COVID-19 resurgence "a major risk" for Europe - Minister

Foreign policy – COVID-19/European Union/United Kingdom/recovery plan/Belarus – Interview given by M. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France 2 (excerpts)

Paris, 24 August 2020

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EU and COVID-19

Q. – Europe is facing a real resurgence of the epidemic. Is that the main danger we’re all facing?

THE MINISTER – Yes, it’s a major risk that doesn’t only affect Europe, incidentally, but it’s affecting Europe again. As we know, the virus has never disappeared. Fortunately we’re not in the same situation as the one we experienced collectively in Europe in the spring, because, first of all, the resurgence isn’t at the same level, and also because we’re better prepared, better equipped. And this autumn, together with a number of Government colleagues, particularly Olivier Véran, I’m coordinating with European countries to assess the risks and prepare as best we can.

Q. – Really, are you really coordinating? Because when you see how things are going, you see for example that Germany is imposing quarantine on people returning from Spain and Croatia and classifying Brussels among the risk areas. The impression is that it’s the return of ʺeveryone for themselvesʺ, where each side takes measures to counter the epidemic. Where’s the European dialogue, when you see situations like these?

THE MINISTER – Well, you’re right, it has to be said there are clear gaps in European coordination – less acute, I have to say, than at the beginning of the epidemic. We saw, particularly in March, a real everyone-for-themselves attitude, particularly in terms of border closures, total…

Q. – What is it that’s different now ?

THE MINISTER – First of all, there’s no overall closure of European borders, so that has to be said. And there’s a fundamental difference, namely that the principle is that you move freely within the Schengen Area and therefore within our European area; however, outside, in order to protect ourselves – because it’s different, it’s not our living area – there are much stricter closure measures. Now, you’re right…

Q. – Freely, but with quarantine measures even so!

THE MINISTER – With a number of restrictions, indeed – sometimes quarantine measures for certain countries. What’s the real weakness, to be honest? It’s that we don’t have the same data or the same assessments. In other words, there’s no European centre, European agency, that says, ʺhere you are, the situation is risky in such a place, in such a department, etc.ʺ. And so that’s a deficiency. We’re trying to work on it. It was on Chancellor Merkel and President Macron’s agenda on Thursday. Together, France and Germany are going to promote the initiative of trying to have the same analyses.

And there’s also a final point: I really want people to distinguish between two issues. There’s sometimes a lack of coordination, it’s true. Olivier Véran and I are going to try and improve it this week, incidentally. And sometimes there’s also differentiation: what’s being called a Euro-shambles is also because we’re trying to avoid those very broad restrictive measures. Obviously, we’re avoiding a new overall lockdown, we’re differentiating by regions… That’s also what sometimes gives the impression of a patchwork. But it’s also because we’re trying not to impose restrictions on everyone…

France and COVID-19

Q. – Are we, France, imposing restrictions, for example, on other European countries?

THE MINISTER – We’re imposing – we have – certain advice. For example, not to travel – as we said at the beginning of the summer, the Prime Minister said it – to Catalonia, for example. But it’s a good example…

Q. – But are quarantine measures, for example, being imposed by France on other European countries?

THE MINISTER – Well, as we’ve said, with the United Kingdom. The UK – in a not very cooperative way, to be quite frank – imposed a quarantine measure on French travellers and also others, like the Dutch. And that will be on the menu of the Defence Council tomorrow: we’ll have a measure, which we call reciprocal, to ensure our British friends don’t close the border on just one side. That wouldn’t make much sense.

Q. – So will quarantine be imposed on the British in the coming days?

THE MINISTER – For travellers returning from the UK, there will probably be some restrictive measures. That’s to be decided in the coming days by the Prime Minister and the Defence Council.

EU recovery plan

Q. – Is this also the main danger for the European economy? We’re going to talk about the [French] recovery plan, which has been postponed. Could the Euro Area, could Europe in general be hit by new lockdown measures and a strong second wave of the epidemic?

THE MINISTER – As we’ve said, it’s exactly for this reason too that we’re trying to avoid an overall measure, which – in terms of health itself, incidentally, in terms of education and also the economy – would be disastrous. And so we’ve got an economic situation that is already very difficult; we mustn’t hide from this. We’ve got a European response which this time – because it hasn’t always been the case in previous crises – has been swift and commensurate, namely the much-talked-about €750-billion European recovery plan. We’re going to avoid worsening the economic situation, and now provide this recovery response, next week in France.

Q. – The World Bank is warning that the crisis may tip 100 million people into extreme poverty. How many in Europe?

THE MINISTER – In Europe we hope it’s a bit fewer, but we have a risk of a few million people in situations of insecurity or poverty who are clearly going to be in more difficult situations because of the crisis. We mustn’t delude ourselves: the recovery plan won’t prevent a difficult situation, but it may enable our economy to bounce back faster and limit the economic impact of this crisis. (…)

Belarus

Q. – Since you took office you’ve had quite a few hot topics to deal with, including Belarus. Only yesterday, tens of thousands of people gathered in Belarus against the leader, Alexander Lukashenko, who is remaining intractable. He’s accusing NATO and putting his army on the alert. What scenario are you most afraid of in Belarus?

THE MINISTER – Obviously we must absolutely avoid a crackdown that is even more violent than the one we’re seeing, because the situation today is already one of violent repression by the authorities. We’ve seen this ludicrous and frightening display by President Lukashenko, who is seeking in this way to threaten his people. So the first European message is that, first of all, we stand by the Belarusian people.

Q. – What does it mean when you say that?

THE MINISTER – Well, it means first of all that if you’re a demonstrator and you’re risking your life, risking your skin, for democracy, for rights, I think the least the Europeans can do is to testify to that support. There’s never a solution imposed from outside; you have to be honest. Extremely brave demonstrations on an unprecedented scale [are taking place] in that country, in the face of an extremely brutal regime. So we have to provide that support. There are also sanctions measures, which have been taken in a targeted way – not to hit the Belarusian people, but the leaders – by the European countries in recent days. And we’ll continue to exert this pressure on the powers that be in Minsk in order to ensure a democratic transition as quickly as possible. (…)./.

Published on 25/08/2020

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