President discusses Syria, refugees and UK referendum
European Union/European Council/United Kingdom/migration/foreign relations – Press conference by M. François Hollande, President of the Republic (excerpts)
Brussels, 20 February 2016
The European Council meeting was devoted to three issues. (…)
I’ll begin with refugees, because it took us not only part of the afternoon but also part of the night. We had to assess all the measures we Europeans had already been taking for several weeks to take in a number of families and individuals who, unfortunately, are fleeing for their lives from the situation they’ve been experiencing in Syria and Iraq; and also to guarantee control of the external border, in this case that of Schengen.
The discussion was, so to speak, limited, because Turkey, which was due to be present yesterday with its prime minister, couldn’t be at the meeting for the reasons you’re aware of, because Turkey was the victim of a very serious terrorist attack. So we had to look at what had been done and what could be done: what had been done with Turkey. i.e. significant support, assistance, because €3 billion was released so that Turkey could keep, as far as possible, the refugees who are currently in that country. I remind you there are 2.5 million Syrians in Turkey today.
Turkey has made commitments, particularly to combat people-smugglers and prevent smuggling from taking place between Turkey and Greece, with risks for the people concerned and – as we know – consequences difficult to tolerate for the European countries that are taking in those people.
So we agreed there would also be a presence of NATO naval forces between Greece and Turkey – i.e. in the Aegean Sea – so that, in addition to the efforts the Turks are making, there can be effective control of the border. Likewise, the Greeks made a commitment with Alexis Tsipras to ensure that the much-talked-about “hot spots” – there are four in Greece – can genuinely have what’s expected of those centres: registration, control, reception of those who are eligible for asylum, and deportation for those who are not. And there too, significant progress was seen.
Finally, we must avoid unilateral decisions being taken that may lead to the controls becoming border closures within the European area itself, or rather the Schengen area, which would not only amount to the dislocation of Europe but also to leaving the essential burden of taking in and hosting the refugees to Greece.
So what we wanted was for all these procedures to be speeded up and their effectiveness verified. And that’s why a European Council meeting on this subject alone will be held at the beginning of March, in the presence of the Turkish Prime Minister, so that we can enable Schengen to be maintained – I’d almost say strengthened – and there can be the support expected from Europe for refugees in the countries neighbouring Syria: I’m talking about Turkey but also Jordan and Lebanon.
This issue of refugees is ultimately the most important, the most serious one Europe has had to deal with in recent years. Since I’ve been French President issues have been discussed at the Council meetings, and very serious ones: the future of the Euro Area, the issue of banks following the subprime crisis, the need to revitalize Europe through growth plans, and obviously the issue of unemployment and how Europe can be reoriented more towards listening to people.
But with the refugees, not only is a human issue raised but also a major political issue, because you have to act at the very source, i.e. why are there refugees? It’s because there are wars and conflicts. It’s there that Europe must be capable of showing it’s ready to take on its role internationally, enable political transitions, humanitarian aid and solutions, ensure the right of asylum can be maintained and at the same time protect its borders and prevent nations deciding to withdraw into themselves, which would ultimately negate Europe’s very existence. That is what’s at stake in the handling of this very serious issue: it’s the European idea, but I’d almost say not only the idea, not only the project, but Europe’s very existence.
I once again lent my support to Greece, because it’s Greece that is ensuring the control of our external border, it’s Greece that is in the front line, that must be helped, including financially and particularly as regards what else the IMF and the European Commission must do to resolve the issue of the Greek rescue, which we discussed – as you remember – during another very long night at the European Council.
I also supported Angela Merkel on our shared wish, namely to ensure the protection of our external border, prevent there being an influx of refugees that would no longer be tolerated by the countries that have already made the effort – I’m thinking of Germany, I’m thinking of Sweden, I’m thinking of Austria. And so we need a mechanism for distribution and resettlement. France has made commitments on this: 30,000 over the next two years. That seems little in relation to what we know of the figures, but that’s France’s pledge.
