EU faces "moment of truth" following Brexit vote - Minister

European Union – Brexit/economic policy/higher education – Speech by M. Harlem Désir, Minister of State for European Affairs, at the Ecole Polytechnique (excerpts)

Paris, 25 August 2016


Brexit/lessons for EU

Following the British referendum, this is a moment of truth for Europe.

Either it lets divisions and the temptation to withdraw – which has already manifested itself in the refugee crisis and even the Euro Area crisis – prevail, and then it will be the end of the European project, or it pulls itself together in order to continue existing in tomorrow’s world, but in that case it must take decisions for its future. What it wants to be. What must change. Each member state faces this choice: to be part of it or not. As do Europeans collectively.

The British referendum was a shock. And the ripple effect is still being felt, because it’s the first time a country has decided to leave the EU, which until now had been constantly enlarging; because the UK is a major economy, an important strategic partner; and because many social, geographical and generational divisions, and fears that were expressed at the time of the vote about immigration and globalization, could occur in all the member states.

And populist forces are there, throughout Europe, to try and exploit these divisions, these fears, and sometimes Europe’s shortcomings. So there are lessons to be learnt.

Europe must change if it wants to continue, if it doesn’t want to lose the people.

But we mustn’t let the Brexit shock trigger a break-up of the European Union and an abandonment of the European project.

European project

And that’s why I also want to say to you that we must, more than ever, defend the European project and its historic achievements from all the populists and extremists who turn it into a scapegoat for every crisis. Yes, all crises have repercussions in Europe, even those which come from further afield.

The Syria crisis, the situation in the Mediterranean, in the Sahel, the terrorist threat, the financial crisis – which, we must remember, began on another continent, in the United States –, climate change, the rise of China and competition with it: is all that Europe’s fault? Would the challenges disappear without it? Would we not be facing them? Would be do better without it? Would we respond better to those crises if each country tried to do so separately?

How could withdrawing behind national borders and national solutions in the face of global challenges make Europeans stronger?

And can we regard as negligible the achievements of 70 years of peace, democratic progress and unification of the continent? Do we believe all this would have been possible without the European enterprise?

Europe must be criticized when it’s necessary and for having often responded too little, too late to new challenges. But it must also be firmly defended as a project and as a triumph of civilization.

Our duty is to defend it. In order to improve it, of course. To build on it. But to defend it as something we cherish. That’s in the interest of France, its young people and its businesses.

It’s quite simply not true that we’d be stronger in globalization with 28 different strategies, 28 countries turning their backs on one another, confronting one another instead of cooperating, 28 fragmented markets, the end of common policies, of the European research area that links our universities and laboratories, the end of structural and investment funds, €26 billion in France managed by the regions over the period 2014-2020, the end of the [Common] Agricultural Policy, the decision not to build an energy union.

Europe probably mustn’t try to continue dealing with everything, as it may sometimes have tended to do in the past. Its technocratic tendency must be reined in. It won’t replace nation-states, with their diversity, their history and their culture. They are its strength, and more things can and must be dealt with at their level. But we mustn’t let it unravel, because each nation would only emerge weaker, and the European continent, which has shaped history, would be left behind by history.

And that’s why we’re convinced we must move forward and revitalize the European project.

That’s the desire of France, with its main partners: Germany of course, and Italy, the founders, and others which are deeply committed, like us, to the European project. That’s what the French President has proposed, on the basis of a few priorities following the British referendum, because there’s no room for marking time in a world that is moving and constantly accelerating.


That’s why, first of all, the British question must be resolved clearly. We regret the UK’s decision to leave the EU, but we respect it. So the withdrawal procedure set out by the Treaty on European Union, i.e. Article 50, must be activated.

We understand that the UK needs a little time to prepare for this, but prolonging the uncertainty for too long damages the British and European economy. Triggering the procedure as quickly as possible is in the UK’s interest and is quite simply a matter of honouring the people’s vote. As for future relations, it’s clear there can be no access to the internal market without freedom of movement.

But the Brexit issue doesn’t take up the whole European agenda.


The essential thing now is that we have to work as 27 and in the Euro Area to give the European project new impetus by enabling it to respond better to the major challenges Europe faces.

Europe is confronted not only with new issues like security – and it wasn’t built around that – but also with economic and social challenges for which one might think it’s equipped but where one sees that the European enterprise is only half-built, an uncompleted house.

