France "will be ready" for a no-deal Brexit - Minister

European Union – Italy/Brexit/European elections – Interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to lemonde.fr

Paris, 18 February 2019

Macron/relations with Europe

Q. – Isn’t Emmanuel Macron a bit lonely in Europe?

THE MINISTER – We’re working with all the EU countries. For us, the European project is about sharing, not division. That doesn’t stop us from having disagreements with nationalist governments. We’ve got concerns, for example, about the risk of the rule of law being violated in Poland, which the Council is currently assessing. But that doesn’t stop Poland from agreeing with France on the Common Agricultural Policy or other issues linked to the next budget and to the taxation of digital giants.

Our experience of Franco-German relations is the opposite of what the doom merchants predicted. Germany rallied behind our proposal for a Euro Area budget. This admittedly doesn’t go as far as what France is proposing, but it’s a significant first step. We’ve been talking about this budget for 10 years, and now it’s a reality. As regards defence, too, we’ve achieved more in 18 months than in several decades. Only last week, progress was made with a ban on electric fishing in the EU, the creation of a European labour authority which will ensure that social rules are respected by everyone, and progress on copyright protection.

Q. – Has the divide Emmanuel Macron talked about between nationalists and progressives now been relegated to the background?

THE MINISTER – It isn’t contrived and hasn’t been abandoned. If you can’t see that there’s rising nationalism, extremism and populism in Europe, you must be blind. When Emmanuel Macron talked about a “rising leprosy”, he called out what was happening, without being afraid to say so and with a desire to combat it. Until now, some in Europe have preferred to close their eyes and refuse to listen. This silence has led to a rise in authoritarian movements.

There’s an ill wind blowing over the continent today. Given this, there are two possible approaches: burying our heads in the sand and hoping to emerge unscathed or taking the risk of facing this ill wind by exposing ourselves to criticism and verbal – and not just verbal – violence from some of our enemies. That’s the choice we made.

Q. – Europe is often seen as a tool for globalization, and not as a tool for protecting…

THE MINISTER – Not since 1983 has support for the EU been as strong in France. No party in France is advocating leaving Europe or the euro any more, apart from François Asselineau [President of the Union populaire républicaine or Popular Republican Union party]. French people have very high expectations of Europe and they’re afraid of being disappointed: the ecological transition, an effective, balanced migration policy and the upholding of our interests in globalization. “Turning inwards” is language used by some nationalists, not the instinctive reaction of the majority of French people.

European elections

Q. – How do you intend carrying more weight in the EU, and with which allies?

THE MINISTER – Our weakness is that, to date, we don’t have a political group in the Parliament reflecting at European level the strength of LRM [La République en Marche]. The leading French party represented in Strasbourg is the Rassemblement national [National Rally, formerly the National Front] party, which has made news only through judicial investigations into fake jobs for colleagues. It has no influence and generally votes the opposite way to what it says in Paris. It could, for example, have helped combat social dumping; it didn’t choose to. As for the Republicans, they’re divided on just about every issue.

But the situation is going to change. All national elections have weakened traditional parties and seen the emergence of new forces. And not just populist forces. You’re aware of the Italian example. The centre right and the Democratic Party were replaced in power by the [Northern] League and the Five Star Movement, which spoke out against the European Union without really saying what they expected from it. Yet this isn’t what we’re seeing in Greece or Portugal, or even Spain…

Q. – In Spain, Ciudadanos, one of your potential partners in Europe, is allying itself in Andalusia with the far-right party, Vox. What do you intend to do?

THE MINISTER – LRM wouldn’t have chosen to do that. Don’t think for a minute that in an election – even a local one – LRM would join up with the far right in France. But we’ll make a judgment based on deeds. For the moment, the programme they’ve adopted includes none of the extremist measures proposed by Vox. Ciudadanos is expressing strong European convictions. It’s also the case with Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE [Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party].

Q. – Doesn’t the far right risk carrying weight in the new [European] Parliament?

THE MINISTER – The new assembly will be more split up, with five large groups. The EPP [European People’s Party], the Socialists [S&D], progressives – where we want to play our full part –, a group affiliated to the Greens and a group of nationalists. The recomposition will spell the end of the EPP and S&D’s joint administration, which hasn’t helped foster European people’s interest in the Parliament.

In such a configuration, the nationalists’ group will hardly carry any weight. They won’t form a coherent group with any project. On the economic front, they’re divided between ultraliberals and those in favour of state interventionism. As for foreign policy, some are clamouring for an alignment with Donald Trump’s America and others are looking to Vladimir Putin. Juxtaposed positions don’t make a common ideology.

Franco-Italian relations

Q. – Is the crisis with Italy over?

THE MINISTER – Our ambassador, Christian Masset, went back to Rome on 15 February. The signal was heard and understood. Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Emmanuel Macron spoke at the beginning of last week, emphasizing their commitment to good relations between the two countries. The two deputy prime ministers, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, made amends, particularly the latter, for the inappropriate and unfriendly gesture of his meeting in Montargis with an agitator who talks about civil war and paramilitary militias.

