Brexit: no deal would be "bad news" but an agreement is still possible - Minister

European affairs – European Union/Brexit/COVID-19/migrants – Interview given by M. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France Inter

Paris, 17 September 2020


Q. – Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, gave her first State of the European Union speech, lasting several hours, to MEPs gathered in Brussels yesterday, on the plan for a European Health Union, the battle against greenhouse gas emissions, tensions with Turkey, migration, racism, Brexit… There was a lot in the speech, and we’ll obviously break it down into the main points with you. But to begin with, tell us, as you represent the French Government, how did you receive the speech? What did you think of it? How would you describe it this morning?

THE MINISTER – Thank you very much for talking about this first, because I regret that little has been said about it. Our TV and rolling news channels have found little time for what was, what is actually a major issue, and there are – as you said, we’re going to come back to it – many announcements, many projects. And it’s a speech which is going to be translated into legislation, into concrete measures, into a budget, into a European recovery plan as well. We must talk about all this, because these aren’t foreign or distant matters, these are policies we can debate and be for or against. But it’s an extremely political issue which I think everyone must be aware of. So…

Q. – What did you, yourself, think of the speech?

THE MINISTER – Well, I thought, what Ms von der Leyen gave was the first so-called State of the Union speech, i.e. outlining Europe’s major objectives for the year. I think it was a very good speech, one of vision, and one about a Europe awakening, because Ms von der Leyen dared to begin by talking about what I’d call the major themes of European sovereignty, European ambition, the climate and human rights, and defended European values too. So I think it was a long speech, but everyone should listen to at least a bit of it, because there are many things about the climate, as you said, about a Europe of Health…

Q. – It’s true that she basically said “wake up”, like Marine Le Pen, without drawing any parallel. I get the impression “wake up” is the new watchword this autumn. You’ve fallen asleep, Europeans: wake up – is that right?

THE MINISTER – I haven’t got any problem with the comparison because I think if we want to awaken as a power in the world – we’re seeing this in the face of the major international crises, Russia, Turkey, China etc. – it must be a European awakening. And the two aren’t opposed, in my view. I’m obviously not repeating Mme Le Pen’s slogans or themes, but I’ve got no problem with – project by project, vision by vision, on Europe in particular – people saying that it’s through Europe that we’ll assert ourselves.


Q. – So let’s begin. Many issues, as we’ve said, and a long speech with a lot in it. Let’s begin at the beginning – one possible beginning, at any rate: Brexit. Ursula von der Leyen said yesterday that with every passing day the chances of concluding an agreement with the UK really start to fade. Let me remind you that the agreement must be reached by the end of the year. Tell us if you think an agreement is still possible or if, this morning, you’re clearly pessimistic; are we moving towards no deal?

THE MINISTER – I’m worried, yes, but I think an agreement is still possible. We want to reach one and there are still weeks of negotiations ahead of us with Michel Barnier, who’s negotiating for the Europeans. We must be clear: no deal is, would be bad news. What does it mean for there to be no deal at the end of the year? It means customs duties, strict controls at our borders for British goods etc. It isn’t good news for our fishermen, for tourism in France, for a whole series of commercial exchanges and for certain regions – northern France in particular.

So that isn’t what we’d like, but I also want to say, first, that we’re preparing for it. There’ll still be preparations, financing, support measures in case; we’re going to prepare them with the Government in the coming weeks, especially for fisheries. But I also want to say that a bad deal – i.e. one which would give too much away to the British, which would, put simply, give them access to our market without compliance with our rules on health, the climate etc. – would be much worse. It would be much worse, because everything we’ve just talked about to do with a more assertive Europe would come crashing down; it would prove that, in the end, Europe doesn’t defend its interests, its citizens or its businesses. And I don’t want that, because it’s destructive and not in France’s interests.

Q. – You think, you’re still confident this morning, but worried about the possibility of an agreement. The United Kingdom is in the process of reneging on the first agreement signed, which already set out the terms of the divorce. They signed the text and they’re currently breaking that text. The agreement cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or disapplied, von der Leyen recalled yesterday. Can you say what Boris Johnson is currently playing at?

THE MINISTER – Listen, only he can say that, to be frank. If it’s a tactic – what in negotiations is sometimes called the madman strategy: you throw away all the pawns and then you scare the opponent –, it won’t work, because every time, as we’ve known for three years, the British have regularly been tempted by this aggressive or provocative strategy, and it’s never worked. In other words, I believe this is Europe’s strength in this crisis, because Brexit is a crisis. It’s shown its unity, that’s not straightforward; it’s shown its unity even though there are differences, divergences, nuances; it’s shown its unity. So I say to the British simply: it won’t work.

