ requirement for a Europe which protects them. (…)

Q. – (…) Keeping the United Kingdom in the European Union would be a “quiet dream”, in the words of Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. Is this also your quiet dream?

THE MINISTER – (…) It isn’t my job to dream for the British. If the British want to remain in the European Union, they have the opportunity to tell the Europeans “actually, we’re withdrawing our request to leave”, and they can remain. It isn’t my job, and I think it would be extremely dangerous. Of course Brexit is a painful divorce, because we’ve built the European Union with the British, because they’ve brought many things to Europe; now it’s the British people’s decision. Who am I to announce to you this morning that I’d prefer things to have gone differently? (…)./.

Published on 24/04/2019

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