Q. – Were they totally wrong when they accused France of hypocrisy on migration?

THE MINISTER – Whenever a ship picks up shipwrecked people, it’s not the Austrian Chancellor or the Polish Prime Minister or his Hungarian counterpart who agree to play their part and take in asylum seekers. Not only does France announce it, it does it.

It’s also astonishing that so many people cross the Italian border without any checks. In 2017 and 2018, France was the second European country for asylum applications, with 130,000. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of migrants arriving on the Italian coast was reduced tenfold thanks to the European Union’s action. Language about the lack of solidarity from partners is political and vote-catching. France has always upheld and implemented solutions of European solidarity.

Q. – So the war of words isn’t over?

THE MINISTER – We’d like a fair and respectful relationship. A government’s priority must be to focus on its people’s well-being; that’s why it was elected and what it will be judged on. I don’t see how soundbites will enable Italy to have growth better than it’s got today.

Q. – Following Cesare Battisti’s extradition from Bolivia, Rome is demanding that of 14 members of the Red Brigades who fled to France. What will become of that?

THE MINISTER – It’s an issue dealt with between the courts. It’s not up to an interior minister, even if he’s deputy prime minister, to come and search for Red Brigades members in France, and it’s not up to his French counterpart to hand them over to him. It’s judges working with one another, looking on a case-by-case basis, ensuring any expiry of the offences is respected. It will be on a case-by-case basis, but there’s no reason to oppose a possible extradition.

Q. – Is it the end of the “Mitterrand doctrine” [the former president pledged not to extradite former Italian militants, although he excluded crimes of violence]?

THE MINISTER – I have no doctrine on judicial issues. If the courts in a foreign country that respects the rule of law request the extradition of someone who has been found guilty of crimes of violence, it’s up to the judges to decide. I think for a long time our country underestimated the trauma caused by terrorism in Italy and Spain, and we treated the indiscriminate violence carried out in some of our neighbouring countries with an indifference I don’t share.

France/yellow vests

Q. – President Macron wagered on introducing reforms to regain credibility vis-à-vis Brussels and Berlin. Doesn’t the yellow-vests crisis threaten to create doubts among our partners again?

THE MINISTER – The President didn’t say, “I’m going to introduce reforms to please Angela Merkel”… He was elected on the basis of a project, in a country that needs to reform. No political leader in Europe is immune from social malaise, expressed here by the yellow vests but elsewhere in other forms, including demonstrations outside the Parliament in Budapest.

Brexit

Q. – Is Brexit still taking up 50% of your time, or is that share increasing?

THE MINISTER – I haven’t abandoned our priority, which is ratification of the withdrawal agreement. The bulk of my time is spent ensuring France is ready for a no-deal Brexit, the probability of which is increasing a little more every day. The country will be ready. We still need to ensure the other players are too, like the regions and the economic stakeholders. I understand the difficulty for businesses of taking decisions amid uncertainty. They don’t know if they’re going to export on 30 March to a country that abides by all the EU’s rules or to a non-EU state to which WTO [World Trade Organization] rules apply.

Q. – What can we do to break the deadlock?

THE MINISTER – The British have told us what they don’t want but they’ve never really told us what they do want. They want neither the EU nor the customs union; Parliament wants neither no deal nor the Irish backstop, even though it was a British, not a European proposal! We’re waiting for the British authorities to come back to us with a position that is acceptable and supported by a majority.

The negotiation work was very well conducted by Michel Barnier. The agreement reached by the 27 and the British government in November 2018 is the best possible agreement. It allows us to separate amicably and paves the way for a close future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom. Now it’s up to British democracy – government and Parliament – to decide whether they want a soft or a hard withdrawal from the European Union.

Q. – Would a “no deal” be better?

THE MINISTER – A “no deal” would be a British decision. We’re prepared for it. We’ve been working on every scenario since April 2018. We must avoid disorder and the damaging consequences for French people, Britons living in France and French businesses.

Foreign interference in European elections

Q. – Are you afraid of foreign interference from Russia or the United States during the European elections?

THE MINISTER – Foreign interference in the EU and the European campaign in May are a concern shared by all Europeans. We’re seeing a large number of attempts at manipulation, disinformation and interference in the electoral processes run by governments or private initiatives outside the EU. In March the EU is setting up a rapid alert system to ensure that, when a country is confronted first by fake news, it can alert its partners.

With Belgium, we’ve seen a government toppled by fake news [in relation to the UN Marrakech pact on migration]. Those who haven’t understood that the European elections are going to be bombarded with manipulation of all kinds don’t want to see, or think they can take advantage of it.

We’re clearly determined to condemn all propaganda and retaliate whenever necessary, but also to help raise awareness that we live in a European public space for better or for worse. With some fake news, we’ve pretty much seen the worst for the time being. This may be the first European election that is really political and really European./.

Photo: Sebastien Ortola/Rea

European Union – Brexit/Italy – Excerpts from the interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to RTL

Paris, 15 February 2019

(…)

Q. – Are you conscious that we’re not ready?

THE MINISTER – Who isn’t ready?

