Minister focuses on European Council talks

European Union – European Council/climate/European budget – Interview given by Mme Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to www.lepoint.fr (excerpts)

Paris, 12 December 2019

Q. – This is the first European Council of the Von der Leyen era. What are you expecting from it?

THE MINISTER – This European Council is very important because it’s the culmination of a long transition which has been going on since the European elections. All the European institutions are in place: Charles Michel is President of the European Council and Ursula von der Leyen is President of the [European] Commission. European citizens made less anti-European choices than was feared. We’ve also managed to get unanimity from the European Council on a common strategic agenda, as Ursula von der Leyen repeated in her speech to the [European] Parliament. In addition, the Von der Leyen Commission was elected by a greater margin in the Parliament than its predecessors. Finally, the European Parliament has declared the climate emergency, which is important and draws a line under the occasionally petty political quarrels about confirming the appointment of commissioners. Positive momentum has been restored, and we believe Ursula von der Leyen’s participation in COP25 and her presentation of the Green Deal yesterday embody the sovereign Europe which President Macron has been promoting for two and a half years. (…)

President Macron has tasked me with going and seeking alliances, helping the European Commission and European Parliament maintain a high level of ambition. So we’ve got to prepare the ground for him. There are issues which will attract allies in addition to [just] us French. So there’s no use spending a great deal of energy on issues on which there’s already a very strong consensus. On the other hand, there are other, more complex issues, such as the four items on the European Council’s agenda of 12 December: the climate, the European budget, the Conference on the Future of Europe, and the Euro Area.

On these four subjects, apart from the budget, we could very well unanimously agree on the smallest common denominator, but we must do better. Regarding the climate and the conference on Europe, we could agree straight away…

Q. – … if nothing is put in this agreement!

THE MINISTER – Exactly! On the contrary, we need ambitious agreements, and that takes time. We’ve already made a great deal of progress in the past few months. We’re working on the basis of a common strategic agenda where there has been unanimous support for the clear goals to strengthen European integration. Of key importance now is to create majorities, issue by issue, so that the agenda is carried out. Some are saying it’s difficult. On the contrary, I think it presents rather an opportunity, because, on each issue, we’re reshuffling the cards. My first tour of Europe consisted in going to see all the partners, especially those who remain to be convinced. It’s why I was keen, for example, to go to Latvia and Slovakia before going on to begin a dialogue with the Czechs and the Poles. This was the work I did during my first tour of the capitals, when I took office. (…)

Since the end of October, I’ve been involved in a strategy which is defined more by concrete issues for negotiation than diplomatic relations. Take the climate: it’s a subject which raises issues in Central and Eastern Europe. So I’ve focused my efforts on Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, first with bilateral discussions with ministers who came to the Quai d’Orsay. I then suggested to my Czech counterpart – who has the rotating presidency of the Visegrad Group (V4) – the holding of a V4+France conference. Previously, there had been one under the Slovak presidency with Jean-Yves Le Drian. I wanted us to come out of this V4+France conference with a joint statement on the climate which could be a basis for work for the Council. It’s been published, it’s ambitious, everything is carefully worded. Why? Because when the leaders of those countries meet at the European Council, they must be able to express a position with France’s support. It’s what gives them leverage in the discussion, and vice versa. France will be able to defend, specifically, the carbon inclusion mechanism at the borders by relying on the Visegrad Group’s support. This will enable practical progress to be made, even though we know that discussions will be far from easy on these issues.

Q. – After Visegrad, which countries will you approach?

THE MINISTER – I’ll be going on to Denmark, which, like Sweden and Finland, is worried that the EU is creating a race to the bottom, below the Scandinavians’ social and environmental standards. There’s a great deal of incomprehension and apprehension to dispel. Today, Finland, Denmark and Sweden are against the “European minimum wage”. They say they don’t have a minimum wage and that this is precisely what allows them to be countries with high welfare standards. I tell them they shouldn’t worry, because in those countries, no employee is payed below the poverty line. Incidentally, I never talk about a “minimum wage”, I talk about the goal: no full-time worker in Europe should be paid below the poverty line. Each member state is free to reach the goal by whatever means it wishes: a state-run conference of employers’ and employees’ organizations, such a conference without the state, or a decree as in France – each in the way they see fit. The main thing is to be clear about the goal.

Q. – Do you think Europe has a problem with its approach?

THE MINISTER – Absolutely, Europe does have a problem with its approach. If majorities aren’t prepared ahead of the European Councils, leaders surprise one another on the day of the Council. And we waste time, when Europeans are in a hurry. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, also plans to implement this approach by going to see small groups of leaders ahead of the Council, and especially those most strongly opposed, in order to find common ground and leave the European Council with agreements full of genuine decisions, instead of the spectacle of our divisions or weaknesses and agreements based on the lowest common denominator.

