France pushing for Syria ceasefire, says Minister

Foreign policy – Syria/Russia/Poland/Mercosur/Spain – Excerpts from the interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to France Inter

Paris, 26 February 2018

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Syria/Russia

Q. – The UN Security Council voted the day before yesterday on the principle of a month-long humanitarian truce in Syria. What remains of it this morning?

THE MINISTER – The truce hasn’t yet been implemented, because we heard yesterday that there was still bombing in the Eastern Ghouta area. France pushed very hard for the adoption of this Security Council resolution. It was also difficult, but it was finally adopted unanimously. Yesterday the French President and Angela Merkel called Vladimir Putin to urge him to exert all his influence – and his influence is real, as we know – with the Damascus regime to ensure the truce can come into force, to ensure humanitarian aid can arrive in that Eastern Ghouta area, where, since the beginning of January, there’s been just one humanitarian aid convoy for 400,000 civilians, trapped in a really horrific situation.

Q. – Who is currently bombing civilians in Syria? Is it the Syrians or is it the Russian air force?

THE MINISTER – In any event, today, if the Syrian regime can bomb, can take action, in Syria, it’s because it has the support of Russia and Iran. It’s Russia and Iran that are propping up the Syrian regime. So the issue that arises is to ensure that all the international, regional players intervening in Syria exert pressure for this ceasefire, this truce, to be respected. That’s why Jean-Yves Le Drian is in Moscow tomorrow, and he’ll soon be in Tehran.

Q. – Which isn’t the case today? Russia isn’t asking its Syrian ally to stop bombing civilians?

THE MINISTER – Russia voted for the Security Council resolution, because it was adopted unanimously.

Q. – Is Russia talking straight or is there double dealing?

THE MINISTER – Russia’s talking straight; the real question is, are Bashar al-Assad and his troops obeying those who support them or are they playing their own game? We’re putting all our energy into ensuring this ceasefire is respected, ensuring humanitarian aid reaches the people; that’s the real priority.

Q. – What levers do you have today, what levers does Europe have to make Moscow yield and persuade Vladimir Putin that this truce is needed in Syria today?

THE MINISTER – I’d tend to say – because despite everything I’m an idealist – that humanity, the fact that…

Q. – That hasn’t really worked for the time being!

THE MINISTER – It hasn’t really worked for the time being. But the fact remains that that country, which has been tortured for seven years and is on its knees, is home to people who will only be more radical if they continue suffering. The country will have to be rebuilt, and it won’t be Syria alone that rebuilds it, it won’t be Russia or Iran that rebuild Syria. The whole international community, together, must push for an end to hostilities, for a political settlement.

Q. – But what you’re telling us this morning is that ultimately we haven’t got much leverage with Moscow and that we must ultimately count on the Russians’ goodwill in wanting to emerge from this war.

THE MINISTER – Yes and no. As I was saying, Syria will have to be rebuilt, and it’s not one single country that will achieve that. We had reasons for intervening against Daesh [so-called ISIL], it was our goal, because it was from Raqqa in particular that attacks had been planned against France. But we in Europe have also had to experience a mass arrival of refugees from Syria, so we have something to say. We’ll have something to say about the reconstruction of that country, we want to be listened to, and we all need to move together towards a political settlement. Those who thought they could conduct negotiations with some Syrians and not others have failed. That does mean the whole international community must rally together for a political settlement in Syria.

Q. – The Syrian White Helmets, as we were hearing in the 8.00 a.m. bulletin earlier, are reporting phosphorus and chlorine bombs being dropped in recent hours, since the ceasefire theoretically came into force. Can you confirm this?

THE MINISTER – For the time being, there are allegations and they haven’t been confirmed. There have already been allegations in the past; we must clearly find out more about them. That’s the very reason why a truce must be respected. Not only are conventional weapons being used, but several times there have also been suspicions of the use of chemical weapons. On that, we’re verifying the allegations that come from one side, which have been denied by another; it’s clearly very difficult to know what’s happening on the ground.

Q. – Do you still have any doubt, does the Quai d’Orsay still have any doubt about the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime?

THE MINISTER – I don’t have any confirmation of what you describe – i.e. of what reportedly happened yesterday, where chlorine was reportedly used.

Q. – And about the past few months?

THE MINISTER – And about the past few months, again, chlorine has been talked about; it’s very difficult to see things clearly. What’s certain is that if the Syrian authorities used chemical weapons, they’ll have to answer for their actions when peace has returned to Syria.

Q. – Not before? If, tomorrow morning, we hear that chemical weapons were used against civilians by Bashar al-Assad, will there be no immediate response by France, as Emmanuel Macron promised? Is that no longer on the diplomatic agenda?

THE MINISTER – It’s absolutely on the diplomatic agenda, but in order to announce it we’d have to be certain that chemical weapons were used, and there would obviously be discussion, particularly between coalition partners.

Poland/Hungary

Q. – One word, if you will, about the situation in a European country, namely Poland. We must ask ourselves about the Jewish perpetrators of the Holocaust: that’s what the Polish Prime Minister is now saying, at a time when Poland is already suspected of revisionism in recent days, with a law which, among other things, bans people from talking about the Polish death camps. How must Europe react to this?

THE MINISTER – Europe isn’t simply a common market or a cheque book, it’s a meeting of countries that share the same values. Europe was created after the war to say to itself, “never again”: never again war, but also never again barbarity. Recognizing the horror of the Holocaust, never confusing the victims and the executioners, recognizing the share of responsibility which many countries have, despite everything – at any rate, which many citizens have, despite everything – is essential; it’s non-negotiable. It’s not right to indulge a blurring of lines or a rewriting of history under any circumstances, but particularly when it comes to the Holocaust.

