EU top appointments: "Europe has won" - Minister

European Union – Interview given by Mme Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to the daily newspaper Les Echos (excerpts)

Paris, 4 July 2019

Q. – Doesn’t the Europeans’ slowness in choosing their executive once again show how inefficient the EU’s decision-making mechanisms are?

THE MINISTER – We’re going to have a team up and running, on schedule. Unlike in 2014, we didn’t take three months to reach a decision. As Europe was projecting the worst possible image on Sunday evening with leaders settling scores, we finally got the burst of momentum we were waiting for. It’s a victory for Europe. (…)

Q. – Don’t these deals behind closed doors harm Europe’s image?

THE MINISTER – We’ve got to stop moving Europe forward with crisis summits and endless meetings. (…) From now on, we’re going to have an operational team, with people who aren’t the lowest common denominators. They’ll act on the basis of a common project established from that adopted by the European Council and the coalition agreement currently under negotiation in the Parliament. In a way, this will be Ursula von der Leyen’s mission statement. We want to recreate a democratic Europe and, with several leaders from great political families, we’ve got a genuine coalition of people who share this ambition. We now have the right Team Europe, and we’re there to get results.

Q. – We sense you’re on the offensive a bit against the EPP’s Conservatives…

THE MINISTER – We haven’t got a problem with any pro-European party. The difficulty we had was with the temptation of some to act as though they had a sort of monopoly over Europe, as though the institutions were theirs by right. What the President challenged was the automatic nature of the Spitzenkandidaten process. Incidentally, I note that the EPP itself wasn’t clear on this idea: the Social Democrats’ Spitzenkandidat wasn’t chosen as president also because several Conservatives didn’t support him. Moving forward, I think many things are going to happen in the EPP.

Q. – Isn’t Germany going to have an excessive amount of influence?

THE MINISTER – We’ve always said that we aren’t in a battle of the flags. In my opinion, it’s Europe which has won. Ursula von der Leyen has been a minister for 15 years, and on social affairs and defence she’s taken courageous decisions which went against certain taboos in Germany. She’s French-speaking and champions projects which are in line with what we’d like for Europe. And like Christine Lagarde, she’s able to be independent and keep a kind of distance from her political affiliation. They’re women of action who can overcome dogmas.

Q. – Is this Franco-German compromise aimed at relaunching a complicated bilateral relationship?

THE MINISTER – Obviously there may be some people in the CDU whose views don’t reflect our way of seeing things. But when it comes to France and Germany, I think there’s a wide discrepancy between what the newspapers say and what I’ve experienced over the past three months. At every level, we talk to our counterparts in a spirit of respect and responsibility. If we sometimes sense that the two countries are out of sync, I think it’s down to Germany’s domestic political situation. Their coalition is facing difficulties, we must understand this. We’ve got different political temporalities. During this negotiation, we simply acted responsibly, serving the European project. Angela Merkel is a genuine European, who has held firm to the EU’s course, occasionally encountering internal opposition. If President Macron hadn’t played his constructive role during these discussions, I don’t know what point we’d have reached today.

Q. – Is Christine Lagarde the best qualified person for the ECB?

THE MINISTER – Do you really think she isn’t, when we know that she was never challenged as head of the IMF, where she regularly chairs meetings with central bankers? Christine Lagarde is highly respected. Everyone knows that she was a key negotiator in resolving a number of crises. In addition, being ECB President requires very political qualities and an ability to be creative and credible – all abilities she has shown. She’s exceptionally trusted./.

European Union – Appointments/Mercosur/CETA/Sea-Watch boat – 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, 3 July 2019

(…)

EU top jobs

Q. – You’ve only just got back – you returned overnight – from Brussels, where a key game of European transfers has been played out, with all its psychodramas, scraps and slamming doors. Can we say that when it comes to European appointments, it’s ultimately Germany that wins, as in football?

