Minister discusses European issues during UK visit
Statements by M. Harlem Désir, Minister of State for European Affairs, at a meeting with journalists and think-tankers¹
London, 11 September 2014
This morning I had a meeting with Jo Johnson, head of the Policy Unit in Downing Street, and then we went to Collage Arts, a very interesting project, both as regards creative industry and training for young people out of work, out of training, which is funded by the European Union. We also had a meeting with my colleague David Lidington; after that we spent a long time together for a bilateral meeting on the relationship between France and the United Kingdom. I will also meet Chuka Umunna this afternoon. This meeting is an opportunity for me to tell you about our views on the European situation and also to hear from you about the evolution of the situation in the United Kingdom, the relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe, and also the referendum in Scotland, which is of course something we are all very interested in.
There are, at this time, very important decisions to be taken in Europe. Europe is confronted with all the big international crises in the east of the continent but also now in the Middle East and still in the Mediterranean Sea, in Africa. We are coping with the consequences of the economic crisis, the Euro Area is now out of danger of collapsing, but really bad results have been published for the second quarter of the year: in terms of growth, a risk of deflation needs to be tackled, unemployment is still very high, there’s a lack of public and private investment, a lack of demand. We also have this very strategic time which is that of the renewal of European institutions, with a very important step yesterday, with the designation of the new College of Commissioners by Jean-Claude Juncker, which follows the election of the new Representative, Mrs Mogherini, and the future president of the European Council, Mr Tusk.
Now all the institutions are in place, there is still the hearing in front of the European Parliament, which is also important. We hope that very soon this new team around Jean-Claude Juncker will be operational to tackle all the important issues regarding the European situation. For us, cooperation with the United Kingdom is very important, it’s very deep and good and effective in many fields: in energy, in defence, in security, in the fight against terrorism, and we also share the same priority in terms of the need for a European Union that delivers on growth and employment. Of course on some issues there are differences between our two countries, but we are working very closely together on this very important issue that I mentioned: immigration policy; the main focus for us is to have a new economic policy guideline in Europe in the coming years, so that Europe is again a place of growth, innovation and full employment. For this we have to implement several policies together, in four areas in particular.
First, we need a very dynamic monetary policy. (…) Now Mario Draghi has announced really important decisions, both with commercial monetary policy: the diminution to 0.5% of the main rate of the ECB, but also non-conventional measures, very important to develop the ABS market, and the titrisation [securitization] and the covered bond market, which aim at favouring access to credit for small and medium companies.
We also need our Stability and Growth Pact to be used effectively with use of all the flexibility in the rules, to take into account the situation, which is the one that I recalled at the beginning: the risk of deflation, no growth, even in the most competitive economies of the Euro Area. The first one, Germany, had -0.2% in the second quarter of the year, the growth was non-existent in France also at the beginning of the year, it was 0% in Italy too. So we have to coordinate our fiscal policies in a way that is not contrary to the goal of supporting growth.
The third point is that we need a more dynamic investment policy. We strongly support the plan announced by Jean-Claude Juncker: €300 billion of investment (public and private). We now want it to be detailed, and that is also why it was important for us to have a commissioner, for us Pierre Moscovici, in charge of economic policy. We want to play our full part in supporting this new policy. Europe needs to invest in those great projects that will be needed to increase this potential of growth in transport, in energy, in digital economy, in research, in training of young people. This support for investment is for us a priority.
And the fourth I mentioned is youth employment. You know that we supported the creation of the Youth Guarantee, funded with €6 billion for the next two years, which has begun now to be implemented in several member states, especially where the youth unemployment rate is over 25%. This is a social challenge and a political one too, because we can’t imagine that public opinion will support Europe if unemployment rates remain so high, especially for young people in many countries. It is also an economic challenge because it is absolutely stupid to have so many young people outside the labour market.
We know also that there is a need for our country to have a very strong commitment to structural reform; these are the policies that our government is implementing now in France with what is called the Responsibility and Solidarity Pact, which aims at increasing the competitiveness of investments and entrepreneurship in France, through a reduction in labour costs, a reduction in taxation so that our companies will regain more margin to invest in innovation, in their R&D capacity to regain parts on the European and international markets. Those reforms and others – the territorial reform, the labour market reform – were carried out in other countries, like Germany, 10 years ago. We are late but we are now implementing it in France. It’s a very decisive move in French policy. It was decided and announced by the President of the Republic, François Hollande, at the beginning of the year. On 13 July, with the new government of Manuel Valls, several laws, especially fiscal laws, were passed before Parliament and a new law will be passed now for the next budget. All those measures are financed without increasing taxes so they are also accompanied by a very strong reduction in public spending: €50 billion of cuts in public spending from now to 2017, and we know that this is absolutely necessary to restore the competitiveness of our economy and also the sustainability of our social system.
