Minister outlines French priorities for next EU presidency

European Union – European Commission presidency/strategic agenda/Brexit – Excerpts from the interview given by Mme Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France Inter

Paris, 16 June 2019

(…)

European Commission presidency

Q. – Would it be possible for France, for the first time since the birth of the European Union, to support a non-French-speaking candidate [for the European Commission presidency]?

THE MINISTER – We’d like the candidate to speak French. There are also some very good candidates who don’t perhaps speak French as well as we might dream of. Yes, we’re prepared to change many things and prepared to change the usual way of doing things because if we stick to the way every Commission president has been appointed in recent years, I can tell you one thing for certain: in five years when there are European elections, people won’t put their trust in us. (…)

Q. – Could you clarify what Emmanuel Macron meant when he said this week that “when all is said and done, if Angela Merkel puts herself forward to the Commission, stands for the post of European Commission president, I’ll back her.” Can you explain, because we rather got the impression that things weren’t going all that well between France and Germany.

THE MINISTER – (…) There were European elections, which showed several things: firstly, the turnout was high and people were more interested in Europe this time round than usual. It also showed that there’s a new, very pro-European centre, not because we’re blindly pro-European but because we want to change many things and we think there are many issues of interest to people which are decided at European level. There’s a new momentum. There’s still a cautionary note, namely that although the far right, the Eurosceptics, are weaker than we might have feared, they remain strong. We’ve been saying for a few weeks now that we must set extremely high standards for the project – what do we want to do over the next five years at European level? How do we ensure we’re true, as well, to the message voters have sent? We’re speaking a lot today and France and the work I’m conducting, and the President is conducting, is first of all about raising Europe’s ambition on the climate, on borders, on industrial policy, on competition and on social Europe, and we can come back to this in detail if you want. (…)

Q. – You didn’t answer my question about Angela Merkel.

THE MINISTER – In Switzerland this week, when asked who he thought was the right candidate, the President said someone who has experience, energy, who knows Europe, wants to move it forward and has ambition. The journalist said to him, “could that be Merkel?” and the President replied, “look, since she does meet the criteria I’ve set, if she stands, why not?” The problem today – it’s not even a problem; the ambition we’ve got to have – [is] what results we can get for European citizens so that at the next elections, they vote because they believe in something, because they’ve seen things happen, and not because there’s nothing better. So to achieve that, yes, we need someone who’s strong and has experience. (…)

French priorities for EU presidency

Q. – Can you give us some details about the strategic agenda, i.e. what’s going to be discussed at the European Council, what are France’s priorities in concrete terms for the next presidency?

THE MINISTER – There are three or four main ones; the strategic agenda will be built around five or six points at the most, we’re trying to do something quite concise, they must be genuine priorities. There’s of course the climate ambition: that our continent is carbon neutral by 2050, and we’d like to promote this together in New York in September. There’s a social priority: how we recreate a social market economy which protects workers’ rights and also prevents all kinds of social and fiscal dumping inside the EU.

Q. – And what concrete measures would translate this into action?

THE MINISTER – One example is the ongoing work on the posting of workers: equal work for equal pay, equal work for equal social security contributions, that unemployment benefit is paid in the country you’re working in. There are of course all the tax questions; we’re continuing the work on fiscal harmonization. There’s also an industrial, economic priority: how do we protect our strategic assets from foreign acquisition?

Q. – And you’re challenging competition law?

THE MINISTER – Exactly, a review of competition law so that we’re able to create European champions in markets where we know there’s huge Chinese or American competition. There are corresponding trade issues. With trade, for example – this applies to the climate as much as social standards –, are we able to create a kind of reciprocity or, at any rate, a kind of principle so that products coming from countries where environmental and social standards are too different from ours don’t end up in Europe in direct competition with products produced in our countries? There’s also everything connected with the overhaul of the Euro Area. As you’ve seen, there’s been a huge step forward with, at any rate, an agreement on governance and on the existence of a Euro Area budget.

Q. – Yes, we’re going to come back to this. All the same, it falls short of all the French objectives.

THE MINISTER – In terms of the amount, we haven’t reached the level we had in mind.

Q. – For the moment, hardly at all.

THE MINISTER – It will be negotiated in the framework of the 2020-2027 European budget. You already know many countries had a lot of doubts, so the important thing is that we managed to endorse things. So the subsequent priority for us – there’s a huge challenge to protect, on defence, borders and asylum – [is] to rebuild an area where, in terms of security and of sovereignty issues, we rebuild a kind of harmonization. As you see, this alone involves quite a few things: basically climate, borders and protection, industrial policy and social market economy. (…)

UK/Brexit

Q. – Will the United Kingdom leave the European Union on 31 October?

THE MINISTER – (…) The deal which is on the table and the date of 31 October are what we agree on. Apart from that, I can see there’s currently a lot of debate. I was in London on Monday and Tuesday; we mustn’t confuse an election campaign aimed at an extremely polarized activist base and the debates we’ll subsequently have at European level, and on that the line is clear: on 31 October, without any changes, there would have to be very profound changes for the date to be reconsidered, but the deal on the table, as Michel Barnier is repeating, is the best thing we’ve negotiated; we didn’t do it against the British, it was the British negotiators who, for two years, worked with the European negotiators point by point, in quite a pragmatic way, to find what was in the common interest.

