"Nothing is clear" in UK Brexit process - Europe Minister
Foreign policy – Brexit – Excerpt from the interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to France Inter, Le Monde and Franco Info
Paris, 10 March 2019
Q. – You were in London on Thursday. It’s two weeks before the date planned for Brexit. Is it now a given that Brexit won’t take place on 29 March?
THE MINISTER – If it were that clear, that in itself would be a step forward. Today nothing is clear. There’s going to be a week of discussions and debate in the British Parliament. What we’re seeing today, what we’re still seeing, what we’ve been seeing for weeks, is that the British said they wanted to leave the European Union without saying clearly where they wanted to go. We’re waiting for them, it’s up to them to choose between a smooth separation – which is possible, which we’ve been working on for two years – and a brutal separation, which isn’t desirable but which risks occurring if nothing happens.
Q. –Should we give them more time to prepare for their departure?
THE MINISTER – The question is, more time to do what? We’ve had two years. We’ve talked for two years, we’ve discussed every issue around the separation for two years. If there’s nothing new, more time will bring nothing but more uncertainty. And uncertainty breeds uncertainty. I was in London, as you said, including with French people in the UK.
Q. – Yes, and there are a lot of them, especially in London.
THE MINISTER – They’re worried because they don’t know what to do. What’s needed is for a decision to be made; it’s not time that is needed, it’s a decision.
Q. – Your language now is a little bit open, whereas in London this week you said: here you are, it’s the only possible agreement with the European Union…
THE MINISTER – Of course.
Q. – One gets the feeling that’s it – it’s game over, there are no more Brexit conditions for the British to negotiate.
THE MINISTER – The agreement we negotiated is the only one possible. In practically two years of negotiations, we looked at the issues from every angle, we reached agreement with British concessions and European concessions. It’s a balance that protects our interests. My sole concern on this Brexit issue is the interests of French citizens and businesses. It’s the only possible agreement.
If Mrs May comes up with a new idea on our future relationship this week, if she tells us, “basically, I closed the door on many things, I want to reopen it; I closed the door on the customs union, I closed the door on the single market; but all things considered, I can’t manage to get a majority with the approach I’ve taken, I’m changing everything”, we’d be stupid to tell her no. But there has to be a clear idea, she has to be credible – in other words, she has to have a majority. For the time being, what we’re seeing in the British Parliament is majorities against, never majorities in favour.
The referendum is still going on after three years. A referendum clearly expresses who is against something, not so much who is in favour.
Q. – On the British side, aren’t they taking a gamble and telling themselves: “at the last minute, basically, Europe may divide and leave me an exit route”? Does that possibility exist or not?
THE MINISTER – Perhaps over the past two years some people have been gambling on dividing Europe, and for the past two years they’ve been mistaken.
Q. – That’s one of the rare issues on which EU members are on the same wavelength.
THE MINISTER – In any case, Michel Barnier has succeeded in bringing the 27 together, not against the UK – it’s not a negotiation against the British – but around what brings us back…
Q. – [It is] A bit, really…
THE MINISTER – No, no, we’re here to protect our interests. We’re here to…
Q. – …not to make life easy for them, either, after all…
THE MINISTER – Not that either. We’re here to implement the British decision, because we may regret it but we must respect it. All the work done has been to ensure the separation can go ahead smoothly, with as little damage as possible. That’s what I devote half my time to. So it’s full respect for the British decision. But while the British have decided to leave, we haven’t decided to torpedo the European Union. So we respect each other.
Q. – Since you say the referendum that took place two years ago is basically being replayed, wouldn’t the only solution today – as some British leaders are advocating, incidentally – be to vote again, to have another referendum in the UK? Moreover, aren’t the agonies of Brexit actually strengthening the European idea? Won’t that deter other countries for good from leaving the EU?
THE MINISTER – It’s not for me to tell the British what to do. In 2016 they decided they were leaving the European Union. If they want to do something else, they’re free to, and it’s not for us to tell them not to. But for the time being, what I’m seeing and what I’m trying to interpret and translate is the British decision to leave the European Union. If there’s another one, we’ll see.
Q. – In other words, no one imagined it would be so complicated? (…)
THE MINISTER – What you’re saying is many people didn’t properly consider what it meant to be in the European Union, what it had gradually built, such as close ties. And when the British tell us today that “we’re leaving but we want to be just as close”, it’s very complicated – even impossible. You can’t be outside and be intertwined in the same way, with the same partnerships as when you’re a member of the European Union.
Q. – And at the same time we can’t do without the British, who are particularly crucial on the military front.
THE MINISTER – We’ve continually said this. We have very strong defence cooperation between France and the UK, which we’re not just protecting but developing. This is also what Emmanuel Macron says in his article published this week in the European press. He says “on the major security and defence issues, we must go on talking to the British before taking decisions”. So, that’s absolutely right.
Q. – All the same, there’s this possibility of a “no deal”, i.e. leaving without an agreement between the UK and the European Union. It’s worrying everyone, despite everything. Even we, on the European Union side, are wondering what might happen after a no deal with the British, in terms of defence but many other subjects too. This week there were concerns in the press about the whole automotive industry; then there’s Airbus, the Airbuses which are also partly built with the UK to an extent. So what’s going to happen? Is France prepared?
THE MINISTER – We’ve been preparing for it, and I’ll even say that we’ve been preparing for it since April 2018. In April 2018, I went to see the Prime Minister and asked him if we could prepare for the possibility of no deal, because given the various players, given the positions, I thought it was becoming plausible, not desirable but plausible.
So we’re the country which made the earliest preparations and today we’re prepared. I got a law passed in Parliament. Then a certain amount of secondary legislation was prepared, we recruited customs officers and vets, we created parking areas in Calais, Dunkirk and Cherbourg. I went to all these places, because ultimately creating legislation is the easiest part, but you’ve then got to go and see what it means on the ground for the various economic players.
Q. – The fisherman from Nord Department who usually sells some of his catch to the UK…
THE MINISTER – That’s not exactly the point: the fisherman from Nord has been used to fishing in British waters in reality for centuries, but it’s European law which has allowed him to do so for the past few decades. We must be able to recreate this after the UK has left.
Q. – For French people living in London, for Britons living in France, what changes on 30 March? Does life go on as before, or must they go and register and be considered foreigners, whereas today they’re members of the European family?
THE MINISTER – They become foreigners to one another, which is absurd, which in human terms is totally unsatisfactory. But we’ve ensured that, when it comes for example to Britons living on our soil – there are several hundred thousand of them, living, studying, teaching, there are lots of British teachers in France…
Q. – …who have second homes…
THE MINISTER – …who have retired, who have fallen in love – in short, who are living in France. They’re welcome, it’s a blessing for France. We want them to stay – we’ve also told them this, moreover I’m holding a meeting soon with representatives of British people in France. They’ve got one year to complete the necessary formalities for residence permits. They haven’t had them up to now. They obviously need them, we’re giving them one year, we’re recognizing their degrees, their professional qualifications, their professional experience. The same goes for French people returning from the UK: all those years spent paying contributions for unemployment insurance, for their retirement – this will all be taken into account. That’s the law I got passed, that’s the legislation we subsequently adopted: to ensure that no one is punished for this absurd situation which, despite everything, we risk encountering.
Q. – And above all don’t punish those in love! An absurd situation; we’ll have the opportunity to talk about it since, despite everything, the choice was made democratically. Then the conditions of the divorce are difficult to negotiate…
THE MINISTER – These are the conditions of the referendum campaign at the time, when it must be said that many lies were told, and this must be remembered. (…)./.