UK must be involved in Defence Europe, says President

European Union – Defence Europe/United States/economic policy/Brexit – Excerpts from the interview given by M. François Hollande, President of the Republic, to the daily newspaper Le Monde

Paris, 7 March 2017

(…)

Defence Europe/NATO/UK’s role

Q. – But Europe, which will celebrate its 60th birthday on 25 March, is in crisis…

THE PRESIDENT – Yes, but I don’t hold to that assessment, and I’m not giving in to despair. I want to paint the picture of Europe that people expect of it: a project, a force, a power. Europeans are asking for the EU to give them greater protection, for European sovereignty to make their borders secure, to protect them against the risk of terrorism and, finally, to preserve a way of life, a culture and a shared way of seeing things.

Q. – To protect themselves, have Europeans got to be able to defend themselves?

THE PRESIDENT – The subject of defence was deliberately ruled out during the signing of the Treaty of Rome. Europe could have started with that; it was France which didn’t want this in the early 1950s. Today, Europe can relaunch itself through defence – both to ensure its own security, but also to act in the world and seek solutions to the conflicts threatening it. This is what Europeans must have, consistent with NATO, as a matter of priority.

Q. – How is this European defence coordinated with NATO?

THE PRESIDENT – The Alliance is necessary and Defence Europe is in no way at odds or in competition with it. It’s based on solidarity: when one country is attacked, all the others must assist it. President Trump seemed unsure, but finally he’s just reaffirmed his support to NATO so that the issue of burden-sharing can be discussed. What matters is how dependable partners are. France is credible, it has lent its support – as have other Europeans – to the United States, particularly in Afghanistan.

The new American administration also has duties towards its European allies. It doesn’t just come down to budget, it concerns the very basis of the values we uphold in the world. The fact remains that Europeans must increase their defence effort. France has decided to bring it up to 2% of GDP in the next five years.

Q. – So Donald Trump is acting as a catalyst for European defence?

THE PRESIDENT – Yes. We firmly believed this even prior to his election. We’d already made a lot of headway with Germany. But admittedly the announcement of American disengagement led to a realization. Europe must avoid any kind of dependence which leaves it submissive, which would be serious, or – worse – abandoned. The realization is there, it still has to be translated into better coordination of our defence policies, integration of our forces and stepping-up of our weapons capabilities and military projection capabilities.

Q. – Does France feel less alone in these operations?

THE PRESIDENT – In the Sahel, the Central African Republic and even the Levant, France was the first to intervene, but it was never alone. It was always followed by its European partners. But just think: wouldn’t it have been even more symbolic if the decision I took on Mali had been shared from the outset by the Europeans themselves and swiftly carried out? That’s the next stage for Defence Europe.

Q. – Does the United Kingdom have a role in this Defence Europe?

THE PRESIDENT – Yes. France and the United Kingdom have strong relations when it comes to defence, including in the – strategic – area of nuclear deterrence. As regards Defence Europe, not every EU country has to be a member of it; some aren’t part of that tradition, but the door must be open to everyone. So I propose structured cooperation to coordinate the countries which want to go much further. In my view, the United Kingdom, even outside the EU, must be involved.

Treaty of Rome/60th anniversary

Q. – Today, Monday 6 March, you’re hosting a meeting in Versailles with the leaders of Germany, Italy and Spain. Why bring together these four countries?

THE PRESIDENT – Angela Merkel and I regularly consult each other before all the European Councils, on every issue. It’s in Europe’s interest, but it isn’t an exclusive relationship.

For the 60th anniversary of the treaty, being held in Rome on 25 March, it seemed sensible for us to involve Italy and invite Spain. The objective isn’t to impose the viewpoint of the Euro Area’s four most populated countries, but to take Europe forward with a determination and commitment which go well beyond our respective mandates, at a time when the Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, is presenting scenarios on the EU’s future.

EU/Franco-German tandem/Greece

Q. – Is the Franco-German tandem no longer good enough?

THE PRESIDENT – It’s essential. I’m speaking from experience: if there’s no trust or unity between France and Germany on the main issues, Europe can’t move forward. But this isn’t enough. When Mrs Merkel and I reach agreement, we don’t impose it on the other countries arbitrarily – we’ve got to use persuasion. In France and in Brussels, some people find the Franco-German axis unbalanced.

Q. – You’re accused of being too weak towards the German Chancellor.

THE PRESIDENT – France took Germany further than it planned to go, for example on banking union. Greece is another example: France highlighted what that country’s departure from the Euro Area would have cost and Germany ensured, in the discussion, that rules and commitments were set which, incidentally, Mr Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, has complied with.

Q. – You stopped Wolfgang Schäuble?

THE PRESIDENT – Let’s just say he came to his own understanding. I could have been triumphalist about this, but that’s not the right approach, because in the game of “France won against Germany” or “Germany got France to back down”, we’ll all be losers. So as France embarked on structural reforms to make it more competitive, Germany agreed we should be allowed time to reduce our public deficit, with the goal of being under 3% of GDP in 2017. We’ve reached that.

