French foreign minister: We no longer want to pay for Poland and Hungary

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian talks to the media as he arrives for the informal meeting of European Union foreign affairs ministers at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria 30 August 2018. [EPA-EFE/FLORIAN WIESER]

France does not want to finance a populist Europe, the country’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has indicated, just as the fight over the EU’s new long-term budget begins in earnest. EURACTIV Poland’s media partner Gazeta Wyborcza reports.

These strong words were said in Paris on Wednesday (29 August) during the annual conference of French ambassadors, a meeting at which the French head of diplomacy officially indicates the most important directions of the country’s foreign policy.

71-year-old Le Drian, who after the victory of French President Emmanuel Macron took the helm of French diplomacy, said that France and Germany intend to work out a common position on migration before the EU summit in Salzburg planned for 20 September.

“We cannot leave this topic to populists, delusion traders,” he said, referring to the situation in Italy, where the government of the populist Five Star Movement and the fascist League gave the EU countries time by the end of next week to reach agreement on accepting refugees arriving in Italy.

Le Drian hits hard

But the most important words have been addressed to countries that use EU funds profusely but do not comply with EU rules.

“Each member state has the right to choose such leaders as they wish. But our vision of the Union as a basic circle of alliances and values does not fit with governments that do not respect fundamental principles and do not feel bound in any way by community solidarity,” the French minister said.

He added that these countries basically have “a utilitarian approach to the Union and choose only what is in their interest, and above all, when it comes to transfers of money.”

“We are not ready to continue paying for this Europe, this must be said clearly,” he emphasised.

This is a clear signal about the French line in the negotiations on the EU budget for 2020-27. The Commission, presenting its proposals for the division of money at the end of May, cut the amount Poland would receive from the cohesion funds by 23%. The cuts would also concern funds for subsidies for farmers and rural development.

The Commission’s proposals, however, are a starting point for further negotiations, and the cuts in funds for Poland will probably be even bigger. Especially now, when Paris announces that it wants to turn off the money tap for “countries that do not respect the fundamental principles”.

And the badly perceived Polish reputation means a weak negotiating position.

EU budget payments depend on the state of the rule of law?

Le Drian also referred to a lack of solidarity, namely the dispute over the admission of refugees from the EU distribution board in mind.

In September 2015, the government of Ewa Kopacz committed to taking in 7,000 Syrians who fled to Europe before the civil war. The successor government of Beata Szydło declared that it would not respect this agreement and, like Hungary, would not accept any refugees. Opposition to the reception of refugees has become one of the main slogans of the current PiS government. The case is currently with the EU’s top court ECJ.

Already in May, under pressure from Paris, the Commission proposed a regulation that will allow from 2020 a suspension or even reduction of EU funds for a serious violation of the rule of law.

It includes threats to the independence of the judiciary or non-enforcement of court decisions. The decision of the Commission regarding the suspension of funds, for example for Poland, could be blocked only by a qualified majority.

The EU Council briefly discussed the project before the holidays. The Polish government had hoped for considerable resistance from EU countries to such great strengthening of the Commission’s position on the rule of law (“seizing of power” – as minister of European Affairs, Konrad Szymański, put it back then), but in reality, it was opposed only by Poland and Hungary.

And the regulation – according to unofficial estimates – would have the majority support.

Theoretically, Poland could defend itself against such solutions by simply vetoing the new budget, whose adoption requires unanimity.

“We now have many warnings that “we will not agree on the budget because …”, but I am relaxed,” budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger commented on this scenario this week. He pointed out that blocking the budget would mean a lack of stability regarding future infrastructure investments in countries heavily using the EU budget themselves.

For a possible budget veto, for example from the Polish side and in the absence of a multi-annual budget, the Union would use budgetary provisos, which require the majority and not unanimous consent of EU countries. In such a scenario, Poland would not have much to say.

France offended

Member state politicians usually do not comment on the situation in Poland or Hungary in such a severe way. However, this does not apply to French politicians.

A month later, Poland was criticised by Emmanuel Macron, who was fighting for the presidency at that time, not only for violating the rule of law but also for sending cheap labour to France. After his election victory, he said that Europe is not a supermarket and that Poland and Hungary “have committed a double betrayal on Europe”.

At the beginning of this year, when it seemed that the government of Mateusz Morawiecki would seek a compromise with the EU, it was said that the new French president would visit Warsaw – but talks on this matter have stalled.

A decision of the PiS government to break off talks about a sealed €3 million contract by the previous PO government for buying Caracals, helicopters produced by the French company Airbus Helicopters, is also weighing heavily on the relations between Paris and Warsaw.

President Hollande then cancelled the Polish-French intergovernmental consultations in Warsaw, recognizing the decision as a slap in the face. The French minister of defence was Jean-Ives Le Drian at the time.

Minister Szymański: They will always find a pretext

“Such declarations make this agreement more difficult, which is not in the interest of the EU,” Szymański commented on the words of the head of the French diplomacy. “Every EU country fights for its interests. The uniqueness of France lies in the fact that it often pretends to do otherwise,” the Polish minister for European Affairs added.

According to Szymański, Warsaw has been working on “potential scenarios of budget negotiations” for two years: “I am afraid that the room for manoeuvre in many member states is narrower today than before. This makes these negotiations the most difficult in EU history. Here is the real problem.”

The article was published as a part of the EURACTIV.pl media partnership with Gazeta Wyborcza.

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