Brussels, February 4, 2011
Q. – The “Friday of departure”, the “day of departure”: that’s what the demonstration still being held in Cairo today has been dubbed. For you, too, must this be President Mubarak’s day of departure? Do you believe the very rapid transition you’re calling for is compatible with his remaining Egyptian Head of State?
THE PRESIDENT – We’ve condemned and I condemn unambiguously all violations of both human rights and press freedom. From this standpoint, I’ve been shocked by what happened to journalists in Cairo yesterday and the day before, whatever their nationality. Threats against the press are unacceptable and unspeakable.
Secondly, the Egyptian people’s aspiration to democracy must be met.
Apart from that, I’m not Egyptian and it’s certainly not for me to say who must take responsibility, when or how. What counts is that the democratic transition should be carried out without delay. And the Egyptians will have to lead this movement, as they alone are empowered to do.
I’m not convinced that we – who aren’t Egyptian – should influence the timetable, the arrangements or the people who might lead this process.
We condemn violence; we unambiguously condemn what’s happened; we want a democratic process without delay and we leave it up to the Egyptians to determine who must conduct it and how.
Q. – The intimidation of journalists is apparently continuing today, if not the bullying. Do you think we must go a little further than a mere statement – which is already something – but move on to perhaps stronger diplomatic gestures, summoning the Egyptian ambassadors to the Twenty-Seven [EU Member States]?
THE PRESIDENT – Look, what happened is unacceptable. And if it were to continue, it would have serious repercussions on our relations with any country that allowed itself to behave in this way towards journalists, whatever their nationality.
Q. – What’s your assessment of the threat of Islamism and of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt? In your opinion, what risk of contagion is there to the countries of the Arabian peninsula, particularly the more democratic ones, if one can speak in those terms?
THE PRESIDENT – I’m not Egyptian; I’d have trouble making any sort of assessment. I simply say that refusing a democratic process solely because there’s a risk of it going wrong in terms of fundamentalism can’t be acceptable. The risk always exists. But you can’t refuse a democratic aspiration because there’s a risk. Admittedly, there are historical examples where it’s gone wrong: I’m thinking of Iran. But for all that, can we prevent democratic expression under the pretext that this risk exists? I don’t think so.
Is there a risk of contagion? We’re already seeing it, judging by what happened in Tunisia and what’s been happening in Egypt, even though comparisons are odious. I repeat: can you condemn a democratic aspiration because that risk exists? No.
I’m trying to answer you as sincerely as possible, and at the same time – you’ve seen a number of statements on the role of foreigners – it’s clear to me that if you sincerely support this democratic aspiration by the Egyptian people, as well as by the Tunisian people, you have to stick to principles that are very clearly, very strongly declared and upheld and resist the temptation – which is understandable – to interfere, which will then backfire against all those who aspire to genuine Egyptian democracy, because you know the history of these countries and the sensitivity of these matters.
You see what I mean: the firmer you are about these principles, the more I think you must resist the temptation, not to go further in defending the principles – on the contrary – but sometimes to associate a name with the principles, which would then make a particular political figure in those countries appear to have foreign backing. And you’re well aware that this is what’s happened quite often in the past, and it hasn’t always led to the right solution.
It’s still true that if intimidation and violence were to persist against peaceful demonstrators and journalists – who, after all, are symbolic of the freedom to report – we couldn’t accept it. (…)
Q. – On Europe, I’d like to know if you went into detail on the demands made by Mrs Merkel, that is: how to overcome the Irish veto on a reduction in – sorry, a minimum rate of – business tax? And how to overcome what’s close to Belgians’ hearts – the index-linking of wages and inflation – in the knowledge that, with the SMIC [minimum wage], the French are also, de facto, index-linked to inflation?
THE PRESIDENT – As you know, with regard to France, a few years ago we were totally index-linked. Very fortunately, we’ve left that behind. The only index-linking that remains is indeed that of the SMIC, which we’ll keep.
