Asselborn: Poland would not be allowed into the EU now

Jean Asselborn [PES/ Flickr]

Poland would fail to join the European Union if it were to apply again and messing up the Brexit negotiations could cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel.

Jean Asselborn has been Luxembourg’s foreign minister since 2004.

Asselborn spoke to Der Tagesspiegel’s Albrecht Meier.

You’re the most senior foreign minister in the entire EU. Have you ever experienced a period of time as difficult as this current one?

No. I’ve been foreign minister since 2004 and before then I was, of course, a European citizen. But I have to say, what we have now is new.

Why?

We are dealing with an unprecedented piling-up of problems. The EU has always had to deal with individual crises, from the dispute over money with Prime Minister Thatcher in the 1980s to the failure of the EU constitution in 2005. But they are not comparable to what is facing us now. The economic and financial crisis has not been overcome yet. Europeans are perturbed by terrorism. Nationalism, populism and right-wing extremism are on the rise. And there’s the risk to the community posed by Brexit.

The upcoming election in France is missing from your list.

If Marine Le Pen becomes president then the European Union is on the verge. The reconciliation between Germany and France is the basis for Europe. If Le Pen wins then we would be bidding farewell to those treaties that started it all in post-war Europe, like the Rome Treaty of 1957, the 60th anniversary of which we will celebrate in March.

Le Pen’s rise is obviously linked to promises of breaking with the established political order in France.

What she is promising cannot work. Their “France first” mantra is all too similar to another motto we’ve have heard a lot of recently. But if we want to survive globalisation that we need European cooperation and no isolation.

Would you bet on Le Pen losing the election then?

Let’s put it like this: I simply cannot imagine that France, which in the Enlightenment did so much for Europe and which is the mother of human rights, would elect someone like Le Pen as president. That would be a return to the catacombs of nationalism. I am certain that the French people will not allow this.

During those 60th anniversary celebrations in Rome, the EU-27 will look to reboot without London. Failing that?

The EU reboot will not necessarily take place in Rome. We’ll have to wait for Germany’s autumn election before two basic questions can be addressed. How do the 27 countries stand together in solidarity? And do the member states all accept the fundamental values of rule of law and separation of powers? If not all the EU countries are on the same page then there is little point in rebooting the project.

Those fundamental values are already being violated by countries like Poland and Hungary. Warsaw’s national-conservative government has to answer to the European Commission for its disregard of judicial independence.  But Poland seems unrepentant. Should Poland’s EU colleagues tolerate this?

No. We cannot tolerate that. The member states have to stand up to it. They cannot leave the Commission alone to deal with Poland because it is not going to be able to solve it by itself. Poland’s government is relegating the rule of law more and more. When it comes to bending the rule of law it seems Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is the model. But in Poland it’s a bit different: the head of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) Jarosław Kaczyński is an ideologue. He thinks that for Poland the EU is a brake pad. He wants to create a rightwing conservative social order based on national law. Poland under Kaczyński would today not become an EU member. Poland doesn’t respect the Copenhagen criteria anymore (rules defining if a country is eligible to join the EU)…

How should the rest of the EU react? With sanctions?

That’s not possible because sanctions like suspension of voting rights require unanimity from the member states. And we know Hungary’s position on that. Instead, we should make the Polish people aware about the negative consequences that come from rule of law violations. Poland is moving itself into the slow lane, in terms of the EU. One should not forget that the country currently benefits from EU funding that amounts to something like 4% of Polish economic output.

If we are talking about a review of the role countries play in the EU, what’s Germany’s regarding the eurozone?

Germany is undoubtedly the economic engine of Europe. Berlin only has to look in its rear-view mirror from time to time to check that it hasn’t left the rest of us behind. Germany is strong.

France has accused Germany of holding back a possible political deepening of the eurozone.

I can tell you from my experience as foreign minister that France is also acting as a brakeman. I’ve asked my colleagues at meetings of the six founding members of the EU the same question about a possible shift of budgetary competences to Brussels. The answer was extremely reluctant in both cases.

What do you think of the unfolding duel between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz for the leadership of Germany?

I have a lot of respect for Ms Merkel. Myself and Martin Schulz have been friends for a number of years. Schulz is doing something that is good for social democracy across Europe. He says that social policy is not just an important factor for the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s important now in the 21st century. This campaign is going to be interesting and it’s going to be to the cost of the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland party). That’s also not bad.

Can you see Schulz, the former head of the European Parliament, as chancellor?

Of course. There isn’t another SPD (Social Democratic Party) candidate that I can imagine as chancellor. Martin Schulz’s long-time involvement in European politics makes him more than just a good candidate.

Another politician that you know well is your fellow countryman Jean-Claude Juncker. He is coming up on the halfway point of his time as European Commission president. What’s your assessment of his mandate?

It’s just the nature of things that the Commission attracts the most criticism when it comes to European cooperation. It’s always been like that, no matter what Commission president has been in charge or what country they represent. Currently, the very useful work Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission has done is being overlooked. His 10-point programme, from migration to security and financial matters, has built a solid foundation from the beginning. It’s also right that the Juncker Plan has been extended.

The points you’ve mentioned imply “more Europe”. But after the Brexit vote are there not areas where Brussels should be thinking about “less”? One example is Germany and Austria’s plans to cut the child benefits of EU citizens whose children live abroad. The Commission has resisted.

Since 2015, the Commission has been battling member state tendencies that go against the push for solidarity. It’s the same at the moment with this discussion about child benefits. It’s no good for Europe if our efforts to renovate the European project come at the expense of the EU’s poorer people, for example from Poland, Bulgaria or Romania. The Commission is right to approach it the way it is.

Was Juncker right to warn that the UK might try and divide the member states during the Brexit negotiations?

We have to remain calm. It’s not so bad that the EU-27 have so far managed to avoid preliminary negotiations with London. The talks will begin when Prime Minister May notifies us under Article 50 of the Treaty. Of course, we have to be cautious about London trying to “divide and rule” once the negotiations are underway. The EU-27 should proceed under the idea that the UK should be neither punished nor rewarded for leaving the EU.

But London wants to do away with free movement of people and remain access to the greatest extent possible to the single market. How would that work?

If the UK is not a member of the internal market then a free trade agreement between the EU and London will be needed for 2019 onwards. The British and the EU have to go into them willing to engage, but the talks also have to be fair and transparent. It would be a catastrophe for both sides if they aren’t held in this manner. Messing up the negotiations could result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Brexit isn’t just a footnote of interest for historians.

Donald Trump confidant Ted Malloch is a supporter of Brexit. Should he be the ambassador to the EU?

No. The man has already said that he was a diplomat involved in the demise of the Soviet Union and that he sees that as an achievement. The EU is not the USSR.

What’s your prediction, where will the EU be this time next year?

In the Netherlands, far-right populist Geert Wilders will not be involved in government. France will have a president that stands up for the EU. In Germany, regardless of the result, there will be coalition that has a positive attitude towards Europe. We will be negotiating Brexit in a tough but fair way. And Trump will be spending less time on Twitter and more time governing.