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European Council/Syria/EU/Russia

Publié le March 20, 2013
Second press conference by M. François Hollande, President of the Republic (excerpts)
Brussels, March 15, 2013


THE PRESIDENT – Ladies and gentlemen, I’m back with you at the end of the Council.

We already met in the first part. Late yesterday evening, a Euro Area summit was held. In fact, I’d like there to be regular meetings of the 17 to take stock of the area’s economy, how we can better coordinate our policies and how we can further strengthen the stability and growth instruments.

In yesterday evening’s meeting, the focus was on issues of productivity and competitiveness. A monetary area means having a monetary policy, the one conducted by the Central Bank; a coordinated fiscal policy; and a policy aimed at strengthening the capacity for growth and also at making all the countries in the area consistent, so that they can have the highest level of competitiveness and productivity. It’s then up to the Euro Area – through the coordination of these policies – and each of the countries to increase the level of industrial performance. So we looked at productivity levels and how we can increase them.

There was also a discussion about the coordination of economic policies. There are countries with balance of payments current account deficits which must therefore make efforts to restore their foreign trade, in order to improve their competitiveness. And there are also countries with balance of payments current account surpluses, which must retain these advantages but must also support their domestic demand so that there can be direct support for growth in the Euro Area, while others make efforts to bring their public accounts or balance of payments under control.

So this discussion was useful. It didn’t lead to any immediately operational decisions, but it sets a strategic course for the Euro Area, which can’t simply be an area of discipline, an area of vigilance, an area of stability. All this is necessary, and progress has also been made in the past several months. I personally welcomed the action carried out by Mario Monti in Italy – not simply for Italy but for Europe.

But in addition to stability, there are also fiscal rules, growth to prepare, and what’s also specific to the Euro Area, because since we’re in a monetary area, we necessarily also have convergences in terms of competitiveness policy, industrial policy and production policy. That was the first subject. Cyprus will be discussed this afternoon in the Eurogroup. We, the heads of state and government, didn’t discuss the issue directly.

This morning there was a discussion, as we had at the previous European Council meeting – about China last time and about Russia this time, a strategic partner, an important partner, a partner with which we Europeans must go united into a number of negotiations, whether it be on energy, trade or the issue of human rights.


Finally, the issue of Europe’s attitude to Syria was raised. I did so. I must observe that there’s already been progress for several weeks on how Europe sees its relationship with the [Syrian National] Coalition, which I remind you is today the Syrian people’s legitimate representative.

Two Foreign Affairs Councils were held in January and February, which not only enabled the Coalition to be recognized but also a certain amount of non-lethal equipment to be delivered to it, as well as technical assistance. What’s being looked at now is what can be done to lift the embargo. We have an expiry date, which is the end of May. Between now and then, there will be a meeting soon of the Foreign Affairs Council in Ireland, so that all the consequences of lifting the embargo can be looked at.

Why would I like there to be this change in the European attitude? Why now? Because the tragedy has now been going on for two years and the number of victims is increasing by the day. In recent months, no political solution has been found, despite all the attempts by the mediator, Mr Brahimi, despite the discussions we’ve had bilaterally, despite the Security Council meetings. It hasn’t been possible to obtain anything from Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Finally, there’s been a third change. It’s precisely that of the recognition, by a large sector of the international community, of the Coalition as the Syrian people’s legitimate representative. Added to this are the weapons being supplied by a number of countries – including Russia, to be clear – to Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

On that basis, we must act accordingly. I believe Europe must take this decision in the coming weeks. It’s what the Coalition is asking of us, but not only the Coalition. The Coalition is, because insofar as there’s no political solution for the moment – the military pressure can doubtless bring one about – and insofar as it’s internationally recognized, it wants to have the means to defend the areas that have been liberated.

Next, we must ensure that those weapons really do go to the Coalition and only the Coalition, and can’t be diverted by groups which we have no assurance would make the best use of them. Finally, there are countries which tell us they’ll also be able to cover the monitoring and technical assistance for this. I’m thinking in particular of the Arab League.

