RD Interview: French diplomat Claude Blanchemaison explains how Brexit brought to the surface the unmet demands of ordinary Europeans, highlighting the necessity for a change.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, the Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Renzi, right, and the President of France Francois Hollande during a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin. Photo: AP

The world’s most successful economic integration project, the EU, is now facing a fundamental crisis. Important questions about its existing model of integration and development are being added to the debate over terrorism, immigration and security. How the EU resolves these problems will determine Europe’s future.

France, as one of the initiators of the very idea of European integration after the Second World War, remains a crucial pillar of the European Union today. After the UK voted to leave the EU, France became the only EU member that is both a permanent member of the UN Security Council and an officially recognized nuclear power. Its role will become crucial to Europe’s future, so it is important to understand its vision and position better.

With that in mind, Russia Direct talked to French diplomat Claude Blanchemaison, who has served as France’s ambassador to Russia and secretary general of the French Presidency in the European Union.

Read also RD Report: "Is Europe coming apart at the seams?"

Russia Direct: How do you see Europe’s understanding of sovereignty evolving over time?

Claude BlanchemaisonClaude Blanchemaison: Sovereignty is very important in political and military fields, especially for countries that are permanent members of the UN Security Council and for nuclear powers that are internationally recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, like Russia and France (and all five permanent members of the UN Security Council).

But we must admit that, in the economic field, the process of globalization is just as important. This means that a big company can have their products made partially in Vietnam, partially in China and then have them re-exported to the United States, for instance, while the main technologies remain in the U.S. So, basically, that is what we call globalization.

As for the financial sector, globalization there is even more blatant and it is very difficult for any government to have a firm grip on that.

The third element of globalization includes the different regional projects, like the European Union, in which a certain number of states have decided by different treaties to put together different means [of governing] and sometimes to give up some elements of their sovereignty, like monetary policy, with the introduction of a common currency (such as the euro).

This, in fact, makes EU member states more powerful together on the world market, with the euro standing alongside another strong world currency, the U.S. dollar.

Of course, if EU members had not given up their national currencies to introduce the euro, each country would be less powerful. Critics can argue that, if we had not done so, we would have had an ability to devaluate our national currencies, which we cannot do now with the euro.

But I am not sure whether it would be an advantage, because it gives a competitive advantage only on the day when you devaluate the currency, but in the long run, your economy is going to become less competitive and less innovative.

So, having said all of that, I do think sovereignty is important, although we have to recognize that in a situation where the economic sector is being intensively globalized, no country has avoided globalization. This means that sovereignty, to a certain degree, was affected.

RD: From a political point of view, how do you think Brexit influenced or will influence the understanding of sovereignty?

C.B.: Well, there is one definition of the European Union I like most. Jacques Delors gave it when he was the chairman of the European Commission. He said that the EU is a federation of nation states. This seems to be a contradiction for those teaching international law, because either you are a sovereign state or you are a federation.

But the EU is a peculiar animal – [the definition from Delors] is an apparent contradiction, but at the same time it is not, because it is exactly the right definition of what the European Union is. Some aspects are federalist and others are of a sovereign nation state.

And then there is something that has become federal by treaty, meaning that the member states have decided to delegate certain competencies to the supranational, to the level of the EU. But it should be highlighted that after all, any state can decide not to join the treaty or it can leave.

The second point here is: How to analyze Brexit? Apparently some British politicians were advocating for Brexit and have been surprised by the results. In their best expectations they hoped that the vote for Brexit would be 49 percent, which would have given them [as politicians] more weight within the political debate in the United Kingdom, while the nation still remained in the EU.

That might be an explanation of why Nigel Farage [former leader of the UK Independence Party] has decided to leave politics and not to implement the Brexit, for which he was advocating. Probably in his deepest thoughts, he did not expect such results.

Recommended: "Brexit: Implications for Russia, Europe and the world"

So, this vote probably means that some people are not happy with the UK being a member of the EU, but it is nothing new. But some people who voted for Brexit, in fact, were unhappy with their government.

This kind of movement, which defies those in charge in the government, regardless of whether it is a majority or an opposition, exists in many other EU states. So in the UK, many people are also fed up with their ruling elites regardless of whether they are conservatives, socialists or social democrats.

RD: So there is a people's demand for something new?

C.B.: Exactly. And those people say there is more or less the same whether there is a change in the government or not, as they are pursuing more or less the same policies with small inflections. Therefore, they want to change this political elite. So, the UK vote to leave the EU was a kind of refusal vote.

RD: After Brexit in what direction will European integration move? Will it continue slow disintegration or will it crystallize and become stronger and more united?

C.B.: Firstly, I am not sure that there are going to be other exits, because other states will see with their own eyes what the implications of the vote to leave the EU are, and that the consequence is actually a mess. The British government says it needs about six months to decide how it will negotiate the Brexit with Brussels, which means they do not have a plan and are not prepared at all. This makes the entire process of leaving the EU very difficult.

In addition, there are thousands of EU regulations that could be canceled at once, and that means they should be re-introduced in the British law. This is very difficult because the British Parliament may object to some of them. Moreover, they have to negotiate, for example, what kind of Free Trade agreement they are going to have with the EU.

