Bettel: What is best for the UK is not always best for the EU

Xavier Bettel [Daniela Vincenti]

In a candid interview with EURACTIV, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel says he is not prepared to give anything to the UK, even though he agrees with David Cameron that we need a more efficient EU.

Xavier Bettel succeeded Jean-Claude Juncker as premier of Luxembourg in December 2013. Previously, he served as mayor of Luxembourg City. Bettel is openly gay and recently married his partner of 5 years.

Bettel spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniela Vincenti
>> To read a shorter version of this interview, please click here.

Grexit is off the table. But we are not out of the woods, with the snap elections forthcoming in September, are we?

For the moment, we have positive signs. I think that what Tsipras did in (recent) weeks should have been done before. It was important to regain trust, because we were in a situation where his speech in Brussels was not the same as the one he pronounced in Athens. But now we are able to trust him again. For the moment, I see positive signs. Grexit is off the table for now, and I hope this will remain the case in the coming months.

But we are not out of the woods with snap elections in September, are we?

There has been an agreement between the Greek government and the other countries. An agreement has been made and it has to be respected by all parties. It would be too easy to change governments, and then to say we need new rules.

Swift elections in Greece can be a way to broaden support for the ESM programme and improve the prospects for a successful third bailout. But some are also concerned that political instability might undermine bailout-related legislation – including pension reform – until the elections.

I’m sure that the Greek people know that it was not our wish to harm them, but the economic situation demanded these much-needed reforms. Alexis Tsipras knows that these new reforms won’t help his popularity, but he knows that these are the right decisions, even if some people think they go too far.

Some politicians in his own party have split and gone their own way, which just shows that they don’t want to face reality. Alexis [Tsipras] showed that he knows when he has to be a statesman, and he has done just that.

Last week, Yanis Varoufakis called what happened on the 12th July a coup d’état and a defeat for all Europeans. How do you react to such a statement?

Some people still do not understand why the crisis happened in the first place. The crisis happened because we lived beyond our means and we spent money we didn’t have.

This happened in many countries, even in my own country, where we also had to take measures. I’m not the most popular politician in my country, but if measures are needed, I would prefer preventive action over having to launch a rescue after reckless behaviour.

People who still believe that the agreement was bad and that Greece should not have accepted it still live in the past. Their dream of living by themselves, without solidarity, without help, without exchange, without collaboration, is just that: a dream.

How do you think the Greek crisis has affected the eurozone and the EU as a whole?

I think it proves that when we want to find solutions, Europe is strong. It took a lot of meetings, a lot of hours of extenuating discussions, but it was needed.

So, on one hand, it shows that when we are in dire straits, we are able to find solutions. Some countries debated the Greek package in parliament, and even the most Eurosceptic countries said yes in the end.

The Greek crisis has taught us that in a deep crisis, solidarity has to prevail, and in the end we were able to find a solution and restore solidarity. It wasn’t easy for some countries, which initially didn’t want to help Greece. But in the end, they helped, and it was best for everyone.

You’re thinking of Finland … Germany?

I don’t want to start naming countries, but there were more countries than just Finland.

Let me turn to the other crisis we are facing today: Migration, which is possibly more important. A record number of asylum seekers and migrants are arriving on Europe’s shores every day. How do we deal with this crisis, and avoid squabbling over quotas?

The problem is multifaceted. First, we have to differentiate between political and economic migration. At the moment, we are still working on the list of ‘safe countries’.

I know that at the last Council on migration, the Luxembourgish Presidency asked the Commission to draw up the list.

I hope that they will be able to do so, as it is important that people who really need to leave a country because of real threats, dangers, terrorism etc., can find (refuge). We have to separate it from economic asylum.

Now, we have huge numbers of refugees from the Balkan states. A list of safe countries is important, so we can have faster procedures for this kind of requests. If we are not able to have a list for 28 member states, then at least we will try to work together in smaller groups.

I asked my Benelux colleagues, for example, to work on that topic. We will see. First, we need to have the results of the Commission’s work. If a full list is not possible, then we’ll have to show that we have to work together.

Xavier Bettel, Prime Minister of LuxembourgXavier Bettel, Prime Minister of Luxembourg

What do you mean by working together?

We don’t have unlimited space. We have space for a certain amount of refugees, I don’t want to force people to have to sleep on the street, I want to provide accommodation. If there are economic refugees who take up these much-needed slots, I would not be able to allocate them to the “real” asylum seekers – the political asylum seekers.

Also, we can’t say that we have to do something when we see thousands of people dying while crossing the Mediterranean, and then the next day, because of the wave of populism, change our minds and trash the principle of solidarity.

I think the quotas are important, and frankly it’s a shame that we need quotas, and that we can’t fulfill them voluntarily.

The size of the country, as well as its financial means, need to be analysed. We are all in the same boat.

We can’t just come up with these grand speeches of solidarity after church on Sunday. We need to follow through on Monday, all the way through to Friday. It is regrettable seeing people wanting to halt immigration for political reasons.

You are saying size and financial means should determine the number of migrants’ quota. What about Greece, then?

