France defends its interests more effectively in a strong Europe - Minister

Foreign policy – United States/NATO/Denmark/asylum/United Kingdom/Brexit/fisheries – Interview given by M. Clément Beaune, Minister for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to Europe 1 (excerpt)

Paris, 14 June 2021

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US-EU RELATIONS

Q. – The American President is continuing his round of visits in Europe, punctuated by a NATO summit in Brussels today. Is Joe Biden a friend of the Europeans or is it still first and foremost America First?

THE MINISTER – He’s the American President and we shouldn’t expect him to defend Europeans’ interests first. But neither must we deny ourselves a good thing, so to speak; Europe and the United States are obviously having a transatlantic moment, which is better than in the Trump era, it makes discussions easier: we’ve moved closer together on climate and international taxation issues. All the same, it must also be said that we didn’t wait in any way for the Americans to push all these issues; on the contrary, we’ve seen the Americans coming round to Europe’s positions on taxation, on climate ambition, on the return of multilateral cooperation. So much the better, but during that time, for four years, when the Americans weren’t there, it was the Europeans who stood firm and kept the world’s house in order.

CHINA

Q. – ...kept its house in order, but even so, today, even though you talk about this moment, there are similarities with Donald Trump because just like Donald Trump, Joe Biden is pointing to the Chinese threat. Biden wants to make the Atlantic Alliance a tool to fight Chinese ambitions and wants to enlist the Europeans. What’s your response to that?

THE MINISTER – Firstly, we have to be clear. The Europeans aren’t equidistant, so to speak, from the Americans and Chinese. Through our values, our history – I never forget this – and through our security interests, we’re obviously much closer to the United States than China.

Q. – But there are obviously huge trade interests.

THE MINISTER – Nonetheless, the fact remains that the Europeans – that’s what we mean when we talk about European autonomy – must themselves define their interests, our interests, without waiting for Washington’s instructions. And on certain issues, obviously, we’ve got to cooperate with China, not adopt a simple confrontational approach, and indeed occasionally we won’t have the same interests or the same position as the Americans. I’m thinking of the climate...

NATO

Q. – And was that said? Was it said at the G7? Did Emmanuel Macron and others tell the American President, “no, we don’t want to be enlisted in your new Cold War against China”?

THE MINISTER – Yes, it was said clearly, including publicly by the French President last week in his press conference. There are subjects on which we cooperate with the Chinese. I was talking about the climate; even when the Americans were blocking things under Donald Trump, we were able to make progress on the climate ambition, on the international commitments with China – so much the better. It doesn’t mean we’re naive. Without waiting for the Americans, we ourselves, once again, drew up in Europe, for example, stricter anti-dumping rules and trade rules vis-à-vis China. NATO is somewhat different, it wasn’t designed – the President reiterated this as well – to be an alliance against China. We’ve got to see what NATO is for, it’s our collective security, between Americans and Europeans. It’s a bit different; it doesn’t mean we don’t have common interests when it comes to trade – we’re going to defend them together.

EUROPEAN SOVEREIGNTY

Q. – Of course, and in the face of the bloc mentality, Emmanuel Macron is still banking on and talking about European sovereignty, but if Europe isn’t a nation, how can it be sovereign?

THE MINISTER – We have to be very clear: some people are exploiting this notion of European sovereignty to say, “it’s against the nation’s sovereignty, the sovereignty of the French people.” No way! I’m a member of the Government, I’m passionately committed to national sovereignty, it’s my mission, it’s our constitution, it’s all that.

Q. – So why not talk about French sovereignty?

THE MINISTER – But I do talk about French sovereignty.

Q. – Yes, but do you put European sovereignty above it?

THE MINISTER – Not at all. What I mean by this is that I believe deeply that France defends its interests more effectively by being part of a strong Europe. I think, on the contrary, that this so-called European sovereignty strengthens our national sovereignty.

