European Union – British referendum/bilateral relations/Turkey – Interview given by M. Jean-Marc Ayrault, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, to iTélé (25 juin 2016)


Q. – Is this Brexit a slap in the face that the Europeans didn’t see coming? And what about you, did you see it coming?

THE MINISTER – There was a major risk, but you have to remember that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, decided to hold this referendum to solve a problem within his own political bloc with respect to an important question that had never been asked of EU members in any country: are you in favour of remaining in or leaving the European Union? And that question… We have had referendums in France. Referendums are never easy. We had the Maastricht referendum on a European Union, including at economic and monetary level, we had the referendum on the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe, but there has never been a referendum on staying or leaving.

It was a very serious decision, and it has shocked all Europeans. And we have to be aware of the gravity of what has happened. At the same time, you will have noticed that Europe responded immediately. Europe continues to exist, with its 27 members. There are treaties. The presidents of the Commission, the Parliament and the European Council have spoken. The European Central Bank has intervened to protect Europeans’ interests.


Q. – But my question was: are French leaders, is the President, are you, is Laurent Fabius, your predecessor, are you sufficiently mobilized to get across the idea of this united European Union?

THE MINISTER – There’s still a lot to do to restore popular support for Europe, even if a very large majority…

Q. – But is it being done?

THE MINISTER – No, it isn’t. For a long time, we’ve been aware of the fact that we must make Europe more attractive, and it’s one of the things that makes me a committed European. Ever since I became foreign minister, I’ve constantly been travelling around Europe and working in particular with my German counterpart, whom I’ve known for a long time, on ways to rekindle Europeans’ interest in the EU, making them participate more in the European project. That’s a challenge, but that isn’t the point of the British referendum.

The point of the British referendum is more complicated than that. I think we should acknowledge that Britain has been in the EU for 43 years and now it has decided to leave. The British people have voted this, it has to be respected, and so it means we must quickly begin the negotiations under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union in order to protect the interests of Europeans and enable Europe to move forward and also continue to improve.


Q. – Are you angry with Cameron for holding this referendum and proposing it during the general election campaign as a way to win re-election?

THE MINISTER – Look, you’re the one who said that. I’m not judging Mr Cameron.

Q. – You’re not bitter this morning? When you saw what happened, you didn’t say to yourself: Cameron was like the sorcerer’s apprentice?

THE MINISTER – No, I was… I am sad for Britain. You know, Britain is a great country, a great nation, a great people. We all remember the attitude of the British during World War II. It’s part of our shared history. It doesn’t mean we’re no longer going to speak to one another – bilateral relations are going to continue with Britain, which like France is a permanent member of the Security Council. But its existence for the past 43 years as a member of the European Union – that chapter is over, and that’s too bad. I’m sorry about it. But remember, that’s how the British people voted, and again, their vote must be respected.


Q. – How can we relaunch the Franco-German partnership? That’s the key question you have to address now.

THE MINISTER – But I work on that every day!

Q. – Especially now, since the Brexit result. On Monday, François Hollande is going to Berlin at the invitation of Angela Merkel, who has also invited Matteo Renzi. In practical terms, what are France and Germany going to do together?

THE MINISTER – First of all, we’re already doing a lot of things together; we see each other a lot. I’ve been working with Frank-Walter Steinmeier on concrete proposals for several months now.

Q. – What are they?

THE MINISTER – They will focus on the security of European citizens, in order to ensure the internal security of the European Union; on a defence policy that is more, let’s say, dynamic, stronger because I think we have to deal with new threats; also a policy that is concrete for Europeans, since too many people are still currently unemployed and there are challenges that must be met. And so we propose making major investment in the energy transition, in the digital sector, in research, in everything that will lead to higher employment.

And we also propose playing a more proactive role in relations between Europe and Africa, which is facing security as well as development problems. And so, if we want to avoid substantial immigration problems in the years to come, we must help that continent.

