Harlem Désir: ‘All those calling for a referendum want to destroy the EU’

Harlem Désir with Czech Minister for Foreign Affairs Lubomir Zaoralek, who called for Jean-Claude Juncker's resignation. [European Union]

For Harlem Désir, the populist clamour for referendums is a threat to the European project. He said the future of the English language in the EU must be discussed, but insisted France would only gain influence by driving Europe forward.

A former MEP and first secretary of the French Socialist party, Harlem Désir is currently France’s Minister of State for European Affairs. He spoke to Aline Robert, editor-in-chief of EURACTIV France.

What was the atmosphere like at the post-Brexit European Council?

The meeting was marked by solemnity and the sadness expressed by the heads of state and government towards David Cameron. After all this is the first time a country has left the European Union.

16 million Brits wanted to remain in the EU, and even the pro-Brexit camp seems to have some regrets. How can the EU manage this paradoxical situation?

Since the result, many individuals have expressed regret, even some of the Brexiteers. This gives an idea of the impact this choice has had on the United Kingdom. It should make the anti-EU and pro-Brexit campaigners think about what they have done: the consequences are immeasurable. Today the very unity of the United Kingdom is uncertain.

The United Kingdom wants to wait at least until the autumn before activating Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which will begin the exit procedure. In the mean time, it is becoming clear what kind of status they want to negotiate in the future. Have the negotiations already begun?

At the European Council, the 27 insisted on the fact that discussions would not begin before Article 50 is invoked, and that these discussions should not be carried out in a way that damages the European Union.

But we have to realise that this vote is an expression of the deep divisions within British society itself, of diverging world-views. Fear of immigration, doubt over Europe’s ability to shelter people from the negative effects of globalisation and fear of declining living standards are all issues that require European responses.

So the referendum opened up two different issues: on the one hand are the UK’s negotiations on leaving the EU, and on the other hand there are the future reforms the EU needs to make.

In future, if the United Kingdom wants to have access to the internal market as a third country, it will have to respect the four fundamental freedoms of free movement of goods, services, capital and people. This is non-negotiable.

You were president of the NGO SOS Racisme. Today you are witnessing a country leaving the EU largely because of xenophobia, and racist incidents are on the rise across the UK. What can the EU do against this?

Xenophobia and racism exist in all our countries, as do fears about immigration and the environment created in Europe by the many international crises, like Ukraine, Libya and Syria. This stirs up fear.

But we have seen fear morph into violence directed at European citizens resident in the United Kingdom. When populists try to exploit this kind of fear, it is all kinds of outsiders that are targeted. There is no simple response to this situation, but there are values we can try to promote.

Within the European Union, nobody is a foreigner. We cannot enlarge the EU and then contest the rights of the citizens of those countries that have joined. We must stand up against anyone who calls this principle into question.

This crisis should act as an electric shock for Europe and encourage it to work for greater international security.

Supporters of an EU referendum in France are increasingly making their voices heard. They are mostly, but not exclusively, from the political right. Is it possible that we will see a referendum in France?

In France, the Netherlands and Italy, some people are calling for referendums, and they hope the result will be the same as in the UK.

But the debate must be approached frankly and clearly. All those calling for a referendum want to destroy the European Union. The should be honest about this.

For France, this would mean leaving Europe and the euro. The people that are pushing for this referendum are unable to say what should happen afterwards, just like in Great Britain today. We propose to work on the questions that feed dissatisfaction with the EU, on security, economic growth, social and fiscal harmonisation and young people’s mobility.

There has been a shower of criticism since the Brexit vote: the Czech minister for foreign affairs called on Juncker to resign, some want to abolish the Commission, others to change the treaties…

Without the European institutions, there can be no Europe. Abolishing them would destroy the EU. These are democratic structures: the European Parliament is directly elected by universal suffrage, it oversees the work of the European Commission, whose representatives are chosen by the EU’s democratically elected heads of state.

What we can do is discuss how to improve these institutions. Particularly how to give national parliaments a greater role. The European Commissioners could travel to parliaments more often, for example. To support economic growth, we could double the Juncker Plan with a financial instrument to support bigger investments.

Some British MEPs have started handing over their responsibilities in the European Parliament. Is this something that should be encouraged?

The United Kingdom will remain a member of the EU, with all the right and responsibilities this entails, until it completes its exit negotiations. But its role will not be the same, of course. The future EU-UK relations dosier will be a high priority, and certain adjustments are needed. The rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, for example, cannot go to the UK in the second half of 2017.

Can English remain an official working language of the European Union? After all, in two years’ time it will not be the official language of any member state.

This is a good question. An official working language must be the official language of one of the EU member states. But Ireland chose Gaelic, Malta Maltese and Cyprus Greek… So one way or another, change will have to happen. We will have to find a solution.

Will the French language, and French influence more broadly, benefit from the Brexit negotiations?

You should not link the French language to this discussion. It is already an official working language and this status is very important to us. In terms of influence, France is in a very different situation to the United Kingdom, having been one of the founding countries of the European project, while the UK only joined in 1973. But our influence is not linked to the decline of other countries. It depends on our ability to lead projects and drive the EU forward.

In a report on French influence, the MPs Christophe Caresche and Pierre Lequiller suggested that placing the state secretariat for European affairs directly under the supervision of the prime minister would lend greater strength to the position. What do you think of this proposal?

There have often been proposals of this kind, and the minister for European affairs has sometimes been attached to other ministries.  But I think our diplomats are an asset to the foreign affairs ministry, because we are always negotiating with other member states.