THE MINISTER – I believe Europe has won. In fact, there were two halves to these negotiations. There was a half when I think Europe made quite a sorry impression – and the President said so, incidentally: a night when a number of leaders ended up deciding the European Council was the right place to resolve their internal divisions, national problems and ego battles. And we sounded the alarm: it took us 24 hours, it was very lengthy, very painful, and we said “we’ve got to stop”. We’ve got to give Europe a credible face, an experienced face, a competent face, and get back to why the European spirit must work, in other words a team that can work for the project those same heads of state agreed on last week, namely to focus on the climate, borders, protection, defence and also an economic project.

Q. – We’ll see about the substance. But what about the form, how it played out, what went on behind the scenes in these negotiations, which were bitter and tense?

THE MINISTER – There was a second half. There was the half when – I was with the President – we tirelessly went up and down in the lifts, we went to see everyone: the Spaniards, the Portuguese, the Germans, the Dutch, the Belgians, the eastern countries, the southern countries, the northern countries – in short, we went to see everyone.

Q. – Let me add that outside the studio you showed me a secret notebook, a little secret notebook where you had the various scenarios on each page.

THE MINISTER – We worked on – I think, I don’t know – 15 or 20 scenarios. We really went there thinking: “basically, what we need is competence, experience, geographical balance and parity”. We didn’t go along antagonistically, we didn’t think: “it’s a battle of the flags and we want ourselves to have this or that”. And together with the President, I tried to help bring about a European agreement. In the end no single country wins.

What do we have today? We have two women who are taking up extremely important posts. It’s interesting not because they’re women but because it shows there’s a renewal. And there’s a renewal and skills; they’re women who have shown courage. (…) They’ve focused – Ursula von der Leyen has in Germany – on issues that weren’t easy. In Germany, defence is a complicated issue.

Q. – She’s very much denounced in Germany.

THE MINISTER – Creating European defence…

Q. – She’s not very popular.

THE MINISTER – Indeed, it hasn’t been very popular, but it’s an act of courage. And also Christine Lagarde, and also Charles Michel, who has very actively led a coalition government in Belgium, and also Josep Borrell, who is a seasoned diplomat. And so in the end, it’s the European project that wins.

Q. – (…) You say no single country wins, but even so, the EPP is saved: Angela Merkel has saved the EPP, because the European Commission President comes from the EPP, it’s not Frans Timmermans – she’s close to her, she’s German. As for Christine Lagarde, she’s very close to Angela Merkel. (…) So in the end, Angela Merkel, who people said was weakened and at the end of her reign, has got everything right.

THE MINISTER – Angela Merkel abstained on the agreement.

Q. – Yes, yes…

THE MINISTER – She abstained, because in Germany today not everyone sees this choice as a victory. It’s a real Franco-German agreement. Angela Merkel had to confront a lot of difficult things. The EPP family wasn’t united; it tore itself apart on Sunday night. Secondly, the choice of Christine Lagarde at the ECB is equally one that some Germans won’t necessarily see as a victory. And so I don’t see either defeat or victory for anyone: it’s the European project, and what I like…

Q. – Do you see it nevertheless as a victory for the Franco-German partnership, which people said had been weakened? Would you say, in the end: “if it’s not Germany that wins, it’s Germany and France, the Franco-German partnership, that wins”?

THE MINISTER – What’s certain is that in going through the night we went through, we spent a huge amount of time talking to the Germans, not to make small deals between ourselves but because we fully understood that unless France and Germany took some kind of initiative and agreed to persuade people in their political and geographical circle of influence, we wouldn’t get there. So that’s what won.

Q. – Christine Lagarde’s appointment to head the ECB is raising eyebrows in financial circles. (…) They say she isn’t an economist or a central banker, she isn’t an expert on monetary policy and the post is ultra-technical and complicated, because a statement by the boss of the ECB causes markets to rise or fall. How do you respond to all those arguments?

