Europe Minister on citizens’ consultations to help reform EU

European Union – European elections/citizens’ consultations/Skripal case/United Kingdom/Russia – Interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to the newspaper 20 Minutes

Paris, 6 April 2018

EU citizens’ consultations

Q. – How are the citizens’ consultations on Europe going to be organized?

THE MINISTER – It’s intended that they’ll start from the grassroots. The state will organize some of them, but most will be organized by local authorities, voluntary organizations, professional federations, universities, chambers of trade etc. The state will be facilitator, by providing an organization kit and financial support if necessary. Our initiative is completely transpartisan: the consultations will be controlled by a monitoring committee, to which each political party will appoint a representative.

Q. – How many events will take place and in how many areas?

THE MINISTER – I can’t tell you today how many consultations there will be. At this stage 100 or so projects have been submitted to us. To approve them, we’re asking the organizers to make a commitment to the pluralism of opinions expressed, transparency on funding and the publication of a report. We’ll pay close attention to covering a broad range of people and areas in France.

The consultation will also take place online: in the 27 countries organizing consultations, the European Commission is going to distribute an online questionnaire put together by a panel of European citizens.

Q. – You’re using the word “Europe” a lot; is it a choice not to mention the European Union?

THE MINISTER – We don’t want to intimidate anyone. Everyone knows that when you talk about Europe, you mean the European Union. We want to avoid talking in jargon because one of the European project’s great faults is that it has stuck to language which doesn’t speak to a large number of people. The aim is to find out what they expect from European policies in terms of education, social Europe, research, security, the handling of migration flows etc. The European institutions must put these policies into practice.

On Europe, you hear either devotees or those who proclaim they hate it. We want to give a voice to those who are never heard, who are asking themselves questions or who have ideas to propose.

European elections/French voters

Q. – How do you mobilize French people when they seldom vote in the European elections?

THE MINISTER – For months I’ve been talking to various interlocutors – chambers of commerce officials, trade unions, locally elected representatives and members of Parliament across the political spectrum – to suggest to them that they organize consultations in their own areas.

With these consultations, we want to combat abstention in the European elections.

The only party I’m fighting by means of these consultations is abstention. Up to now we haven’t been able to convince Europeans – not just French people – that the European Parliament contributes to decisions which strongly impact on their daily lives – as for instance has been the case with Bisphenol A, Glyphosate, electric fishing and endocrine disrupters. We want to convince our citizens that they can take action on Europe by going and voting in the forthcoming elections.

Q. – Have you got a goal in terms of turnout in these consultations?

THE MINISTER – No, it’s a totally new exercise; we’ll do our best to ensure it mobilizes as many as possible. The media also need to talk about it!

“Great March for Europe”

Q. – Aren’t you afraid you’ll mobilize only those who are pro-EU, the great majority of whom are Macron supporters?

THE MINISTER – I don’t think so, because these consultations really are open to everyone and it’s a subject which attracts wide interest. La République en Marche, for its part, is going to be holding its Great March for Europe from Saturday onwards, which I’m also going to be taking part in. Our wish is to involve all French people, not just those who are naturally persuaded; we must go and meet the sceptics and understand their reservations in order to address them.

Q. – This Great March is very similar to your citizens’ consultations…

THE MINISTER – Not at all: it’s about seeking people out, under the LREM banner, and asking them what they want to see in the programme LREM will be putting forward in the European elections, whereas the citizens’ consultations are initiatives that will come from civil society, across the political spectrum, with open debates. Every political movement can get involved.

Q. – With less than a year to go till the European elections, the campaign has already begun… Aren’t these consultations aimed, above all, at mobilizing your camp before the ballot?

THE MINISTER – No, we’re not on the campaign trail yet! Moreover, the timetable for citizens’ consultations deliberately stops at the end of October, to avoid confusion between this debate and the electoral period.

Q. – Do you really think the 27 member states would campaign for Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche?

THE MINISTER – No; anyway, the initiative is supported by governments with very different views throughout Europe.

EU reform

Q. – What’s going to emerge from this citizens’ consultation, which isn’t binding on either the government or the EU? Can it lead to a new European treaty?

THE MINISTER – Since Brexit, there’s been consensus among European leaders about the need to reform Europe. The results of these consultations will enable us to provide clarity about the expected priorities for the coming years. The 27 can’t organize such a vast consultation and not look closely at the results.

Q. – Could it extend as far as a new European treaty?

THE MINISTER – That’s neither a goal in itself nor off limits. If, at the end of these consultations, we notice for example that there’s strong demand for an integrated European social policy, it would lead us to think about changing the treaties.

A new European treaty isn’t off limits.

Q. – Is the EU too technocratic?

THE MINISTER – That’s a facile criticism. Politicians from both the right and the left in France have tended to point to “Brussels” as the source of all our misfortunes, as if we weren’t involved in the decisions. Together with the President, we believe there are key European issues that must be dealt with at European level, even if we’re critical of some ways the EU works. For example, we need more democratic control over the Euro Area. Decisions with sometimes painful consequences, particularly during the Greek crisis, were taken without there being any democratic control. That’s why we’d like a Euro Area parliament.

Q. – Following the President’s speech at the Sorbonne in September, citizens’ consultations are the only one of his proposals that the member states accepted. His desire to create transnational lists for the European elections was rejected; his idea of a Euro Area budget isn’t going down well. Is this outcome disappointing?

THE MINISTER – Transnational lists had been promoted by the European Parliament for years, and 10 member states supported them with France. The plan came up against the conservatism of traditional European political parties that were afraid of losing their supremacy. That’s a knee-jerk reaction we regret, but we won’t give up on it for 2024.

On the Euro Area budget, we’re in the process of discussing it, firstly with our German partners. Chancellor Angela Merkel has committed to a strengthening of the Euro Area. It’s written in black and white in the coalition contract signed by the parties that make up the government. We’re working on our understanding of what strengthening the Euro Area means.

Q. – Movements critical of the EU have been gaining momentum amid the migration crisis. Has the EU failed to meet citizens’ expectations on this?

THE MINISTER – It’s an issue which caught Europe unawares. Europe groped around, had trouble finding a response and was divided between countries showing solidarity with Italy and Greece and those which thought it didn’t concern them. Today we’re working to stabilize the transit and conflict countries and develop the countries of origin. We must now succeed in reforming the European asylum system.

In Italy, the elections highlighted disappointment with the lack of European solidarity. For that reason, too, we must get an idea of Europeans’ expectations. You’re not happy, but what would you like? The EU’s external borders to be strengthened? Responsibility for asylum applications to be entrusted to a European agency?

Russia/Skripal case

Q. – Following the Skripal affair, France quickly decided to follow the United Kingdom, which is accusing Russia, and expel four Russian diplomats. Why?

THE MINISTER – It’s the first time since 1945 that there’s been a chemical attack on European soil. The information Theresa May passed on to us suggests that there’s no other plausible theory than that the toxic agent used is of Russian origin. The French President spoke to Vladimir Putin to ask him to shed light on the issue. In this very serious situation, we took measures coordinated with 19 member states, and France expelled four members of staff with Russian diplomatic status./.

Published on 10/04/2018

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