Europe Minister talks to 40-year-old Franco-British Council

Fortieth anniversary of the Franco-British Council – Speech by M. Thierry Repentin, Minister Delegate for European Affairs, to the Franco-British Council

London, 17 July 2013

Faced with a frontier, be it geographical or political, there are two possibilities: either we leave it to separate us, like a boundary that cannot be crossed, or we build a link between both sides. And this link may well be a tunnel! We know a thing or two about this, in that we’re linked by the longest undersea tunnel in the world, a tunnel whose 20th anniversary we’re getting ready to celebrate.

Choosing between erecting a wall and linking two countries across their boundary is an eminently political act. Creating a link, an opening, or turning in on oneself are the two possible options. At a time when the development of populism and Euroscepticism seems to be on the rise in the majority of European countries, it is more critical than ever to reassert that joining forces is necessary to move forward and more effectively confront the difficulties we’ve been going through since 2008.

In this respect, I’m pleased that the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Franco-British Council and the Foreign Office’s hospitality have given me the opportunity to come to London.

This 40th anniversary year for the Franco-British Council allows me to pay tribute today to the role the institution plays as a “bridge”: a bridge between our political classes, a bridge between our economic players and, above all, a bridge between our two civil societies.

Landmark events have punctuated the past year, enriching the Franco-British relationship and really bringing our two countries’ civil societies closer together. Such indeed is the main job of the Council, instigated by Georges Pompidou and Edward Heath to energize our bilateral relationship and support the United Kingdom’s entry into what was then called the European Community. I’ll highlight two key moments: the holding of a seminar in Newcastle last December on the financial crisis and economic issues. The initiative came from Baroness Joyce Quin, thus concluding a brilliant chairmanship of the Council’s British Section. I would like, here, to pay tribute to her. The other highlight was the annual conference on defence issues on 16 May at the French Residence in London, attended this year by our two countries’ defence ministers and many other leading figures from both sides of the Channel.

Making this very positive assessment also leads to the realization that celebrating an anniversary isn’t solely about looking back, but, on the contrary, is an incentive to act more and better together. By drawing on the remarkable work already done, in the form of analyses, discussions and putting key people concerned in touch with [people who are] the so-called “lifeblood” of our societies, the Franco-British Council’s new joint chairmanship is going to give fresh impetus to Council activities. I take the opportunity to welcome Baroness Tessa Blackstone and Professor Christian de Boissieu, who are here this evening.

In a general sense, the activities of the Franco-British Council testify to the extraordinary richness of our bilateral relationship: it’s far from clichéd to say the UK and France have an intense relationship that could be described as an alliance. Our close relations enjoy support from the highest levels of our two states. The French President has come to the UK four times since he was elected last year, the latest being in June for the G8 summit in Lough Erne.

I don’t intend to list all the elements of our relationship here: they’re far too wide-ranging, from defence matters to economic, cultural and social issues, as I’ve already said. But I can offer many examples of what we represent to each other:

- First of all, we’re united by the attraction between our peoples and cultures. Every year, 10 million British tourists go to France and 3.5 million French people visit Britain. Being from the mountains, I can’t fail to mention that the British make up the highest number of foreign skiers in France’s resorts!

- We must also emphasize how close our cooperation is on nearly all the major international issues of the day, from Mali (on which we recently obtained Britain’s immediate and unfailing support) to Syria, Egypt and the fight against terrorism. Our cooperation at the United Nations Security Council is invaluable: 75% of the proposals examined there are drawn up by France and the UK.

- As for defence, the adoption of our White Paper and the annual spending commitment it contains will be particularly useful reference points for ensuring our shared projects are given a boost, in the spirit of the Lancaster House treaty.

- I could also mention trade and entrepreneurship – 1,600 French companies are currently established here, and France is the leading country for British investment in Europe – or the procurement on which we’re cooperating: the Airbus A400, the Future Combat Aircraft and the Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon for our warships. Cross-Channel exchanges of expertise are an undeniably rich source of economic and technological developments.

These fundamental issues – which concern our countries’ vital interests, such as the major industrial policies – will, as is customary, be on the agenda of the Franco-British summit, which could be held in the autumn or at the beginning of 2014. But we can also think about broadening the scope of our discussions and shared projects and incorporate new themes into them.

