Interview with Florent Barraco of Le Point, published on 19 October 2019 at LePoint.fr.
Europe and Great Britain have a new agreement: is it (finally) the end of the soap opera?
Probably yes, because there is one alternative left from the two possible endings. With a positive vote at the Commons on Saturday, nothing will stop Great Britain from leaving the Union at the set date. If the text is rejected, the British will go to the polling booths and Boris Johnson will have a good chance of winning, because apart from the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish separatists, who prefer staying in the European Union, his other opponents have nothing to offer except very confusing propositions. If I had to place a bet, I would bet that this is the end of the story, and it makes me sad because the Union without Great Britain is an amputated Union.
How do you rate the attitude of Europe (effective negotiation or weakness in front of Mrs May and Mr Johnson) during the whole chain of events?
I feel no sadness about this at all, quite the contrary. The Union remained fully united despite the political diversity of its governments. We have all understood from the outset that we are allowed neither to confront the will of the people expressed by the British referendum, nor open the door to a collapse of the Union by giving in to the demands for a special status, which was Brexiteer blackmailing. We acted united, meaning that even those capitals that like to fight against “Brussels”, even Mr Orbán and Mr Kaczyński saw that in the global anarchy and the trade war that is threatening all of us, we need our unity more than ever, that this is our strength and our shield.
What is your assessment of these three years of negotiations, failures, half-successes, advances and setbacks?
The big lesson to learn is that the British debate on Brexit only started after the referendum. Before that, people had heard only lies and empty promises, and once the election result was known, the Brexiteers holed up and went into radio silence because they were not able to answer the real questions that finally arose. How are we going to deal with the siutation between the two Irelands? Just as importantly: what kind of a relationship should Great Britain retain or reject with the Single market?
As these questions had not been debated before the referendum, the country fell into such a disarray that the two large parties, the pillars of British democracy became divided, the House of Commons was paralysed and families and friendships were torn apart.
A lot of bad things are said about representative democracy, but referendums – the way General De Gaulle considered them – should only serve as a confirmation or a refusal, by universal suffrage, of a proposition already elaborated, after a real debate, conducted by the elected representatives who then go on to implement it.
Emmanuel Macron took a hit on the European scene when Sylvie Goulard’s candidacy to become European Commissioner was rejected. Could it not be foreseen?
Retrospectively, everything is foreseeable, even the discovery of America. So, no, it was not foreseeable like this because there was an agreement between the Member States on the new distribution of responsibilities at the European institutions and on the contents of the most important portfolios of the Commission, notably the one that was to be attributed to France.
Emmanuel Macron, therefore, could feel confident, but bit picture and the smaller pictures suddenly clashed on the corridors of the European Parliament, and Sylvie Goulard became the victim of that explosive cocktail. The big picture was that Donald Trump, by casting doubt on the everlasting nature of the Atlantic alliance, spreading chaos on the international scene and denouncing the European Union as an instrument of trade war against the United States, convinced Europeans of the relevance of the three great European ideas that France has been defending since the 1960s.
For more than half a century, every French political leader called for a Common European Defence, an industrial policy based on common investments into the industries of the future and for turning the Union into an “Europe puissance”, an autonomous player on the international scene.
Until November 2016, these three ideas were unanimously mocked by almost all of our partners, especially by the Germans, but the election of Donald Trump suddenly changed everything. Nobody rejects these ideas any more. They are a topic of discussion. They are the political programme of a Union that does not have any other programme, and many of our partners feel uncomfortable, lightheaded, even, that France has gained such a political prevalence, because they have zero desire to do any favours to France.
So this was the big picture, and the smaller one is that the British are leaving, that Madam Merkel is about to go, that the German economy is no longer what it had been a few years ago, that Spain and Italy are in great turmoil, that Paris blocked the European conservatives’ frontrunner Manfred Weber’s ascension to the top of the European Commission, and that the French president finds himself the least vulnerable of all the European leaders. Always on edge, Emmanuel Macron is all the more annoying to everyone else because of this Europeanisation of the French political ideas. France takes up too much space and Sylvie Goulard paid the price for that, even though absolutely nobody contested her competence and what was brought up against her was not really blameworthy, far from it.
Has not your group warned the president of the risks of proposing someone who had had to resign from her position in the government?
Because it is the crossroads of the Member States, and because their elected representatives are often original and very independent characters, the Parliament reflects the current European state of mind very well. It has become extremely sensitive to ethical questions and it would like to become irreprehensible in this regard. So, yes, nostra culpa.
What impact can this rejection have on the French influence in Europe? Did it not stain Emmanuel Macron’s image that he tried to evade the responsibility and blame Ursula von der Leyen?
Everything goes by, even the Goulard-issue, which is anything but a drama. As for the president, he did not blame Ursula von der Leyen, but reminded all of our partners that when a compromise is reached, it is to be respected. In this case the compromise was not respected, because Madam Merkel’s party is divided on the issue of her succession and she does not hold control over the EPP any more, over this large common party of the European right, to whom she has been the uncontested leader for such a long time.