This will be very difficult because the rest of the European Union will probably put some conditions on the free movement of people. This is a very sensitive question in the UK because many people voted exactly because of that for Brexit. They believed that the problem of migrants in Europe was caused by the EU’s “open door” policy.

RD: What are the implications for EU relations with Russia after Brexit?

C.B.: I am not sure Brexit is good news for Russia. The UK is a market for Russia and now nobody knows what regulations and rules will work there after the decision to leave the EU, which creates uncertainty.

Besides, no one is able to know exactly today what place the major European financial capital will become because it is unclear whether London will be able to retain this spot or whether Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam or other cities will take over its financial leadership. It is very important for the main economic actors in Russia, big companies, people who invest in the UK, etc.

Also read: "How the Russian political elite view Brexit"

RD: This is from the economic point of view, but what about the political point of view? Many say that Russia wants Europe to be divided because in that case it will be easier to negotiate with it and it will increase chances to lift sanctions, to ease EU-Russia tensions, and decrease U.S. influence on Europe.

C.B.: I know this position but I do not share it. For instance, look at the European reaction to the Ukraine problem. Of course, spontaneously, European member states were divided: Sweden, the Baltic States and Poland wanted to take a very harsh position against Russia, while other states like Greece, Italy and France (to some extent) wanted to have a moderate reaction. And then we had a compromise, which was rather moderate.

So, I am afraid if we leave everybody in the wild, where every actor gets what it wants, then we would have a different reaction from every country. This could complicate things even more and lead to even more negative consequences.

RD: But in terms of the future of EU-Russia relations, how do you see those relations developing now?

C.B.: The UK will have to renegotiate the future of its relations with the EU, and with the U.S., so it will take time. Especially it will take time with the European Union – up to three years – so we don’t know what the exact outcome will be. But what I am saying and it is a little bit risky - it could give a new political opportunity to the EU.

Of course, at the very end, it will negotiate some kind of a free trade agreement with the UK and that is especially important for London because Scotland, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and also the business sector do not want to be cut off the European Union. So, when such a free trade agreement will be agreed on between UK and EU in some time (although it is too early to say when), the EU could negotiate something similar with Russia.

And actually when I am talking about a possibility of the common economic space with Russia it is nothing new - it was started to be discussed more than 10 years ago and was dropped because of different events between 2004 and 2008.

RD: Today there is a lot of talk about Franco-German reconciliation as an example for Russia-EU reconciliation. But now after Brexit, the strongest country in the EU is Germany and the tendency is that it is gaining more power within the Union. It seems that France cannot counterbalance Germany. So, how does France see this trend? How it is going to respond?

C.B.: Well, undoubtedly, the German economy is very strong. However, the French economy is not that far behind and the level of innovation in France is very high. Besides, do not forget the fact that demography in France is better than in Germany. The German population is decreasing even after last year’s influx of refugees, which is not the case in France.

Coming to the political dimension of the question, after Brexit, France will become the only EU member state that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. So, this gives France an opportunity to talk there on behalf of Germany and other interested EU member states. Do not forget the fact that France will be the only EU state with a nuclear force recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So, it is a very specific political position which France finds itself in after Brexit.

Besides, I think there is room for complementary activity between France and Germany. For instance, when Islamic terrorists are taking actions in Mali or in Central Africa, France intervenes on the basis of a UN Security Council resolution. But Germany would have certain problems doing the same because basically the German population is rather pacifist and they do not like to see the German military intervening outside the nation. Therefore, they do few things in terms of military support or military help, which France does. This also enhances France's role.

RD: What do you see as the main challenges to the European Union now?

C.B.: The main challenge for the EU is to address the defiance from the ordinary people within the EU, which is a very big challenge. After all, it has partly created Brexit, in fact. Probably if you are organizing a referendum in different EU states, you may have the same result as in the UK. However, it is not a result that expresses our dislike of the European Union, but it is a result that says that we do not like the current political elite. 

RD: So, it means that there is a demand for change, for some new agenda.

C.B.: Yes, and maybe a demand to have younger faces, not the same ones we’ve seen for 20, 30 or 40 years. So there is a demand to change people, to change the generation [in power] and to bring new ideas.

RD: And what about the terrorist threat, the refugee crisis and the rising popularity of nationalist and right wing parties in Europe?

C.B.: Yes, these are also big challenges for the EU. As far as the security dimension is concerned, I think all necessary measures to fight terrorism have been taken. So, now I think the population is mobilized against this terrorist risk. As far as the French population is concerned, I do not see so far any change in the habits of people. For example, if you go to a Paris restaurant, café, cinema or theater, everything is as usual.

RD: In this context, does a chance to renew relations between EU and Russia on the basis of anti-terror cooperation exist?

C.B.: I think so, but it would help if the Minsk II agreements were implemented. This requires certain steps by the leadership in Kiev. If this happens, all sanctions would be removed at once and that would clear the table to make progress. Talking about the Minsk agreements, of course the Kiev leadership has to implement its own part [of the agreement], but also the climate has to be created around these agreements to implement them.