Greeks should first do their work—control. We have Dublin. They should go through the procedures, the controls. I think it’s important to help them. Regarding Greece, as I said, there are two factors: the size of the country, and its financial situation.

The country is big enough, they have the capacity. We can no longer say that countries without economic growth are not able to take migrants.

Never forget that asylum seekers, such as those from Syria, can be more than welcome and be useful for our economies, as well. It’s important to find the right balance.

We shouldn’t forget that these asylum seekers leave their countries with their entire lives in just one bag, risking their lives sometimes, and the lives of their children, to come here.

So, on one hand, solidarity is important. But on the other hand, we have to be more strict in making sure the rules regarding economic asylum seekers are respected.

Are mandatory national quotas a temporary or lasting solution? Are there other solutions?

In the Council, we’ve discussed the problem of these ‘mafia’ trafficking operations. For example in Libya, the problem is knowing who to speak with. We do not know who is in charge of the government. We need a counterpart to talk with in Libya.

The proposal I made was to open immigration offices in those countries, to be able to tell people that there will be no chance for them to get asylum in Europe.

We are also one of the countries with very high development aid, and we should realise now that aid is one of the things that helps prevent people from needing to leave their countries. Budgets are being squeezed and countries are cutting their development aid, but this is the wrong thing to do. We have to give hope to these people to keep living in their own countries. As long as they don’t have hope, they will keep leaving.

Development aid however is not always spent in the proper way …

That is why we have to check. Development aid is not just giving money. In Luxembourg, for example, we have very strict systems whereby we change the countries, we have programmes together with recipient countries, and have people on the ground helping with projects. If the EU wants to give hope to the young people of these countries, we have to have a better common development aid policy.

Is there a risk that with the migration crisis we will reintroduce borders? Is Schengen in danger? 

We should never forget what Schengen really is. I studied in Greece on an Erasmus programme, and on the weekends I travelled to Bulgaria, Turkey and to FYROM. Sometimes the borders were closed because guards were watching a football match on TV. I had to clean my car because they said I would bring microbes from one country to another. When you live through that, you realise what the open borders brought to Europe.

Nowadays, going to another country to study or work seems so natural, but we shouldn’t forget that we fought for this right.

We should also not forget that when Schengen was signed, the countries sent their lowest secretaries of state. It wasn’t seen as a very important issue, and it has grown into a great success story.

We still have the opportunities to have internal controls. The populists would tell you that because of Schengen, we don’t have any control, but that is plain wrong! We can have controls in individual countries. We have exchanges that are more efficient than before.

So Luxembourg will oppose the reintroduction of borders?

Reintroducing the borders would be a bad sign. What is important is that the external borders of the Schengen area are properly controlled. If it doesn’t happen, then we will have problems inside the Schengen area.

In Luxembourg, it is in our DNA to know that we are only strong when we work together with our neighbours.

Fairer distribution of asylum seekers through the EU is just one side of the coin. What about the other side: integrating migrants. Is Europe fit to do that?

I cannot speak for any other countries, as this is a national competence, I can only speak for Luxembourg, where half the population is made up of immigrants and I don’t have the problems faced by other countries.

It is important to give people the opportunity to learn the language to get integrated; to not build ghettos, where they all end up in the same suburb, but to spread immigrant populations out.

I was the deputy mayor of the city in charge of housing, and mixed houses are crucial if we want to manage migrant integration well.

I am planning to ask Luxembourgish families if they want to take an asylum seeker into their homes.

But is there something the EU can do, even though it is a national competence, to facilitate integration?

What I think sends the wrong signal is that one country said “we will take immigrants, but only Catholics”.

I will never say that. This reminds me of history,  where you divide people based on their religion. And I will never do that.

Let me turn to the Ukraine crisis, where there have recently been casualties. Do you think there is a way to deescalate the crisis with Russia?

I hope so. I am meeting with Mr Putin in the coming weeks, and I have also asked for a meeting with Mr Poroshenko, to find out why we are in the current situation.

Why are the Minsk agreements not being respected?  Heads of state have to respect what has been signed. Both sides have made mistakes. I do not want to put the blame only on one side.

I is important to see how we can move forward, because at the moment, we are all in a lose-lose situation.

Europe is losing, Ukraine is losing, and Russia is losing. We need an exit strategy to find solutions that everyone can live with.

Accepting Russia regional integration as legitimate –the Eurasian union – isn’t legitimate?

If they want to build a union with other countries, that is their choice. Any country is free to choose with whom they have special relations. But they cannot oblige another country to join.

Sanctions did not really dissuade Russia. Was EU soft power too soft?

We should not forget that last year we were in a war situation, with hundreds of people dying every week.

I know recently things have deteriorated, but we have the Minsk agreement and we need to take stock, to see where we are, and who is doing what. This is important.

If there is no wish to respect Minsk, we will have a frozen conflict for the next years. This is a lose-lose situation for everybody.

For the moment the pattern is sanction, reaction, sanction, reaction. This harms everyone, in Russia and in Europe.

Everybody in the EU speaks about the need for change, led also by the ‘Exit’ debate, including Brexit. What is your vision for change?

