By Aline Robert
France’s current discrepancy with Germany does not call into question their relationship, said Amélie de Montchalin, who also stressed that own resources are key for the European budget, while the member states are reluctant to increase their contributions and will have to compromise. EURACTIV France reports.
A former right-wing activist, won over by Emmanuel Macron’s LREM and elected member of parliament in 2017, Amélie de Montchalin was appointed secretary of state for European affairs in May 2019, replacing Nathalie Loiseau. She spoke to EURACTIV France’s editor-in-chief, Aline Robert.
The last European Council of the year instructed the Croatian Presidency to look into a conference on the future of Europe to be held by 2022. Isn’t this a redundant exercise, given the previous consultation?
The previous round of citizens’ consultations helped to clarify the EU’s roadmap. It helped to guide priorities, for example by highlighting the importance that our citizens attach to the challenges of ecological transition, especially young people. The Commission responded to this with the Green Deal. The latest consultations have also helped to change the perception that some people have of the citizens’ dialogue. Other initiatives have been useful. The 37 million Europeans who have participated in the WeEuropeans initiative, for example.
What will this new conference bring?
We want to involve citizens in a sustainable way in the decision-making process. I don’t think we need to create a citizens’ chamber for this: we already have the European Parliament, the EESC and the Committee of the Regions. We need to find a new type of organisation. Through this exercise, we will also have to ensure that we respond to what I call the democratic emergency in Europe and that we respond to the crisis of confidence our fellow citizens may have in Europe and its institutions. Finally, we will need to re-examine all our European policies, asking ourselves whether they meet the expectations of our fellow citizens for greater responsiveness, more sovereignty and more solidarity.
In 2020, the priority will be the climate. Isn’t there a risk that the conference on the future of Europe will take a back seat?
In the new Commission, there are 27 Commissioners with various portfolios. In particular, there is a vice-president of the Commission in charge of democracy and demography, Dubrovka Šuica. Each of these subjects is important and corresponds to policies that have a very concrete influence on the lives of our fellow citizens.
At the last European Council, Poland expressed doubts about the objective of carbon neutrality in 2050.
The European Council adopted this target, but Poland asked for a little more time to think about its implementation. For example, it expressed its fears that the price of carbon could rise too quickly. At the same time, it calls on the Commission to study the establishment of a carbon inclusion mechanism at the borders, in line with WTO rules. On the subject of the carbon price specifically, France defends the introduction of a floor price, not a sharp rise that could unbalance our industries.
Will the carbon border tax, proposed under the Green Deal, be set up within the next two years, or is it just a tool to put pressure on other countries’ climate policies?
Our objective is to set it up in the coming years. When a company imports its steel bar into the EU, it will pay a price for the carbon emitted to produce it; if the company has already paid a carbon price in the country where it produces, only the difference with the carbon price on the European market will be due. The implementation will, of course, be gradual: initially, it will only be done on commodities, for which the quantities of carbon emitted during their production phase are well known, such as steel, cement, paper or aluminium.
At what level do you think the European budget should be if we consider, as the European Court of Auditors does, that the carbon neutrality objective requires an investment of 1000 billion per year?
Achieving our goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 will require significant investment and cross-cutting action in all sectors. An important part of this transition will rely on private financing: the European taxonomy on sustainable investment will make it possible to direct savings towards sustainable projects. And France defends the idea that 40% of the European budget should be devoted to the implementation of our climate and environmental objectives: 30% for the climate, through the CAP, forests and research, for example, and 10% for biodiversity and pollution control.
Is it consistent to support European agriculture by devoting 40% of the European budget to it in 2019?
Those who tell us that traditional EU policies are outdated and need to be replaced by new ones are not in line with citizens’ expectations. We don’t have to change everything, we have to do better. Young people, for example, have very high expectations on food issues. On the contrary, agriculture is at the heart of what Europe is all about, because ensuring agricultural independence in a spirit of solidarity is quite simply a question of sovereignty.
The Finnish Presidency’s proposal for the 2021-2027 budget also includes changes in Cohesion policy compared to the Commission’s proposal presented in May 2018.
On the Cohesion budget, a battle has been fought to protect the definition of ‘region in transition’, which will allow many French regions to be eligible. It was important for us that we in France could also benefit from these funds: it is not just a story of countries having to catch up with others! The Yellow Vests, for example, is a movement that defends the lack of equity between regions, the differences between urban areas, peripheral areas and rural areas. In the Czech Republic, which I visited recently, we find the same problem: in Prague, where a dynamic and innovative service economy is thriving, people are willing to embrace the European idea. But in the more isolated regions, there is greater scepticism about Europe. Means must be put in place to resolve these territorial inequalities.
What do you think of the overall level of the EU budget as proposed by the Finnish Presidency?
The overall volume is the wrong subject. We need to focus on added value: look at the policies that need to be made at national level, those that need to be made at European level. But I believe that it can be improved, for example for Cohesion policy, on the overseas territories, the outermost regions that represent us in the five oceans: it makes political sense for Europe to invest in these regions.
Does this amount make it possible to finance the ambition of the von der Leyen Commission’s project?
At the end of the day, the key to the budget is own resources, which will contribute directly to the European budget. Between the countries that say we need a budget of no more than 1% of European GNI, the Commission that proposes 1.11% and the European Parliament that wants 1.3%, the truth will be a balance. But this situation forces us to have resources other than national contributions. That is all the negotiating work we are doing, particularly on the carbon border tax, of course, but also on the contribution on non-recycled plastic or on carbon quotas.
When can we expect the negotiations on the multi-annual budgetary framework for 2021-2027 to be concluded?
The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, is now leading the discussions, in contact with the Council and the European Parliament. Our aim is to have conclusions in the first half of 2020 so that we do not fall behind in the implementation of European policies for the coming years, starting from January 2021.
The Franco-German relationship is at its worst; how is it possible to embark on major European projects if the two driving countries do not agree?
I can reassure you that France and Germany are still talking to each other. As part of my duties, I am also the secretary-general for Franco-German relations, with the task of leading a concrete relationship with Germany. We have a very close working relationship and I see my counterpart and the German authorities very often.
And it works! What I see is that the French and German ministers recently called for the creation of a European Security Council; Germany, on the Sahel, has also taken a very strong supporting initiative.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]