So these are some of the issues that I would propose you discuss, but we could also mention the international issues on the agenda of our meeting this morning: Ukraine, the situation in Iraq and Syria, on which a decision has now been taken and which will lead to action against this terrorist group called Islamic State, which is not a state and which doesn’t represent Islam. We’d better call it by its name, as the Arabic countries call it Daesh. It is a fanatical group that poses a security risk not only in the regions there but also on an international level, as you know, because it has never happened before that a terrorist group has been capable of committing such barbarian acts: the murder of a journalist and also the acts against the Christian Yazidis. It has so much capability in terms of resources and control of the territory. On this issue also we need very strong cooperation between France and the UK and the members of the EU. It shows that we need a stronger and more united Europe to tackle all those issues.
This was a very interesting visit for me, one which isn’t over, and I am very pleased to have this opportunity to meet you. Thank you.
Q. – Since you are in the UK, I wonder what you think about the UK’s position on the European Union. It seems clear that most countries, especially Germany, are very anxious to keep the UK in the European Union and of course France is as well. But how far do you think you are willing to go to satisfy the UK’s desire for reform in the European Union?
THE MINISTER – It is very clear – and that is why I highlight our very good cooperation on many issues – that we think it is a strength for the European Union to have the UK as a member. It is clear that we are at the moment a big continent of nations which will lead the game in the 21st century world. If it’s not united, its voice won’t be heard. If we want to preserve and defend our views, our values, our interests, on all the main international issues – security, international cooperation in many areas, trade rules and so on – we need to act together and even just to tackle the main security problems at our borders: I mentioned Ukraine, the situation in Libya, in Syria. We need to work more closely together in the future. It’s the same for the economy; the single market is a very strong asset for all of our economies.
The UK is one of France’s major economic partners (…) so our interpenetration is vital, our good relations are absolutely necessary. We want to have more UK investments in France; we think that there is a lot of demand: I mentioned energy in which French investments in the UK are very important. There are probably more than 250,000 [French] people living here in London, which means that it is the most important French city outside the country. All the arguments are in favour of going on together within the European Union. We understand the expectations of the UK for a simpler Europe in a way, less intrusive. And we think that we should look very pragmatically at what can be done, because this is a more general demand. It is also our demand that there is a simplification in the functioning of the European Union.
The last European elections showed very strong Euroscepticism, with different forms of expression but in almost every country. In some parts it was maybe expressed by not participating in the vote, but in other countries by Eurosceptic, anti-European, sometimes extremist and nationalist votes, even sometimes in countries where there isn’t a major economic and unemployment problem. We have to show that Europe has more links with national parliaments to increase its legitimacy, that there is more focus on a few priorities, and that’s why I say we support the approach of Jean-Claude Juncker, because it reflects our own contribution to the strategic programme of the five coming years, which was adopted by the European Council on 27 June with the main priorities that I recall: growth, unemployment, energy, migration, external policy.
I think that the new organization of the new Commission proposed by Jean-Claude Juncker with vice-presidents is also going in that direction. So let’s look for a way to improve the way it functions, to simplify it, to reinforce the legitimacy of the decisions, as I said, with more links with national parliaments. But we think that to open a discussion on a revision of the Treaty would be very long (…) and we know that in this situation, if we haven’t improved the economic situation and unemployment, if you ask people a question about Europe there is a risk that you know the answer before the organization of the vote, and that it doesn’t lead to what you want, which is an improvement in the way it functions. So let’s try to modify what can be done to help not only the UK, but all public opinion in the European Union (…) to be convinced about the fact that the European Union is able to deliver. That is our approach, which is really pragmatic to this question.
Q. – Thank you for your remarks, which I find interesting for the quite strong emphasis that you put on the structural reforms in France, and of course coming to London you won’t be surprised that you are going to be pressed on this question. I have two questions that are linked: one is, do you think that the political will exists to carry through a serious structural reform? Of course back in the 1980s in the early days of various centre-Right governments but also with the Left, I remember the Deuxième Gauche and the Rocardiens and they said France would make its peace with the market. These things have just disappeared into the night; why do you think that there is something different this time? Secondly, 10 Downing Street is already breathing heavily, but this is a European Commission which, if confirmed, is a Commission that Britain can do business with, and it’s hard to look at it in another way. The portfolios have been distributed as a very heavy northern liberal complexion. Is this a Commission which France will be able to do business with as well?