So I was right about not provoking a crisis which would have split Europe. We, Germany and France, needed to be together for the Euro Area, for the European budget, for the refugees issue and for Ukraine, and fortunately we were – as we were also when it came to concluding the Paris climate agreement.

EU/reordering of priorities

Q. – Did you manage to “reorder Europe’s priorities”, as you promised?

THE PRESIDENT – Yes, the priorities have been reordered. Flexibility has been introduced in how the rules of the European budgetary treaty are interpreted. This change allowed Italy and Spain to escape any disciplinary measures, and France to avoid destructive austerity. Banking union has enabled us to put an end to crises in the sector, because, today, were a financial institution to fail, the banks – not the taxpayers – would be called upon to bail it out. Finally, the Juncker investment plan, which has even been expanded and extended, clearly reorders priorities to promote growth.

Those who say we haven’t reordered the EU’s priorities are those who actually challenge its rules. (…)

But what worries me most in Europe as it is today is the return of narrow national self-interest and that every country looks for what is in its immediate interest without promoting a shared ambition. For some it’s the benefit of structural funds, for others the advantage of a single currency, for many it’s the strengths of the internal market and worker mobility. No one is satisfied, and Europe loses out. Without a new European mind-set, the EU will be inexorably weakened and ultimately break up.

Q. – Are you talking about the assistance to Greece?

THE PRESIDENT – Not just that. The principle of solidarity is undermined when countries refuse to make commitments on refugees, when they fail in their obligations linked to the climate agreement, when they’re ready to exclude a country from the Euro Area for not contributing more. And as soon as a new policy is discussed, I hear more and more the demand that “we no longer want to pay more than we receive”. It’s a return to Mrs Thatcher’s slogan, “I want my money back”. The United Kingdom has left, but the bad atmosphere remains! If everyone seeks what they pay in, the common flame will be extinguished.

EU integration

Q. – What swift collective action can we envisage being taken with countries – such as Poland and Hungary – which challenge the authority of the European institutions?

THE PRESIDENT – Europe isn’t a trading post, it’s a system of values. So the European Commission is justified in ensuring the EU’s principles are adhered to. Disciplinary measures are possible, including financial ones. But you can’t suspend countries on account of their governments, only to reinstate them later on. The European institutions are duty-bound to ensure cohesion and make sure the treaties are applied. But these difficulties aside, I’m conscious that we’re arriving at a pivotal moment. Europe acting swiftly requires a clear decision being made about the way it is organized.

A 27-member Europe can no longer be a uniform 27-member Europe. For a long time this idea of a differentiated Europe with various speeds, distinct rates of progress, met with a lot of resistance. But today it’s an essential idea. Otherwise Europe will break up.

Q. – Is there no alternative?

THE PRESIDENT – No. Either we do things differently or we’ll no longer do them together. In future, there will be a common agreement, an internal market with, for some, a single currency. But on this basis it will be possible for those member states that so wish to go further on defence, further on social or tax harmonization, and further when it comes to research, culture and young people. In short, we must imagine degrees of integration.

Q. – But no let-up in integration?

THE PRESIDENT – No. No country must prevent others from moving faster. Let’s be frank: some member states will never join the Euro Area. Let’s take note of that, and not wait for them before deepening Economic and Monetary Union. Hence my proposal for a Euro Area budget, because if you always want to do everything with all Twenty-Seven, the risk is that you do nothing at all.

Q. – What about countries that don’t want any refugees?

THE PRESIDENT – In autumn 2015, during heated discussions at the European Council, I told the recalcitrant countries: “You don’t want to take in refugees, you won’t have any and you’ll take political responsibility for that situation.” We opted for a voluntary-based formula, and today it’s clear the goals haven’t been achieved. Why should we be surprised?

Europe is capable of imposing disciplinary measures in the event of non-compliance with budgetary discipline or competition rules, but it seems powerless against countries that trample on principles of solidarity and tolerate all abuses when it comes to the posting of workers. Europe must establish its order of priorities more forcefully.

Q. – Doesn’t such a boost to integration risk further dividing Western and Eastern Europe?

THE PRESIDENT – It mustn’t exclude anyone.

Q. – The leader of the ruling party in Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, has made it known that his country will oppose a renewed mandate for his compatriot Donald Tusk as leader of the European Council. Does that pose a problem for you?

THE PRESIDENT – I myself promoted Donald Tusk’s candidature for the European Council presidency two and a half years ago. I have no reason to call it into question, even though, in terms of political balance, it’s the turn of a socialist: I try to take a more European than partisan or national vision. Can a country prevent one of its citizens being president of a European institution? Legally no, because the decision is taken by a qualified majority. It’s up to the European Council to debate this politically. It’s possible to choose a candidate rejected by his own country. As far as I’m concerned, I won’t be taking part in this eviction.

EU shortcomings

Q. – How do you explain the disenchantment with Europe? Have we underestimated demands for national identity? Or resentment of globalization? What mistakes have been made?

THE PRESIDENT – The enlargement of Europe was carried out in the name of entirely respectable political principles, but it enables some countries to come and compete with others, under very favourable conditions. Shouldn’t there have been a longer transition phase? No doubt, but it’s too late. And it’s easy for populists in the West to condemn relocations and for the East to defend freedom of movement at all costs.

