Brexit, the refugee crisis, the death of Schengen: Hubert Védrine offered his take on Europe’s ills to EurActiv Romania.
Hubert Védrine is a French diplomat and politician, and a member of the Socialist Party. He was appointed Secretary-General of the French Presidency under François Mitterrand, and served as Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Jospin government, between 1997 to 2002. Védrine has been a consultant since 2003.
Why do you think Europe has lurched from crisis to crisis since 2008 – the banking crisis, the financial crisis, the economic crisis, the crisis of confidence, the refugee crisis.
These crises are all different in nature. Some are internal to the European system, and some are caused by external events, including the civil war in Syria. Whether they originated internally or externally, these crises have arisen at a moment when Europe is being undermined by a serious conflict between the people and a small minority that wants deeper European integration.
Europeans are quite happy with what has already been achieved, but do not necessarily want to go further. Some within the elites repeat that we need more Europe. But for the people, more Europe means less France, less Germany, less Sweden, etc.
So the classic European discourse – positive and idealistic – that has worked for decades, has stopped working. Now we see real anti-European feeling and large numbers of Eurosceptics: discouraged and disappointed people.
Why have people lost confidence in Europe?
Maybe we made too many promises, giving the impression that Europe would solve all our problems. This was wrong. Europe’s mission has never been to provide all the answers. If we look at the European treaties, not everything is covered by the European competences.
We have created enormous ambitions. If we had stuck to a more realistic, more moderate European discourse over the last 20 years, people would be less disappointed. We condemn the French for their “national ego”, but it is absolutely normal for nation states to defend their interests.
Do you think that the United Kingdom will leave the EU?
It looks like they have started working on a possible compromise, not just on David Cameron’s four points, but on many more. Cameron will get his compromise so he can organise a referendum in June or September. But if the United Kingdom left, it would be a catastrophe.
First, it would be a real loss for the UK. They benefit enormously from being inside the EU with a host of tailor-made arrangements. Secondly, it would unleash an enormous crisis with Scotland, which does not want to leave the EU: the question of independence will be reopened. And finally, as Europe enters a period of dislocation, it would lose credibility with the big powers.
If the United Kingdom doesn’t stay, it will have to come up with a new deal, along the lines of those used by Norway and Switzerland.
Do you think the Schengen area is disappearing?
The external borders have not been sufficiently controlled, yet these are the backbone on Schengen. Greece’s geographical problem is insoluble: the islands make it impossible to control Schengen effectively.
Does that mean that Greece should leave Schengen?
Schengen is practically dead, nearly all the countries affected by the arrival of migrants have re-established their borders. Effectively, Schengen has stopped working. The question should not be whether we keep Schengen, but whether we rebuild it. I think it should be rebuilt on a more coherent geographical basis.
What does this mean?
It means that Greece cannot stay inside the zone. It is not manageable. This is nothing against the Greeks, it is a purely geographical observation. Intergovernmental and European cooperation on external controls has to be re-established. This should have been done before, but as it was not, the system failed.
You mentioned the EU’s internal and external crises. Could the EU not have done something since the beginning of the Arab Spring and the war in Syria to prevent this refugee crisis?
The refugee crisis showed that Schengen could work in peaceful times, but not when the going gets tough. It has also highlighted the real split between the countries of Western and Eastern Europe. The first group is adapted to multiculturalism. And by this I mean a society with a significant Muslim population. Large parts of Eastern Europe don’t want them, because their lifestyles are too different.
This divide has reappeared as a result of the Arab Spring. Although Europe did not overthrow the despotic leaders, some EU countries did take strong stances. France and the UK said “Assad must go.” But we bear no direct responsibility for what has happened in the region.
If Europe had had a concrete policy in Syria, would it have been responsible for the consequences?
This could not have happened. Europe has great difficulty in forming common policies because it is made up of very different countries with very different histories. The member states share the same basic principles: democracy, human rights, development, peace, etc. But if we take Russia, for example, for certain countries in Europe, like Poland and the Baltic states, it is a threat, and for others, like Italy, it is an important provider of gas. The day we have a common European foreign policy is the day we accept that it is normal for us to have very different positions.
What can Europe do now with these millions of refugees? Is it a problem that the majority of them are Muslims?
The ideas of Islam, Islamism and terrorism are becoming interchangeable in people’s minds. We have to distinguish between two phenomena: asylum seekers and economic migrants. Europe cannot stop processing asylum applications. It is a philosophical question. We cannot refuse people that are in real danger, but the response must be harmonised and organised.
We also have to abolish Dublin II. Merkel was right about that. This convention has placed Greece and Italy in impossible positions. The burden should be shared by everyone. Maybe the quota system is a bit too rigid, but we need to establish an enormous system to see which of the arrivals has an asylum claim.
Some refugees want to rebuild their lives in Europe, but when the war is over, many others will want to go home. It is not a question of forcible assimilation, but of offering them security for a certain period. That is what asylum policy is about. I don’t understand why we have still not managed to harmonise it in Europe. It’s absurd.
And what about the economic migrants?
Europe’s economic demands need to be managed differently. We should establish a system of shared management with the countries of origin, like those in West Africa, the transit countries in North Africa, and the countries of arrival in the Schengen area. We should be able to be frank, and say, “the economic situation in Europe this year is such that we don’t need anyone, sorry”.
It is also a question of education. We have to speak to European public opinion so people do not become hysterical. The situation has to be explained.
What can be done about Syria? Russia wants to keep Assad in power and the Europeans want him to leave.
Does Russia really want to keep Assad? For now, perhaps. Every time the Americans say he has to go, Russia refuses. But the negotiations could reach a solution whereby the Russians obtain guarantees on the future of their base, of a regime that is friendly to Russia and under which Russian jihadists will not find refuge. This is vital, because there are several thousands of them. If this kind of commitment is made, if we manage to rebuild Syria after the war, Russia will see that it no longer needs Assad.
I am a realist when it comes to foreign policy. To say fifty times that Assad has to go, and then to join negotiations while he is still there, is a show of weakness. We have to find a solution with the Russians that includes all these safeguards. But the departure of Assad must be an objective.