France preparing for every Brexit scenario - Minister

Italy/European Union/Brexit – Excerpts from the interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to Radio Classique

Paris, 8 February 2019


France-Italy relations

Q. – On this Italy crisis, should we have made this dramatic gesture or rather have played things down, because it’s true that we haven’t recalled our ambassador since 1940.

THE MINISTER –But a member of a foreign government coming to France to support someone who isn’t even a political leader, who has called for civil war, who has called for the overthrow of the President and for a military government – that has never happened, either. It’s not about being dramatic, it’s about saying: “playtime is over”.

Q. – Would you talk this morning of interference?

THE MINISTER – Of course, untimely interference, an unfriendly gesture, from people who are supposed to be leaders, whose priority should be the interests of Italians; I don’t see how the Italians’ interests are upheld by a member of the Italian government coming to meet someone who is calling for civil war in France.

Q. – For the past eight months it’s been soundbite against soundbite: “the wind of change has crossed the Alps” is what [Luigi] Di Maio said a few days ago, but it’s true, and as Guillaume pointed out in his editorial, the French side has talked about “Italian cynicism”, a “rising leprosy”, a “nationalism being reborn”. (…) Where does responsibility lie? For you, does responsibility for this crisis lie essentially with Italy?

THE MINISTER – Listen, we’ve called a spade a spade, and unfortunately what’s happening at the moment proves us right. We know that nationalism in Europe – without specifically mentioning one country or another – was an accumulation of sectional and national interests that never created any solutions but made problems toxic, and I’m pointing out that Emmanuel Macron was right to criticize it. It wasn’t a party political strategy or tactic.

Q. – Emmanuel Macron isn’t on the front line, for example on the migrants issue. The question has been asked for months in Italy, where there are hundreds of thousands of migrants who cross the Mediterranean to flee abject poverty, to flee war. And admittedly Italy’s on the front line. At the end of the day, Italy is criticizing us for criticising it on this issue, just as it criticizes us for criticizing it on the Libya issue, and I won’t mention the case of Cesare Battisti and other Italian activists [whose extradition] the Italian courts request . There really are some very hot issues between Rome and Paris.

THE MINISTER – Well, on migration specifically, there were 10 times fewer arrivals in Italy in 2018 than in 2017, because there’s European action – which Italy doesn’t want to take part in – which has very much eased the pressure on Italy. And the last time an NGO ship picked up castaways at sea, that ship was called Seawatch 3, it was able to dock in an Italian port for once, and it was able to do so because the first country that said it was ready to play its part and take in asylum seekers – as every time – was France…

Q. – It was a few dozen!

THE MINISTER – Yes, but when Italy needs allies to come to its assistance, it’s not its nationalist friends in Hungary or Poland who give it a hand: they give nothing. It’s France every time, and France above all.

On Libya, Libya belongs to no one: the Libyan chaos must be resolved through international cooperation, particularly between European countries and particularly between France and Italy. That’s what we’re doing: we stood alongside the Italians when they organized a conference in Palermo recently. They – some of them – speak in completely backward-looking language, talking about the various parties’ colonial influence in Africa; what a lack of respect for the Africans.

Q. – And on the issue of Italian activists, the Italian courts are finally requesting the extradition of a number of Italians who have had refuge in France for years. What’s your response?

THE MINISTER – For years there have been contacts between the French and Italian courts; no one expected Matteo Salvini…

Q. – They don’t work very well, though!

THE MINISTER – That’s what Matteo Salvini says. What we say is that we deal with issues on a case-by-case basis, that it’s the courts that decide, that it’s not a populist leader who stands in front of a microphone and decides someone’s fate, it’s the courts that decide, depending on the time limits and the offences or crimes committed, clearly with priority for crimes of violence; it works very well. Fortunately, cooperation between peoples works better than sweeping statements by people on the campaign trail.

What you’re seeing since the Italian elections is that the election campaign isn’t over and that, in this unlikely coalition between the Five Star Movement and the [Northern] League – which came to power when they’d campaigned against each other – there are still huge tensions, and in order to shift Italians’ attention, to change the subject, they’re seeking…

Q. – Those were the choices the Italians made: they voted and they finally got the coalition they wanted.

THE MINISTER – Yes, but today that coalition is pulling in different ways. Look at an issue like the Lyon-Turin line: it’s a project co-funded by France, Italy and the European Union, the Italian ministers currently disagree among themselves and we can’t find out whether they’re going to continue or halt the project. That’s what we must work on, not throwing insults, not telling any old story and going to see just anyone.

