French president appears optimistic about Greece's prospects9 September 2017 | 09:12 | Ekathimerini
My visit is a message of confidence and friendship. It is no coincidence that I chose Greece for my first State visit. I know what efforts the Greeks have made and the sentiment of injustice they have felt, often paying for the errors of a political or economic system. But I am optimistic for Greece’s future. Not because it is easy or out of naivety, but because of Greece’s power to overcome these hardships – and once again, Greek society has impressed me. And because there are increasing positive signals, with renewed growth, growing investment and shrinking unemployment. We are still seeing in Greece, in an exacerbated form, the ills of Europe more generally, particularly as regards youth unemployment. But Greece can once again look to the future confidently. And just as it stood alongside Greece during the crisis, France will support Greece for this new start.
Can your visit be seen as a vote of confidence in Greece, and a call for French businesses to invest?
Yes, that is exactly my message. Many French companies have accompanied me here to Athens, including both major groups and small and medium-sized enterprises as well as innovative players, for I want to open up all opportunities and show that Greece is a place of investment and growth, a place with a future for entrepreneurship. I am pleased that French companies remained present and active in Greece throughout the crisis. What better sign of confidence could there be? And now, I hope to create stronger ties between Greek and French businesses. With Prime Minister Tsipras, we have held a major economic event on Friday that has forged very tangible ties between our companies and helped identify opportunities and difficulties to be resolved to develop private investment in Greece. We also need to encourage a change in perspective and a look to the future: Greece has fantastic growth potential in the sectors of the green economy, digital technology, tourism and agrifood, to name just a few. Its research is of great quality and many start-ups are developing here. The message I am bearing is threefold: confidence, growth and investment.
You received a strong mandate to reinvigorate France and the European Union. What is your vision for Europe? What are your priorities for reform in France?
The two are closely linked as I have never seen Europe as a secondary subject or separately from national agendas. My campaign was very clear: my project is a project to transform France and to overhaul Europe. In France, I began a major reform of the labor market on the very first day, in accordance with my campaign promises, so as to better adapt rules and employee protections to each sector and to each type of company. How can we possibly be efficient and fair if we apply the same rules to a very small company and to a major multinational, to companies in the automobile sector and in digital technology? This reform is ready and will soon take effect. It is one of the three pillars of our reform agenda. The second is an overhaul of our tax and social protection system to encourage work, investment and innovation. This aspect will be put in place when our Finance Bill is tabled in late September. The third pillar is a profound change in our training system: we are going to invest massively – 15 billion euros in five years – to improve skills and reform professional training, particularly for the youngest people and for those furthest from the labor market. These reforms can only be meaningful and effective if they come alongside a new European agenda, what I call the Europe of protection and ambition. A Europe that protects, because if competition is not fair and regulated between European countries, or between Europe and foreign powers, reform efforts will be vain and become unacceptable for our citizens. That is what drives my efforts to regulate the posting of workers. And I also want also a forward-looking Europe, developing a more ambitious digital and investment strategy.
You have spoken of new eurozone governance. When will this governance be decided and what will it mean for Greece? Will there be less of an insistence on austerity? Less or more fiscal supervision by the future eurozone institutions?
Yes, I am convinced that the eurozone needs to be reformed and strengthened. During the crisis, we responded in urgency, such as by establishing the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which provided financial support to Greece, for example. But we need to go much further, guided by two key principles: solidarity and responsibility. A monetary union cannot function in the long term without a common budget enabling it to address economic shocks and encouraging convergence between our economies, while supporting investment projects in the countries that most need them. And this budget needs both political steering and real democratic control: that is why I am promoting the idea of a European minister of the economy and finance and a parliament for the eurozone. It is through such essential democratic integration that we will make the Economic and Monetary Union a complete, effective and fair project for Greece and for every other member state, for the failings of the eurozone are good for no-one in the long term.
You personally played a major role in keeping Greece in the eurozone. Can we come back to this subject? Is the possibility of a “Grexit” now totally out of the question?
It has always been out of the question, as far as I am concerned. A common project cannot be founded on a mind-set of exclusion. Greece’s exit would have meant the end of the euro, sooner or later. The best way to avoid the exit of any member state at all is to propose an ambitious project. The British voted for Brexit because many political leaders played on Euroskepticism and defended a bargain-basement Europe: when Europe ceases to be protective and desirable, it is rejected.