Lastly, Europe must target young people because there are of course young people who benefit from the Erasmus programme, but we must think of all the others as well. And so we must provide them with concrete proposals. And we’re also proposing a Europe that involves its citizens in its decisions.

Q. – Hubert Védrine, one of your predecessors, said that we had to stop and think. Do you think that we have to “stop and think”?

THE MINISTER – We must first of all think [about the situation]. But saying stop, what does that mean? I think that a lot of things have already been started. For example, we have the Schengen Area, and what we’ve noticed for some time now is that Schengen is incomplete and that we need to protect Europe’s external borders more effectively. We created the Passenger Name Record (PNR) to screen air passengers, but we also need border guards. So to achieve that, we need to bring Schengen to completion. So if we were to take a break and stop, I think that would be a mistake. However, thinking about what Europe should be and how it can be a lot more compelling for European citizens, yes, that’s a good question. I am not…

Q. – Should we have less Europe in order for it to do better?

THE MINISTER – The main thing is to make Europe do better.

Q. – Once again, not taking action in every area, not regulating in every area.

THE MINISTER –We must make Europe do better.

Q. – Should it regulate less?

THE MINISTER – Europe must be more efficient for its citizens. I believe that’s clear. But it must offer better protection and prepare better for the future. Still, we must be very cautious vis-à-vis those who propose going even further in transferring powers and sovereignty, those who say: “We must forge a federal Europe, a United States of Europe.” We mustn’t rush, we must consolidate what’s been started, but the main thing is that we must ensure that what Europe does is concrete and effective for people. There is still too much unemployment; too many people are in precarious situations. The fear of immigration played a huge part in the British vote, but there are also people who are suffering, and people who are attached to a way of life, a social order.

And so, when it comes to globalization, Europe must continue to champion a certain societal model, one that is not backward-looking but brings hope to young people. I did observe one thing, which is interesting: 70% of young Britons voted to stay in the EU. It’s their future that matters, and that’s what we should be thinking about.


Q. – You mentioned immigration, which was an issue that played a big role in the result in the UK. With respect to Calais, should we immediately reconsider the Le Touquet Agreement and give England back its border?

THE MINISTER – Look, the border is where it is; it’s the result of the Le Touquet agreement that was negotiated between France and the UK. There are some very important bilateral agreements with Britain: one of them is very important, it’s a defence agreement – that one will be maintained –, namely the Lancaster House agreement; and there’s also this one. There are those who say: “we must call the Le Touquet agreement into question and restore the border, not to where it is today, but put it back on the other side of the Channel". After that, do you expect us to put boats in place to pick up people who risk drowning in the sea? Come on, let’s be serious! I think that…

Q. – So does that mean the Le Touquet agreement won’t be called into question?

THE MINISTER – Well, no, that would be totally irresponsible. I think this is something specific and clear. And everyone who is proposing we do otherwise is being very rash. And so what I’d also like to say is that the debate in Britain – this struck me very much – developed as the weeks went by. Initially, it focused very much on the economic consequences for the British, of leaving Europe. And then it moved on to a much more emotional debate about immigration, with a lot of inaccuracies. But despite everything, the consequence today is a substantial loss of spending power for the British: the pound has lost 10%. And you’re going to see that the risk for the British is, well, the departure of certain companies’ headquarters, the risk of major international investors turning away from Britain, which will no longer be in the single market. So the whole challenge in the coming weeks – and we mustn’t waste too much time – is negotiation in the framework of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union…

Q. – On withdrawal. Now in that same negotiation…

THE MINISTER – To define the relations between the European Union and Britain, which, it has to be said, unfortunately becomes a third country.

Q. – In that negotiation, I imagine you’re going to do everything – it’s a bit like in a divorce –, we’re going to do everything to ensure things happen with as little pain as possible and quickly restore constructive links. In doing that job, aren’t you going to show that ultimately, leaving the European Union isn’t so serious, thus leaving the field open to parties like the National Front?