But there can be no relocation, i.e. distribution of people who arrive and are eligible for asylum. There can only be distribution or resettlement – i.e. fetching people who are in Turkey or Jordan or Lebanon whose lives are in danger – if there’s effective control of the border. Otherwise it will never be possible to put the mechanism in place. So the discussion was lengthy but it was useful, but it can probably be concluded, so to speak, only if we continue our verification and our demand for clear, effective procedures at the next European Council meeting, which will be held at the beginning of March.
That brings me on to the second issue that was discussed late this evening: Syria. Massacres have unfortunately been taking place in Syria, as we know, for four years. And at this very moment, Aleppo – which is Syria’s second city, with 1.6 million inhabitants only a few years ago, and one of the world’s oldest cities: I think its first buildings were even constructed in the sixth century B.C. – is being bombed and its people are fleeing, and there are enormous humanitarian risks.
So we must act, and the European Council concluded that there must, as far as possible, be humanitarian aid, and above all there should be corridors – particularly to Aleppo but not only Aleppo – enabling the people to be fed and protected. In order to achieve this, the bombing must stop: for several weeks the Syrian regime and Russia, which supports it, have been bombing a number of areas where not only the moderate opposition but also civilians are present.
So I’m calling once again for the bombing to stop, for it to be possible to send humanitarian aid and for negotiations on the political transition finally to resume. Talks are also under way at this very moment, and France is playing its part in them, even though there’s been a draft resolution at the Security Council which can’t succeed because, as we know, the temptation also exists on Turkey’s part to bomb the area in northern Syria which is currently occupied by the Syrian Kurds.
The situation is extremely serious because there’s an escalation and there may even be an open conflict between two countries, one of which, I remind you, is a NATO member. All this leads me, and also leads the European Council, to do everything to ensure that the so-called Munich process can go ahead, that discussions resume and that a political solution can be prepared, because there will be no solution to the refugee problem if the situation remains explosive in Syria and therefore also in Turkey.
I also want to add a word on Daesh [so-called ISIL], because we must always have this goal of striking Daesh, because Daesh is striking us, and there must be no confusion there. There’s an opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime. Daesh isn’t an opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime: Daesh is, in a way, another side of that regime, because Daesh takes advantage of the violence carried out by the regime – which, incidentally, isn’t striking it – to occupy part of Syrian and also Iraqi territory.
So France will continue to carry out strikes against Daesh, and it calls on all members of the coalition not to lose sight of this goal. And this also applies to both Russia and Turkey.
The final subject, which occupied us for the rest of the night and the whole day, was the issue of the United Kingdom’s role in the EU. What were France’s aims on this? The first aim was to ensure that the UK can remain – if Britons themselves so decide – in the European Union, because I think it’s in the UK’s interest, it’s in Europe’s interest, and that is its place.
But it was essential that this aim – which reflects our history but also our future and I’d almost say geography – shouldn’t call into question the founding principles of the European Union, namely the single market with the same rules for all, i.e. those countries that have chosen to be in the Euro Area, the possibility of integrating more and having free movement: in short, what makes all 28 of us together – and some of us in smaller groups but more integrated in terms of content – the Euro Area. And I think those two aims were maintained.
We worked on the basis of a text that had been prepared by Donald Tusk and David Cameron following lengthy consultation. There were few changes to the initial text, even though it took a long time, because it was necessary – and this was also France’s aim – to remove ambiguities.
So today I can say it’s true: the United Kingdom has a special place in Europe; it always has. It’s not in Schengen, it’s not in the Euro Area, it doesn’t adhere to the Charter of [Fundamental] Rights, but there was no opt-out from the rules of the single market, no revision of the treaties is planned and there’s no UK right of veto on the Euro Area, which was a very important point for France.
I entirely accept that the UK may have another destiny in the monetary, economic and even, in some respects, social sense. But what I don’t want is for the UK to be able to prevent, hinder, slow down the Euro Area’s progress or be in a situation where it opts out of the common rules. And there was one point which seemed to me very important, and I emphasized it at my meeting with David Cameron in Paris: namely, the issue of financial regulation. Now that’s a subject which may seem complicated, because everything financial is complicated, but these complicated matters may often or sometimes, for better or worse, make up our economic life.
