Nathalie Loiseau: France has ignored Eastern Europe for too long

Nathalie Loiseau, a former civil servant and diplomat, has been in charge of the Ministry of European Affairs since Macron's election last May.

France is looking east to launch a reform of the EU and is seeking Central Europe’s support on defence, migration, trade and posted workers briefs. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.

Minister of European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau followed President Emmanuel Macron during his tour of Eastern Europe.

Nathalie Loiseau spoke with Pavol Szalai of EURACTIV Slovakia.

French President Macron has visited Salzburg, Bucharest and Varna this week. According to AFP, “the whole tour seeks improved access to the East”. What are the outcomes of this tour and how do they fit in with France’s foreign relations in Central and Eastern Europe?

Macron’s first presidential tour in Central and Eastern Europe sends a strong signal from France. We are convinced every European state has its place and its importance in the ongoing discussion on European reform.

Macron’s vision is of an ambitious and nurturing Europe. He had the possibility to share his agenda on four themes: posted workers, European defence policy, migration and asylum policies, and trade.

The debate he had with his counterparts in Austria, Romania and Bulgaria highlighted a convergence of views and the shared will to progress on crucial issues. The reform of the posted workers directive is a good example because in its current state it incentivises fraud and contributes to social dumping.

It is the opposite of cooperation and convergence, which lay at the core of the European project.

We hope Macron’s diplomatic tour has laid the foundations for reaching a compromise during the autumn under the Estonian presidency of the Council. Last week’s debate also allowed us to move forward on defence and security.

The Slovak government said it was “enthusiastic” about deepening European integration, especially on defence policy, the Eurozone and social affairs.
Yet it only allowed in a handful of refugees. From your viewpoint in Paris, is the migration and refugee crisis a matter for “core Europe” only?

The strong will of the Slovak government to participate in propelling Europe forward is very much appreciated in France. We share this desire to move Europe forward. Macron said a few days ago, during his encounter in Salzburg with the Slavkov Triangle [Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia], that he believes in “an ambitious and good-willed Europe”.

The 2015 crisis has attained huge proportions and it requires necessary measures of solidarity to cope with the mass influx of asylum seekers. We owe this solidarity to “first-port-of entry” countries, which find themselves in this situation simply because of geography. Today we have to focus on the reform of the European asylum regime, the strengthening of our external borders, and the fight against human trafficking networks.

We are also working with source countries of economic migration and with transit countries.

Slovakia recently signed a memorandum on structural cooperation with Germany, in order to close the distance with the “European core”. Does France plan to intensify its sector-wide cooperation with central Europe?

Benefitting from the experience and support of others to become closer to “Europe’s core”, to use Robert Fico’s [Slovak prime minister] phrase, is a very wise choice.

You must have noted that Macron has been reinforcing France’s relations with central Europe since his election last May, who have long been neglected in French diplomacy. He had a first summit with the Visegrad group [the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia] during his first European Council, last June. His first European tour, which has just finished, has allowed him to exchange views with his Austria, Slovak, Czech, Romanian and Bulgarian counterparts very constructively on issues that are of real concern to our respective citizens.

I am personally engaged in meeting all of our partners as soon as possible. I will take part in Bled’s strategic forum in Slovenia on 4 and 5 September, a high-level meeting to discuss regional and global challenges that impact central and South-Eastern Europe. An unmissable occasion to exchange views with decision makers in the region. I think France is clearly showing its will to engage more closely with central Europe!

The Visegrad group is currently split between, on one side, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who are in favour of deepening European integration – and on the other, Hungary and Poland. Is it still a viable long-term partner for France?

Of course. Our approach is simple: we need to talk, discuss, and exchange views with everyone. Multilateral discussions like with the Visegrad group have their place in this. They are not exclusive and they don’t replace bilateral relationships, which we want to have with each member of the EU.

You’ve been a women’s rights advocate and former director of ENA [Ecole Nationale d’Administration – French civil service school], and you worked as a diplomat for 26 years. Diplomacy has changed an awful lot. What are the challenges facing diplomats today, and particularly women diplomats?

This is a broad question. The world we live in is constantly changing and does not allow for reproducing old models. This is true for the diplomatic profession as much as for all other aspects of public life.

Diplomacy today has been completely transfigured by these far-reaching changes. Globalisation goes far beyond national borders: climate change, epidemics, fake news, and cyber attacks are cross-border challenges.

Some modern enterprises are global economic players, sometimes much more powerful than states. Diplomacy must evolve along with a constantly changing world.

This is true for every diplomat, male or female! The skills and endowments for being a good diplomat are equally shared among the sexes, but unfortunately, there are social and cultural habits that linger on.

In numerous countries, women diplomats have to face stereotypes, preconceptions, glass ceilings, and self-censorship. I wrote about this [Choisissez tout, Editions JC Lattès,2014], not to finger-point French diplomacy but because it is the professional environment that I know best and on which I could have some insight.

French diplomacy has made huge steps towards gender equality, thanks to affirmative action, but there is still a long way to go and we must stay vigilant. Above all, we should not think that improvements will happen by themselves and that we can’t go backwards.

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