So this 40th anniversary year provides us with a launch pad for very swiftly moving on to other ways of working together and building. As I was saying, major commemorations will mark 2014, because the weight of history is always present in the Franco-British relationship: the start of the commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War, which will provide an opportunity to recall the essential importance of dialogue in overcoming national antagonisms, an approach behind the very idea of the European enterprise. 2014 will also mark the 70th anniversary of the landings on the Normandy beaches and, nearer to us [in time], the 20th anniversary of the Channel Tunnel coming into service, which I mentioned in my opening remarks.

These milestones prove that we can’t talk about Europe without an awareness of the weight of history and geography which forge our destiny. This leads me to talk in particular about the theme the Franco-British Council has given to our meeting, “Making the case for Europe”.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what’s at the heart of my concerns, as it is for David Lidington. Above all, it’s the whole purpose of the Europe policy President Hollande has been tirelessly conducting since May 2012.

Because to reconcile people to Europe, it is crucial for it to be seen to address their daily concerns and aspirations. Indeed, it is essential to show our fellow citizens, hit by crisis and unemployment, that the European Union acts to improve their situation and takes initiatives to support member states’ efforts to encourage the return of growth.

That’s what we’re striving to do, and we’ve already made significant progress. The European growth and employment pact, adopted in June 2012, was a first step: we’re monitoring its implementation and, in particular, that of the €120 billion of “measures with a rapid impact”. The European Council at the end of June was a second step, with measures to boost youth employment, the investment plan and measures to support the financing of the economy, particularly SMEs.

Reconciling citizens to Europe also means showing that it addresses their social concerns. So, for example, France worked hard to ensure that the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived, which contributes to food banks, was maintained. At this time of profound crisis, who would have understood the EU deciding, for purely legal reasons, to stop contributing to a programme which so many people concerned obviously regard as essential?

Reforming Europe also means ensuring that the Euro Area has the means to function optimally. We’ve made progress along this path, particularly with the first stages of banking union. We’ll continue over the coming months. Additionally, the joint Franco-German contribution on 30 May set out ambitious ideas for the future.

We’re very happy that the British, while being non-members of the Euro Area (and determined to remain so!), have constantly said they share our opinion that strengthening the Euro Area’s organization and governance was necessary to enable it to withstand crises better.

This greater integration in Economic and Monetary Union is a necessity for those states that have a common currency. But it’s in no way a threat to those member states that don’t use this single currency. Euro Area summits and ministerial councils, and indeed a dedicated body in the European Parliament, will discuss only Euro Area-related matters.

The same is already true of Euro Area summits: David Lidington has emphasized the driving role of the European Council. We also need regular summits of Euro Area heads of state and government to provide impetus, but not, of course, to take decisions regarding the common policies of the 28, especially the internal market.

I’d like to stress this point, because I hear it said in various quarters that those states which don’t have the euro would automatically be in a minority on all subjects. This has no concrete basis. Moreover, we all noted with interest that the latest report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, whose chairman I met earlier, points out that the countries the UK most often votes with in Brussels include some states outside and others inside the Euro Area, and that France is among the latter. We’re very pleased that the British share our view that strengthening the Euro Area is necessary to enable it to withstand crises better.

Additionally, we all know that Europe, like any institutional creation, must constantly evolve and ask itself questions.

I know the debate these issues give rise to in the United Kingdom. I also know about the audit of powers which has been launched as part of your internal debates. It is not for me to comment on these discussions: I want only to express the wish that they will strengthen the United Kingdom’s conviction that being in the EU is in her interest.

Because we all know, too, on both sides of the Channel, just what the European project has achieved: a vast common market, common policies forging a whole spectrum of ties of solidarity and shared values for which we are the envy of the world, and which it is our job to promote.

Also, even if the criticism is at times warranted, let’s also defend Europe, in our constituencies, in public debate, in academic discourse as we discharge our individual daily responsibilities.

So there you have in a few words what I wanted to say to you for this 40th anniversary Franco-British Council celebration. It is therefore, as you’ll have understood, an opportunity to recall the decisive importance of the Franco-British relationship, which is at the heart of Europe. It will be all the more decisive in the tough period we are living through. As in the past, we will have to go through this period together, side by side, in order to build a Europe at the service of our peoples!/.

Published on 23/07/2013

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