So today there’s a change to embark on. It will be useful in order to seek the possible political solution; it will be necessary in order to defend the population in Syria. That was the discussion we had. It’s going to continue at the next foreign ministers’ meeting. That’s the state of our discussions on this important issue, which affects the whole of international life. (…)

Q. – In France, on the subject of Syria, several political voices have been raised, some talking of madness, others of an isolated action by France, others of playing sorcerer’s apprentice. What’s your answer to these questions? And what can you say to the French people, who might be worried about this prospect?

THE PRESIDENT – First of all, [I’ll address] the French people, because it’s they who must be the judges of what we do, and protected by what we decide. Lifting the embargo will have no consequences on our relationship with Bashar al-Assad’s regime: we no longer have one! We think he must go, so there will be no change in our diplomacy.

We believe that what he’s doing today to his people is criminal. I can’t say any more. With or without a lifting of the embargo, France was the first country in the world to recognize the opposition – at the time it was the opposition, today it’s the National Coalition – as the Syrian people’s legitimate representative. I’ve shouldered my responsibilities, and this position has also become that of Europe and a broad sector of the international community.

We’re fighting terrorism, throughout the world. So we’ll be closely following the material assistance we’re giving Syria. We’ve already done so for so-called non-lethal equipment, humanitarian assistance – what we’ve already been doing since the summer – and financial assistance, because we brought together a conference of the Friends [of the Syrian People group] in Paris.

Because we’ve already been helping the opposition, we’ll be keen to carry this through, because we have confidence in it. On that basis, France has taken this position. She’s already persuaded Europe to support her through recognition [of the Coalition], and to supply equipment and humanitarian assistance. We’re continuing with the same process and fighting terrorism everywhere, because we want to prevent there being in Syria, due to the radical nature of certain groups, a terrorist risk as we’ve experienced in Libya. France must know she’s being protected against terrorism through a fight against terrorism at global level. (…)


Q. – With the 27, you had to discuss Russia. What message are you sending Moscow today? On the Syria issue, can you assure it that, if there’s a changeover of power in Syria, it will keep its military base? What language are you going to adopt with the Russians – because Moscow is one of the keys to the political solution – not to get them to cease their supply of weapons but to ensure it’s more useful towards a political solution than it is today? Secondly, how are you going to ensure the monitoring of the weapons? Some weapons [which] left Libya have apparently turned up in Syria in not necessarily the right hands. How can we be sure of the monitoring of those weapons?

THE PRESIDENT – I’ve already told the Russians and President Putin, and I repeat it to you: we respect Russia’s position in the region and any interests she may still have or maintain. It’s legitimate: Russia is one of the powers which contribute, which can contribute to equilibrium, to stability. I’ve guaranteed to President Putin several times, as far as was possible, that for the Russians the post-Assad period won’t be the end of the relationship which that great country has with Syria. So we’ve done everything to involve Russia in the political solution.

Moreover, when I went to Moscow, President Putin and I considered the initiative which elements in the regime might discuss with the Syrian opposition in order to seek a political solution, if those elements were accepted by the opposition and if those elements agreed to talk to the opposition. But I note that nothing has budged.

A few days after I was able to launch this initiative and the Americans and Russians had also discussed it, Bashar al-Assad announced elections in Syria in 2014, and that he was a candidate for his own succession – which wasn’t exactly the opening-up that was expected! So the possible future position of lifting the embargo isn’t intended to cut off relations with Russia. On the contrary.

We have an interest in finding the solution, otherwise military pressure will be exerted. You’re right to say that weapons supplied during the uprising and rebellion in Libya have turned up in other theatres and other places: Mali and also Syria.

In order to get the best response, the issue of weapons deliveries requires the Coalition to provide every safeguard. Because it’s providing them, we can today envisage the lifting of the embargo. We have full certainty now about how those weapons would be used. Finally support, technical help and assistance will be provided – which will also prevent a number of losses.