Q. – So when are we, the French and Italians, going to talk to each other again?

THE MINISTER – But we talk every day. The Italian people and the French people are peoples who work together, who appreciate each other; I myself have already been to Italy many times. The last two times I went to Italy were to show France’s solidarity: in Genoa when the bridge collapsed, where I was the only foreign representative, and in Aquila, the town that experienced an appalling earthquake, as you remember, and where we rebuilt a building and I handed the keys of the building to the Italian government.

Q. – (…) In your view, is what we’re currently witnessing an attempt to divert the Italians’ attention, to make them forget their economic difficulties?

THE MINISTER – Listen, a government’s role is to concern itself with the interests of its people; what I see today is an Italy in recession, an Italy in difficulty; I don’t welcome that, because it’s an important partner for France, but I think the first thing a government has to do is concern itself with its people’s well-being. (…)

Alstom-Siemens merger

Q. – A question about Brussels’ veto against the Alstom-Siemens merger. Matignon [the Prime Minister’s office] and Bercy [the Economy and Finance Ministry] are furious, yet Brussels argues that the merger would ultimately penalize consumers. Do you think Brussels is working against Europe?

THE MINISTER – Brussels is applying competition rules drawn up in the 20th century, at a time when you could think the European market was an enclosed area and when the important thing was to fight dominant positions on the European market. (…) You’ve got emerging businesses, from China and elsewhere, which need a critical size to be able to compete with one another on the global market…

Q. – But does this mean the competition rules must be reviewed?

THE MINISTER – It means that the competition rules absolutely must be reviewed, it’s something we’re committed to, it’s something on which the majority will campaign. These competition rules were drawn up for a different time: today we aren’t succeeding in creating European champions and we’re competing with world champions.

Q. – So aren’t France’s leaders, by being annoyed at the European Commission’s decision, proving the Eurosceptics right by saying in the end: “it isn’t working, look”?

THE MINISTER – Eurosceptics are saying, “it isn’t working, but we mustn’t have any more Europe”; we’re saying, “it isn’t working, we must have more Europe”. Do you think that by shutting themselves away behind imaginary borders our businesses today could export, exist? Would it make sense for Alstom to operate only in the French market? Of course not. Eurosceptics today are people who don’t dare say they’re anti-European, because they look at European public opinion and see that today no one wants to leave the European Union any more, it’s partly to do with Brexit, but also people have common sense, so they say they want another Europe.

But what does another Europe mean? It means a more effective Europe which better protects citizens; it often means more Europe.


Q. – So, precisely, you were talking about Brexit; what’s going to happen on 29 March? Is something going to happen or is nothing going to happen, since it’s the official date for leaving, for Brexit? It seems very complicated. (…)

THE MINISTER – Obviously something unprecedented is going to happen: a member state is going to leave the European Union.

Q. – On 29 March, is that certain?

THE MINISTER – The UK is going to leave on 29 March, there’s no reason to suppose this date will be put back. (…)

Q. – It’s got off to a bad start.

THE MINISTER – With a text which was agreed by the British government, but which the British government, at this stage, hasn’t managed to get ratified by its parliament. It’s a British decision, it’s for the British to decide if they want to leave smoothly, with a transition period, or if they want to leave brutally, with all the risks that entails for them. We’re preparing for every scenario, we’ve taken all the necessary steps to ensure that whatever the type of Brexit, the interests of the French people – particularly those of French businesses, but also of the British people living on our soil and who are welcome – are safeguarded.

Q. – Do you think that the British should vote again, if it goes to deadlock?

THE MINISTER – It’s for them to say, it’s certainly not for French people to tell the British what they should do; I don’t see any high-ranking political leaders in the UK today saying this, so I think what will happen is that the UK will leave. Will the British say to themselves in the future that they’d like to return to the European Union after all? Nobody knows. What the European Union has to do is to continue moving forward, to reform, to overhaul itself, because there are many things to look at again in the European Union. Perhaps in the future it will be more attractive to the British. What I’d like is for us to have a close link with a country which is so close and a partner which is so important to us. (…)./.

Published on 09/01/2020

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