Should France push for the candidature of Michel Barnier?
He is deeply respected at the Parliament just as well as at the Commission. I keep him in the highest regard. He would be an excellent choice, but France is rich in talents and the president of the Republic has a few cards up his sleeve, notably that of Jean Pisani-Ferry, the brilliant economist who was among his first supporters.
Is Europe too weak facing Erdogan after his intervention in Syria?
To be strong in front of anyone, and we have to be strong in front of Mr Erdogan, the Union needs to become a political power. It is still not the case, even though this reality, as I told you, is finally accepted by our partners.
What shape should the sanctions take? Facing Erdogan’s migration blackmail, did the EU really have a margin of manoeuvre?
We have the margins of manoeuvre because the Turkish economy is not in the best shape. It is not true, either, that the sweetest dream of the refugees installed in Turkey is to get in those cockleshells and risk death for an uncertain future. No, the problem does not look like that and, before getting excited, we must see that Recep Erdogan is no longer as popular as he used to be. As he has just lost Istanbul and Ankara, and as his party is being divided, he is trying to create a reflex of national unity around him.
So, we have to think about our next steps: we should not risk strengthening him on the domestic scene, nor forget that he is not eternal and that we should preserve our relationship with Turkey which will, of course, survive him.
How do you view the attitude of Emmanuel Macron towards Erdogan?
France said what there was to say. For the rest, there are three questions to be asked. Do we have the military means to protect the Kurds while our troops are already engaged on so many fronts? Who among the French people and their representatives would approve this commitment? And would we be ready to go there and create one or several Kurdistans?
We must stop thinking that France is still the France of Louis XIV, or that of Bonaparte, or that we could still share the Middle East with Britain. If we really want to count in the world, we can do so only through Europe.
What is your assessment of your new, political life?
I have only three months of mandate behind me! I still have much to experience and to learn because it is not the same thing to know politics, even for a long time, from the outside, as to cross to the other side of the mirror and to live it, from the inside. What can I tell you? I hated this taste of blood that we could read from so many faces during the last hearing of Sylvie Goulard.
I like the naturalness and the ease with which we can exchange opinions with other European lawmakers from the other political groups – this is obviously enriching. It is fascinating to see that at least in a general sense, there are in fact two groups in this Parliament, a republican party with more and more gateways between the conservatives and a large part of the new far right, and a Democratic Party stretching from the utopian left to the liberals through the Greens and the social democrats. I also like to see, during plenary sessions and committee meetings, that Europe is in fact one single nation with the same culture, traditions and political boundaries from one country to another. I have always thought so. I always defended this idea, but now I can see it in practice.
As a Keynesian, I am also happy to see that, in the face of the climate emergency and the technological challenges that China and the United States pose, the need for European public power is growing step by step, in economics and in politics. I am not unhappy that the economic concerns of the Germans seem to push them away from budgetary puritanism. This Parliament is a permanent melting pot of ideas. We do not have a feeling that we are among idiots and it is also just as reassuring as stimulating.
Is a Member of the European Parliament really useful ?
Thank you for this question! If the French parliament organised similarly rigorous hearings for minister-designates as the European Parliament does it for the prospective Commissioners, the French would probably have more respect for their elected representatives.
The Commission and the Member States must now count with the Parliament, with the directly elected representation of all citizens of the Union. It is now a fact that the Union is asserting itself and becoming aware of its own strength, and the day will come when the Parliament is granted the right of legislative initiative, and then we will certainly not have been worthless.
Do you still consider yourself a journalist?
No! I do not consider myself a journalist. I am a journalist. I have been a journalist from the time of my high school newspaper, I have been since I wanted to become one as a child. I have been one since I started to work for l’Observateur as a twenty-year-old, at the same time as Franz-Olivier Giesbert.
I have been a journalist since forever, and I am nothing else but a journalist because journalism is my profession, the only one. While my work as a member of parliament is a function, by definition a temporary one. I will not die as an MEP, but as a journalist, and I really would like everyone to quit acting surprised by this obvious fact.
Is Mr Villani an ex-mathematician since he became a member of the National Assembly? Does a doctor, a scientist, a lawyer, an engineer, a captain, a teacher stop being so when they are elected, or do they bring their professional experience to the parliament? I believe that the answer is in the question, but allow me to make one more remark. I have always been an engaged journalist. I was clearly anti-communist and on the side of the dissidents until the implosion of the Soviet Union. I am clearly pro-European since 1989. These are the stances I took, I have always defended them with no pretenses, with everything I had. Without any desire to compare myself to them, may I remind you of the whole history of great members of parliament who also happened to be great journalists?
Eric Zemmour seems to be between two shores: in the public debate and the debate on ideas, but not immersed completely in politics. Should he, like you, clarify his situation?
The only advice I would have for Mr Zemmour is that he had better think about what he says.