THE MINISTER – On the first point, the political will is absolutely there. I want to tell you that this government is absolutely committed to changing the situation of competitiveness in France. As I’ve said, we have lost too much time and that’s the reason why when we look at the figures, France in 2002 had a trade surplus, its economy was well-oriented, but in the years after that, other countries, especially Germany, have made a lot of very strong reforms and we didn’t do that. So we are absolutely determined to regain our competitiveness; it means that we have to and we will go on. We took decisions: we have carried out a pensions reform, we have carried out a first labour market reform. We have, as I told you, modified several aspects of the taxation system for companies: one is called crédit d’impôt compétitivité emploi, which is a decrease of 6% in labour costs. (…) We will also diminish the taxation on profit. We will also diminish other social contributions linked to reform of the financing of the family policy.
This direction is very clear: we will carry out a very important reform of the territorial organization, with a regrouping of regions, the concentration of competencies in these regions and in the local authorities. (…) We will also diminish the public spending of the state, and thus that of the local authorities, of the state, of the social system. This is a very clear guideline. France has a lot of assets, a lot of good cards in its hand: excellent universities and grandes écoles, public research, really good big companies – when looking at where French companies rank in the world’s 500 biggest companies, we are first in Europe. We have very good public services in many fields: transport for example. But to maintain those things and to use them better, we need to have a more supportive policy for small and medium companies and encourage investments and help our small and medium companies invest more, grow and go on the international market.
So this is a clear choice. Of course there is always debate within the Left, there is debate within the majority, but there will be a vote of confidence next week: the Prime Minister will present the new government and the government’s policy guidelines to the National Assembly and I’m absolutely sure that there will be a wide majority for this government. Why will it change? Because I think that there is an awareness that we need to strengthen our economy. If we don’t do that, our social model, to which the French people are very committed, will be in danger. If we want to maintain it, we need to carry out these reforms and reinforce the economic basis of the country.
The second question was about the European Commission. It is the reflection of the 28 member states, of the political balance; there is a majority of member states from the EPP and some with a liberal participation, but there are also socialists and socio-democrats in this Commission. Two of the vice-presidents are from a social-democratic persuasion, especially Mrs Mogherini. If you look at the different areas of action, there is a sharing, an equilibrium. Of course the French government is absolutely ready to work with this Commission. As I said, we think that the programme presented by Jean-Claude Juncker to the European Parliament in July was very close to our own priorities, especially our view on the need to develop the instruments to support growth and investments. We agree with his position because what he presented represented our own contribution, called Agenda pour le changement [Agenda for Change], at the end of June. If you look at Juncker’s programme, you will see that it is very similar.
We need to use both the existing instruments; the first one is the Multiannual Financial Framework, the budget of the European Union, which could be very much better used, more rapidly. The second very important instrument is the European Investment Bank. We have promoted an increase in its capital in 2012: €10 billion more, which allowed it to invest €60 billion more. We think that the Bank can develop instruments like project bonds, for example. It just began as an experimental phase to develop some of them; for example, in France there is one to finance digital connection in the regions; there are also some in Germany. We think that it could be widely developed. We also think that there is a need to develop new instruments; for example, we have in Europe a very high rate of savings, it is 12% and on average it is 8% in the US. But most of it is not invested in the real economy; it’s invested in government bonds. We think that we could create a common European vehicle to take a part of these savings; it could be oriented under the European project under the responsibility of the European Investment Bank. We have developed some very concrete ideas, which we’re discussing with the European Commission; we think that Jean-Claude Juncker shares our goal and that the cooperation will be very fruitful on this field.
Q. – I would like to come back to the point you made on the Stability and Growth Pact. You mentioned four points for a new economic policy orientation, among which, if I understand you correctly, is smarter use of the Stability and Growth Pact. What will France argue to avoid sanctions, because we know today that our country is not going to meet its fiscal targets? Are you going to argue in favour of exceptional circumstances? Are you going to say we are implementing structural reforms? Isn’t there a momentum today for France to follow up on Mario Draghi’s speech when he made, for the first time, the case for an aggregated fiscal policy at the European level? He pointed out the lack of coordination in terms of fiscal policy. Isn’t there an opportunity for France to make a proposal for a mechanism at the European level to make sure that some countries to do a bit more for growth at the European level?
