Minister focuses on Austria, Poland, migrants and EU ballots

European Union – Austria/Poland/migration/European elections – Interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to France Info (excerpts)

Paris, 19 December 2017

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Austria

Q. – We haven’t necessarily been paying very close attention to what’s been happening in Austria, which has had a new government since Sunday, led by Sebastian Kurz. He’s 31 years old, he’s the youngest Western leader, and he’s reached an agreement with the far-right party. (…) Do you agree with François Hollande when he says that that government is contrary to the values Europe upholds?

THE MINISTER – That’s saying so even before the government has started taking action. It’s not what you read in the coalition contract. In Austria, as in Germany and a number of countries, there’s a coalition contract between parties that rally together to govern…

Q. – That contract is nearly 200 pages long.

THE MINISTER – It’s just over 180 pages, indeed, and that’s not what you read in it. Having said that, we must be extremely vigilant. I’d like to begin by saying that we worked very well with the previous Austrian government. Christian Kern was chancellor, and Sebastian Kurz, who has become Chancellor, was already foreign minister; he’s a member of the Austrian People’s Party, a conservative party. I’d like to pay tribute to Christian Kern, who did a tremendous job, very pro-European, very helpful in finding compromises useful to Europe. Emmanuel Macron and I went to Austria this summer to work on posted workers. Today we must be vigilant. Sebastian Kurz is going to Brussels today to see Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk. Donald Tusk wrote to him yesterday, telling him that Europe will be paying attention to respect for European values, respect for the content of the treaties and also for the spirit of the European treaties. We’ll all be paying close attention.

Q. – What may be called into question? What exactly will you pay attention to? What is not permitted or tolerable?

THE MINISTER – Everything relating to the rule of law, democracy, the separation of powers, protection of the media – all those issues. For example, with regard to Poland we pay close attention to the independence of the courts.

Q. – We’ll talk about that.

THE MINISTER – Those are the issues that bring us together. Europe isn’t just a single market, it’s a group of countries that share the same values.

Q. – (…) What many people also fear is an aggressive policy towards a religion, in particular Islam.

THE MINISTER –We’ll obviously be paying attention [to that] too. Europe is a continent of openness and tolerance.

Q. – Have European leaders, of whom you are one, tried to influence Sebastian Kurz not to give sovereignty-related ministries – because this also surprised people a little – to that far-right party? I remind you, the police, the army, foreign affairs.

THE MINISTER – No, that’s interference. The results of the Austrian election made the FPÖ, the far-right party, the third-largest party in Austria, and it’s chosen to govern with the People’s Party. It’s not for a foreign country to tell a head of government which ministries he should give to whom. Imagine the opposite scenario: if a Spaniard, a Briton, a German or an Austrian came and told us, “give this or that ministry to this or that person”, it would be totally unacceptable. However, very close attention will be paid to the policy conducted and the choices that will be made. (…)

Q. – Today the Front National in France can say very calmly, “you see, a so-called far-right party coming to power in Europe poses no problem, so if we were in power, everyone who tells you, ‘oh dear, it would be a disaster’ would be telling you something that’s not right”.

THE MINISTER – If it wasn’t for the fact that Emmanuel Macron and this government have fought the extreme right and we can’t be accused of having the slightest sympathy or the slightest desire to open the door to it.

Q. – (…) The point of my comment is that the extreme right can enter a government without any questions being asked at all, and that it’s become commonplace, in a way.

THE MINISTER – (…) Elsewhere in Europe the far right supports the government in Denmark, and part of the Belgian coalition is very close to what could be described as the far right. There’s a populist shift in some European countries, not all – we mustn’t exaggerate it either – but it’s there, it’s present and it’s not good news. That’s why we must be both very pro-European and reform Europe in order to better address citizens’ expectations and not let the extremes supplant moderates and people with a genuine project.

Poland

Q. – We were talking about Poland. The Polish Parliament has adopted a law ending the independence of the judiciary, and you’re asking the Polish President not to ratify that law.

THE MINISTER – The legislative process hasn’t entirely finished. The Senate hasn’t yet…

Q. – But it’s a fait accompli.

THE MINISTER – Yes, it seems to be a formality. Afterwards, ratification is needed by the President. It’s a worrying law because it does indeed jeopardize the independence of the judiciary. On that basis, Europe and Poland have been conducting dialogue on this specific subject for a number of months.

Q. – If the law is ratified, what will happen?

THE MINISTER – Tomorrow the members of the European Commission are meeting and must decide whether we should initiate proceedings that may lead to sanctions against Poland. (…) We must do it. France totally supports the Commission in this move. As I said earlier, the European Union isn’t merely a single market.

