France to "strongly champion" EU’s interests in Brexit talks

EU – Clément Beaune’s participation in the General Affairs Council (Luxembourg, 13 October 2020) – Press briefing by the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson (excerpts)

Paris, 14 October 2020

On 13 October, Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, attended the General Affairs Council, which dealt with numerous issues ahead of preparations for the next European Council meeting (15-16 October). (…)

[Regarding] Negotiations on future relations between the United Kingdom and the EU: Michel Barnier, head of the task force responsible for finalizing negotiations, reviewed the discussions, which are showing progress but are still stumbling over certain key issues such as fisheries and the conditions for free trade and governance. The Minister of State indicated that France, together with its European partners, will continue to strongly champion the EU’s interests in a united fashion and will ensure that it is as prepared as it can possibly be for the situation at the end of the transition period at both the European and national levels, taking all scenarios into account, including the lack of an agreement. (…)./.

Brexit – Interview given by M. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France Culture – La conversation mondiale (excerpts)

Paris, 9 October 2020

(…)

Q. – Does this question shock or challenge you or does it seem absurd: will the UK remain European after Brexit?

THE MINISTER – No, it’s a valid question, but I also think the UK is more European than it sometimes believes it is. Moreover, it’s finding this out – be it on geopolitical issues, economic issues, sometimes in the light of Brexit. The concept is in Britain’s current “Global Britain” policy. When you look at the major international issues – Iran, Russia etc. – and how the UK behaves, it behaves like a European democracy committed to multilateralism, which wants to work and is used to working with France in particular on those issues. And I’m convinced that this European destiny or European culture will live on.

What’s interesting, though, is that there may be a temporary difficulty here, in that the European Union is most certainly a club of rules, standards and decisions, but it’s also a social club. Political leaders, diplomats, business leaders, intellectuals and academics meet more easily within this family because you can move around easily, because we’ve got used to things. And our own little way of working together is going to be diminished a little. I hope we’ll find other ways of working and that the UK’s European culture will come to the fore again.

But there will probably be a short transition and adjustment phase in which we’ll look for a way of working with the UK, which is no longer in the European Union but basically remains European.

(…)

Q. – Are these issues linked to taxation, or fisheries – which seems to be the sticking point between the EU and Britain – what have posed problems for some time in the negotiations between the European Union and Britain?

THE MINISTER – Yes, there are some extremely difficult issues. Fisheries, which you mentioned and hasn’t been settled, is a difficult one. But there are some rather strange things when it comes to Brexit. As if – you talked about “Britishness” – asserting your identity corresponds to the way you negotiate a trade agreement or fishing quotas. If it’s an economic negotiation, as we’re conducting on fisheries or the trade agreement, we can have that discussion.

If it’s a question of identity, that’s something else. And it’s interesting to see that often the issues the Brexiters keep on about – for example the Conservative Party in its last general election campaign – are issues which actually have a very strong European identity, which very firmly anchor the UK to the European model: the NHS, which Boris Johnson has celebrated so much, British social security – in the campaign, moreover, because one of the arguments was to get back money for social security, for the NHS, in the last general election campaign. As you said, this is deeply part of Europe’s post-war identity but has its roots in a commitment to equality, solidarity and welfare and could be seen as a long-term historical trend.

Moreover, to take a very recent example which is still topical, the COVID crisis, how is the UK responding to the COVID crisis? I think it’s basically responding in a very European way. There’s what’s happening in the news daily, the measures each government is taking – that’s one thing. But what was Europe’s model for responding to the crisis? It was to try and protect our public debate, our democracy as much as possible. We’ve all managed it, the UK and the other European Union countries. And this involved having a model of solidarity. Nowhere in Europe was as much money spent to help businesses, jobs etc. – and that’s fine, it’s been our European model during the crisis. But this welfare or social protection model is at the heart of our response to the current health and economic crises, and from that point of view the British have shown themselves to be very European in their response.

(…)

Q. – Jonathan Sumption wrote: “the great tragedy of this story is that if we had remained members of the European Union, those in Britain pushing for the creation of a new European identity would have certainly been in the majority sooner or later, the young people of today would have become dominant in the electorate, their more European sentiment would have gained a central position in our political culture, which has never been the case up to now.” What’s your view on this?