THE MINISTER – On the first aspect, the situation is that the results of the second quarter were not the ones expected by everybody. We are in a situation where there is a risk of deflation. Deflation is 0.3% now, very far from the European Central Bank’s target of almost 2%. There is a lack of demand in Europe: if you compare the demand from 2008 to now between the US and the Euro Area, you see the difference. There is a lack of investment, private and public investments. Now the priority is to put into place all that is needed (…) to be sure that there is a renewal of the activity in Europe. The second thing is that the deterioration in the relationship with Russia is probably having an effect – this is what the Germans are saying.
The sanctions are very painful, but they are having an economic effect. After that, we must be sure that we use them for a diplomatic and political purpose, which is to oblige Russia to respect its commitments and respect international law, the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, the ceasefire and so on. But undoubtedly it has an economic effect on Russia and the economic relationships between Russia and a lot of European countries, among them Germany.
These are exceptional circumstances. Inflation: the European Council recognized in its conclusions, on 13 August, that inflation was exceptionally low. That was underlined also by Mario Draghi in his speeches, and that was the justification for the decisions he announced a few days after. He took exceptional decisions, and I think those decisions in the field of monetary policy were absolutely justified, but if we don’t also take other decisions, on the side of the European institutions in charge of fiscal coordination, support for investment, it will not be enough. Everyone has to do their part. To summarize, the European Central Bank had to do its part of the job and it has done it; perhaps some people think it needs to do more in the future, but it has done something very substantial in terms of interest rates and in terms of unconventional support for the liquidity on the market. Each member state has to do its part with structural reforms, and of course it’s a part of the argument because we know that some of those structural reforms will have quite rapid effects but some will have effects on the mid-term. The European Union also has to do its part, it has to help member states, and I don’t think that it would help not to recognize the exceptional circumstances.
I think everybody is aware that if you add austerity, a sharp reduction in public investments, in these circumstances it will not help growth. We also agree on the fact that we must strengthen fiscal coordination, both fiscal and taxation. There is a problem with big international groups like Google and Amazon. So we are very much in favour of these, especially in the Euro Area but also at the level of the European Union. Of course, if you speak of aggregated fiscal policies, meaning budgetary policies, it’s mainly for the Euro Area countries, but in terms of other macroeconomic issues like taxation, I think it has to be tackled by the 28.
Q. – One very quick follow-up to that question, which is about the second part of what Mario Draghi said, which was structural reform. What does the French government think of Mario Draghi’s suggestion that European governments should share sovereignty over structural reform – that somehow structural reform should be elevated to the European level in the way that fiscal and monetary policies have been? (…)
THE MINISTER – There is already – especially but not only for the members of the EU – very strong surveillance and permanent discussion under the authority of the European Commission, through the mechanism of the National Reform Programme, which is presented every year to every member state in the Commission and which is discussed within the 28 member states. So this coordination is already beginning with respect to the Stability and Growth Pact. I think that of course it’s up to each member state with its national parliament to decide what kind of structural reform to carry out, and how. But it is absolutely clear that it is a trend that is very profound in each member state; everybody understands the need to do it.
We could reinforce the coordination, but I think we could consider every field. For example, one of the very important domains for competitiveness is universities. It’s clear that it is a strong asset for the United States: the strength of their universities is the link between university and public research and private and companies’ research, the openness of their universities to students and researchers coming from everywhere in the world. So we have to develop our university coordination, the European research space, the link between European universities and companies. I think this is something we could work on – not only on the labour market, diminishing spending and so on. Structural reform is also about other things. (…)
Q. – (…) I think that this Commission really mirrors Juncker’s priorities. It seemed that the way he decided to structure his college would contribute to a better implementation of those priorities. And I was hoping to find out what your views are on Juncker’s exercise to group the commissioners in so-called themed projects; I believe he avoids calling them clusters. France received the portfolio that it was advocating, but at the same time it seems that the French commissioner will have limited power and will be coordinated by one of the vice-presidents, if not even by two of them. One of them seems to share views on fiscal austerity with Chancellor Merkel, so I was hoping for your comments.