Q. – Give me a specific example.

THE MINISTER – I’ll give you a very specific example. Do we think in the coming years that, when we talk about the Sahel, when we talk about cyber attacks, we’ll always have the Americans coming to our side to protect us? Or should we take our decisions ourselves, should we strengthen our tools, our defence equipment ourselves, should we ourselves be able, for example, to face up to the Russians, Chinese or Turks when we have cyber attacks, when we have misinformation? These are current threats on which we must work with the Americans, but we Europeans ourselves, in NATO or elsewhere, must define our interests, our capacity for action. It’s about autonomy.

DENMARK/ASYLUM

Q. – So that’s an example which, according to you, is in line with European sovereignty. Well, let me give you a counter-example, on immigration, and it’s a specific example: Denmark, which now wants to move its asylum seekers outside Europe. Copenhagen has adopted a law enabling applications to be processed outside Europe. Is Denmark taking what you might call a national sovereignty approach? Can it do that?

THE MINISTER – First of all, on the migration issue, I do believe we must have European responses. Are they currently sufficient, effective? Clearly not. There are issues where progress is being made.

Q. – So in this specific case, is national sovereignty stronger?

THE MINISTER – The thing is, national sovereignty is always important, it’s just that in Europe we cooperate on certain issues. On the issue of protecting borders, do people think we’re going to leave Greece all alone, Italy all alone, Spain all alone in the face of waves of migration? No, we need European solidarity and support; for example, we’ve created a European border force called Frontex, which is going to be scaled up. I prefer solutions like that.

Q. – Yes, it’s been said for years that it’s going to be scaled up, and we’re still waiting, with tragedies still occurring in the Mediterranean.

THE MINISTER – Yes, of course, but it’s making progress. And look at what’s happening in Greece: it’s this European agency which is helping today and which helped last year when Turkey provoked, off Greece, the Greek coast, which helped contain…

Q. –Yes, but then why does Denmark believe it must take charge, and all by itself?

THE MINISTER – This is a specific measure. I want to be very clear, it’s about the right of asylum. You mustn’t mix everything together. That we should protect ourselves from trafficking, smugglers, illegal immigration, in particular economic immigration, is understandable: I have no problem with that, and I also think we must do so with European tools. That the right of asylum – in other words, that people who are persecuted for their religion, their political opinions, their sexual orientation, should no longer have the right to come to Europe, I can’t come to terms with that, and that’s what Denmark is calling into question with this law.

Q. – But for moral considerations, you say, because Denmark has the right to do it in practice.

THE MINISTER – That’s what we’re in the process of looking at, because that’s not certain; we have international commitments. The European Commission has also initiated a procedure, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees too, to check that the law is compatible with Denmark’s commitments. But above all…

Q. – But you can imagine the Danes, who must be saying to themselves: but we have the right, this bill was passed in our country and the Europeans are going to tell us no.

THE MINISTER – Not at all: the Danes, like the French, obviously have the right to do what they want, and in France we don’t want uncontrolled immigration either…

Q. – What they want, but apparently under the yoke of the Europeans.

THE MINISTER – Well, if they want to renege on their international commitments, they should say so. But they can’t say: “I pledge, hand on heart, at the UN etc., to welcome people who have the right to asylum” – that’s very specific, it’s not all the migrants in the world, it’s people who have the right to asylum: Middle Eastern Christians, people who are persecuted, those are the people we’re talking about, in our constitution in France, and it’s the same thing in Denmark too, those people must be protected; and I think it’s a matter of honour for us; and let’s not suggest that migration flows are linked to the right of asylum, that’s not true.

BREXIT

Q. – There’s honour and there’s sovereignty; those can’t be pitted against each other. Let’s take one example: Boris Johnson says he wants to defend the United Kingdom’s sovereignty and integrity, and to that end, at the G7 summit, he gave Emmanuel Macron quite an edifying example, as it were: Toulouse sausages. It would be unthinkable, he said, for them not to be sold in Paris markets – quite a graphic example, it’s true. Emmanuel Macron told him: “But ultimately they’re in the same country,” but Boris Johnson said: “Yes, but for me it’s the same thing [i.e. Northern Ireland and Britain are also part of the same country],” and he’s threatening not to comply with the Brexit agreement. Is the threat serious, in your opinion?