Q. – Except that it may all change with the arrival – probably – of Boris Johnson to replace Theresa May.

THE MINISTER – Yes, but that’s a British political problem.

Q. – Yes, but is it good or bad news for Europe and for France? He says, “I don’t want to repay – or at any rate I don’t want to give back – the €35 billion which Britain, the UK, pledged to pay the European Union.”

THE MINISTER – That’s called a default.

Q. – But what can you do against it, if he’s following Donald Trump’s advice?

THE MINISTER – I can tell you it’s not for us to say what a default means. Defaulting on the financial markets means a subsequent loss of credibility, which – if it’s what he pursues – will have consequences that go well beyond the European Union. This matter of billions isn’t the divorce bill. It’s the commitments the UK made to the EU, so – as in any international contract, any international treaty – states are committed, and not paying your international obligations is called a default; that’s why we have ratings agencies, and then the financial markets issue penalties. It will have very serious consequences; I can tell you, in London on Monday and Tuesday I met a lot of people who can see clearly that it was playing to the gallery.

Q. – So you think he’s just bluffing.

Q. – Playing to the gallery, except that it was a commitment featuring in an agreement which was rejected by the British Parliament.

THE MINISTER – The commitment yes, but that’s exactly why I’m saying to you that if the UK wants to leave in an orderly fashion, what matters to me… Listen, I grew up in Calais for some of my childhood, and I’m sure of one thing: that even with Brexit, decisions will be taken in London or Brussels and they won’t increase the number of kilometres between Calais and Dover; the cliffs of Dover and Folkestone will still be visible from France.

Q. – It will still be Perfidious Albion.

THE MINISTER – We don’t see Perfidious Albion, we see a country that wants to transport hundreds of tonnes of equipment, goods and people. It’s a country with which we’ll have a future relationship that is obviously strong, economically and politically. We have defence agreements, we have research agreements. The EU and the UK worked to reach an agreement, to ensure things would go smoothly. If British decision-makers subsequently want to do otherwise, the consequence firstly affects the British people, and as you know, society is extremely divided. The first responsibility of Britain’s leaders today is to be deeply rooted in their country first and foremost, and we Europeans have put an agreement on the table.

As you can see, that’s all we can say; the issue then is up to the people who took a political decision and must either stop or continue it, but it’s their decision…

Q. – What’s your view of what’s happening in Britain today, because basically radicalization is occurring on something which, after all, involves the future of the European Union, the future of our relations with Britain? Do you think it’s a huge mess? What’s your reaction?

THE MINISTER – It sparks several reactions in me: firstly, we’re under a huge obligation to get a result at European Union level, because what fuelled Brexit was ultimately the feeling that the EU wasn’t delivering results for British citizens. The first thing it makes me realize is the obligation to nip in the bud what fuelled the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. The second thing it makes me think is that we must respect national democracies: the worst thing would be for me or anyone in Brussels or another country to decide what Brexit must be. It’s like in France in 2005: after the referendum the people who’d voted had the impression of their vote being betrayed; we saw that in France, of course, with the Lisbon Treaty. I voted in favour; at one point I even worked at the European Commission, while it was settling in. So luckily for Europe, there was that, but the way it was handled democratically is detrimental even today. The yellow vests are still talking about it 15 years later – I was in there at the great debate. So we must be extremely careful to ensure this British issue is dealt with at British level. And the final thing it makes me realize is what I was saying earlier: after Brexit, the UK will still be a country we have a relationship with, and we must be capable of building the future relationship in an honest and sincere way. There are a huge number of issues: fisheries, defence, security, intelligence, research agreements, students, everything, even financial services: there are a huge number of issues where we’ll have to continue finding new forms of relations, and so I don’t want to be the Brexit minister, I’d rather be the one who, together with others in the coming months, manages to find a way we can build a balanced and dynamic future relationship. (…)

French economy

Q. – But when you’re in the European institutions and you’re told France is basically one of the worst pupils in deficit terms, do you say it isn’t? How can our voice count in Europe if we remain in that situation?

THE MINISTER – What our European colleagues look at is the fact that we’ve conducted a reform of vocational training, so we’ve changed our subsidized contracts, we’ve drawn up contracts with our local authorities and we’re going to introduce unemployment insurance. We’re also going to conduct a reform to create justice and simplicity in pensions.

They see all this, they’re very well aware it’s difficult and they’re very well aware that for years France dragged its feet about tackling those issues.

You know, about 10 years ago, in the European Commission’s reports, it was already down in writing that unemployment insurance had to be reformed and pension insurance had to be simplified. These are things which the Prime Minister has announced and will be done in the coming weeks and months. (…)./.

Published on 24/06/2019

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