If it’s a tactic, stop! If it’s a desire to leave Europe with no deal, to go your own way, it’s a bad thing, but you must tell us; we’re friends, we’re allies, you must tell us. And at that point we’ll prepare, we’ll organize things, we’ll try and limit the damage. But I hope, in a way, that it’s a tactic and that it’ll stop, because it’s a bad tactic, and it was demonstrated last week that we were not divided and we were not weak. And I think that’s what is at stake in Brexit.


Q. – Now, before talking about the European Union, about health, which is a project ahead of us, there are very specific health problems with the COVID epidemic: in the United Kingdom, there’s a compulsory quarantine period for those entering the country; in Spain, no restrictions at the borders; for Italy, nationals of certain countries are obliged to take tests, but not everyone, not other ones; [in] Belgium, tests and quarantine based on your point of departure. Do you understand that people don’t comprehend any of this?


Q. – Is it so difficult to harmonize the rules in the face of the same danger?

THE MINISTER – Well, objectively there’s huge confusion. We have to be honest; I’m not defending Europe by saying everything’s going well when things are not going well. So it is, as you’ve said…

Q. – And why can’t you manage to agree, why…

THE MINISTER – No, no, wait, I’m getting to that. We’re trying to do a number of things. First of all, it’s natural for there to be differentiated measures, if I may say so, because it’s also true within countries – from one region to another in Germany, from one department to another in France, the measures aren’t the same. Why? Because in this rise in the epidemic, we don’t want to use general measures, generalized lockdowns etc.… So it’s natural for there indeed to be something of a patchwork, if you’ll allow me to put it like that. I think it also has to be said, because there will never be a map of Europe where there are the same measures everywhere: it’s not possible and it’s not desirable.

Now, the fact that in the face of the same issues and the same problems we don’t have the same measures means huge confusion, and it means European ineffectiveness. In practical terms what we’re doing, in the short term, is trying to limit the problems. So with all the countries bordering us, with Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, we’re ensuring that, for example, those who work, who earn their living on the other side by going and crossing the border – in general, they no longer even know there is a border, in Alsace, in Luxembourg, etc. – they can go there every day, and that’s guaranteed: it happens today. And we’re also trying to have the same criteria, so that a red zone is a red zone with the same criteria throughout Europe, because sometimes the thresholds aren’t the same, etc…. You’ve described it, and so this…

Q. – When will that be done?

THE MINISTER – Next week. There’s a meeting of the Europe ministers on this issue, which I asked for. I hope we’ll have an agreement next week for these criteria, harmonizing these criteria. And that will limit what you describe, i.e. a kind of European confusion which obviously isn’t desirable. But as you’ve said, a Europe of Health: if six months ago we’d gone to Brussels and said, friends, we have an idea, we’re going to create a Europe of Health, we’re going to harmonize criteria in the face of an epidemic, or nine months ago, before COVID, everyone would have laughed. And you would have said to me in this studio: have you got nothing to create except a Europe of Health? Because it wasn’t a matter of urgency. So in the face of the crisis, we’re strengthening Europe on issues where it didn’t have any powers, and I think we’re making headway…

Q. – (…) In July the health allocations in the latest European budget, despite COVID, went from more than €9 billion to €1.7 billion over seven years. Sorry, we’re a long way from the Health Union that Ursula von der Leyen boasted about yesterday, aren’t we?

THE MINISTER – Well, that’s wrong, sorry, you have to be accurate, because the €9 billion never existed, it was a proposal by the European Commission…

Q. – So it was a proposal by the European Commission that was finally reduced to €1.7 billion…

THE MINISTER – I won’t go into the detail, but there are proposals by the European Commission and these budget negotiations, and so the European Commission always starts high because it’s well aware that afterwards it’s complicated…