Secondly, Europe hasn’t appeared to defend its commercial interests in the world sufficiently. It’s wanted to set an example of openness because it believes in trade, but it may have given the impression of conceding too much to emerging countries. But we’re neither going to give in to protectionism nor reject all trade agreements, even balanced ones like CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada. On the other hand, it’s necessary to combat all forms of dumping. That’s what has been done with regard to Chinese steel.

Finally, the EU’s major problem isn’t the decisions it takes but the slowness of its decision-making process. Europe acts rather well but always too late! For example, on Greece, how long did we have to wait to arrive at the July 2015 agreement? And since that night of negotiation at the European Council, how many meetings of the Eurogroup [did it take] to pay Greece what it had already been promised? On banking union, it took three years to introduce the rules and establish the authorities.

On refugees, how much longer [did it take] to put in place the coastguards and “hot spot” centres and reach the agreement with Turkey? And to strengthen our instruments for combating terrorism? Europe’s decision-making methods are no longer adapted to a world of emergencies. As for the populists, they inhabit the instant world of tweets.

When Donald Trump issued anti-immigration executive orders that sparked widespread anger, his aim was not so much practical effectiveness as media impact. An effective EU means authorities that decide quickly. That’s the big lesson of these recent years of crisis.

Q. – Does the EU regulate too much?

THE PRESIDENT – Yes, even though it’s the consequence of the internal market and the Commission is the guardian of the treaties. There was a logic: Europe wasn’t set up inadvertently or for some perverse reason. Moreover, too many things reach the level of the European Council, which, I remind you, operates by consensus. The heads of state and government should deal only with what is essential.

UK/Brexit

Q. – What message would you like to send the United Kingdom, which wants to leave the EU but retain its advantages?

THE PRESIDENT – That it’s not possible and it’s therefore going to become a third country in relation to the EU. That’s the problem for the UK: it thought that by leaving Europe it was going to forge a strategic partnership with the United States. But it turns out that America is closing itself off from the world. The UK made the wrong decision at the wrong time. I regret it.

US/Trump/populism/Europe

Q. – Does President Trump worry you?

THE PRESIDENT – It’s not just a matter of emotion or fear. It’s a four-year political reality. We now know his lines of policy: isolationism, protectionism, a shutdown of immigration and a mad headlong rush on fiscal policy. In short, uncertainty is giving way to disquiet, and the euphoria on the financial markets seems to me very premature.

As for his ignorance of what the EU is, it obliges us to demonstrate to him its political cohesion, economic weight and strategic autonomy. (…) But he’s offering Europe considerable space and opportunity. Space because the United States no longer wants to play an international role on the scale it used to. Opportunity because we’re the world’s leading economic power, so we have the means to act. Do Europeans currently have the desire to? It will all depend on the elections to be held in the coming months in France, Germany and Italy.

Q. – Could Mr Trump’s victory strengthen populist parties or work against them?

THE PRESIDENT – Both are true. On the one hand, Trump gives credit to populists and nationalists. He tells them: “It’s possible because I’m doing it.” On the other, he gives those who are open, progressive in the broadest sense of the term and pro-European the opportunity to clearly set out their project. In a way, he’s helping to clarify things.

Q. – Is this the new demarcation – no longer left-right but nationalists against pro-Europeans?

THE PRESIDENT – Yes, but that doesn’t mean right and left have merged. It means that part of the right and part of the left may at some point be aligned on the issue of Europe. Moreover, what have we been doing in Europe since 2012? I’m on the left, Mrs Merkel’s on the centre-right; but we manage to agree on the key challenges insofar as we share the same pro-European spirit.

Russia

Q. – What level of threat does Russia currently represent for democracies on the international stage?

THE PRESIDENT – What’s Russia seeking to do? To carry weight in the areas that previously belonged to it in the former Soviet Union. That’s what it’s attempted in Ukraine in particular. It wants to be involved in resolving conflicts in the world, to its own advantage. We can see this in Syria. It’s asserting itself as a power. It’s testing our resistance and constantly gauging the balance of power.

At the same time, Russia is using every means to influence public opinion. It’s no longer the same ideology as in the time of the USSR, but it’s sometimes the same processes, combined with technology, a strategy of influence and networks, and very conservative ideas in terms of morality. It also claims to be defending Christianity against Islam. Let’s not exaggerate anything, but let’s be vigilant.

I’m often asked: “Why don’t you talk to President Putin more often?” But I’ve never stopped talking to him! With the Chancellor too, moreover. And that’s good. Vladimir Putin leads a great country, linked to France by a long history. But talking doesn’t mean giving in; it doesn’t mean accepting faits accomplis. Talking means taking action to find the right solutions. On Syria, we can clearly see that if the opposition is sidelined or its importance downplayed, there can be no political way out in the framework of the Geneva negotiations.

There too, Europe is up against the wall. If it’s strong and united, Russia will want to maintain a lasting and balanced relationship. As for ideological operations, they must be unmasked. We must say very clearly who is with whom, and who is funded by whom. Why are all the far-right movements more or less linked to Russia? (…)./.

Published on 09/08/2017

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