THE MINISTER – First, I think that the priorities developed by Jean-Claude Juncker reflect the ones adopted by the European Council on 26 and 27 June. So those are our priorities and we think he’s right to stick to those priorities, the new organization, the clusters, which is something we are supporting. It was even much more the little countries that were reluctant because they fear a hierarchization in the organization of the Commission. And you have seen that all the big countries have no vice-presidents, except for Italy with the High Representative, but no vice-president in charge of coordination. I don’t think that the big countries would have agreed to be a minority in the Commission, so I think this answers your question; it’s very clear that we think it’s useful to have coordination, to have more coherence in the action of different commissioners working, for example, in the field of the economy: those in charge of competition, of the market, of growth. It doesn’t mean that Pierre Moscovici will be under the authority of another commissioner: it’s clear this will not be the case, there will be no hierarchical relationship and he will have full responsibility for his administration and the policy he’s in charge of. But he will cooperate very positively with the vice-presidents to contribute to this coherence in the action of the college. There will be no limited responsibilities for the French commissioner.
Q. – I have two questions. The first question is related to something that I see more and more in many member states including the smaller ones: it’s what we in the think-tank community called the “parliamentarization” of the European Commission, the fact that the Commission is becoming very close to the Parliament and with the risk that the relationship between the Commission and the Parliament will be stronger, at the potential expense of the European Council. I know that this is something shared by France, Germany, the UK, the bigger member states, and I wonder whether it’s a real worry with the new Commission that you have and whether you feel that the European Council will become more and more isolated?
The second question is absolutely not linked, it’s related to Ukraine and Russia. The situation is obviously very complex, so there is no right or wrong answer to this at the moment: what do you feel should be the main path for the European Union in terms of its relationship with Russia in the short term but also in the longer term? It is one thing to have a ceasefire, but it is another to have a long-term, stable relationship. Would you feel the European Union is ready to have more adversarial relationships with Russia in the coming years?
THE MINISTER – On the first aspect, in fact since the beginning of the crisis in 2008 it was the European Council that was the strongest institution. Now we are at the time of the installation of a new Commission; it had to be supported by the European Parliament. For instance, if you look at the process for the designation of Jean-Claude Juncker, it was only possible because on one side there was an agreement within the European Council, even if it was not a consensus but a wide majority, and because he had the support of a wide majority in the European Parliament. We need to work with the European Parliament; this is a balanced system.
We think that this communitarian mechanism is useful, it’s unique and it ensures that we work on the basis of rules, that we implement the decisions of the European Council, that we have a mechanism to have a common legislation. So we need to work with the European Commission and the European Parliament, but it’s not possible for the European Union to take strong decisions, for the European Commission to implement and to adapt its policies if it doesn’t have the support of the most important member states. So in our view, the institutions should not be pitted against each other; if you look at what is regarded as the most effective Commission in the past 20 years, the Jacques Delors Commission, he was able to have breakthroughs – the internal market, regional policy and so on – only because he had strong support from Kohl and Mitterrand and other member states. So you need both: in our view, strong help for the Commission with the support of the European Parliament is is not incompatible with the role of the European Council.
If you have a strong European Council and a Commission which is less dynamic (…) you take some decisions but you don’t have the urgent decisions. The creation of the European Stability Mechanism, banking union – all those decisions were taken and the Commission did some good work, but there were a lot of new ideas: to have more growth-friendly policies and so on. We need both, and we don’t worry about the fact that Jean-Claude Juncker can get strong support from the three major groups in the European Parliament. The results of the European elections forced people to shoulder responsibilities. There are 150 MPs elected from different regionalist, different nationalist groups which only agree on one thing: that they are against the European Union. This is a challenge for the other groups; none of the other groups alone has the majority, and it’s absolutely necessary to work together and to have a compromise inside the pro-European political family and between this political family and the heads of states and government, who are also linked to this political family. They meet together: Angela Merkel meets EPP heads of states and governments, François Hollande meets the social democrat heads of states and government before the European Council, and in fact it has helped create a good decision-making process.
On Ukraine, firstly, the urgent thing is de-escalation, and that’s why it’s very important to have respect for the 10-point agreement which was adopted in Minsk on 5 September, because we have seen in the past weeks that military confrontation leads to disaster – 3,000 people killed, more and more civilians, and a risk of direct confrontation between the Ukrainian and Russian military. So that’s the first step.