THE MINISTER – I think above all we must look at what’s happening now and what’s still in danger of happening for the British. So it’s serious, but it’s the consequence of their vote, so it has to be respected.


Q. – Aren’t you afraid of a “Frexit”? Aren’t you afraid of providing justification, that today’s events will provide justification to those who want…?

THE MINISTER – Yes, but I know what she’s said; she’s not the only one saying it. But you see, the leader of UKIP, from the same political family, Mr Farage, who led the campaign, he was celebrating this morning. But what’s he offering the British people apart from withdrawal? Nothing! “Sort things out”. It’s exactly the same with Mme Le Pen! So leaving the European Union isn’t nothing. I was in Luxembourg today at a meeting of foreign and European affairs ministers; there was great seriousness around the table. The British Foreign Secretary was there. I can tell you everyone was well aware that something was happening and that things wouldn’t be like before, at any rate for the British. (…)

Q. – And is your response that there will be no referendum in our country?

THE MINISTER – Well, not on this issue. At any rate, I wouldn’t like one. I’m not against referendums. There have been some, there may be others, but on this issue…

Q. – Because you’re afraid of the result?

THE MINISTER – No, no, I think it’s the way Mme Le Pen asks the question, because the reality, the consequence of what’s happened is that Britain will no longer be in the single market, and the single market is a big advantage. There will be no more free movement of people, and that’s also an advantage. So Britain and the EU will have to negotiate point by point. So it will be less good for Britain, obviously. If that’s what Marine Le Pen is offering the French people, let her accept the consequences! In any case, I want to tell you that the real vote isn’t the one she’s proposing. The real vote is in less than a year: the presidential election. Then we’ll choose a project and we’ll be talking – I’m convinced of this now – about the core issues: France’s future, France’s future in Europe and also how Europe can change and, ultimately, better address citizens’ expectations. So then, the French people will decide! When people say we’re afraid of the vote, I’m not afraid of the vote, I’m sure they’ll choose a strong Europe, a Europe which protects, which prepares for the future, which maintains the way of life, the model of society and the values Europe represents, and that won’t be Mme Le Pen’s project.


Q. – Nicolas Sarkozy, the leader of the Republicans, is calling “to halt the EU’s enlargement process and stop the hypocrisy over Turkey, which has no place in the European Union”, in his words.

THE MINISTER – But that’s not the issue today. I mean, the enlargement of Europe to include Turkey really isn’t the current issue today. At any rate, it wasn’t even mentioned during the British referendum [campaign].

Q. – In any case, the lifting of visas for Turkish nationals is on the agenda.

THE MINISTER – That’s another thing! That’s another thing!

Q. – Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for that to be halted too.

THE MINISTER – Of course! Of course. But listen, there are conditions for visas being issued. There are 72 conditions, and for the time being those conditions haven’t all been met. So for us, until they’re met there will be no liberalization of visas, that’s clear. There are rules in order to enjoy certain advantages; they must be complied with. There are rights and there are duties. And when you’re in the European Union, there are advantages, there are rights and duties. And I repeat: for the British people, well, it will be more difficult. So I think we must indeed respect the British people’s vote but, at the same time, be transparent, be clear and not lie about the reality.


Q. – What future is there for the UK itself? Do you fear that Scotland, which supported remaining in the EU, will demand a referendum on its independence? The same goes for Northern Ireland, which is demanding a referendum on a united Ireland. Might it all flare up?

