European Union – Brexit – Interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to RFI (excerpts)
Paris, 21 October 2018
Q. – A summit was held in Brussels on Wednesday; it was presented once again as the last-chance summit and we’ve got to admit that nothing much happened. (…) On Brexit, we get the impression that the more it’s talked about, the less clear things are. The British voted in 2016, the negotiations on the divorce arrangements began in 2017. We’re coming to the end of 2018 and we get the impression that we’re virtually at square one.
THE MINISTER – We’re not at square one. A great deal of work has been done by the Europeans’ negotiator, Michel Barnier, who’s doing a remarkable job with his British partners. We need to come to an agreement first on the conditions of the separation…
Q. – …the divorce…
THE MINISTER - … the divorce, before coming up with a new, future relationship which is as positive as possible, even though the most positive relationship comes from being a European Union member state.
Q. – Well, everyone who’s gone through a divorce knows that it’s costly; how much is it going to cost the British?
THE MINISTER – More than anything you try to protect children and you know, when you’ve gone through a divorce, that this isn’t always easy: here, we’ve got to protect the relationship we have with the United Kingdom.
We’ve come to an agreement with the British on financial regulation, that isn’t the cost of the divorce, it’s what the United Kingdom owes for the period in which it made commitments vis-à-vis the European Union and which runs until the end of 2020. On that, we agree.
We also agree on the way we’re dealing with, protecting, Britons residing in the European Union and Europeans residing in the UK.
There’s still a tough point which we haven’t reached agreement on yet: how can we make sure the situation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland tomorrow is as smooth, straightforward and peaceful as it is today? We remember the violence in Northern Ireland; we remember a peace process which worked mainly because the north and south of the island were in the European Union. That will no longer be the case tomorrow. We’ve got to find a solution to safeguard this peace process, and that’s tough.
Q. – So is this problem of the border between Northern Ireland – Belfast – and the Republic of Ireland – Dublin – the only problem today, the only obstacle to signing…?
THE MINISTER - …the withdrawal agreement. It’s the real sticking point we still haven’t reached agreement on. We’ve made proposals, various kinds of proposals which may, if I may say so, fit together perfectly. Now we’ve got to wait for Theresa May to respond.
Last December, we discussed the most important points to do with this future separation, we thought we had agreed and then, when we went into the detail on the Ireland issue, London pulled back. It’s really up to London now to tell us what they’re prepared to accept to make sure that there are no hard borders. London and the Europeans agree on not re-establishing borders and also on protecting the European Union’s integrity. This is clearly the minimum.
Q. – But if there’s no border between – let’s say, to simplify things – Dublin and Belfast, there will have to be one between Belfast and London.
THE MINISTER – Not a border, but checks, yes – except if the UK decided to stay in the customs union and single market. If the UK decided…
Q. – Is that technically possible?
THE MINISTER – A political decision needs to be taken. Today, for example, Norway is in the single market but isn’t a member of the European Union. The UK needs to take a political decision; it isn’t what Mrs May has been saying up to now, but the UK needs to find this solution which addresses both this concern about the Irish border and the British concerns. As regards the British people’s vote, there was a referendum, there was a choice, we respect it, but we also want the European Union’s integrity to be respected. It wasn’t us who decided to leave the United Kingdom and we didn’t choose to unpick the EU.
Q. – Even so, the clock is ticking. Do you think no deal – i.e. divorce without an agreement – is the most plausible scenario today?
THE MINISTER – It’s a possible one, it’s not the one we prefer. We prefer a good deal and we think this is possible too. We’re working on one. That being the case – you’re right, the clock is ticking –, before the end of the year we must be in total agreement on the withdrawal agreement because we still then need it to be ratified by the Commons in London and the European Parliament. This means there’s a risk of no deal. We’re preparing for this because a no deal without preparations would have very damaging consequences. We don’t want there to be chaos on 30 March.
Q. – At a recent Council of Ministers’ meeting, you proposed a series of measures to cope with a no-deal scenario, in the event of there being no agreement. One or two examples of measures we’d have to take?
THE MINISTER – They’re precautionary measures, and I’m going to ask Parliament for authorization to legislate by decree to take every necessary measure to avoid British residents in France finding themselves without papers on the morning of 30 March. That makes no sense; it’s not what we want.