So in this system, we French must defend our positions while being facilitators. We must have not only an ambitious road map but also majorities. This means genuinely listening to our partners. When the Poles tell us that, in certain regions, they have an energy mix where coal accounts for 80%, they have a legitimate right to ask for additional measures from Europe, and those can’t be Cohesion Funds, which are for other things. Hence the idea of a “fair transition” mechanism.

The Poles have hitherto refused to tie their hands on the climate. I’ve explained to them that they’ll never have any allies unless they commit themselves. So France has offered them the possibility of having an ally on the basis of the commitments featured in the V4+France declaration. It’s also a way of pushing the other member states to take a position that isn’t just “wait and see”. Charles Michel has exactly this approach in mind when it comes to moving from the agreement on goals to actual implementation, and this requires more technical discussions. So that’s being prepared.

We agree on the goals; let’s move on to implementation.

Q. – Is the same true for the European budget?

THE MINISTER – Viktor Orban’s Hungary wants, for example, flexibility as regards the use of European funds. The so-called “frugal” contributing countries want to know how European funds will be spent. If we stay where we are, there will be a twofold clash: not only about the size of the funds but also about confidence in how that money is used. So I’ve been to Hungary to meet my Hungarian counterpart and try to find a positive solution to this contradiction. I reminded her that conditionality on the rule of law was a useful way of rebuilding mutual trust.

Q. – Germany is sticking to a European budget limited to 1% of European wealth. Are the Germans going to change their position?

THE MINISTER – The key to the negotiation is the EU budget’s own resources. Of course, a ceiling must be set for national contributions. You can’t ask taxpayers who are already paying taxes to pay even more for Europe. However, there are potential taxpayers who currently pay no taxes and benefit from the single market: some players in the financial markets, digital giants, importers who don’t implement our environmental standards, those not recycling plastic, etc. They all benefit from the single market but don’t contribute to it as much as they could. So we must regard own resources as resources that place the burden on new taxpayers, not citizens. That’s key to the negotiation between, on the one hand, frugal countries that don’t want to provide more than 1% and, on the other, those that demand more cohesion or agriculture funds. You can’t get everyone to agree by magic unless you establish own resources.

Let’s not waste time talking about conceptual things. We agree on the goals; let’s move on to implementation, which requires us to talk about concrete, sound, balanced things that are acceptable to the public. So when plastic isn’t recycled, there must be stronger incentives to do so. People understand that. It reflects what they want. And it’s a long time since Europe followed that logic.

Q. – Finally, there’s the Conference on the Future of Europe being prepared for February… How are you approaching it?

THE MINISTER – Together with our German friends, we’ve proposed to make the purpose of this conference more transparent for everyone. How to answer three questions. First issue: how do you create sensitive dialogue with citizens rather than mere top-down communication? That doesn’t mean you consult left, right and centre but that you take their aspirations and opinions into consideration. Nor do I think we’re obliged to create a “permanent council” of citizens alongside the European Parliament as some people envisage, especially because a European Economic and Social Committee already exists with which we have to redefine the conditions for consultation…

Second issue: how do you rebuild trust in democracy? It means more strictly regulating conflicts of interest, establishing ethical rules, clarifying how European parties are funded, responding to foreign interference, and having transnational lists and Spitzenkandidaten so that things go better in the next European elections than they did in June.

Finally, the last issue: how do you make Europe more effective? We look at things starting with the big policies – industrial policy, migration policy etc. – and scrutinizing those big policies on the basis of appropriate questions: are we creating enough power, responsiveness and autonomy in those areas? Is the EU equipped with the right powers, at the right level? Wouldn’t subsidiarity be more useful? Are we creating enough convergence between us? In these areas, are we fighting hard enough against inequalities in our countries and between our countries? Lastly, are we responsive enough? (…)

Q. – Ultimately, the European budget takes concrete shape on the ground through projects. But France hasn’t succeeded in fully releasing the European funds package. You’ve taken the bull by the horns on this… What stage are you at?

THE MINISTER – In France we have a system that has become hard for those who should benefit from it to understand. A portion of European funds is handled by the state, another portion is the responsibility of the regions, and we have other sectors, payment authorities and public operators which deal with payments. In the 2014-2020 period, we programmed about three-quarters of the package we’d been given. Our performance depends on funds: for fishermen or rural development, wherever people need them most, our administrative complexity discourages those in charge of projects from applying for European funds.

The Portuguese, who are more efficient, have used up almost all of their package. Why shouldn’t we do as well as them from 2021 onwards? (…)./.

Published on 04/02/2020

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