Bettel: EU, Russia play a lose-lose game on Ukraine

Xavier Bettel, Prime Minister of Luxembourg. [Daniela Vincenti]

EXCLUSIVE / In the wake of repeated international calls for a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine, Europe and Russia must abide by the Minsk accord, Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

On Saturday, the leaders of Germany, France and Russia held a phone conversation in which they backed a joint announcement made by Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists last week, that a ceasefire would be reinstated on 1 September.

“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,” conceded Bettel. “But it is important to move forward, because at the moment we are all in a lose-lose game.”

Frozen conflict

“Europe is losing, Ukraine is losing and Russia is losing. We need an exit strategy to find solutions that everyone can live with,” he insisted, adding that if the Minsk accord is not respected “we will have a frozen conflict” for years to come.

While the Minsk agreement may have been largely ignored by both sides, and may now have very little chance of being fully implemented, the Luxembourg prime minister, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, refused to concede that Europe has been too soft on Russia during the continuing 16-month war.

Despite sanctions, Moscow doesn’t seem to have given up on destabilising Ukraine to push further its design to achieve a Eurasian Union.

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

Bettel has Russian blood flowing in his veins. His mother Aniela, French of Russian descent, is the grandniece of famous composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Asked about the other crisis Europe has to deal with during the Luxembourg presidency, Bettel unleashes unusual common sense.

Speaking in his office in the shadow of the Luxembourg city’s cathedral, the 42-year old premier, whose marriage in May to another man contrasted with lingering image of Luxembourg as provincial and conservative, shows his iron hand in a velvet glove when it comes to migration and grexit.

“We don’t have unlimited space [to host all migrants],” he said, adding that economic refugee should be turned down in order to leave space for political asylum seekers and war refugees.

Regretting the need to impose quotas he said the size and the financial means of a country must be taken into account before setting up definite number allocation.

All in the same boat

“Frankly, it’s a shame that we need quotas and that we can’t fulfill them voluntarily,” he said. “We are all in the same boat, not country against country.”

Bettel raises his voice out of outrage: “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.”

The Luxembourg premier tries to inject some sanity in the debate. “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. “

Rebuffing the idea of reintroducing borders, and dismantling Schengen, Bettel said plans to ask Luxembourgish families if they want to take an asylum seeker into their home.

Nearly half Luxembourg’s 540,000 inhabitants are foreign, many Italian and Portuguese, and 150,000 more commute in daily from Germany, France and Belgium, many to work in a financial sector that has supplanted historic coal and steel industries.

Solidarity über alles

Turning to Grexit, which he says is off-the-table, Bettell says that trust has been restored between the creditors and Greece.

“Alexis [Tsipras] showed that he knows when he has to be a statesman and he has done just that,” he said, adding a veiled critic to those in the Greek premier’s camp who believe Tsipras has gone to far.

“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,” he said.

Refuting the claim that the Greek and eurozone crisis have divided and undermined the EU, Bettel said that on the contrary, “The Greek crisis taught us that solidarity has to prevail in any circumstance.”

He said the same thing about David Cameron’s Brexit challenge.

“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. 

Last but not … Luxleaks

Refusing to see the Luxleaks scandal as his own ‘hot potato’ left over by Jean-Claude Juncker, Bettel said it is ‘a hot potato’ for 28 countries.

“What’s important is to have a EU-wide level playing field,” he stressed, noting that he is in charge of a government which wants common rules for all the countries.

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

>> To read the full transcript of the interview, please click here.

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