THE MINISTER – Well, the threat’s very serious, and the case is very serious. Mr Johnson talks about sausages because in the UK it’s a fact: there are currently problems importing sausages into Northern Ireland; British gastronomy is very important and we respect it. And why do these problems exist? Because when you leave the European Union – it’s the British people’s sovereign right, they did it, that’s fine – you necessarily have a number of barriers. Why? Because I can’t tell French people, and no one can tell other Europeans either, that the British could export to us with no checks, via Ireland, products, meat – we’ve unfortunately experienced dangerous cases in the past – without checks on quality and compliance with food standards. That’s what we’re talking about very specifically.

Q. – Ah, does that mean Boris Johnson wants to export to us however he wants, in your view?

THE MINISTER – He doesn’t want any borders, barriers, between Northern Ireland and Britain. And we’re saying: “you took the Brexit decision, you can’t have your cake and eat it”.

Q. – But to counter you he invokes UK sovereignty.

THE MINISTER – That’s fine. UK sovereignty is valid for the UK; that doesn’t mean you can go and export anything and everything to Europe via Northern Ireland. Brexit necessarily has consequences; it’s obviously a sovereign decision, but you can’t say that democratic decisions – I think there were a few lies in the campaign – don’t also have consequences.

Q. – But why does he do that? Let’s go further: is Boris Johnson currently sensing, or has he already understood, the weakness of the Europeans? We’re being slow. He’s seeking to renegotiate.

THE MINISTER – Well, Mr Johnson thinks you can sign commitments, not comply with them and the Europeans won’t react. So I’m saying this is a test for Europe. We talk about European sovereignty…

Q. – To that extent? Is it a test for Europe?

THE MINISTER – Yes. I believe so very strongly.

Q. – In other words, you don’t even rule out a trade war between the British and Europeans?

THE MINISTER – I don’t rule anything out. We’re saying very calmly and very simply – and the President has reiterated it – that you comply with agreements signed. We’re not asking for any favours, it’s not about ethics; we signed an agreement for our fishermen, for peace in Northern Ireland, today there are commitments that have been made and they’re not being honoured.

Q. – But maybe they can’t be implemented on the ground – could that be what Boris Johnson is saying? Maybe that’s what’s poisonous about Brexit, an agreement that can’t be implemented, in very practical terms?

THE MINISTER – Well, first of all I think this agreement absolutely can be implemented: we’re also complying with it, so it’s possible, and it took four years to be negotiated. Michel Barnier negotiated for the Europeans, every step of the way…

Q. – He was right here last week; he explained it to us.

THE MINISTER – He explained it to you. Mr Johnson and the British diplomats didn’t sign just anything. They got their Parliament to vote for it. British MPs are elected by the British people; they know what they’re doing. So you now comply with an agreement. I’m also surprised that in France, those who uphold national sovereignty as against European sovereignty praise Mr Johnson. Let’s not uphold [it] that way; I’m thinking of the far right, which today…

Q. – But who are you talking about? Who is the far right?

THE MINISTER – Marine Le Pen, M. Bardella, M. Dupont-Aignan, who have – they now conceal it a bit more – praised Brexit. And today, praising Brexit doesn’t mean upholding French sovereignty, because it means posing difficulties for our fishermen, it doesn’t mean defending our fishermen’s interests. I do defend them, and I say to the British: you respect the agreements, in full, otherwise we’ll take retaliatory measures.

Q. – What retaliatory measures?

THE MINISTER – Trade measures.

Q. – Yes…

THE MINISTER – Customs duties, things like that. There’s an agreement, and that agreement stipulates that unless you comply scrupulously with all the commitments, retaliatory measures can be taken. We have the means to defend our interests; we’ll do so.

Q. – A word about our fishermen: that would also mean that if there’s so much renewed tension, there will obviously be repercussions for the fishing industry too.

THE MINISTER – But there are already difficulties today, because the British aren’t implementing the agreements. So I defend – it’s my role in the French Government as a political leader to defend our fishermen’s interests. This agreement enables us to; we’ll do so to the end. (…)./.

Published on 15/06/2021

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