I didn’t want there to be different rules for London’s financial centre and the other centres in the European Union – i.e. not only the Frankfurt centre but also the Paris centre and other systems existing in the 28-member Europe; [I wanted] the same rules to apply, with the same oversight, the same bodies, the same authorities to verify their implementation; and I wanted nothing to hinder the development of new rules under the same bodies or the same authorities.
Because when you’ve experienced a banking, a financial crisis, as we did in 2008, you can’t take any risks; this is also true of the United Kingdom, which must also be protected from this deregulation, like the whole of Europe. So we’re interlinked; the same rules and the same principles must exist. That was a very important point, and David Cameron accepted this equality between the financial centres, and this rejection of any distortion of competition and any special rules.
Next, there was a discussion which may have seemed of less interest to France but which is of interest to many European countries: the issue of social security benefits for European workers, who may live in countries other than their own, in this case the UK. And there too, rules have been set, including on the level of family allowances and on benefits for new arrivals, with safeguard mechanisms – I won’t go into the details; you’ll be able to ask me if you want to. But it was very important for countries some of whose citizens are outside their national borders but inside the EU to have safeguards on social security benefits.
I was mindful of one point – because what’s been granted to the UK can be granted to other EU countries; from this viewpoint there’s no special treatment – I was very mindful of the situation of French cross-border workers, so that there would be no consequences on their social security system, and that will be the case.
There you are, ladies and gentlemen: other measures were taken to address the British demands, particularly the opportunity for one country which has any doubt about a European mechanism to refer it to the European Council without there being the right of veto. I very willingly agreed to this principle; it may also be useful to us, for France. Likewise, there’s greater involvement by national parliaments, which may at some point or other call a European decision into question or ask for it to be deliberated again; I think this is part of what democracy calls for; there is of course the European Parliament, but there are also national parliaments. And on this, what was decided today enables us to improve European procedures without distorting anything.
So today, the conditions exist for Europe to continue moving forward. That was my goal. Europe must move forward, it mustn’t simply carry on asking itself the same questions for years about one country’s role within it; Europe must move forward, it mustn’t be hampered by any special situation in Europe; it must move forward because it faces major challenges – I’ve mentioned refugees, the war in Syria, the issue of growth and employment, of course – and it must also move forward in order to spearhead new projects.
And those countries that so wish – and France states this here – will be able to get even more involved, in order to spearhead new ambitions for the European project. I’d like Britons to be able to respond positively to the question asked of them, namely whether they want to belong to the European Union or not. Moreover, if they decide in favour, we’ll continue with the British to move forward in many areas. I’m aware of the link existing between France and the UK, particularly as regards Defence Europe and industrial Europe.
But if Britons said no – which would undoubtedly be contrary to Europe’s interests and to the UK’s own interests, but ultimately it’s for them to decide, and in any case, whatever the British people’s decision –, Europe should prepare to move forward, move forward again. And not move forward in a kind of mad rush, which would also serve no purpose, but create specific, rallying projects so that Europeans will have more confidence in themselves.
Because what’s at stake – and I’ve confirmed it again over the past 48 hours – is whether each country intends to cope alone or whether we believe we have an entity called Europe that makes us stronger, more mutually-supportive and more responsible. There are countries that are currently tempted by the solution of national withdrawal, there are political forces moving in that direction: it may begin with a return to internal borders, perhaps for some the rejection of the euro, and for others even a certain distancing from the values we uphold together, or the idea that ultimately there would no longer be any sharing of common responsibility and everyone could do what they like, including at international level. Or do we think Europe has a special role in the world in terms of economic power, no doubt – it’s the leading one – but also in terms of ability to take the initiative?
We can’t complain about the position of America – which sometimes intervenes too much, in our eyes, and sometimes intervenes too little, as we can see, on a number of issues – if Europe itself doesn’t have its own place. And it’s up to us to address this, and France in particular. And that’s why I’ll continue making proposals to this effect.
Today we’ve ensured that the UK can take its decision with full knowledge of the facts. Everything has been done to ensure that the UK can remain in the EU without impeding Europe’s progress towards the future, but at the same time it’s the British people and they alone who have the answer. (…)./.