Alain Juppé lays out pro-EU presidential campaign in Brussels

The favourite to become the French Republican party’s presidential candidate, Alain Juppé, distanced himself from his rivals by defending the EU’s passport-free Schengen area during a visit to Brussels on Wednesday (24 February). EURACTIV France reports.

Alain Juppé has taken the lead in the polls over rivals for the French right’s presidential nomination, which include former President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Prime Minister François Fillon and former Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire.

He told an audience in Brussels that the EU’s recently-adopted asylum package will not be fit for purpose, and that the bloc’s 28 member states need to better coordinate their asylum policies.

For the veteran politician, who was prime minister from 1995 to 1997 under Jacques Chirac, Europe needs to agree on a list of safe countries and harmonise its asylum application processes.

Asylum policy and illegal immigration

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The Republican contender for the presidential race stressed that review periods for asylum applications across Europe are still very unequal, ranging from six months in Germany to 18 in France.

“After 18 months, a notice of rejection or acceptance no longer has much meaning,” he said.

Juppé also signaled a hard line on legal immigration, suggesting that EU member states establish and enforce their own priorities. In France, for example, where legal migration can take three forms – students, family reunification, economic immigration – he proposed allowing the parliament to fix annual quotas.

The former prime minister also criticised Amnesty International, which had condemned Europe as a “fortress” in a recent report. “220,000 people gain the right to live in France every year. If that’s a fortress, I would like to see what an open space looks like!” he said.

In defence of Schengen

Juppé distanced himself from his rivals for the Republican nomination, becoming his party’s only major candidate to defend the Schengen free movement area.

“The important thing is obviously to control the Schengen area’s external borders, as this alone will allow us to tackle the international traffickers,” he said. “Schengen in its current state is a failure.”

Control of the external borders is one of the pillars of the Schengen system, along with free movement between the countries of the zone. He denounced the fact that this essential aspect of the system was not adequately enforced by the Frontex border agency.

After a recent budget increase, Frontex now receives around €140 million per year. By comparison, the American border force has an annual budget of $33 billion, 200 times the Frontex budget.

Mini-Schengen not an option, for now

A majority of EU countries seem to be hostile to the idea of a “mini-Schengen”, capable of better controlling its common borders, which was floated by the Netherlands at the end of last year.

For the presidential candidate, Schengen should be reviewed by a group of countries that want to give the border-free zone a fresh start.

“If we fail, we will condemn ourselves to the historical regression of re-establishing internal border controls,” he warned. “After 60 years of European construction, how can we even contemplate the reappearance of controls on the borders between France and Germany, for example?”

In any case, according to Juppé, such controls would be impossible to implement. The French-Belgian border alone would be impossible to seal. “I think there are 1,500 crossing points, many of them in the middle of a street,” Juppé said.

He urged Europeans to be realistic and to accept the fact that the only viable option to protect Europe’s internal borders is to strengthen its external borders. The candidate also supported the idea of establishing a multi-speed Europe.

EPP leader floats Schengen suspensions

Member states that do not tackle immigration should be temporarily suspended from the Schengen area, the President of the European People’s Party (EPP), Joseph Daul, told EURACTIV.

This is a significant break with the official line of the French Republican party, which had in January called for the permanent reestablishment of EU border controls “in the name of French security”.

Currently second in the running for the right wing party’s presidential nomination, Sarkozy is a vocal proponent of border controls. As early as May 2014, the former president had called for “the immediate suspension of Schengen I” and the establishment of Schengen II. He has also opposed the EU’s system of quotas for refugee relocation, which he said should “only be accepted as a consequence of a new European immigration policy, not as a precondition for such a policy”.

Only one mandate

The French Republican party’s primary campaign, characterised by cutthroat competition and hard right policies, has been under way for some time.

But on the left, the Socialist party has yet to name its candidates. President François Hollande, who is struggling with mow popularity, has announced that he will only stand for re-election if he manages to bring down unemployment this year.

Alain Juppé, who is a trusted and experienced figure of French politics and has held several ministerial portfolios in his career, has made honesty a cornerstone of his campaign. He stressed that his policies will be amply fleshed-out before the election and that he is the only candidate that can commit to taking “fair” measures, even if they are unpopular, because he only intends to remain in office for one mandate.

One of his flagship policies is to cut €100 billion from the French budget by, for example, only replacing one in two retiring civil servants, at the same time as cutting taxes and completely abolishing inheritance tax, which he describes as toxic.

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