You shared a strong message of solidarity when oil drilling [ed. a joint venture involving the French company Total] began near Greece’s coast. What was the aim?
I had no particular message. Companies – including French ones – concluded contracts. They need to apply, without outside pressure.
Should Turkey become a member of the European Union? Is the EU-Turkey agreement on migrants and refugees viable? Are you concerned by increasing flows of migrants towards Greece and the EU?
Turkey has itself shifted away from the European Union in recent months, with worrying excesses that cannot be without consequence, such as on the project regarding the customs union, for example. But I would rather avoid burning bridges as it is an essential partner in many crises that we are facing together, such as the migration challenge and the terrorist threat. And I seek to do so through very regular contact with President Erdogan.
Concerning migration, the agreement concluded between the EU and Turkey is producing unquestionable results and that was particularly necessary to reduce pressure on Greece, which is on the front line in this migration crisis. But we must remain clear-sighted: the migration challenge is a long-term one, and we are seeing that when one route is closed down, another opens elsewhere in the Mediterranean. We therefore need to control flows, distinguishing between refugees – to whom Europe, and this is to its honor, owes a welcome and protection – from irregular economic migrants, who should not reach Europe. We need to act at the source, in countries of origin and transit, in order to stabilize these countries, combat organized people-smuggling networks and carry out development activities, which is key to resolving the problem in the long term.
Is there room to strengthen defence relations between France and Greece?
Yes, I think there is considerable room to do so, as these relations have weakened in the last decade, for a number of reasons, some linked to the financial crisis. Yet we have a history of strong ties in the area of defence. We can build on them to face current security challenges together in the framework of European solidarity.
Our strategic interests and visions are very close, such as in the fight against terrorism, in managing migration phenomena and in preventing destabilization of the Mediterranean and entire regions of Africa. Our armed forces are deployed in the same theaters of operation, and I am conscious of the effort France has made to maintain its commitments in recent years, within the naval forces of the EU and NATO in the Mediterranean and in the framework of the European Union Training Mission in Mali. Greece has also always been prepared to provide support to operations in which France is committed, such as in the Central African Republic recently.
France has long been keen to establish a defence relationship enabling Greece to develop the resources required to protect its assets. Our air forces are both equipped with Mirage aircraft, and our navies also have strong relations. That creates strong ties that I would like to build on. But it also needs Greece to want to fully commit to the framework of Defence Europe. That involves equipment choices that help support a genuine European Defence Technological and Industrial Base.
During your major speech to French ambassadors, you identified Islamist terrorism as the main threat facing France and Europe. How can we effectively deal with this threat? What role can Greece play?
Unfortunately, France and Greece both have a long history of dealing with terrorism. However, the reason I wished to make fighting Islamic terrorism a priority – by creating a National Intelligence Coordination unit under my direct control as soon as I arrived – was because this threat is unprecedented in terms of its size and destructive potential.
After a three-year military campaign by the Global Coalition Against Daesh in the Levant, we are finally taking back the organization’s main strongholds, but only with huge sacrifices by local forces and populations. In the Sahel, our forces are preventing resurgences in areas taken down in 2013. But as the attacks in Spain show, the threat is ever-present. The war will be long because the enemy is right in the heart of Europe, exploiting our societies’ weaknesses.
Our response must cover security, the economy, culture and education. We must efficiently implement stringent security policies, of course, as we are doing within the EU. But we must also battle terrorists on new fronts, where they seek to take advantage of the freedom offered by our democracies – I’m thinking of the internet in particular. Most importantly, long-term victory is impossible if we cannot give hope to our European societies. My commitment to rebuilding French pride and a meaningful Europe is also inspired by this observation.
France and Greece work closely on all of these issues. The assistance provided by Greek police to their French counterparts is extremely important. This was clear when we investigated the suicide attackers at the Bataclan theater and Stade de France. We are deeply grateful to Greece.
Your initial meeting with US President Donald Trump was positive. Are you worried about the role played by the United States during this complex time? How important is cooperation with Chancellor Angela Merkel in this context?