So we’re ready to take national measures that will be exactly reciprocal to the measures the British take for French citizens.
Obviously we also want Eurostar to continue running. It’s just that, if we did nothing and there were no deal, Eurostar would no longer have the right to run in France and its British drivers would no longer have the right to work on our soil. That’s clearly stupid.
We don’t want to make a lack of agreement – which isn’t a good thing – something completely absurd which poses major problems. So we’re taking every national measure necessary while we wait to renegotiate with the British. But to be honest, the essential thing is to reach a good withdrawal agreement, and it’s possible. We’ve talked about it enough with the British; now it’s up to Mrs May to go back to her public, to MPs, and do the necessary job of persuasion. We think she wants to; we’re prepared to wait, but the clock is ticking.
Q. – Even so, you wouldn’t like to be in her shoes.
THE MINISTER – My impression is that no British politician would like to be in her shoes and that they criticize her a lot but don’t oust her because they know she’s got a difficult job, especially because in every camp – both the Conservative and Labour camps – people are divided, and sometimes you have politicians who conducted campaigns before the referendum and today aren’t accepting the consequences of the decision they pushed the British people into taking. Choosing to leave has consequences.
Q. – There was a massive pro-European demonstration in London yesterday; demonstrators called for a second referendum; do you believe this second referendum is possible, or is it dead and buried?
THE MINISTER – To be honest, it’s not for me to say, it’s for British politicians to choose and decide. I’d hate it if Britons or other Europeans told us what we had to do in a comparable situation. Indeed, we all saw those hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of London; I’ve never seen as many European flags in the UK as yesterday.
Q. – Yes, it’s funny because since the British have been considering leaving the European Union they’ve never talked about Europe so much!
THE MINISTER – (…) I’d like us to take on our own responsibility. All over Europe we’ve had trouble talking about the European Union, what it provides, we’ve all done a lot of Brussels-bashing – not this government in France now, but we have decades of national victories and European defeats behind us, and Brexit is in a way the culmination of this often irresponsible political behaviour that consists in pushing every tough decision away towards Brussels. (…)
Q. – It’s no secret but the Brexit negotiations are very difficult; we’re currently in deadlock. Would you say France intends to punish the UK for opting to leave the EU? In any case, that’s what some of the British media are suggesting.
THE MINISTER – Thank you for that question, because the blame game isn’t an especially British sport, but when you’re in difficulty it’s easier to look for culprits than for solutions. We have no intention, France has no intention of punishing the UK. It’s a historical ally, as my family and many French people know: my grandparents hid British paratroopers in their cellars during the Second World War. I was born, I grew up with this family history. We know what we owe the British, we have defence and security relations, but also trade relations; we have businesses like Airbus working in France and the UK.
So the idea of punishment couldn’t be further from what we have in mind, but I said earlier and I repeat: it wasn’t us who took the decision to leave the UK, it’s the UK that wants to leave the European Union, and what we’re asking of it is to leave without slamming the door and breaking the windows, in other words without damaging the European Union that we want, we experience, we built and we want to reform.
Q. – The official position of the French government and the Europeans as a whole – you’ve also just said it, expressed it – is that we must find the best possible agreement, but deep down, when you’re about to go to sleep, for example, don’t you hear a very loud voice saying to you: “Let them go, those Brits, and they’ll see it’s not easy to live outside the European Union when you’re European, and maybe, who knows, in five or 10 years’ time they’ll want to come back, but without the exemptions they currently enjoy”?
THE MINISTER – No, there’s no hidden agenda, and what I’d like to say is that it’ll be less good afterwards than before. Brexit is neither a zero-sum game nor a win-win situation. It’s a lose-lose situation: it’s less good for the British, I’m convinced of that; it’s less good for the Europeans, I’m also convinced of that. Last year, I remember Jean-Claude Juncker reacting to some invective from Nigel Farage in the European Parliament.
Q. – The leader of UKIP, the party which launched the very idea of Brexit.
THE MINISTER – And he said: we Europeans will always regret Brexit; you’ll regret it one day. (…)./.