We in Europe are a group of countries that share values and pay attention to democracy, the rule of law and the separation of powers. If a state slides backwards in relation to those areas, we must say so, we must bring that to an end. In Brussels last week, Emmanuel Macron met the new Polish Prime Minister. He told him [so] very clearly. (…)

Q. – Something is establishing itself in Europe that we ultimately have little power against, namely authoritarian powers that can contravene European values – the independence of the judiciary, democracy – and there’s not actually very much we can do.

THE MINISTER – You’re right. The treaties don’t allow us to force a member state government’s hand, because those who signed the treaties don’t want that, and perhaps also because they didn’t envisage, they didn’t imagine this kind of change could occur. In future we’ll have to do some thinking, particularly about the payment of European appropriations.

The policy known as the Cohesion Policy – which is aimed at helping the less wealthy countries catch up with the others in terms of social convergence – cannot, can no longer, from our point of view, be continued, eyes closed. A country that backslides in terms of the rule of law, for example, must make a choice. It’s sovereign, it takes its decisions, but it can’t simultaneously ask Brussels to support it with billions from the Cohesion Fund. (…)

Asylum and migration in France

Q. – In France, too, some people are complaining that European values are being undermined. I’m talking about the Mézard-Collomb circular, which allows external units to intervene with migrants at emergency accommodation centres to see who is in an irregular situation and who is awaiting political refugee status, in order to try and carry out screening. This has sparked a lively debate; voluntary organizations in particular have condemned the circular, and Jacques Toubon, the Ombudsman, explained yesterday on France Inter that the European courts could throw out the circular. (…) Have you checked whether the circular is compliant with case law from the European Court of Human Rights and European texts?

THE MINISTER – The circular bears little resemblance to the way Jacques Toubon describes it. I think it was referred to him by the voluntary organizations, which have given a description of it that doesn’t correspond to the reality.

Q. – Have you checked its compatibility with European rules?

THE MINISTER – As you know, you check compatibility the day a court tells you it’s good or it’s not good. You can try and think it’s compliant; we obviously think so, but after that it’s up to the jurisdictions to judge. What does the circular say? They’re not patrols, they’re officers from the prefecture and the French Office for Immigration and Integration who will go to accommodation centres to examine, for those who agree to it – so they won’t force anyone –, their administrative situation.

Q. – In other words, people who are inside and don’t want to respond to the officers from the prefecture will be able not to respond?

THE MINISTER – They’ll be under no obligation to respond. (…)

Q. – Who is going to want to be registered?

THE MINISTER – You have emergency accommodation centres whose aim is to deal with the most immediate cases, people who already have refugee status, who shouldn’t be there, who should be allocated housing. You have people who are asylum seekers at a very advanced stage of their application procedure and who could be offered other types of accommodation. (…)

Q. – The way you’re describing it, the circular has no purpose.

THE MINISTER – It’s hard to see why emergency accommodation centres are so packed with, for example, Albanian asylum seekers. As you know, that’s the main nationality in terms of asylum applications in France. But Albania isn’t a country at war, it’s not a country in a humanitarian crisis. There’s no objective reason why there should be so many Albanian asylum seekers in France, staying on average 14 months with their families. That’s why Gérard Collomb went to Albania last week to negotiate and sign an agreement with the Albanian authorities so that they could be escorted back to Albania.

Because when those people are put up in emergency accommodation centres, others arriving from Syria, Iraq and [other] countries in crisis, arriving from countries at war, find themselves in the street. That’s not right. (…)

European elections in France

Q. – The government has decided to change the voting method for the European elections of June 2019: it was regional and it will be national. Aren’t you afraid this will put people off a purely European ballot and that people will talk a lot about domestic politics, with a national vote?

THE MINISTER – On the contrary.

Q. – We’ve already had national ballots.

THE MINISTER – There are lots of national ballots…

Q. – That’s why we changed and went back to a regional method.

THE MINISTER – No, there was an attempt, it was said, to bring MEPs closer to voters; that was a failure, because you are, you may be capable of saying who your MEP is…

Q. – Maybe not.

THE MINISTER – There you are: it didn’t work, because the European constituencies, the regions whose boundaries were drawn for the European elections, were extremely theoretical and absolutely vast. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of European countries have ballots with national lists. What we want is for there to be a genuine debate on Europe, and not local debates…

Q. – You’d like that, but often when there are national lists – we’ve seen this in France – people talk a lot about the domestic situation…

THE MINISTER – That’s the parties’ responsibility, and what we hope – and this is what En Marche will do – is to talk about Europe and European issues. Today, more and more often, people are realizing that the major challenges we’re facing have a strong European dimension.

We’ve just talked about immigration; we could talk about climate change and the digital revolution; we talk about globalization and the fight against terrorism. All those challenges, today, are dealt with essentially at European level. And so in order to have a genuine debate, genuine political choices on European issues during the 2019 ballot, it’s essential [to have national lists]. (…)./.

Published on 13/02/2018

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