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Official speeches and statements - September 17, 2019

Published on September 17, 2019

1. European Union - European Commission - Brexit - Interview given by Ms. Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France Info - excerpts (Paris - September 11, 2019)


Amélie de Montchalin, on the issue of Brexit, today you’re bringing together the 26 other European ambassadors from the EU, i.e. excluding the UK. What are you going to say to them? Watch out for bumps?

THE MINISTER - (...) There’s now a huge challenge; you can’t gamble with people and you can’t gamble with our businesses. That was the Prime Minister’s message on Monday morning when he convened all of us, ministers. So we absolutely must organize ourselves to do two things: protect and ensure the stability of British families in France and French and other European families in the UK. We think this is essential; you can’t gamble with people’s lives...

If Brexit takes place textbook-style at midnight on 31 October 2019, what happens to British citizens in France?

British citizens need to carry out a very simple procedure; they’ve got to say they’re here, and then we’ll give them permission - and we’re giving ourselves enough time so that no one is jeopardized or put in an uncertain situation and they’re given a long-term residence permit. This is what we’ve planned for in the event of a no-deal exit. (...)

But why are we bringing together the ambassadors? Because we’ve also got an issue regarding businesses, SMEs, and as you know, in Calais, Gérald Darmanin, customs and port services have got organized so that we can ensure, let’s say, some organization and some kind of fluidity. It probably won’t be as effective as before, it’s difficult to do things as effectively as the European Union in terms of fluidity. (...)

What will companies have to do? Will they have to register?

What we’re actually trying to do is have what’s called the smart border, which means that many of the procedures we carried out a few decades ago at the border will take place beforehand. So you register the type of goods, submit the papers so that there’s traceability, and as a result, customs officers - when they recognize a lorry’s number plate - will know whether that lorry and everything in it has been pre-cleared, in which case it can pass easily, and if this isn’t the case, it will have to be stopped.

And if this isn’t the case, in Calais in a few weeks’ time we’ll have the biggest traffic jam in Europe....

That’s why the key point of today’s meeting, and thus the message I have for the ambassadors, is to begin by saying that we must be very clear about citizens, and so that’s what we in France have done to ensure that we’re well organized, that all 27 convey the same message and, secondly, as regards companies, economic flows, we need to tell them that we in Calais are able to do many things, we’ve organized ourselves, we’ve invested, we’ve got a whole range of logistics ready, customs officers...

Help us...

We’ve got 700 more customs officers. But if you don’t help us, we won’t be able to resolve things ourselves, and this will have a negative effect for us, French - because we’ll have the traffic problem -, but also for businesses in your countries, because transport times will be much longer as a result.

And what are you telling people? You mentioned 31 October, which falls during school holidays. What are you telling French citizens either about moving or simply going on holiday to the UK? Are you telling them to postpone their holidays, to...

The British government has been very clear to any Europeans wanting to visit the UK: there’s no change. It’s perfectly OK to go to any country for less than three months - this is, moreover, often the rule...

Visas won’t be reintroduced, that’s very clear...

Visas won’t be reintroduced. Secondly, indeed, there are questions being raised when it comes to people wanting to stay more than three months for reasons other than tourism. To date - and this is also worrying us - a number of British preparations aren’t ready...

Haven’t you got an answer from the British government today?

Christophe Castaner had a meeting with his counterpart to try and clarify as well, because, as you know, France manages the border on its soil with the British...

That’s the Le Touquet agreement, which puts the British border here in France....

It’s the Touquet agreement; that’s why there are British customs officers and border police at the Gare du Nord and in Calais. This hasn’t been clearly understood. It still hasn’t been clearly understood....

It isn’t clearly understood whether it will still be in place after Brexit.

Yes, it will; the Le Touquet agreement...

It’s still in place.

At things stand, it’s a bilateral agreement; there’s no reason for it to be changed. But we haven’t fully understood the procedures the British want people to carry out who would like to go to the UK for more than three months. Nor was it very clear what they’d done in their own ports to ensure fluidity. So we’ve still got a lot of questions. (...)

In other words, today, 11 September, we’re currently technically unready for Brexit.