We’ve created monetary union without economic union. And we’re facing structural, competitiveness, income-level and investment imbalances between the North and the South which are being aggravated despite the single currency. Europe needs an economic strategy, an industrial policy, economic and social convergence, and not just fiscal rules and a Stability Pact.

We’ve built an internal market without fiscal and social convergence. And we’re facing distortions of competition and social dumping which are unacceptable and also fuel disenchantment with Europe, and even populism.

We’ve built an area of free movement, Schengen, without the protection of common external borders. And that couldn’t last.

So Europe not only has gaps, because it lacks a security and defence policy, but it’s only half-built economically and socially, because it’s moved in small steps but stopped on the way. All in all, people have a feeling – which was expressed in the British referendum – of a certain loss of control, which tempts them towards national solutions, towards nation-states. Although it’s an illusion in many areas, populists exploit this. (…)

So we must make progress on a few priorities.

For us, there are three of them.


1/ The first priority, as I’ve already mentioned, is security. Europe must now guarantee its own security. No one will do this in its place. Europe is surrounded by the most serious international crises. War and instability are on its borders, it’s being hit by terrorism. At stake is the survival of the European project, and at the same time credibility.

This entails, among other things, enhanced protection of the EU’s external borders. Before the end of the year, a European Border and Coast Guard corps will have to be established; we’ve reached an agreement on this. We must also create a real European ESTA [Electronic System for Travel Authorization] to carry out systematic checks on people entering and leaving the European Union.

We must also – this is the whole sense of the work begun by Bernard Cazeneuve and his German counterpart – continue to strengthen European cooperation in the fight against terrorism, with information exchanges, the systematic and coordinated use of Europol databases, SIS [Schengen Information System], ECRIS [European Criminal Records Information System], the implementation of the European PNR [Passenger Name Record] the fight against radicalization, accountability for Internet operators, the action plan against arms trafficking, and the fight against terrorism financing.

As regards defence, it’s time to take a decisive step forward so that Defence Europe finally exists, both in terms of capabilities – i.e. equipment, industrial programmes – and for external operations, with financing mechanisms, an HQ/military staff and a rapid reaction force. This is essential for projecting stability and peace because there’s no external umbrella any more. It must also be linked to a partnership with Africa and the Mediterranean area.

Investment in the future

2/ The second priority is to prepare for the future in terms of the economy, and thus investment, growth and jobs. Europe must be a force for innovation and investment in sectors with future potential.

With the Juncker Plan for strategic investment, we’ve put the issue of investment back at the heart of the European project. €315 billion of investment over three years, and we’ve already reached more than a third of the goal (€115.7 billion). France is one of the main beneficiaries. More than €14 billion has already been allocated to French projects, particularly in the areas of high-speed broadband, energy renovation and industry.

But we must go further, and develop public and private investment even more in fields with future potential – digital technology, the energy transition and research. At the very least, this requires doubling the Juncker Plan.

Europe is a land of excellence, it has major strengths, but if it doesn’t make further efforts to invest in skills, knowledge, know-how and human capital it risks falling behind. What we need through the second-generation Juncker Plan is the equivalent of what we’ve done in France with the Investment in the Future programme (PIA), which supports many higher-education and research projects.

At the same time, we must continue to bolster the Euro Area, support its convergence and growth, strengthen its governance and provide it with a budget and parliamentary oversight too. We must also promote fiscal and social convergance within it, continue fighting tax avoidance, create a European set of social rights and strengthen rules on the posting of workers.

Young people/Erasmus

3/ The third priority I’d like to underline concerns young people, with the development of programmes which will allow them to gain access to jobs and training, be mobile and discover European cultures, because the battle for values and the definition of a European project for the 21st century will be won with Europe’s young people. The Erasmus programme is one of the most successful European policies. We must broaden it, make it more accessible and allow all young people – whatever their status – to gain a European experience of education and discovery which will also mean experiencing European citizenship. (…)

EU/modus operandi

Europe must focus on its essential priorities.

The way it functions must also be simplified. Some of its rules are incomprehensible and its procedures are often too slow. The Euro Area should have a permanent president. People should have much greater involvement – national parliaments and the European Parliament in particular.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Europe’s survival is at stake. It depends on what solutions can be provided to major issues for which Europe has been ill-prepared or unprepared, or to which it has responded badly.

Together we must convince people that Europe is powerful.

We shall never resign ourselves to seeing this ideal defeated by self-absorption and national self-interest.

Thank you for being builders and transmitters of Europe.

Thank you./.

Published on 19/09/2017

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