Pierre Lellouche has been the French Minister for European Affairs since June 2009. Before that he was President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, as well as France’s special representative in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today his focus includes foreign policy, the financial crisis and the Turkish candidacy to join the EU. He spoke to Ioulia Poukhli of euronews about the latest developments in French foreign and EU policy.
Ioulia Poukhli: It’s nearly the 2nd anniversary of the August 2008 Russian/Georgian conflict. France and President Sarkozy played a big part in ending the hostilities as fast as possible. What are France’s relations with these two protagonists today, seeing as the situation in South Osseta and in Abkhazia seem deadlocked?
Pierre Lellouche: We regret that the situation is deadlocked. We remain friends with Georgia. And we are the only foreign presence in Georgia. The only non-Russian, non-Georgian element in Georgia is European troops. President Saakashvili recently came to Paris, and we will soon start negotiating an association agreement between Georgia and the EU. As far as the enclaves of Abkhazia and South Osseta go, they are part of Georgian territory. There you have it. The soi-disant independence of these territories, locally declared and recognised by Russia, for us has no legal jurisdiction. Furthermore I think it is a mistake to give a false sovereignty to territories which are in fact enclaves within a sovereign country. It creates precedents which benefit no-one, absolutely no-one. And some people in Moscow understand that.
Ioulia Poukhli: France, as a co-president of the Minsk Group, is especially concerned in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Do you think the partnership of France, Russia and the US can resolve this issue which has been stalled for years?
Pierre Lellouche: Well it’s mainly stalled by internal politics. And we encourage the press, and local politicians – on one hand the Turkish side and on the other the Armenian side. We very much supported President Gul’s football diplomacy with Armenia. We saw, there was an agreement. Then, sadly, the agreement was not ratified. We very much want these countries to reach a solution through negotiation. It’s the same for Azerbaijan, which has a real economic potential. They must admit there are refugees, and find solutions.
Ioulia Poukhli: And can Turkey’s efforts help resolve this situation?
Pierre Lellouche: I have been asking them to open the land frontier for a long time. You know that the air frontier is open. And the Turks have everything to gain by opening the border with Armenia, by not cutting this country off. So I hope that Turkey will do this, but of course it’s difficult, when many refugees remain in Azerbaijan, and they have religious and ethnic affinities with them.
Ioulia Poukhli: At the last EU summit meeting with Russia, the issue of abolishing visas was discussed. What would be the advantage of this for EU citizens, what is the outlook for this project and what might be the stumbling blocks?
Pierre Lellouche: Listen we consider the Cold War finished. Russia is a friendly country. Voila. If you use visas, they have to go both ways. We have absolutely nothing against the idea of Russians entering the EU without visas. On condition of course, that EU citizens can enter Russia without visas.
Ioulia Poukhli: And is that not the case?
Pierre Lellouche: Well I think that’s exactly where we need to make progress…
Ioulia Poukhli: A policy of improving ties between Moscow and Washington seems well underway despite recent glitches. Isn’t there a risk of the EU being marginalised if that continues?
Pierre Lellouche: I’ll quote you one of Kissinger’s favourite sayings… from when he was my professor. “When the Russians and the Americans get along, Europeans are afraid. And when the Russians and the Americans disagree, Europeans are still afraid.” Russia and Europe have convergent strategic interests: terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. So we have to work together. And we are working together on terrorism, in Afghanistan for example. Every month sees real co-operation between Russia, Europe, and the US and NATO – but especially Russia and Europe, to smooth out conflicts from a bygone age and move on to other things.
Ioulia Poukhli: You’ve just come back from Brussels where the EU’s new diplomatic service is being constructed around Catherine Ashton. In Paris, they’re saying that there’s an influence crisis in the French diplomatic service. Do you think there’s a link?
Pierre Lellouche: Listen that’s got nothing to do with it. Firstly, I haven’t heard anything about an influence crisis, and it couldn’t have anything to do with the European diplomatic project which we here in France have very much supported. We’re still right at the beginning of that project. By the autumn we will have leading diplomats in place, plus the delegations which already exist – EU embassies in fact. I think it will take two or three years before the system really beds in and finds its niche, develops relationships with embassies of Member States who will still maintain their own diplomatic networks.
Ioulia Poukhli: What is your vision of the current situation in Europe post-Lisbon Treaty, and the Greek euro crisis? Could this crisis have consequences on the EU’s position in the world?
Pierre Lellouche: The crisis is having a major effect absolutely everywhere on the planet. It has changed the balance. What worries me is the growth rate in Europe. At 1% it is very low. 12 times lower than in China. So we have a problem with growth and with adapting our economic model to an increasingly competitive world. I would say that this is an enormous challenge, the global economic crisis that has lasted two years already – but in the face of that, a union of 27 countries, with elections in these Member States, with constant changes of governments… well overall I would say that the European family remains united.