Brexit: middle way has to be found on Ireland issue - Minister
Foreign policy – French jihadists/Brexit – Excerpts from the interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France Inter
Paris, 4 February 2019
Q. – And what’s being done with them, because French people are learning that they’re going to come to France?
THE MINISTER – The position hasn’t changed for us, i.e. when jihadists, terrorists, are taken prisoner in war zones, they must be tried where they have committed their crimes. That’s what is happening in Iraq, some terrorists have been tried in Iraqi courts because that’s where they struck, that’s where they murdered Iraqi people.
But in Syria there isn’t really a state, there aren’t really any judicial authorities, and that being so, we believe that every possibility must be opened up, especially since – in the north-east area – the United States told us it envisaged pulling out, and so there’s a major risk of them scattering. And so this must be prevented...
Q. – And so they must be brought back to France.
THE MINISTER – We’ll see what we’re going to do, but at any rate we’re discussing all possible ways of doing this.
Q. – Are there alternatives to them returning to France?
THE MINISTER – The other option is keeping the situation as it is, since we’re talking about a war zone. The alternative of a potential expulsion exists; we’ll see if that’s what the local authorities go for. At any rate we must prepare ourselves for anything, to prevent a scattering, which is the worst that could happen.
Q. – It’s the worst that could happen because they might commit acts…
THE MINISTER – Because they might return, because they might cross the border. This issue will also be raised in the Idlib area, because if by any chance at some point Bashar al-Assad’s regime decides to penetrate the Idlib area, there would be masses of refugees heading for Turkey, and a kind of scattering of terrorists on the ground as well. So we’ve got to be very vigilant. Security, for France, must be looked at very closely and constantly, and that’s part of my job.
Q. – There’s an option part of the right and the Rassemblement national [National Rally] party is championing, namely forfeiture of nationality. What do you think of this? At the time of the great debate under François Hollande and Manuel Valls you were in favour of this and said, “on what grounds would these kinds of murderers be keeping their French nationality?” Have you changed your mind?
THE MINISTER – No, but the debate was brought to a close. So today I’m obliged to act on the basis of what’s actually happening, and what’s actually happening is that there are groups of terrorists today either in prison or operating in that area, and we must very strictly protect ourselves against this.
That’s also the purpose of a meeting to be held in Washington the day after tomorrow, where all the coalition countries are going to ponder the issue and try to reach a common position, because there isn’t only France’s position: you also have Belgium’s position, you also have the positions of other European countries which supply, if I can use the term, a few terrorist units abroad, but you also have countries like Tunisia and others which are subjected to the same difficulty as well.
Q. – Is France going to keep troops in the region after the American withdrawal from Syria, and if so, to do what? How many and to do what?
THE MINISTER – We have very few military personnel in Syria, because people sometimes tend to confuse two wars. There’s the war against Daesh [so-called ISIL], the one we’re engaged in, which is probably going to draw to a close soon, although it’s not over: there are still combat zones. And there are also risks of clandestine actions by Daesh. And we’ve helped, as part of the coalition, to ensure that the territory occupied by Daesh is now liberated: that’s the case in Iraq, and it’s becoming the case in the eastern part of Syria; that’s the war against Daesh. In that conflict we’ll remain in Iraq to help renew and reinforce the Iraqi forces. A few days ago I went to say this to the Iraqi President and Prime Minister. As regards Syria, we have very little presence: it’s mainly an American presence.
Q. – With your Europe Minister hat on now: on Brexit, Theresa May has asked the European Union for a new round of negotiations, and the European Union has said “no way, it’s over, we’ve negotiated”. Are we now heading for a hard withdrawal from the EU?
THE MINISTER – You know, in Britain there’s a double impasse concerning Brexit. You have no majority in the House of Commons – far from it – for agreeing on the withdrawal agreement, which was discussed between Michel Barnier, who represented the European Union and had a mandate from all the 27, and Britain. They signed an agreement. That withdrawal agreement – i.e. the divorce notice and the divorce conditions – wasn’t ratified by the House of Commons. And then, on the other hand, there’s no agreement from the House of Commons for non-withdrawal either, so there’s a double impasse.
Q. – And so what do we do?
THE MINISTER – You have to ask the British instead. Mrs May announced the other day that she wanted to have alternative arrangements on the withdrawal agreement – we don’t know which ones – and time is running out, because 29 March is approaching quickly. We’re very ready to talk to Britain about future relations, but not about the divorce agreement, because I don’t see how, in two weeks, we can catch up and make changes that we couldn’t obtain in two years of negotiations on the withdrawal agreement.
The main issue is the Irish question, and there we have to find a solution, which isn’t easy – we can clearly see the difficulty: if you establish a hard border, you undermine the whole past [history] of a certain restoration of peace in Ireland, which was incidentally secured by the European Union, and you create difficulties that could lead to renewed conflict, so that’s not possible. And on the other hand, if you put in no border at all, you ensure that the European Union’s major principles, the European Union’s unity, are undermined, because then there’s no real withdrawal by Britain from the European Union. So you have to find a middle way… (…)./.