Q. – First of all, did you talk during this summit about the free trade agreement with the United States? I’d also like to know what France’s position is regarding this free trade agreement, given that tariffs are already at a historically low level. Don’t we risk negotiating sectors we don’t, in principle, have an interest in negotiating, like health standards, culture etc.?

Secondly, regarding the new distribution of seats in the European Parliament, which has been passed this week by MEPs and which breaches the Lisbon Treaty rule on degressive proportionality, it basically boils down to depriving France and Britain of the number of MEPs they should have had as a result of demographic change.

THE PRESIDENT – We didn’t discuss the free trade agreement between Europe and the United States. But we’ll have to debate it, because the European Commission must be givan a mandate. My position is the following: I’m in favour of negotiation being started to fight customs barriers and obstacles to trade, in order to encourage growth.

But there must be safeguards in relation to certain fields. You mentioned health standards. That’s one we’re mindful of, particularly in this period. But there’s another field I’d like to emphasize, namely the issue of the cultural exception, and in particular audiovisual services. As this sector was excluded for other agreements, it can’t be in the mandate. I want those areas to be excluded from the field of negotiation.

On the second question, the distribution of seats, there are in fact rules provided for by the treaties, including the “degressive proportionality” formula – very European jargon. (…) It’s quite simply the rule that the number of seats must be in proportion to the population.


Q. – If I can come back to economic questions, yesterday evening Mr Monti sent you a letter which was a cry of alarm. He said there need to be measures to avoid the rising tide of populism. Is the political solution people are trying to find in Italy at the moment – an alliance with a movement which is demanding a referendum on the euro – the answer, and the right solution?

THE PRESIDENT – Mario Monti did indeed send a letter to all the EU heads of state and government. He was telling them the lesson he had learned from the election which had just taken place in Italy. As far as economic management was concerned, he said that what had been done had allowed not only Italy, but also Europe, to emerge from the financial instability we were experiencing only a few months ago.

I haven’t forgotten the role Mario Monti played at the June 2012 European Council to allow us to come up with instruments which are now in place. Equally, the role he played in his country, over several months, to adopt measures which made speculation slow down, not to say disappear from the single currency area.

He also highlighted a lesson for us: namely, if countries make adjustments too fast, if they can’t foresee growth, hope, regeneration in the decisions which are difficult to take – as far as budget discipline, improved competitiveness and structural reforms are concerned –, then there’s the risk not of governments but of Europe itself being rejected. So this lesson really must be remembered, including when it comes to the decisions Europe will have to take in the coming months. (...)


Q. – I quite understand that the delivery of weapons enables the balance of power to be reversed and thus a political solution facilitated. But this is risky for France. Do you have other objectives in mind? The longer the conflict goes on, the greater the risk of terrorism and the greater the risk of regional destabilization with Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Are you thinking about all this as you get more involved in the conflict?

THE PRESIDENT – The greatest risk would be to do nothing. The greatest risk would be to adopt a laissez-faire policy. The greatest risk would be for Bashar al-Assad to be allowed to go on massacring his people and for desperate groups to take refuge in terrorism. The greatest risk is chaos.

This is why we’ve got to act. Beyond the humanitarian issues – issues which are of concern to us, in view of the duty to help a people in danger today – we’ve also got to act in our own interests, for the security of the region; you’re right. Because we’re now seeing that what’s happening in Syria is having direct consequences: in Lebanon, only in the past few hours, but also in the region and with all the global consequences this may have; i.e. a civil war which would go on and on, radicalize the two sides and mean that weapons would be used and with external repercussions – in Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere no doubt.

So there you are, the greatest risk is not to act. By taking a decision, you reduce the risks. As regards the weapons, it’s better to control them than to let them circulate – which is the case today, with financers who we can’t be certain are sure themselves where their deliveries are going.


Q. – Have you got any information on the possible use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime?

THE PRESIDENT – No, we haven’t got any information. For the moment we’re conscious of the fact that the regime would be taking a huge risk were it to use them, and it knows this. Thank you./.