The second is that of course there can be only a political solution to this crisis. That’s the other aspect of the agreement in Minsk: there was the freedom of prisoners and so on, but the other is negotiation on the situation in Ukraine, respect for the borders, respect by Russia of international borders, and the end of annexation. We need to be very firm; that’s why we unanimously adopted a decision on new sanctions during the European Council, but we hope that this firmness vis-à-vis Russia – which is very strong because the economic consequences are serious: the level of the rouble has decreased again today – will lead to the discussion table, and I think that the aim that we must have is first to achieve normal relationships in the future between Ukraine and Russia: they are neighbours, they have a common border, they have a lot of economic exchanges – gas and others, industry – and Ukraine must be in a situation where it can have both strong cooperation with the European Union, with the Association Agreement, but also normal relations with its neighbour Russia. The aim of European diplomacy must be to have a peaceful relationship with Russia. The current situation is Russia’s responsibility; it has created this situation. So the sanctions were inevitable, but the goal, the ultimate objective of these sanctions must be to return to normal relations.
Q. – Two questions: one about France and Germany and one about Britain and France. France and Germany were so used to the idea that they are the motor of European integration, and throughout the Eurozone crisis, we have seen a lot of tensions in terms of their alternative strategies for dealing with the crisis, periodically resolved but constantly tensioned. What evidence do you have that Germany might change its attitude to stimulate growth in the German economy or actually prepare to relax the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact, so that you can get away with running ahead for two more years?
For Britain and France, it strikes me that the most striking similarity between the positions of Britain and France today is that they are both countries that are so badly punished by Eurosceptics in the European elections. That’s the one thing we share: that the very angry group of Eurosceptics has the largest numbers of seats for both of us in the European Parliament. Why do you think – we are very different governments – we got ourselves in this situation, and is it going to make life very difficult for our governments?
THE MINISTER – France and Germany, of course, are at the heart of the European Union and of common decision-making; they’re two countries which have to agree, but they don’t start from exactly the same situation. So in my opinion, the important point is not to acknowledge that there are differences – of course there are differences, there always have been – but to look at the ability of the countries’ leaders to get agreement on all the major decisions, even if the approaches were a bit different at the beginning. For example, with Greece, on the European Stability Mechanism, on banking union, on all those important decisions that allowed us to save the Eurozone, we always managed to have the same position at the end of the day. I don’t think there are tensions: there are differences, but there is also a very strong sense on both sides that it is absolutely essential to carry on together and take decisions.
I think we now have to take a different approach on the priority of investments, but I repeat: in June, we adopted together the strategic programme for the next five years in the European Council, and it gives priority to the institutions where there is recognition of this need to reinforce investments. Together we adopted the conclusion of the European Council of 13 August, which says that the situation is exceptional, with an exceptionally low inflation rate. So it’s a discussion; some people thought, for example, that forming the European Commission would present difficulties, including the responsibility of the French commissioner; in the end there weren’t any. That’s what is important; it’s a very close and effective relationship. (…) There is not one week when you don’t have two or three ministers from France in Germany and from Germany in France. If you look on very specific fields, the cooperation is very …
Q. – You’re not disappointed by the failure of the social democrats in Germany?
THE MINISTER – No, there is also the reality that it is a relationship which has to work, even when the political orientations of the two governments are not the same, as with Schmidt and Giscard, Mitterrand and Kohl. Of course sometimes it’s the same orientation, as with Merkel and Sarkozy…
Q. – And then it doesn’t work.
THE MINISTER – I did not say that, but you have no proof that it was better. And now the social democrats are not in the majority but they are in the government. For example, the decision taken by the German majority to create a minimum wage to increase the level of wages, to increase the level of public investments: all these decisions go in the direction we wish for.
On Britain and France, I hope that we share other things than the Eurosceptics. But the rules are probably somehow different; it will be also interesting to look at what the common rules are, because we are two former colonial countries, which means global powers, very attached to their sovereignty, to their influence. But I think that in France it is very deeply linked to the economic and employment crisis, probably much more than in the UK, where it’s more linked to… well, in France there is also the problem of immigration, but the economic dimension is very important. And it’s not only an anti-European vote, it’s part of it, but there are also other aspects. In the UK perhaps it’s more directly linked to the European issue; nevertheless, we are both aware that we have to show that Europe delivers what is important for ordinary people: concrete cooperation in fields where it’s absolutely clear that we will do things better together: energy, security, immigration, growth and employment, prosperity. Europe is – especially for French people – a promise of peace and prosperity.