I’ve contacted the American president several times and I will continue to do so, because the relationship between our two countries surpasses us both. It dates back more than 200 years and was forged through shared combats and the liberation of France. Today, we have an excellent and extremely important relationship when it comes to fighting terrorism, for example. But a new factor must be taken into account, one that predates Donald Trump’s election: Europe must take charge of its security. This view is one that Federal Chancellor Merkel and I share unreservedly. This is why we both consider the strengthening of European defence to be of the utmost importance. More generally, we must move away from a past where Europe looked inwards, seeking first and foremost to reconcile its members, and move towards a future where Europe takes its place in the world and builds its sovereignty.
Is Europe capable of developing its defence and security capabilities to protect itself and fill the gap left by the gradual withdrawal of the United States? Will this be possible without the United Kingdom?
We must first take a balanced view of the situation: the United States is still committed to European security and, like Greece, France attaches great importance to the robustness of the North Atlantic Alliance.
However, you’re right – the United States is less focused on Europe, and this is an underlying trend. Given these circumstances, Europe must be capable of achieving strategic autonomy. We need to be able to manage international crises on our own, run our own operations, produce our own military capabilities and maintain a technological advantage over our adversaries. This does not mean replacing NATO, but proving the credibility of Europeans within the Alliance. If I understand the President of the United States correctly, this is precisely his message.
These considerations underpin my approach to European defence, which could take different forms. Today, we have new instruments – permanent structured cooperation and the European Defence Fund – that complement existing tools and all that is now needed is our political will. The United Kingdom, which remains a key European military power with whom France has special defence ties, will play a role under conditions yet to be defined.
Can a new Cold War between Russia and the West be avoided? What role will you play to this end?
I don’t believe in this idea of a Cold War. However, a number of international powers are taking stands, sometimes aggressively, and this has resulted in tensions such as we have not seen since 1989. In this uncertain context, I have two convictions: first, France has a key role to play by taking part in dialogue with everyone. It is this universal and balanced role that I would like to use to promote our common goods, particularly security. My other conviction is that Europe must develop ways of asserting its power and sovereignty. It cannot become bogged down in internal quarrels or narrow-minded and destructive debates on the exit of such and such a country. It guarantees our collective sovereignty in the fields of defence, the fight against terrorism, climate change and the digital revolution. It must now give itself the means to do so. This is the challenge my generation faces.
How can France and Europe become more competitive? How will new European champions be created?
This is another aspect of the European sovereignty I mentioned above. Today, Europe is obsessed with competitiveness between European economies. Europe’s goal should be shoring up competitiveness with respect to its real economic and trading rivals, which use different models: China, India, the United States and so on. This is why I defend a protective agenda, including ensuring reciprocity in terms of open markets and managing – not prohibiting – non-European investments in strategic sectors. As for our new champions, they cannot be determined in advance, but they will certainly not emerge in national markets alone. In the digital field especially, the emergence of new European and international champions depends on creating an integrated European market, developing start-up financing and regulating competition to prevent abuses.
During your election campaign, you said you were neither left- nor right-wing. What is your ideology or doctrine? Are any other European leaders capable of following in your footsteps?
I said that the structural divide in politics was no longer relevant, because it no longer reflected real decisions or different ideas. On both the left- and right-wing, traditional political parties are split when it comes to the fundamental questions: attitudes to work, to Europe, to balancing freedom and security, and openness and protection. I wanted to develop exhaustive and effective political proposals, bring about lasting change in terms of people and faces, and create a transformative economic and social project, which involved overhauling the European project. I do not want to extrapolate, because national contexts vary widely, but I am convinced that in most European countries there are people who want to overhaul Europe and a split between those who trust openness and those who favor turning inwards. These are the two sides I am trying to bring together, by encouraging those in confidence and reassuring those in doubt.
Greece is facing a number of security challenges. Could France guarantee its security if a crisis occurred in the region?
I’m surprised at your question. Greece is more than a friend to France; it’s a NATO ally and a European Union partner. We are bound by shared commitments which form the basis of our joint security. Under the Washington Treaty and the mutual assistance and solidarity clauses in the Treaty on European Union, we each contribute to the other’s security. France stands alongside Greece. I have not forgotten that Greece, like all other EU member states, supported France in November 2015 when we invoked the European solidarity clause for the first time following the despicable terrorist attacks that struck the country.
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