Hubert Védrine on Syria and Europe's honour

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Hubert Védrine on Syria and Europe's honour

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Hubert Védrine was France’s Foreign Minister from 1997 – 2002. We met the veteran Socialist diplomat during the Brussels Days debates on Europe. He spoke frankly and openly about the Syrian conflict and Europe today.

Audrey Tilve, euronews: “Hubert Védrine, thanks for being with us. Before discussing Europe, I’d like to know your view on Syria. Dismantling its chemical arsenal has started but without the least political solution in sight. There’s talk of a hypothetical peace conference mid-November; do you believe in that?”

Hubert Védrine, Former French Foreign Minister: “Can that work? I don’t know. It’s very complicated. In any case, the West will not get an agreement in advance for Assad to leave. So this has to be a conference where we accept that he is here and try to think of how to go forward, perhaps about a transition. We can look at the problem from all angles. But it would be better to have this Geneva Two conference than not. Then there’s the question of representation of the opposition and the rebels, tricky because there are so many of them, and not all on the same line. But if the Russians and the Americans agree – because arranging neutralising chemical weapons, was tense but did work – they’ll also find a solution on that.”

euronews: “Is it surmountable, Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to negotiate with any of the rebels as long as they are still armed? Or is that a starting out point for bargaining?”

Védrine: “It’s bargaining. Anyway, what’s far more important isn’t the way he sees things but how the Russians see things. It’s not impossible, after all, that one day the Russians end up finding him a burden in all this; they are not linked to Assad the man, but rather: they’re attached to their position in the region. They haven’t kept many handholds in the world; yes, Putin skilfully transformed his disruptive power into something else over the matter of chemical weapons, but they don’t have much leverage or influence in the world in general, so they really are counting on Syria in relation to that.”

euronews: “There are also two million refugees in the Syrian conflict; neighbouring countries are practically being asphyxiated. In Europe, Germany has taken in 18,000 Syrians since the start of the conflict; Sweden has accepted 11,000. France last year accepted 600 asylum requests, and 800 more so far this year. Isn’t that quite weak for a country loudly proclaiming solidarity with the Syrian people?”

Védrine: “I think that in cases of a tragedy such as this, as far as is possible, if refugees can be taken in under proper conditions – which they aren’t being – not too far from their own territory, not too far from where they have extended family and things like that: it’s even better. The Europeans’ priority – if they managed to agree – should be to give infinitely more help to Turkey and Jordan and so on. I think France has the margin to take more. But I don’t want to play a moralist role about it. It’s too complicated, and in any case on top of it we’d need to have a better coordinated migration policy.”

euronews: “Staying with Europe’s asylum and immigration policy for a moment, with the drama of Lampedusa, more than 300 deaths of migrants trying to reach Europe: the outcome is that European governments have committed to doing more for safety and rescue in the Mediterranean. But a majority still refuse the idea of spreading the migrants around Europe to relieve the countries where they first arrive. What’s it going to take to achieve that?”

Védrine: “Firstly, I think a very clear distinction must be made between asylum and immigration. A right of asylum corresponds to people whose lives are in danger because they are persecuted for umpteen reasons; there’s a very strong legal basis. It is Europe’s honour to preserve that right of asylum, and if we want to preserve it in the long run, it mustn’t be mixed up with immigration. That’s completely different. Immigration is evidently economic misfortune. Across the board, it’s about regulating the flow. What Europe lacks is concerted effort, at least the Schengen countries, if not more, in which we could say every year – because there’s a need to adapt to economic conjunction; in the coming year, we are capable of taking in, under proper conditions this or that many people – and we need them. Or by skill set, and not by country, which makes no sense, but by skill set. And that can be tightened at certain times because unemployment is too high or relaxed at others. There’d have to be a sort of thermostat for that.”

euronews: “Since your domain is diplomacy, let’s talk about that in Europe. It’s now three years since the European External Action Service was created; is a common foreign policy still an illusion?”

Védrine: “Yes, I think so. But I never believed in one anyway. The idea we’ll create a European diplomatic service just off the bat is completely out of reach; it’s a typical example of an illusion leading to disillusion.”

euronews: “But Catherine Ashton’s services are very active, on some matters even cutting edge: Kosovo, relations with EU eastern neighbours, a nuclear Iran…”

Védrine: “Of course, they’re doing their best, but that doesn’t carry any weight in the end. Ask Chinese leaders or Obama. It doesn’t count. That’s not a criticism. It’s unsolvable. The EU never had a position.”

euronews: “You think there’ll never be a powerful European diplomacy?”

Védrine: “There would be at the end of a long process. Jacques Delors himself talked about it needing a long maturation period. That has to be organised. There has to be the courage to admit we have different positions, that that is absolutely legitimate, that it’s history, and that’s the way it is. And I think countries that are the most opposed – not necessarily the big ones – should be given the job of finding an overview on the subject.”

euronews: “Now, about the next major test for Europe: the European elections, which are going to be held seven months from now. Polls and observers predict that anti-Europeans will make big gains; what’s the lesson in that?”

Védrine: “Well, maybe they’re doing terribly well in the European Parliament, that really is a pity, but it’s a sort of breaking out in acne, a manifestation of crisis.”

euronews: “No more than that?”

Védrine: “What difference does it make? You counter that with firm decisions that make the European system work for subjects that people are sensitive about. Then they’ll say, ‘hey, the European machine is responsive’. If not, we’re in for the shock, take it seriously, without turning it into an awful drama. Anyway, remember that in Germany the court in Karlsruhe considers that the European Parliament isn’t democratic enough and so isn’t legitimate enough, and I believe one of the good responses for the years to come is to reconnect the national parliaments. That is, after all, possible, since there are clauses in the Treaty of Lisbon to do more of that. At a level of political legitimacy, about how to do away with public opinion that is only eurosceptic but not euro-hostile to the European machinery, I think that’s up to the national parliaments.”

euronews: “Hubert Védrine, one last question: what would you change, if you could, in what we call ‘institutional Europe’?”

Védrine: “Well, I’d change what I’ve just said: plug national parliaments back in. I don’t think the European Commission should be made into a sort of government of Europe. It’ll never happen anyway, so why go disappointing people saying it will? On the other hand, it has to retrieve its role as instigator, innovator, which it had in the time of Delors, which was a great time. But it’s a question of behaviour, it’s not a question of changing institutions. And, on the whole, I’m not at all in favour of a new treaty. I think that to throw ourselves into elaborating a new treaty now is asking for endless disputes between the countries taking part and a completely haphazard ratification, even in the parliaments, so that there’d have to be a referendum. So, that’s a very bad idea. Let’s stop making new treaties every three of four years; it’s a question of having the political will.”