THE MINISTER – It’s a very interesting comment because it says a very great deal about the collective relationship and also about what we have in common with various countries vis-à-vis Europe. Because you ask a British person – I was surprised, the first time I heard this debate was when I had a discussion with a Brexiter before the referendum, and he said: “look, our problem is this idea of an ever closer union”, which is indeed written in the treaty. I think a French person, even one who is quite committed on European issues, will never make that argument to you either positively or negatively, so it’s quite amusing.

French people often criticize – we had our own referendum, not on leaving [the EU] but it was about Europe, with the 2005 treaty on the constitution; they levelled criticism which was almost the opposite, saying: “what’s won out, in a way, is the British vision of Europe; we wanted a powerful Europe and we’ve got a market Europe, we wanted an enlarged Europe and we’ve got an economic Europe.”

So everyone blames Europe a bit when it suits them to do so. The Labour Party, in the 1970s, didn’t want to join the European Union or the then European Community because they said it would dismantle their social system. And in the 1980s, I think if we want to be a bit objective about things, certainly Jacques Delors, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl were taking forward what you could call a political Europe, rightly so. Yet all the same, the great act of the 1980s was the single market – very much a British creation – promoted by a British commissioner and accepted – admittedly with the taste for political theatre she was known for – by a British prime minister whom it suited quite well.

Just a final point on this, because I think it’s very important: I believe that in the Brexit vote – there again, you can see a European characteristic – the Brexit vote, it seems to me, is in fact quite illiberal. They’re often people who have, incidentally, often been Labour supporters – working-class backgrounds, low-income, in difficulty – who criticized Europe for being the very thing the British often championed, namely too liberal, not protective enough, too open – rightly or wrongly – in terms of migration, in terms of social dumping, etc. It was no longer really the liberal criticism of Europe, of too many rules… And Mr Johnson too, who as a journalist in the 1980s and 1990s said, “the bendiness of cucumbers… all these rules the European Union imposes on us”, mounted this hobby-horse himself in the 2016 campaign, saying, “what I want to protect is the social security system, protection, not closing-up but protection, and Europe doesn’t allow that, Europe is too open”. That really is quite an interesting reversal of history. (…)

Q. – What can we do, remaining in Europe, once these negotiations are over and we’re facing these Britons with this generation Lord Sumption describes as very European? What will we be able to do in terms of talking to that generation?

THE MINISTER – The truth is that we don’t really know, because – picking up on what [Lord Sumption] was saying, to be provocative and continue our friendly disagreement – I believe that by voting for Brexit, the British ultimately expressed a very European sentiment.

It’s true, you’re right – “take back control” meant: we want to be able to decide about our fish, our coast, our laws, our rules; that’s been repeated over and over again. But it’s a sentiment which must be heeded all over Europe. Ultimately the British were expressing anxiety, but in their own way.

It’s true, because the UK combined a traditional Euroscepticism with a recent disillusionment. So the combination of the two probably made up the toxic cocktail of Brexit.

But disillusionment with Europe exists everywhere, and so it must be addressed. Moreover, the aim is to try and address it – Brexit has been a kind of collective alarm bell – without resorting to what strikes me as the worst solution, namely to say, “I’m slamming the door of the club” rather than trying to change it.

I don’t know whether it’s a matter of age or generation. When they get older, will the people who voted to remain become convinced Brexiters? We’ll see; the future will tell us. But in any case, I don’t believe in a swift return, even if in five or 10 years’ time demographics or death have had their impact, as you say, because when you break off a relationship, as we see in our personal lives, you don’t rebuild it exactly identically.

So I don’t know exactly according to what model, but it’s my deeply-held conviction that the British will try and see whether they’re better off in negotiations with the Chinese, in an agreement with the Americans etc., and that they’ll realize what has ultimately been a kind of eternal historical truth in our relations: namely that they’re subtly European, or differently European but ultimately European.

Q. – One final word?

THE MINISTER – While we were talking, I was thinking of the film Goodbye Lenin. You sometimes get the impression with Brexiters that you’re waking up and have missed a major episode in history, namely that for 44 years the British have been in the European Union and that they want to resume a special relationship with the Americans, trade agreements with India and China, the Commonwealth etc., as if everything had been frozen in those years. It won’t happen, and that’s why they’ll come back to Europe./.

Published on 14/10/2020

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