THE MINISTER – It’s… I hope not. As you know, the UK is a great country, but as soon as the vote had taken place the Scots, who had already had a referendum, called for another one. A large majority of them voted for Europe, and they want to stay in it. And so it’s a question that will be posed to the future British prime minister. It’s a momentous question, as you know. And as for Ireland, I wouldn’t like passions to be inflamed, because for a long time this was painful and difficult. So you see, when you take a political decision –

Q. – So you’re telling the Scots and the Irish, “don’t do anything, it’s not the right time”?

THE MINISTER – No, I don’t want to tell the Scots or the Irish what to do. First of all, Ireland is an independent country. There’s Ireland – the Republic of Ireland. I spoke on the telephone this afternoon to my counterpart Charles Flanagan, whodid express to me his concern. And then there’s Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and which voted overwhelmingly in favour of the European Union. So admittedly it’s complicated, but I think the leaders of these countries must be left to shoulder their responsibilities. It’s not my job to tell them what to do. We’ve simply got to recognize that there’s a difficulty and it’s genuine.


Q. – For two years we’ve seen most of the European elections giving victory to people who are angry – be it in Austria, be it recently in the municipal elections in Italy or in other European ones, in Spain and today in Britain. Does this make you worry about the next elections here in France?

THE MINISTER – Yes, what worries me is the rise of nationalist parties. They’re called populist but very often it’s the nationalist parties which basically want us to go backwards in relation to Europe and want us to re-establish borders, and want people to think… at any rate people are made to believe that it would be better for them. I think this is a real issue, but we must look for the causes. I’m not going to make a moralistic judgment about how people voted. If they vote like that, it’s probably because it reveals a malaise. So we must address the issues. There’s also, of course, the fear of immigration. I think this counts for a lot. But each country also has its specific characteristics. You mention Austria; they also have a political system which is deadlocked. This is also behind the rise of the far-right party. So I think we really have to work to improve how our democracy functions in each of our countries but also at the level of Europe, to establish more links between political power and the people, so they feel genuinely represented, genuinely stood up for, that they count and what they say is taken on board.


Q. – A final question: are you afraid that we’re heading towards a Europe basically moving at several speeds?

THE MINISTER – Well, it already exists. I mean, for example, not everyone is in the Schengen Area – that’s one example. Not everyone is in the Euro Area – that’s another. Even so, there are 28 of us, and there are going to be 27 of us. So it’s possible! Some countries – this is provided for in the treaties – may want to go further. I think we’ve got to accept this prospect. This doesn’t call Europe into question because there’ll still be a big market, there’ll be free movement, there are legal rules and common values. I think European history, as you know, is something quite extraordinary. At the table in Luxembourg today, I recalled that for many countries, Europe signified the end of dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece. And then after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was Central Europe, the Eastern European countries which joined to regain freedom and democracy. So that’s what we’ve achieved, and we can’t let that unravel today. And I can tell you that France, a founder member, will fight to ensure that the European project not only remains, but is increasingly attractive. That really is our responsibility.


Q. – When you see the consequences, the impact of Britain’s decision on the whole European continent, don’t you tell yourself that it’s time to wake up to the fact that there’s a common political area and that it’s occasionally necessary to get involved in other people’s business because it ends up affecting us, and that therefore, politically, we should stop telling ourselves: it’s the British who are voting, so we won’t interfere?

THE MINISTER – No, frankly I think… Because I’ve seen in certain newspapers, “Why didn’t you go and campaign to tell the British people what they had to do?” I can tell you that I didn’t want to do this and it wasn’t for me to do so.

Q. – You’ve no regrets?

THE MINISTER – I think it would have been totally counterproductive and wouldn’t have changed a single ballot paper, a single vote. And I think that British citizens, OK, they’re a great people, as I said earlier, and unfortunately, they’ve made this choice, but it’s their choice. So now they’ve got to accept responsibility for it. Even so, maybe what’s happened there should prompt the rest of Europe to make Europe something better, something more attractive to the whole population, to young people, and to all those who ultimately have the greatest doubts about their future. I believe that this can serve as a jolt. Well, at any rate, this is what I think and hope.

Q. – Thank you very much for appearing on i-Télé this evening to talk to us, obviously, about the consequences of this Brexit.

THE MINISTER – Thank you.