Not us. We in France have got the logistics, the customs officers, the veterinary services, we’ve got the whole procedure and we’re talking to the Europeans about it so they can help us.

All that’s needed now is a date.

There’s still a huge amount of questions as regards what’s happening on the other side of the Channel, what’s happening in the UK.

So we need a new deadline. They need to be granted a new deadline.

But they’ve got to shoulder their responsibilities. They’ve got to tell us what they want. Today we know they don’t want Theresa May’s agreement. They don’t want to be in the European Union, they don’t want no deal, and they’re asking us for time.

But 31 October is basically tomorrow, and you’re clearly saying that the British aren’t ready. There are many unknowns, as you’ve just explained. So perhaps it would be more reasonable, wiser, to grant them a new deadline, as requested by Boris Johnson’s opponents.

There’s a very dangerous slope you’re taking me down, in that it isn’t my place to make Britain’s choices. It’s a sovereign choice, there was a referendum, they have a debate, they have ministers, they have a Parliament...

But would France be ready, as part of a vote, obviously - all this is perhaps going to be decided at the next European summit -, is France ready to grant a new deadline if our English, British friends ask for one?

For starters, they need to ask for one. I don’t get the impression their Prime Minister or government want to.

Not yet, no.

This is also a British politics problem. And the second thing is, have the conditions changed to say that three more months would change the problem? President Macron is saying something very clearly. He’s saying: if the conditions don’t change, a difficult problem won’t become less difficult if it’s spread over longer periods of time. (...)

Is Boris Johnson a good Prime Minister?

We have a rule, namely that we work with all prime ministers, and we have another rule that we respect the legitimacy given by the European Union. You know, at European Councils, people always think these are big meetings with lots of people. There are relatively few people; there are 28 around the table, they close the door and their country’s legitimacy is there, at the table. Boris Johnson has inherited a very complicated situation today.

Which he helped create a little bit, too.

Yes, but from the outset... You know, when we held referendums in France we put a text on the table. And we said: are you for or against the text? The problem is that the British didn’t say yes or no to a text, they didn’t say yes or no to an agreement, they said yes or no to a concept. And today, between the popular will to leave the European Union and how this can be done, we’re clearly seeing a huge amount of difficulties. That’s why we need the British to tell us what they want.

When you hear him say, as he did a few days ago, that he’d rather die in a ditch than go to Brussels to negotiate, do you think you can still talk to the man?

You know, in diplomacy...

You talk only to your opponents, that’s the rule.

I’m not a diplomat by profession, but in a few months I’ve learned one rule: it’s always better to talk to everyone and more than anything it’s better to have strong relationships. As you know, my British counterpart and I talk to each other, we text each other, we call each other a lot. (...) Our role is to ensure dialogue. (...)

(...) Boris Johnson, as we know, doesn’t want a further extension, but if there were to be a change in the British political situation - a new government, and one which asks for a further extension, then Europe might listen to it. And might France, in any case, listen to it?

You’ve summed up the situation very well. If things change, we’ll look at...

If the Prime Minister changes?

If things change politically, if we see there’s a way out, if a path emerges, if a majority is formed around something - for roughly a year now, we’ve been revolving around the fact that there’s no majority. Thirty percent of Parliament wants to leave, no matter what. A third of Parliament wants to leave with what they call a soft deal, a deal which makes it possible to keep the essentials at the heart of the economic relationship. And then there’s 30% of Parliament which is saying: we mustn’t leave at all.

And all this doesn’t make a majority.

And that doesn’t make a majority. So if a political way forward really does open up in the UK so that we can understand what the majority is and how, as a result, a prime minister could achieve this majority, then Michel Barnier, the Commission and the member states may think differently.

But what you’re saying is very true, that it’s a British sovereign choice. You know, I spend my days defending the rule of law, the fact that we want regimes that are legitimate, that are based on the most honest, open and transparent elections possible, and that judicial systems aren’t arbitrary. Who would I be this morning if I told you, “the British should do this or that"? That’s called interference and spells the end of European democracy. So if we care about the foundations of Europe, well, all peoples are sovereign - moreover, this is a message for sovereignists, who are always saying that Europe interferes in national affairs. If there’s one affair in which we don’t interfere, it’s this one. (...)