THE MINISTER – As you know, I was an economist before being a deputy and now in the government. I followed the Euro Area crisis and I can tell you that, at that time, Christine Lagarde was one of the most influential ministers and enabled Jean-Claude Trichet and then Mario Draghi to do many things. I also want to point out that there are few places in the world that central bank governors are invited to. Well, they’re invited to the IMF with Christine Lagarde. Every autumn, every spring, she’s the one who brings them together. When she resolves crises in the world, it’s with the central bankers. So I think the accusation is…

Q. – Sexist?

THE MINISTER – I don’t know if it’s sexist; what I do know is that I have full confidence and I think she’ll surprise a lot of people, precisely by also being capable of championing a path certainly of monetary policy but also of economic policy that is extremely political.

Q. – So let’s get onto the fundamental criticisms now: this duo of women and Charles Michel, the new President of the European Council, are liberals, they’re pro-market, they’re pro-free trade – that’s the complaint your opponents make. For La France insoumise, Manon Aubry has tweeted: “Top job, liberalism the only winner”. Yannick Jadot: “This line-up is the worst status quo”. What’s your reply to those who say: “they’re picking the same people, ultimately, the same people ideologically, and carrying on”?

THE MINISTER – My reply is that we must keep what the heads of state agreed on. What matters is the project. A week ago, they agreed to make climate the top priority. They agreed to champion a project for a social Europe which creates jobs and is capable of protecting itself, particularly in terms of trade, against countries that come and import goods that don’t comply with our standards. They agreed to create a European defence, to create protection for citizens, including at the borders. I don’t know if all that’s liberal; what I do know is that these are emergencies which citizens asked us to work on, that’s how they voted, and ultimately we also respected the European Parliament. The leading political family in the European Parliament is the EPP, then you have a centrist group plus the Greens, which [together] have more representatives than the EPP…

Q. – You have the social democrats who aren’t so social democratic, and the socialists who aren’t at all happy with what’s occurred.

THE MINISTER – Well, afterwards, if you look behind the scenes, we worked for 24 hours on a scenario where a social democratic leader was the frontrunner. We didn’t succeed, but we worked objectively.

Q. – Frans Timmermans.

THE MINISTER – To be honest, we put a lot of energy into the work, and so in the end you also have to look at the consensus. We could have carried on thinking: “it’s not the right scenario, because of this or that”. Ultimately, a month after the elections, Europeans must be led by a Team Europe which can – above all, above all now – deliver results. We appoint people not because we find their photos pretty, we appoint people because we subsequently want things to move forward.

Q. – Well, exactly…

THE MINISTER – And we’ve appointed people who are there, who we trust, to champion the project we agreed on…

EU-Mercosur trade agreement

Q. – Exactly – you say: “I don’t know if they’re liberal appointments or not”, you say: “the climate is our priority”, and what do we see? We see the free trade agreement between the European Union and the Mercosur countries being signed last Friday, sparking a huge protest of opposition. Are you telling us this morning that that agreement is good and we must ratify it?

THE MINISTER – I see two things. We put forward clear red lines: [that] we wouldn’t sign if the countries left the Paris Agreement, and some were threatening to do so, which would have been much more serious for the climate than signing this agreement and telling ourselves: “now they are indeed going to comply with it”. We set quotas, we set environmental standards to respect, and we put in a safeguard clause to ensure that our farmers would then…

Q. – Of course, but they aren’t binding.

THE MINISTER – But hold on, what matters now is that everyone looks at this deal and an independent study is carried out in France, at the European Parliament. Then, as you know, democracy works. The European Parliament will have to give a ruling completely objectively and in full sovereignty – that’s how European democracy functions. So there’s an agreement on the table, where the heads of state…

Q. – Do you yourself think this agreement is good? Yesterday, Emmanuel Macron defended it, saying: beware of neo-protectionism. What does that mean?