But the idea Mrs Merkel and I have isn’t to impose the same thing on everyone. Let me take the example of pensioners: it’s not a question of imposing the same retirement age on everyone, when we don’t all have the same life expectancy criteria, the same demographic expectations. On the other hand, we can agree on a method of calculation that would consist in bringing into step the number of years of contributions necessary for going into retirement and the evolution of life expectancy. That’s something we can perfectly well do.
On our Irish friends’ turnover tax, it’s not a question of denying the details, but at least let’s reach agreement, so that comparisons are possible, on a foundation, on a turnover tax base that would be the same, and perhaps we’ll move towards convergence.
Convergence doesn’t mean absolute identity: convergence means tending towards likenesses, similarities, instead of moving away from each other.
I might add that today – you’ve noticed it, too – it wasn’t a matter of taking decisions, detailed decisions, but rather of declaring a willingness, a pact, an economic government, a convergence.
Herman Van Rompuy, with the help of Mr Barroso, will lead these negotiations in the coming weeks, and on that basis we’ll see where we get to. There’s no rigidity. I myself had the opportunity to say, through one of my colleagues, that we didn’t agree with all the ideas put forward and it wasn’t a tragedy.
We agree on the principles: economic government, convergence, the integration of economic policies, meetings of the Euro Area on the euro’s problems, open meetings of the Euro Area on the competitiveness pact problems. There you are.
A lot has already been done today; it’s extremely important. Remember the debates a year ago. A year ago – or a year and a half ago – the words “economic government” were just words; I think I was the only person who uttered them.
Q. – On the evening you were elected, you talked about the importance of the Mediterranean. You launched the Union for the Mediterranean in 2008. Given the events in Tunisia and Egypt, are you saying that this Union – which I think is also referred to in the conclusions – is the way to go and that it needs to be reactivated or, on the contrary, that it wasn’t the right approach?
THE PRESIDENT – It’s no accident that the Union for the Mediterranean – which France fought so hard for – is specifically referred to in the press release. I think that, given this situation, not only is the Union for the Mediterranean necessary, it’s essential, even though we must doubtless wait for the situation to settle down a bit.
Likewise, France believes it’s absolutely essential for the peace process to be restarted between the Israelis and Palestinians in order to map out the two States. And in my meeting with the Palestinian Prime Minister yesterday, I told him how happy France would be to organize a donors’ conference, on the express condition that there’s a political dimension. You can see how much the continuation of this conflict and the deadlock over the question of Israel’s security and a Palestinian State complicate things in a region where the situation is already very explosive.
Q. – Mrs Ashton is scheduled to visit Egypt in a couple of weeks. What will her mandate be? Since it’s also, after all, a baptism of fire for the new European diplomatic service, what’s your answer to Yves Leterme, who was saying this morning that Mrs Ashton hadn’t got enough political space to speak. To put it briefly, in other words, are you, the major countries, holding Mrs Ashton back?
THE PRESIDENT – (…) Mrs Ashton has a mandate which was set out in the press release from this European Council and I’m sure she’ll carry it out successfully. My idea of Europe isn’t that 27 heads of State and government have to keep quiet, because we’re fortunate to have Mrs Ashton. Mrs Ashton is speaking in our collective name and every one of us can make our own modest contribution when needed. Certain European Union countries know certain Arab countries better than others.
No, no, she’s got political space. We aren’t holding her back, particularly since she has at her side as her main colleague a high-calibre Frenchman in the person of M. Vimont – the highest-ranking diplomat after Mrs Ashton – which was a victory for French diplomacy.
Q. – Do you sense that behind the organized violence against journalists (…) there were orders given by the Egyptian President himself, since police identity cards were found on some of the “rioters”?
THE PRESIDENT – I’ve no idea, but if this violence and intimidation against journalists were to continue, we’d know. We’d know whether it’s dreadful but spontaneous, or dreadful and organized. Time will tell. Either it stops because the authorities call for it to stop, decide to stop it – in which case we’ll be very pleased – or it continues, in which case we couldn’t accept it.
Thank you everyone, and good evening./.