High hopes

France has taken over the helm of an EU in stormy waters: the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty, world trade talks are flat-lining and a war broke out on Europe’s borders. All the more reason for the institution to get its act together, says French Ambassador Maurice Gourdault-Montagne. Here he speaks to Elizabeth Stewart about France’s ambitions for the next six months

With the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, will the French Presidency continue with the ratification process?

For the Lisbon treaty to enter into force it has to be ratified by the 27 member states. Nineteen countries, including France and the UK, have already ratified it through a parliamentary process.

Consulted by referendum, the Irish people rejected this treaty. It’s not clear yet how this issue will be resolved. The first thing we need to know is why the Irish took the stand that they took and whether there is any chance for them to ratify the Treaty. They are the better placed to provide answers to these questions.

It will also matter what stand other countries take: if they are in favour of the Lisbon Treaty, they need to say so by ratifying it. Everybody has to exercise their sovereignty on this issue through their own democratic procedures.

We will have a better idea of where we stand next October, during the first European Summit of the French presidency. How to solve the situation created by the Irish “no” will obviously be a major priority for our Presidency, but considering that we have to let it rest for a little time, France will strive to focus on delivering results in other areas.

Commentators agree that institutional reform is necessary – what options are on the table and which of these would a French presidency prefer?

We have spent the last 10 years discussing and negotiating institutional reform. We consider this Treaty to be a good way out of this long institutional negotiation and we think that the people of Europe want us to conclude this as soon as possible in order to be able to move on to more substantive things, such as delivering the concrete policies they are waiting for on global issues as important as climate change, energy security, financial stability or immigration.

“I would like to stress that France’s idea is not to build a European Army but to improve everybody’s capacity to act in the face of new and very dangerous threats”

A key objective is getting agreement on the legislative package on energy and climate change – how will green policies be balanced out with keeping the EU competitive?

This is our first priority. We want to confirm European leadership on this matter by putting into force the package which has been decided during the German Presidency which sets out ambitious goals. The task ahead is to decide the specifics: Who does what? What is the contribution of each economic sector?

It is only by showing that we intend to deliver on our commitments that we can effectively influence others to contribute more than they are now doing. But we are not naïve or blind to the risks of EU action for major sectors of its economy if we cannot reach a global agreement on this matter.

This is why we will also start the dialogue on climate change with the new American administration, as well as with major emerging partners (we shall have summits with India and China), in order to lay the groundwork for a deal in 2009 at the Copenhagen conference, so that we can have a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Minds are changing on this issue in America and in many emerging countries. We have high hopes.

One of the main pillars of the French Presidency is laying the groundwork for an EU defence force (EUDF) and common EU defence policy. Will this be a ‘St Malo II’? How will the EUDF link with Nato – and how does France intend to re-engage with Nato?

First of all I would like to stress that France’s idea is not to build a European Army but to improve everybody’s capacity to act in the face of new and very dangerous threats.

In that sense, I would speak of the strengthening of the European Security and Defence Policy by each single member state, through better cooperation and more defence spending, rather than establishing a EU defence force.

There are many things we could do, such as update the European Security Strategy which was written in 2003 – we have 12 more members of the EU and have to face new threats and draw lessons from the many operations of the EU – 17 so far including five military ones – to better ourselves in the area of post-conflict stabilisation for example, where Europe can play a unique role in the world.

The goal is to a more efficient cooperation between European countries. Common procurement amongst European countries, for example, would allow us all to save considerable amounts and would enhance our capabilities. We have a European Defence Agency with a great potential to do just that, all we need now is some steam to get things moving.

Regarding Nato, our recent white paper on defence and security is quite clear: it points towards France taking its full place, its full role in Nato, to make the Alliance stronger to better transform it. This is very important for President Sarkozy, who would like France to be at the fore of Nato at the same time as we develop new European capacities.

A common EU immigration and asylum policy is also on the agenda – what are the key aspects of this?

