Europe Minister believes good Brexit deal still possible
European Union – United Kingdom/migration – Interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to France Inter (excerpts)
Paris, 4 October 2018
Q. – Today we heard Donald Tusk say to Theresa May: “It’s time to get back to work now” on the Brexit issue. Is that a collective demand you’re making to her?
THE MINISTER – No. There’s no demand, because there’s a lot of respect between Theresa May and the European heads of state and government, but what’s true is that the clock is ticking. It’s six months until the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. We need to agree on the conditions of the separation before we can consider our future relationship. Many things have been done. Michel Barnier has done a tremendous job with our British partners.
Q. – We’re still at 80%.
THE MINISTER – Yes. We’ve got a bit more than 80% done, but that was a long time ago, and now we must absolutely reach a solution on the Irish border which is credible and which not only protects the peace agreements in Northern Ireland, because that’s essential, but also doesn’t undermine the European Union.
Q. – The much-discussed backstop. The idea was Michel Barnier’s: namely to leave the border between the two Irelands open until a solution is found, except it’s fully understandable that, for the British, it means Ireland has been reunified overnight.
THE MINISTER – Yes and no, because today, if you go to the Irish border, you don’t see anything. There’s no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There’s constant movement of people and goods. It’s obviously simple, because single market and customs union both go together. What we’ve agreed on with the British is to retain a lack of physical borders in future. From that starting point, we must find a solution on the basis of the choices the UK makes. If the UK tells us it doesn’t want to be in the single market, that means there must be health controls. If it tells us it doesn’t want to be in the customs union, there must be customs controls.
Q. – So you’re preparing, and you also told the Council of Ministers very recently – but you’re not the only one – that the Commission is also preparing; everyone is preparing…
THE MINISTER – Including the British.
Q. – Including the British, obviously. We’re preparing for no deal. Is that likelihood stronger today, including after the Conservative conference in the UK, or not?
THE MINISTER – I still believe in the possibility of a good deal, because we all know its parameters, we want it and it’s clearly the least bad solution. I’m not going to tell you it’s the best one: the best solution would be for the UK to remain in the EU.
Q. – But it’s too late.
THE MINISTER –Even so, that’s how the relationship can be closest.
Q. – That means you still believe in it. Do you yourself seriously think a re-vote is possible?
THE MINISTER – Listen, it’s not for me to say, it’s for the British people. But in any case, it wasn’t the EU that drove out the UK. If there were another vote…
Q. – But would you like there to be a re-vote?
THE MINISTER – I regret Brexit but I respect the British decision and I’m working to ensure that the decision is taken in the most orderly way possible. I think it’s possible to get there, but every scenario must be prepared for. We can’t tell our citizens, our businesses and the Britons who live in France that we didn’t manage to agree, that we weren’t ready. We don’t want chaos, so my job is also to prepare for no deal and ensure things go in the least bad way possible.
Q. – And what are we most afraid of? You’ve talked about it already: there are about 300,000 French people living in the UK.
THE MINISTER – Roughly, yes.
Q. – Those 300,000 shouldn’t find themselves in an illegal situation; in a way, that would really be the last straw.
THE MINISTER – Obviously.
Q. – There are also 150,000 on our side; the same goes for them.
THE MINISTER – And probably a bit more than that.
Q. – What are we actually most afraid of in this?
THE MINISTER – What we have to do if there’s ever a no-deal scenario is clearly to ensure that our citizens in the UK and British citizens in France can keep a status as close as possible to their current status or the one we agreed on with the British in the [draft] withdrawal agreement, because that’s something we and the British achieved. It’s better to maintain the intelligent efforts we’ve made for the future of those people, who constitute our richness, the wealth of our economy, the richness of our cultural and scientific exchanges, and in that respect I think the British think so too.
So what I’m preparing for is to ensure Britons in France can remain under satisfactory conditions, provided the same thing is expected for French citizens living in the UK. I’m also preparing for what could happen in the event of no deal – again, I repeat, for French people returning from the UK – so that we can continue taking into consideration their qualifications, careers and social security contributions, all of which would be in danger of collapsing if we didn’t prepare anything.
Q. – People, goods – are we able suddenly to pull another 700 customs officers out of a hat, because controls will clearly have to be re-established? We’re talking about people but also goods, we’re talking about all that. Are they going to spring from nowhere?
THE MINISTER – No, they’re not going to spring from nowhere; Gérald Darmanin has planned for it. It’s something we’ve been talking about with all the ministers concerned and the Prime Minister for months.
Recruitment in the customs sector has begun because even with a deal, we don’t know exactly what type of future relations we’ll have with the UK, so controls may be needed. That means customs officers, infrastructure and parking areas. It also means modernizing our controls to make sure they’re as smooth as possible and don’t cause traffic jams on arrival in France.
Q. – And the British are also able to retain capital, among other things. Is there fear of a tax haven on our doorstep, because we already know that type of thing can happen – things were even said in this respect. Does this fear exist or not?
THE MINISTER – I listened very carefully to Theresa May’s speech during the Conservative party conference. What she spoke about was an increase in public spending in the UK after Brexit by acknowledging, at any rate considering there to be many sectors which have suffered from under-investment, a lack of public engagement. I don’t really see how the UK could increase public spending and meet the cost of Brexit – because the cost is real – whilst lowering taxes.
Q. – (…) Do you feel that she’s still in control? She needs a majority vote in the Commons and, let’s be honest, is Theresa May, who has been so weakened in her own country, basically the right negotiating partner?
THE MINISTER – Michel Barnier and the 27 EU member states are working with the British government as is, and it’s in all our interests to have a strong government with a strong majority, which is capable of ratifying the withdrawal agreement.
Q. – But there isn’t a strong government in the UK at the moment.
THE MINISTER – I don’t know. I hope there is at any rate, and it’s not for me to meddle in British domestic politics. I wouldn’t want the British to meddle in French domestic politics, but we’d like a strong government. We’ve no reason, nor is it in our interests, to weaken the current British government.
Q. – What must collectively emerge from the 17 October summit? What do you want the 27 to come up with before the arrival of Theresa May – who, incidentally, will be there on the 18th and will listen to what you’ve got to say?
THE MINISTER – The guidelines we’ve given Michel Barnier to negotiate both the withdrawal and the future relationship remain the same, because in a way they’re the backbone of what the European Union is. We’d like an orderly withdrawal, we’d like a close future relationship with the UK but not to the detriment of the European Union, not to the detriment of the Europeans’ interests. Brexit means the departure of the UK. It doesn’t mean the unravelling of the EU.
Q. – And heaven knows, there are problems among European countries, among the 27 at the moment. Do you get the impression here that there’s really a genuine union? Could something crack because everyone’s going to pursue their interests in it?
THE MINISTER – It isn’t an impression, it’s how things are, which was shown very clearly in Salzburg. Those who imagined there were disagreements between Europeans were wasting their time, since the 27 heads of state and government said the same thing together: yes to a good withdrawal agreement, but not at any price. It’s quite easy to believe that no European head of state or government wants to work to the detriment of their interests, the interests of their people and their businesses. (…)./.