Q. – We’re not ready: nearly 30,000 French businesses aren’t ready for? a hard Brexit, a no-deal Brexit. That’s what the Chairman of MEDEF [employers’ organization] denounced yesterday. You’ve neglected to prepare them; we’re six weeks to the day from Brexit, from the deadline.

THE MINISTER – From a deadline when we don’t know what will happen, so I don’t criticize businesses for asking questions, and I’m telling our British friends it’s time to decide, namely whether they want to leave amicably or brutally. The choice is theirs, but it’s true that this uncertainty – which is continuing and was further reinforced by a complicated new vote in the Commons for Mrs May – is weighing on businesses. The reality is that on 30 March, if there must be a brutal separation, we’re in a position to let goods in or let them leave France for the United Kingdom while having not only fluid trade but also the necessary checks because the UK is leaving the European Union. We’re ready; admittedly, businesses have their share of the work to do.

Q. – To be precise, businesses are going to discover what was removed by the common market, in inverted commas, namely customs checks, veterinary checks, new taxes. Is all that a hard Brexit?

THE MINISTER – All that is a hard Brexit; it’s all explained, there’s a website; we’ve been having meetings with Agnès Pannier-Runacher to meet the professional federations.

Q. – Your government colleague…

THE MINISTER – …since October. Having said that, it’s admittedly another matter, in particular for SMEs which have only ever worked in the single market.

Q. – Major businesses are ready; what about medium-sized businesses?

THE MINISTER – Major businesses are ready, although they’ve suspended many investment decisions, because for businesses that were working on both sides of the Channel, deciding to invest in the UK today without knowing what’s going to happen is clearly unrealistic.

Q. – So there are six weeks left for those businesses that aren’t ready to have the right tools and resources to export their goods as before?

THE MINISTER – But the tools and resourcesare available to them.

Q. – Because we have a lot of trade. It’s one of the European countries we have the most trade with.

THE MINISTER – We have a trade surplus with the UK. (…) All the customs directorates and departmental directorates are playing an advisory role to businesses at the moment, and what I say to businesses this morning [is] inform yourselves, it’s no more complicated than anything else to fill in a customs form for the UK, just don’t discover it on 30 [March] in the morning, and if you import goods from the UK, make sure they’re certified for the rest of the European Union and not merely in the UK.

Q. – Marine Le Pen says it’s you – you, Brussels, you Europeans, those in power – who are blocking, preventing Theresa May and the British from renegotiating the agreement. She’s asking to renegotiate it – we know that, you’ve said so; she also wasted a little time yesterday with a negative vote in Parliament. Is it you who are preventing her from making headway?

THE MINISTER – Marine Le Pen is extraordinary because she calls herself nationalist but she always takes the side of other countries against France and our interests; it’s systematic and it’s also the case with Brexit.

Q. – She’s being consistent, she’s pro-Brexit.

THE MINISTER – Well, listen, I don’t entirely know if she is being consistent, because she’s anti-French, she’s against French businesses, and perhaps she ought to say that and take it on board. What we’ve been doing for two years is respecting the British decision. We regret it but we respect it. For two years the Europeans have been negotiating with the British government to enable a soft, amicable departure, and the British government also signed with us the conditions for that departure. Today the British political class is panicking, dividing, arguing, because it’s easy to say, “we’re leaving” but it’s harder to say where you’re going. That’s a British matter. In this phase, our role as political leaders is to defend the interests of French businesses and citizens.

Q. – If Brussels did renegotiate, would we lose out from it?

THE MINISTER – We’d lose out hugely from it!

Q. – Because they want what? They want to have their cake and eat it etc.?

THE MINISTER – Firstly, we don’t know, because for three weeks now Mrs May has been telling us, “everything must be reopened”, but she’s come with no proposals – neither her nor any of her ministers. I met Jeremy Hunt at the beginning of the week.

Q. – He’s your counterpart.

THE MINISTER – He’s the British Foreign Secretary. He said to me, “it would be good if we renegotiated”. I asked him “[negotiate] what?” and he said, “more coming soon”; soon it’s going to be 29 March, soon it’s going to be the leaving date.

Q. – What he’d like is, for example, precisely to be able to have goods moving as before, but the movement of citizens, freedom of movement…

THE MINISTER – Ah, but they haven’t said that at all. We’ve no idea what they want.

Q. – They’ve put nothing on the table?

THE MINISTER – Nothing. What they’re saying is that they’re not managing to get voted through by their parliament what we decided as a precaution for the Irish border, whereas firstly, it was the proposal they had put on the table, which we accepted, and secondly, they signed it. (…)

Q. – Is there already a significant number of companies which you’ve listed, British companies, which are moving to France?

THE MINISTER – They’re moving all over Europe – to France, the Netherlands, Ireland…

Q. – And France? We know this?

THE MINISTER – Yes, of course, either they’re opening branches or they’re establishing bridgeheads on the continent, particularly in France. For example, a pharmaceutical factory is being built at Dunkirk instead of in the UK. (…)./.

Published on 20/02/2019

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