Q. – Really, going so low, don’t you find that too low…

THE MINISTER – I find that too low – I’m saying so – but compared to today, there’s an increase in the European health budget. There’s also what we call a civil protection mechanism. That seems complicated; what is it? It means having shared stockpiles of masks, tests, protective equipment, ventilators; we’re going to create that too. There are several billion euros in the European recovery plan for that. So it’s better than today, that really has to be said, it’s more than today in terms of health. And the Europe of Health is about money, but it’s also what we were talking about, with the same criteria. It’s also, and this is very important – we’ve been doing it urgently, it’s making swift progress –, about vaccines. Today, Europe is jointly signing, on behalf of the 27, contracts with all the major public and private laboratories that are searching for vaccines, so that the day there is a vaccine we have all the doses, several hundred million for all Europeans initially, so that we don’t lag behind, because the Americans and the Chinese…

Q. – There will be no nationalism on vaccines…

THE MINISTER – There will be no nationalism, exactly, on the vaccine. There will be no vaccine nationalism…

Q. – Does that mean that if a French laboratory finds the vaccine, France won’t be served first?

THE MINISTER – Europe will be served first, and the French will be served first, but not to the detriment of the others. It will be at the same time, because in these contracts we reserve hundreds of millions of doses. There’s an initial one that has been signed: it’s 400 million doses that have been reserved by Europe, so this enables the French, Germans and others to be covered. Let’s not pit people against one another. Thanks to this same European action, we’re going to be served at the same time. If we’d only done the French or Germans, you would have said to me, “there’s no Europe”, and you would have been right.


Q. – Ms von der Leyen has set a target: the EU must be capable of reducing its CO2 emissions by at least 55%, and no longer just 40%, by 2030. Is that feasible, realistic or is it wishful thinking?

THE MINISTER – I think it’s feasible, and France has for a long time supported this ambition to increase our target – as you’ve said, we’re currently at under 40% as a target for 2030. Specifically, there’s currently an impact study that is going to explain how this works; we have to be specific, sector by sector, [about] the measures we must take to achieve the target Ms von der Leyen set out: 55% lower. I’d like us to be able to reach that, and it’ll be a decision the heads of State and government will be taking collectively in mid-October.


Q. – On migrants, the European Commission President is reminding the member States of their responsibilities and asking each one to play its part. Angela Merkel is planning for Germany to take in some 1,500 migrants currently on the Greek islands, following the fires at Moria Camp on Lesbos. The Chancellor regrets the fact that other countries, and France in particular, are only taking in about 100; France is only going to take in about 100 unaccompanied minors from Lesbos – that’s more or less the scale you’ve announced. Isn’t that too few?

THE MINISTER – Well, I want to point out that it was we who wanted European coordination with Germany, and I also remind you that since the beginning of the year, three times, Greece has asked for our solidarity and we’ve stepped up. In total, nearly 1,000 people, minors particularly, will be taken in by France from the Greek islands, because they have a right to protection, because they have the right to asylum.

So we’re making an effort that is entirely comparable, I stress, to Germany, and we’ve coordinated it. The 100 or so I mentioned is an addition we’re ready to make in response to the Greek request for the minors from Lesbos and Moria Camp. I’m keen to say this – it’s very important. Since 2018, you’ve also had the emergency cases of boats that have offloaded [migrants] in the Mediterranean; we’ve always taken a steadfast line: no offloading of boats too far away [from the shore], because that’s not the right humanitarian response. We’re not going to make people who are in distress and risking their lives spend four days at sea. And so that’s why we…

Q. – You mean since the time you didn’t take in the Aquarius…

THE MINISTER – Well, yes, and I say so because we found… no, but I’m saying it, I’m defending it, because we found closer solutions. But France has always said it’s taking its share each time – for Greece, for Italy, for Malta – of European solidarity. And we’re the country which since 2018, in these emergency cases, has taken in the most people in distress, together with Germany. That’s a credit to France, and we’ve done that, I’m keen to say so.

Q. – Ursula von der Leyen has proposed abolishing the Dublin Regulation, which entrusts asylum applications to the first country migrants arrive in. For Greece and Italy, for example, it’s untenable because of geography: the maps speak for themselves. What will Dublin be replaced by?

THE MINISTER – I don’t know if there’ll be a name, but it’s true these agreements don’t work, we have to be clear. For listeners who may not be familiar with this, what is it? In a word, it’s what you describe: that the country which, through its geography, is the nearest – Italy, Greece, the coasts where people disembark – shoulders the whole burden of taking in [migrants]. That’s not acceptable. We were talking about emergency cases; we now need a permanent mechanism; we’re championing that. And so we’re saying that the reception country must take in the people who disembark, because it’s the most urgent thing, and that every time subsequently, all the European countries, all the European countries, play their part in taking in refugees./.

Published on 18/09/2020

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