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Official speeches and statements - September 21, 2021

Publié le September 21, 2021

1. Foreign policy - European Union/AUKUS/Afghanistan - Excerpts from the interview given by Mr. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France 24/RFI (Paris - September 18, 2021)


Let’s go back to Ursula von der Leyen’s much-discussed, scheduled, annual state-of-the-Union speech on September 15. The Commission President said that with 70% of European adults vaccinated, her Commission, but also the Member States, had handled the crisis perfectly. Is that completely true?

I think we must emphasize the success of vaccination in Europe, yes, and Ursula von der Leyen is right to do so. We Europeans are sometimes embarrassed, timid about claiming successes. As you know, when there were criticisms to be made, they weren’t made sparingly. They were disseminated, there were a lot of them and sometimes, I think, they were excessive. So we must also, sometimes, not celebrate ourselves but say when things are going well and when we’ve been right to take Europe-wide action. Is everything perfect? It never is, but there are two things that are very important. From the summer of 2020 - France and Germany were the drivers of it - we took a decision to purchase our vaccines, our vaccine doses at European level, not out of ideology, contrary to what may have been said, not out of misplaced idealism, but because it was in the collective interest. Imagine if the Member States had waged war amid commercial and health competition to purchase vaccine doses. First of all, I don’t know what state we would have emerged in - we in France in particular - from that damaging competition. You never know in advance whether you’re a winner or a loser, and there would have been losers in Europe. There would have been States that would have vaccinated people less quickly. There are gaps in vaccination rates between European countries, but fairly small ones. This solidarity is also in our interest in health terms; it’s the second thing I believe we did right when we made this joint purchase, because when you have some countries that are less well vaccinated, as you can see internationally - even very poorly vaccinated unfortunately, today, in Africa -, not only can you no longer travel, it’s a personal and economic inconvenience, but variants also reproduce. The virus circulates more and ultimately you can do whatever you like, you take the virus back in. We’ve seen it with every variant. (...)

Well, one of the big announcements made by President von der Leyen was a defense summit to be held in Toulouse during the French [EU] presidency - that is, at the beginning of 2022. With the American debacle in Afghanistan, those European countries which were reluctant to engage in the strategic autonomy upheld by France are in the process of considering, perhaps even revising, their position.

What I think is that we mustn’t spend too long on the theological, religious debate about concepts. You can spend hours at the European Council - I’ve seen it directly - on the right theme or the right term: strategic autonomy, open strategic autonomy, European sovereignty. I uphold, and for four-and-a-half years the French President has upheld, European sovereignty. But ultimately, what you call it isn’t very important. On European defense, I think that’s also the direction Ursula von der Leyen has taken: we now need concrete items. When you go and see a Baltic country and say: "are you in favor of European defense?" there’s mistrust. Why? Because they say: "is it alongside NATO, against NATO, etc.?" And then you have debates that go on forever and lead nowhere. When you say: "in practical terms, should Europe do more in terms of investments in its defense? More expenditure?" I think the answer is yes, and many are doing more. Are there areas - I’m thinking of cyber-security - where Europe must take control of its own defense? Why should the Americans - and I think it’s a diagnosis shared by Washington - ensure our defense when it comes to cyber-security? It’s up to us to do that. We have the expertise, the financial resources and the ability to do it in Europe. When a country is attacked in its electoral process or to destabilize institutions, we have the resources; we Europeans must do it. When you take a region of the world like the Sahel where European security is being played out, there are now more than 10 European countries that are alongside France in an ad-hoc operation...

It’s not 27 yet. There aren’t yet 27 of us.

OK, but let’s be pragmatic. I have no problem with a few of us moving forward at a time. If you take a country like Estonia, a Baltic country, a country like Romania in southern Europe, they’re in Operation Takuba in the Sahel along with us.

On this issue of defense, the dramatic announcement on Wednesday evening of a vast security pact between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, in the process depriving Paris of a mega-contract to supply submarines to Australia, raises the question to France and the 27: are the Americans and British reliable partners?

They’re necessary partners, but there are three messages, I think, that we must learn from this serious event. First of all, as the Armed Forces Minister and Foreign Minister have had the opportunity to say, it’s a serious breach of trust on Australia’s part. You know, international relations are not about naivety, they’re not about fine sentiments, but the word and the signature on a contract in particular have some value. If you no longer have any trust, you can’t move forward. We have trade negotiations with Australia; I don’t see how we can trust the Australian partners. Let’s make no mistake, it’s not an issue against France or French ill temper. It’s a breach of trust that has taken place with Europe, because you have to be able to trust your partners. (...)

The arrival in power of the Taliban in Afghanistan is leading Europe to fear a wave of refugees. France, in its virtually-pre-electoral period - it’s in April - isn’t the latest to apply the brakes to hosting them on our soil. Are we living up to the humanist values we so often proclaim?

I don’t think that’s the case. We’re taking in Afghans. First of all, each year, even before the events in Kabul this summer, we’re the first European Union country when it comes to welcoming people who have the right to asylum, who were under threat in their country even before the Taliban came to power. We’re going to continue that commitment, which is in our law and which, I believe, is a matter of honor for us. There’s also a lot of talk about people who have worked or have a link with Western countries, and with France in particular. And to those who tell us we owe them nothing, what’s the value of France’s word - same point again - if we don’t do that? Those who talk about being submerged by migration are mistaken, because unfortunately the issue today is that people can’t manage to leave their country, even when they urgently need protection and we’re ready to welcome them. It’s very difficult. We’ve seen a few dozen cases, but the country is still largely closed. Also, does welcoming mean unconditionally and with no limits? No. I think we have to be both honest and reasonable. Furthermore, it’s often not in the interest of Afghan men and women themselves if we ourselves, out of convenience, deliver them to smugglers, saying to them: "listen, make your way to us and then we’ll see if we’re finally capable of taking you in." It’s organized and worked on together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with the countries in the region, not in order not to play our part but because the long-term interest, particularly for young people with Afghanistan, is for them to be able, I hope, when the political conditions have changed, as soon as possible, to return to their country. (...)