France wants clarity on Brexit, says Minister

Foreign policy – Brexit – Interview given by Mme Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, on “CNEWS, Europe 1, Les Echos – Le grand rendez-vous” (excerpt)

Paris, 3 November 2019


Q. – Let’s talk about Brexit, which still hasn’t taken place. Are France and Europe mere spectators to the upheavals in British domestic politics, or behind the scenes do you have a role, does France have a role, do the Europeans have a role with the British in terms of the triggering of the general election that is scheduled for 12 December?

THE MINISTER – What’s clear is that since April, as you know – the President also puts it this way – we’ve been presented as the toughest in the gang. We’ve been told: it’s always the French who are firm, are hard. Well, the reality is nothing like that.

Since April, very clearly, the President has been trying to ensure we have clarity, because behind Brexit there are, above all, a lot of uncertainties, there are millions of families, millions of businesses which no longer see any clarity in this. And everything we’ve been trying to do since April is to get some simple things: to have an agreement on the table, be able to ask the British to say “yes” or “no”, and then have a clear timetable.

Q. – So are you satisfied about there being an election on 12 December?

THE MINISTER – It’s why we fought for 31 October, and we’ve always said we’ll only postpone that date on two conditions: either because the British need a bit more time to say “yes” or “no” to the agreement or because they’re holding an election.

Why did it seem to us important to have justifications? Because you had a lot of Europeans, and not necessarily people who come to talk on the radio, who thought that it was very, very good to give them time, six months longer, nine months longer, and that it would resolve things. France’s strong belief on this is that in order to resolve things you have to have a tight timetable: time itself won’t resolve the issue.

Today it’s decision time for the British. Do they want, yes or no, to leave the European Union as the referendum said in 2016? Do they want, yes or no, the agreement which has now been negotiated a second time? And – because they can’t manage to arrive at that [decision] – are they ready, yes or no, to hold an election?

Q. – Well, precisely: let’s talk about what’s going to happen, let’s talk about the future, about what’s happening. If Parliament doesn’t ratify the agreement, if Boris Johnson has no majority, must they leave at the end of January this time, whatever happens, even if it means a “no deal”, because you talked about uncertainties, and those uncertainties have now persisted for a long time?

THE MINISTER – I can tell you we’ve set very strict conditions. 31 January is not negotiable; the agreement on the table is not renegotiable and so, at a given moment, responsibility will indeed have to be taken. That’s also why I’m advising businesses to continue preparing. The risk of a “no deal” hasn’t been ruled out. Now the democratic clarification, the election currently being prepared in the United Kingdom, is going to enable something that hasn’t occurred for two years, namely a fresh alignment between the British people, the composition of Parliament and therefore the government. Why has there now been deadlock for two-and-a-half years?

Q. – Because the planets aren’t aligned between the various players!

THE MINISTER – So that it’s properly understood: because the British people said “we want to leave the European Union”, because Boris Johnson went to negotiate an agreement and because Parliament tells us “we’re not having it”, and so we’re in an impossible triangle where those three forces aren’t working together.

So the election will enable us to realign things: either they ratify the agreement before 31 January – well, that’s an orderly exit, it’s what we’ve now been working towards for years, for two-and-a-half years…

Q. – All the same, this is a further delay for companies, whereas you were saying precisely that “it has to be 31 October” because they’ve got to prepare.

THE MINISTER – Yes but it isn’t a delay as some wanted, i.e. an unconditional delay. There were people around the table who were prepared to make us go back to six months.

Q. – But there’s nothing more demotivating for a company than knowing this may never happen. How do you prepare?

THE MINISTER – The preparation we’re asking of businesses basically isn’t very complicated; it involves them asking for a number, to be registered so they can cross the famous smart border in the event of there being new controls. Once you’ve taken that step, you’ve taken that step. There’s a website…

Q. – We know that not all companies have done this. Last week on Europe 1 we were talking about the 30,000 SMEs which export to the UK and only 10,000 had carried out a diagnostic on the Bercy [French Economy and Finance Ministry] website, precisely to find out about the new customs arrangements.

THE MINISTER – This is where we’ve got to use the three months ahead of us so that those companies…

Q. – When all’s said and done, is this new delay a good thing for France as well?

THE MINISTER – It’s always good to be prepared and all businesses are preparing; they’ve got lots of risks – flood risks, social risks, political risks. Here, there’s a risk they must be prepared for, we’re going to go on supporting them [inaudible].

Q. – If needed.

THE MINISTER – So is a website which not only provides information but, above all, support; we’ve put in place a whole administrative infrastructure so that every company can ask very specific questions about their business sector etc. So I can only encourage businesses to continue; there’s a risk [of no deal]. It’s possible – and I think it would be good news for everyone – that if we have a deal, well, we’ll have a transition period which makes all this easier for everyone, including businesses. And maybe it will be unnecessary, but when you’re a responsible company head, risk management is also at the heart of what you do. So this is fortunate; we’ve got a bit more time. But what’s essential for us is that this time is conditional, it’s justified. It isn’t time for time’s sake.

Q. – 31 January or never. No deal or deal, we’ll see; the ball is now in the UK’s court. (…)./.

Published on 04/02/2020

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