We have peace, but now there is a risk, there is a crisis at our border, so we must show that Europe is able to mobilize itself for security; that’s what the Baltic countries, Poland and Romania want when we see a risk at our border. We think that the cooperation in defence between Britain and France, for example, is very good and that it could be one of the pillars of European defence policy, which is something perhaps more difficult to express in that way in Britain, but we are both countries that invest a lot in defence; we must convince others that we have to ensure our security. But of course we have to ensure prosperity, full employment and a high level of education for children and families, and this is at the heart of the European promise. If Europe is synonymous with closing factories, austerity and a diminution of the social system, it will not have support in our countries. That’s a challenge, and that’s why we think we must carry out structural reform together, which means some modifications to the social system and a very growth-supportive policy at European level.
Q. – Looking at the last cabinet reshuffle, it seems there are tensions within the Socialist Party – we have seen Arnaud Montebourg, Benoît Hamon leaving the government – so my question is: do you see the risk of these tensions becoming a sort of consolidated division within the party? And will it be more difficult for the French government, not only with the reforms but also with the budgetary measures the European partners are calling for from France?
Your President won the election on quite a left-wing platform, and now you are pushing cuts in spending and structural reforms through Parliament. What is the future for the socialist parties in Europe, and what will be your advice for socialist parties in Portugal and Spain, which will face elections next year?
The difficulties in Scotland have been concentrating minds in London on how difficult it is to win a referendum even for the status quo. In three years’ time we might have a referendum in the UK on membership of the European Union; one of the issues is, as you mentioned, migration and immigration, an issue that seems to be affecting support for EU membership for both our countries. How do you think we can tackle these concerns without undermining the principle of the free movement of people, which would necessitate treaty change?
THE MINISTER – The cabinet reshuffle was a clarification, and it just confirmed the line set by the President of France in January; it was not to be changed. I don’t think it will create more problems in the Socialist Party; there was already a debate before that reshuffle. As I told you, I think we will have an opportunity to see this next week in the National Assembly, with the vote of confidence in the government. But we cannot renounce the line which has been set, and it will not change from one month to another. There is very clear determination on the part of the President and the Prime Minister, and the government will implement its policies with the support of the majority, even though I’m not in my previous position any more so I won’t speak for those who are.
We need to carry out this reform, not to renounce our social model, because it is a condition for financing it. If you want to finance a very strong school system for everyone – a university system, health care system, strong public services – we need a more competitive economy. I think the social democratic model is something most citizens in Europe are attached to, even in countries where the government is not social democratic anymore. When I look at countries like Finland, for example, or Sweden, even liberal or conservative governments don’t abolish the social system. And it is the same in the UK: people are very attached to the NHS; I don’t see the government abolishing it. We, the social democrats of Europe, don’t have to renounce our ideal of solidarity, of the welfare state, but in each of our countries the condition for financing it is to have a stronger economy, and we are in a globalized world, an open world.
There is competition, there are emerging countries, and our companies must be able to compete on innovation, on training and so on. The reason for this reform is not to renounce our identity, and I think coming elections in several countries – I mentioned Sweden – will show that the Left, if it is modern, if it is able to combine the economic reality with social expectations, is able to provide answers and gain support.
How to answer immigration concerns but at the same time maintain the freedom of the area of liberty that we built in Europe is the issue. That’s why I think it is necessary to build a real common immigration policy. It means that we must be able to tackle together the situation in the Mediterranean Sea, when we have problems like Calais for instance, where we work closely together; we can’t think that we can deal with this problem only at national level.
Citizens are also attached to the freedom of movement in the European Union. So we propose a reinforcement of the common control of the border in the Mediterranean Sea and more effective implementation of the existing provision for registration of migrants; but there is also a need to deal with the countries of origin, in terms of fighting against human trafficking networks, but also in terms of stability, development and democracy. If you look at the situation in Libya and the situation in Tunisia, it is very different if you have a country with a democratic process, with which you can have development, agreement with the European Union on migration, and a country where there is no longer a state, where there is a civil war – an area open to all kinds of illegal groups and of course terrorist risks, but also traffic from the whole continent into that country. One of the lessons is that we have to give a lot of help to those countries where there is a political democratic process, like Tunisia, like Mali, but it probably means more support to stabilize the economic situation and development. And we also have to deal with countries where strong instability and security risks exist, like Libya. But of course we won’t do this alone: we will do it with the African countries./.
¹M. Désir spoke in English.