We’d like Britons to choose to stay in EU - Minister

United Kingdom – Bilateral relations/British referendum – Interview given by M. Jean-Marc Ayrault, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, to the French press (excerpts)

London, 7 June 2016

THE MINISTER – The relationship between France and Britain is quite strange, quite unique and very linked to our common history. Each country is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and has always had a global, universal vocation. That can be felt in the approach to issues, to problems. We often have similar views even if we have differences.

We [M. Ayrault and UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond] talked about a lot of current issues: we talked a lot about Africa, about the various interventions there could be, we discussed our visits, and I talked about my visit to Mali and Niger with Frank-Walter Steinmeier. We also talked about the Franco-German relationship and what we could do in the E3 format [Germany, France, United Kingdom], which the UK greatly appreciates and would like us to push as far as possible together. Of course we talked about Syria, Libya and obviously all the issues that are in the news.

And we also talked about the referendum, of course. The French position is known: we’d like the British to choose to remain in the European Union. We sincerely think it’s both in Europe’s interest and in Britain’s interest. I say “sincerely” because people sometimes attribute ulterior motives to us when we say it in certain circles, but I really think it’s necessary for Britain.

What I was saying earlier was that the European Union – I discussed it with my British counterpart; he immediately agreed – doesn’t weaken our international influence, the influence of both the British and the French, and it’s even the opposite. Because we’re permanent members of the Security Council and have the history I was talking about just now, the European Union gives our old, “universal” nations, as it were, an extra lever to exert our political influence. It’s confirmed every day; it’s obvious! It means we can’t do everything as a pair; that’s why we’ve just discussed it, and on this point we were in total agreement about working as far as possible, for example, in the E3 format, which we’ve already done on Syria several times in both Paris and Berlin, and we can also do it on other issues.

Q. – At the moment, according to the polls, the balance is switching towards Brexit; how is France preparing for that eventuality? In what respect is it ready for that eventuality?

THE MINISTER – First of all, it’s not a fait accompli. The vote will take place on 23 June and we know nothing of the result. Let’s say that we, who have experience of referendums, know the campaign will be conducted to the very end, up to the last minute, because voters are hesitant when it’s such a weighty decision. So we must persuade people, carry them with us, ensure we don’t stray too far from the rational into the emotional. And if we take the rational – i.e. all the economic and social criteria – it’s clear that remaining is essential for the British people and for all social classes, and not just finance as some people are saying. I believe it’s really important to carry on making the arguments. All the arguments are on the table. (…)

Clearly, if we then tackle more sensitive issues like migration, we may indeed stray into the emotional, and then it can give rise to controversies, and that’s always dangerous when it’s time to choose. But my strong belief is that when the British people want to take their decision for their own future, their own destiny, their own history, a sense of the country’s interest will prevail. I’m confident.

You ask me: we’re not certain of Brexit either; what may happen? We have both options.

There can be a choice to remain: that’s what we’d like, and the commitments made on that must be honoured, nothing more and nothing less. It’s not about embarking on an umpteenth set of negotiations, it’s not about going beyond what was decided in February. Basically we’ve endorsed a differentiated Europe, and a differentiated Europe means some don’t want to go so far, while others can go further. (…) But we’re not forcing the British or others to join this if they don’t want to.

And then there’s the eventuality of Brexit, and I was reading in Le Monde: “Oh dear, Europe is preparing an exit scenario, a Brexit scenario.” I’d say that’s a sensationalist headline, because it’s clear the European Commission can’t not examine every scenario; it would be surprising otherwise. It’s only natural for it to look; it doesn’t mean it wants it, it doesn’t mean it’s planning it. But everything has to be examined, and if exit prevails there’s a treaty which applies, with Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, and we get into the process defined by the treaty, that of exit, as Jean-Claude Juncker has said. Britain then becomes a third country; it’s true that the consequences for it are serious.

Q. – The British are also interested in what would happen in the event of remaining; they clearly expect the commitments to be honoured, but beyond that, what political impetus do you see for the European Union if Britain decides to stay? Can any initiatives be taken to revitalize the European enterprise one way or another, or must we stick to the commitments in the short term?

THE MINISTER – As I say, a differentiated Europe means we endorse the British situation. It doesn’t mean we no longer do anything, particularly in terms of growth for Europe as a whole: on the contrary, there are things to do in that area, after all. But we’re not going to embark on all the projects today. Later, for the other countries that want to go further, it will be up to them to decide if it’s necessary to go further. We’ll think about it with our partners, particularly in the Franco-German framework. It’s natural for us to think about all this; Europe needs clarification.

Q. – On that very point, isn’t this referendum – which, after all, is making everyone shudder a bit – the time to begin a new movement in Europe? Because this anti-European feeling isn’t specific to the UK; the UK has this syndrome, but it’s present in France, it’s present everywhere.

THE MINISTER – I think there’s also a need to “reoccupy” the European idea, give [it] back meaning and probably a bit of the steam that has been lost in recent years. And at the same time, Europe has nothing to be ashamed of in everything it’s doing, and it’s doing a lot. Perhaps we must highlight again what’s being done. Thinking in the medium and long term, we have to ask ourselves what situation Europe’s current member countries would be in – and not just the British – if it didn’t exist any more.

We account for 7% of the world’s population and this percentage is going to diminish in the years to come. Major powers are now on the move and they’re our partners – China and India. It’s a new situation. There’s Africa, whose population is going to double and on which we must focus our undivided attention, our active efforts. We also have to set out the global challenges. Admittedly, Europe must accept the fact it is differentiated. If you ask me what I think of this as a French person, I actually think that those who want to go further must do so, and thought should be given to ways we can do it. (…)

This referendum is also being held on a clear basis. Yet it’s also up to us not to stand back. We’ve got many things in common – I’m thinking about the issue of security in Europe, these are issues which often come up, concerning the protection of Europeans, internally and at the borders, concerning the new risks we’re facing. So we’ve got to provide answers for all this. And then what place, what social project do we have in globalization? So we’ve got to provide answers which make sense, which are rousing and political. (…)

Q. – Sorry, we’re obsessed with this, but coming back to this possibility of Brexit, the government must plan for every scenario; what is France doing on 24 June?

THE MINISTER – But France isn’t going to respond alone, it’s an issue which must be discussed with our European partners too. It will be discussed and dealt with, of course. A European Council is going to take place, we’re going to prepare it. We’re preparing it ourselves, and we’ll do so with our partners, particularly Germany. But it isn’t about making statements here, there and everywhere. There’s a step, the vote, and we’ll take note of how British citizens vote. And we hope it will be in favour of remaining in Europe.

Q. – So in your view there’s no immediate danger on the financial markets, for example?

THE MINISTER – Leaving the European Union isn’t without consequences. If this happens, we’ll do our utmost to prevent the whole of Europe being affected by it. Measures will need to be taken and statements made, but admittedly if we’re looking at an exit from the European Union, it’s a historic event. It will be the first time a country has decided to leave. This is why I believe the British people will shoulder their responsibilities in the right way, but I don’t want to tell them what to do, because the campaign taking place is admittedly quite a heated one, but at the same time it is producing arguments. I know a referendum is tough, I’m well placed to know that./.

Published on 14/06/2016

top of the page