I cannot offer to give anything to the UK. When David Cameron says he wants better regulation, a more efficient Europe, he wants us to take better care of our money. I fully agree.

But this does not mean that what is best for the UK is always what is best for the EU.

The fact is that the EU is a common market and a union of 28 countries. Some countries today are more keen to integrate in the EU and others, including the UK are rather more cold, and against more integration and collaboration and things like that.

My French colleague François Hollande proposed a core EU with deeper integration between the founding members.

The only thing is that we would have this core EU, the eurozone, the Schengen zone and for the moment we are unable to manage such scenario of many EUs.

We grew very fast, so what is important now is to concentrate on deepening the union and becoming more efficient.

What do you mean by efficient?

Having less bureaucracy, finding ways we can work together, with common immigration policies, for example.

There are some topics where we could go much further, like security and defence. Luxembourg is not a big player in these domains, but there could be areas in which we could deepen cooperation with those countries that want to do so.

Is it possible to have an EU without the UK?

I cannot imagine an EU without the UK, and I cannot imagine a UK without the EU.

Would you favour the possibility to give a country an opt-out from the ever-closer union?

That’s the problem, because ever closer union is the aim of the EU. I am not in favour of a Europe à la carte, where you can pick what you want and leave what you want. I recently found myself in the eye of the storm, but I didn’t say I wanted to leave because of that.

Speaking in parliament at the onset of the presidency you said the presidency was a unique opportunity for Luxembourg, which is a founding member of the EU, to regain citizens’ trust. How are you planning to do that in only six months?

Firstly, if we are not able to take decisions then people will start to question what we are actually for. In that case, why would they trust us? So first of all we need to be making these decisions, explaining them and then explaining to the institutions how we work. We can’t just show up in Brussels and after hours and hours of discussions, leave the room with no agreements, no rules, no common policies in place.

So what has to change? It’s a question of being more genuine …?

One of the problems is our behaviour. When something goes wrong between two big countries, they just say that it was Brussels who decided. In reality it was WE in Brussels that decided. It’s easy to blame Brussels, make it a scapegoat, to say we can’t trust these people. Acting in this manner will make regaining trust impossible.

The EU isn’t all about the size of oil cans, the length of bananas or the width of pizzas, it’s about freedom, liberty, rights, healthcare, all these things. As long as we are complaining in this fashion, we won’t get that trust back.

Moving on to Luxleaks. You have inherited a hot potato from Juncker..

No, no..

You haven’t..?

No, because it is a ‘hot potato’ for 28 countries, with rulings applying to 20, so what’s important is to have a level playing field for everyone.

Every country has different rulings. I’m waiting for the European Parliament’s report on the rulings, as I already know that some countries had very aggressive rulings.

But this EU-wide level playing field is very important. I am in charge of a government which wants common rules for all the countries and we would respect that.

So what would a level playing field mean for Luxembourg?

It means the same rules for everyone. For Luxembourg and everyone else…

What would those rules be?

They are still being worked on. The Directive is being prepared, some tax issues need to be debated, I won’t go into what is and what isn’t important, but what IS important is to have an exchange and to be able to discuss and to have common rules.

We also support the BEPS directive [The Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting aims to bring international economic integration and national taxing rights more closely into line. It was endorsed by the G20 leaders in September 2013].

We did this! I hope that all the other countries did it too, as all 28 were requested to do so.

Will you allow me to get a bit more personal? Do you think our civilisation is divided in pro-against gays with Mr Putin in the East and Marine Le Pen being the leaders of the anti-gay camp?

I think that 95% of the population doesn’t care. And that 2.5% are completely for and 2.5% are completely against.  The rest just don’t care and they accept it. They are happy that people are happy. So it is not a question of half being in favour, half being opposed. As politicians it’s important to remember that we need to give rights to all people, regardless of their situation. We don’t have to write down how people should live, but to respect how people are living.

Does Xavier Bettel have a role model?

So many different people, I like a lot of Luxembourgish politicians and…

Mr Juncker …?

No I don’t want to name anyone. I have my own style. My parents gave me an education and I want to respect what they gave to me.

Three of the four prime ministers of Luxembourg have ended up leading the European Commission, do you think that is your destiny?

I don’t know. I’m happy with what I’m doing now, I learnt a few years ago that one should never say never, at the moment I’ve been elected on the basis of promises to have public finances sent in the right direction, which we are working on. That’s my main work. I don’t want to speak about tomorrow or tomorrow’s job.

Is there something that keeps you awake at night?

Sometimes, yes. Stress, being physically tired, but intellectually fit, so sometimes it’s difficult to fall asleep. Sometimes, I read some documents in bed and depending on the topic I can fall asleep!

What makes you fall asleep?

It depends on the topic!

Last question, Juncker-Bettel: Is there still bitterness – allies or foes?

The feeling is good. What is important is that we both believe in Europe, in its values, and that is exactly what is needed when we are around the table in Brussels.

We work together, without talking about the past. The future is important. I’m happy for him that he is where he is in Brussels and I’m sure he’s happy for me.

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