THE MINISTER – What I mainly see is that our agriculture in France is exported. And you can’t ask to export if you subsequently close your borders. So that’s why we make agreements, it’s why we set red lines, it’s why we create standards for ourselves, it’s why we say…

Q. – So why are farmers and the FNSEA [French farmers’ union] fiercely opposed to the agreement if it’s good for farmers?

THE MINISTER – That’s why we’ve got to undertake this study, it’s why we’ve got to go into the detail, it’s why we need to show them how the safeguard clause works, and ensure it will work effectively in times of crisis. We also need to ensure that the standards we’re asking Brazil, Argentina and the other South American countries to adhere to will be fully adhered to, and what we now need is for democracy to function. (…)

Q. – The agreement has been signed, it’s going to be ratified by the European Parliament, then the national parliaments.

THE MINISTER – But you’re being extremely over-confident there. Do the national parliaments, do the European parliaments now have the text? No. Have they assessed it? No. Have they worked together perhaps to look at how it would function, or to look at the very assessment criteria they’d want to set? No. So we’re at the beginning of a process, it’s a democratic process, but I want to say that the very people who’d like to export agricultural goods, because France is an exporting power – well, we also have to reflect on the fact that sometimes we’ve got to open our borders.

CETA

Q. – There’s talk of ratifying another treaty, called CETA, the free trade agreement with Canada. Many are denouncing an agreement with one of the G20’s worst countries when it comes to the environment. Matthieu Orphelin, a former deputy in your party, the République En Marche – he left it – is asking for voting to be postponed; it [the agreement] has arrived at the National Assembly. Should it be ratified?

THE MINISTER – It’s what will be discussed at this morning’s Council of Ministers’ meeting. Today the assessment in terms of trade, the environment and the standards we’ve set [is that these areas] are being respected, so this will be debated in Parliament.

Q. – Would you like it to be ratified?

THE MINISTER – Of course I’d like it to be ratified, because we’ve assessed it, because we’re monitoring it, because in no way are we looking at an economic tidal wave, but rather a French trade surplus with Canada which has increased, and because when it comes to standards today we’ve got proof that it works.

Q. – You do realize it’s confusing to say that act two of Emmanuel Macron’s mandate will be environmental, that priority will be given to the environment, the climate while at the same time telling the French people, the same week, that you’ve signed, that the European Union has signed Mercosur and you’re going to ratify CETA, which environmentalists see as red rags?

THE MINISTER – If environmentalism means nationalism, protectionism and self-absorption, I’m not sure we agree. I’m not sure the French people agree either.

Paris Agreement

Q. – Do you feel this is what Yannick Jadot is championing, for example – protectionism, nationalism, self-absorption?

THE MINISTER – The easy route is all very well, saying that you want compliance with the Paris Agreement is all very well. But in that world I don’t know how to lay down the conditions for it to take effect; you can make speeches, you can say “we want compliance with the Paris Agreement”; I think that when you sign a trade agreement and lay down conditions, when you do what we’ve done with the United States, saying, “if you don’t comply with the Paris Agreement, well, you don’t have our French vote for ratifying”, then you make headway, and I think you make the climate a major political and diplomatic issue, not just one for show.

Migration

Q. – Carola Rackete, the captain of the Sea-Watch ship, which had 40 migrants on board and entered the port of Lampedusa without permission, who was arrested by the Italian police straightaway, was declared free yesterday evening by the Italian courts. Is this a good thing?

THE MINISTER – It’s excellent news, because those who save lives have no place in prison.

Q. – With the arrival of summer, will migrant boats be arriving too? Is France going to change its position or is it still a case of “we aren’t accepting migrants at our ports”?

THE MINISTER – Of course, of course we’re accepting migrants. Secondly, the work I’m conducting, all the ministers and I are conducting, is to reform Schengen and the asylum system. We’re working so that, structurally, we come up with substantial solutions to this. (…)./.

Published on 18/07/2019

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