Europe is subject to substantial demographic pressures: the ageing population means that workers are needed, while migratory pressures from the south of the Mediterranean and the East need to be dealt with.

This raises the necessity to coordinate the Member States’ actions and ensure a certain consistency. This is why the French presidency would like to see political commitments made in the form of a European Immigration and Asylum Pact to be adopted by the European Council.

With this pact we want to ensure better control of our borders, more effective treatment of illegal immigration but at the same time better integration of the legal immigrants Europe needs.

One of the key points is asylum, where we will try to bring national legislation closer together in order to avoid distortion of asylum flows created by massively different regimes, although this is very difficult because national traditions and therefore laws vary largely.

Lastly this pact aims at promoting development of and with the countries of origin to create growth so that their citizens can find employment at home.

A review of CAP reform is also up for discussion. Obviously there are differing views in Europe on liberalising agriculture. How will the French presidency approach this?

Well we will have to reach agreement on what we call the “health check”, which is a set of re-evaluations of the CAP precisely set out in the reform of 2003. We are keen also to start a reflection without taboo on the sort of agricultural policy the EU needs in a context of the food crisis.

We need to, all together, find answers to question such as: how do we ensure our food security, as Europe is now a net importer of agricultural goods? How do we ensure a balanced development of territories? How do we continue to preserve the privileged access to European markets that the poorest nations enjoy today? How do we ensure the respect of stringent sanitary standards which are a strong demand of consumers, even more so after the food scares of the 90s?

The CAP has already changed a lot in the last few years, from being merely productivist to encouraging a form of production balanced by taking into account the environment or the quality of food products. Doesn’t that specific approach to farming deserve to be promoted? We must answer all these questions.

“Minds are changing on the issue of climate change in America and in many emerging countries. We have high hopes”

What plans do you have for the progress of the Mediterranean Union?

The Mediterranean is the crucial border for the EU. In 1995, to respond to that challenge, we launched the Barcelona Process, which achieved some result, not least because it is the only forum where all partners of the regions agree to meet.

But we need to do more. One statistic explains this: only 2% of total European FDI goes towards the Mediterranean partners, compared with 20% of American FDI going to Mexico and 25% of Japanese FDI going to Southeast Asia. We must take this region much more seriously.

The idea therefore of the Union for the Mediterranean is to increase the value added of the Barcelona Process. The EuroMediterranean Paris Summit of 13 July at the level of Heads of State and Government, should do so by stressing two aspects of our renewed partnership: through enhanced co-ownership, with the establishment of a joint chairing of the process (one European, one from the Mediterranean partners) and of a Secretariat, insuring a paritarian approach. This will also be a project-led process, with the aim of attracting new sources of investment, including the private sector. The projects would cover various sectors such as interconnections, access to water, depollution, etc.

Is there a ‘theme’ for the French Presidency? How will your Embassy raise the profile of the Presidency?

I have set three priorities for my staff, in order to better relay information about the content of the priorities of the French Presidency.

First priority is culture, too often ignored in Europe. We want Europe to be a source of harmony, i.e. neither unison, nor cacophony. What better means than culture to express it. Europe cannot be merely an economic project, even if economic achievements are at its heart. It has to be about identity, about our common political destiny.

This is why preserving and promoting our cultural identity and diversity matters a lot. I hope to stress that aspect during the entire Presidency, as we did by organising the launch event at the V&A in the margins of the Fête de la Musique, a great popular and artistic festival held in France, but also in London.

Our second priority is our diversity, which is a strength we must celebrate. We are different yet we have shared common values for centuries. I hope to work closely with my Czech and Swedish colleagues, as part of a genuine trio, during the Presidency.
Our third priority is to reach out towards everybody, not just specialists of Foreign and European affairs. On 1 July, as we launched our Presidency, I was in Liverpool. I hope to organise a visit of EU Ambassadors in the country as well. We will also work on consular protection, the rights that any European citizen travelling abroad has if a consulate of their own country is not available. We want to show that the EU delivers for everyone