Q. – Once that’s been said, what do we do with Warsaw? Do we cut off supplies and cut off European funds, as we’ve been hearing in recent days, or not?

THE MINISTER – We’re having close, not necessarily easy discussions with Poland, in particular, given its various judicial reforms. As I was saying, the European Union member states share more than a single market, they share a respect for democracy, the separation of powers, the protection of the media and the independence of the courts. We’re in talks with Warsaw. The European Commission has initiated proceedings vis-à-vis Poland; we’re going to talk about them in Brussels tomorrow; I’m going to Brussels; we’re going to talk about the rule of law in Poland.

Q. – And what will France’s position be?

THE MINISTER – And France’s position is to say this is a move that undermines the European Union’s fundamental values. We’ll repeat it tomorrow; sanctions may be adopted. The process is lengthy, it’s complicated, but we’re not opposed to the process beginning. We also think, because we’re talking – and this was the focus of last Friday’s summit in Brussels – about the next European budget, that allocating money through Europe means showing solidarity, provided we share the same values, the same expectations, that we’re also respectful of the separation of powers and that we move towards convergence on politics, economics and social policy.

Q. – So clearly there’s a threat hanging over Poland today of cutting off European funds if the country doesn’t return to the rule of law? Can we put it like that or not?

THE MINISTER – I wouldn’t put it like that. There’s a very robust discussion within the European Union about whether we set conditions for allocating funds. It’s not only vis-à-vis Poland; I mean, if tomorrow another country distanced itself from the rule of law…

Q. – Well, we’ll take another one, if you will, namely Hungary, which for months and years has been refusing to take in a single migrant under the agreement on European quotas. Can people today refuse to implement European rules and continue taking advantage of the club of 27?

THE MINISTER – That’s the same question, and it’s true for Hungary and Poland, and it’s true for two other European Union countries that didn’t fulfil their duty of solidarity when it was necessary to relocate migrants who had arrived in Europe in massive numbers. There again – and Germany and Italy are especially sensitive to this issue, but we agree with them –, we can’t be part of the European Union only when it suits us, and not implement the decisions taken by the European Union.

The relocation of migrants was decided on by the majority of European Union member states; we must obviously find an acceptable way for everyone to show this solidarity. If a new migrant crisis arises tomorrow, we must share the number of migrants between European Union countries.

Syria

Q. – I have a question regarding Syria. (…) Don’t you think that we, the French and Europeans in particular, have a big share of responsibility for the current situation? We prioritized support for certain factions without controlling them, without knowing where they came from or how they were made up. We prioritized a semi-military solution through the delivery of weapons, rather than prioritizing really effective diplomacy. Doesn’t that indicate that, in France today, we need to recreate strong, effective diplomacy, and that military action isn’t necessarily the solution?

THE MINISTER – Where I agree with you is that there’s no military solution in Syria, there’s a political solution. Subsequently, where does responsibility lie? What happened in 2011? Let’s remember, very young Syrians wrote on the wall of their school, “death to the dictator” and were tortured and murdered in horrendous circumstances. There was a rebellion. Where perhaps we – the international community – went wrong collectively was in thinking that what happened in Tunisia would happen in Syria and that the Arab Spring was a sort of irrepressible movement and the fall of a dictator would occur very quickly, under peaceful conditions.

That’s not what happened at all. The first enemy of Syria is its regime; Bashar al-Assad is the enemy of his people. It’s he who is tormenting his people with the support of external players. The urgent thing is for everyone to get round a table and for people to realize that no military victory is possible. Syria has been suffering for seven years and there are no victors in Syria. That’s what must be done, and in order to achieve it you need strong and committed diplomacy; you’re right. That’s what Emmanuel Macron is doing; we have the ability to talk to everyone; we’re talking to Russia, we’re talking to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Q. – For the time being for a result that we can’t see. Talking to Russia – even though it voted for the resolution at the UN – hasn’t changed the situation on the ground, as you pointed out earlier.

THE MINISTER – It’s the first time Russia has voted in favour of a ceasefire and a humanitarian truce in Syria. The vote took place on Saturday. Tomorrow Jean-Yves Le Drian will be in Moscow; I can assure you we French are doing the maximum, with the Europeans, particularly Germany. (…)

We’re doing the maximum to ensure that a truce can come into force and that political negotiations attended by all the protagonists, except the terrorist groups, can be held. For too long, certain international regional powers have thought they could make their peace, in their way, in their corner. That doesn’t work; that’s now been demonstrated. The whole international community must rally together for peace in Syria. (…)

Spain/Catalonia

Q. – A listener asks you: “Spain is prosecuting a person who was democratically elected, Spain is is imprisoning deputies for what they think; isn’t this the return of a dictatorship which hides behind Spanish judges on the orders of Rajoy? Is this proper within Europe?

THE MINISTER – The opposite would be improper. What happened in Catalonia – because the listener doesn’t say it – was that Catalan leaders organized a consultation contrary to the constitition and didn’t respect a number of judicial rulings.

Q. – And does that merit prison?

THE MINISTER – They’re being prosecuted. We’re talking about Spain, we’re talking about a democracy, we’re talking about a country where the courts are independent. It’s not for me to decide what does or doesn’t merit prison, but I have full confidence in Spain’s institutions. Spain is a great democracy; to go against the constitution, against Spanish law, means opening yourself up to prosecution anyway. That seems proper to me./.

Published on 06/03/2018

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