COVID crisis highlights need for EU sovereignty - Minister

European affairs – COVID-19/European Union/China – Interview given by M. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to the daily newspaper Le Figaro

Paris, 8 January 2021


Q. – The Community strategy for purchasing vaccines against COVID is being criticized. Has Europe failed this test?

THE MINISTER – Europe is a daily plebiscite! Every day it must demonstrate its effectiveness, because citizens are even more demanding of it than they are of their own States. Personally I have neither doubts nor regrets: the European framework is the right one. I’m not saying so out of naïve, wild federalism but because it’s effective. The procedure has prevented any unhealthy competition between Member States.

Q. – Some people in Germany regret not taking more advantage of the vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech with Pfizer, or accuse France of favouring Sanofi. And the boss of America’s Moderna is talking about a preference for Europe…

THE MINISTER – Could we have done better? Perhaps… But there’s nothing to support the idea of a “major mistake” by Europe. As 27 we were stronger at negotiating, in terms of portfolio diversification, prices, volumes and scientific validity. No country would cope by relying only on its “homemade” vaccine. Let’s not be naïve in the face of criticisms from our German neighbours at a time when pressure has been created by the health situation, or from businesses with a more commercial than philanthropic purpose. The European process hasn’t behaved as the bureaucratic monster some people are describing. There are adaptations, we’re not immobile: moreover, the Commission has just announced an order for 300 million additional doses of the BioNTech vaccine.

Q. – The two cutting-edge vaccines are entirely or partly American. What does that say about Europe?

THE MINISTER – It speaks of the industrial weakening of Europe, its loss of competitiveness and leadership, in particular in the pharmaceutical field. That’s the case at both ends of the chain: we were dismayed to learn, at the beginning of the year, that we were dependent on China for basic products like masks and some active ingredients. And Europe is failing to transform the success of its basic research into industrial production. Messenger RNA is beyond our expectations, and also a child of Europe because it’s credited to Hungary’s Katalin Karikó and BioNTech, created in Germany by its two founders of Turkish origin. We must do better at encouraging innovation and investment in research but also production, and rethink policies on health and medicine-price regulation in Europe. In that way we’ll be able to regain our sovereignty, and we have all the resources to do so!

European sovereignty

Q. – How did Europe lose it?

THE MINISTER – Europe settled into dependency through a trade policy which, for a long time, consisted in reaching as many agreements as possible in order to open up markets, but above all in opening our own without being demanding enough in terms of reciprocity. But that’s over. It’s politically, even mentally, over. Following the assertion of China’s ambitions, Brexit and Trumpism, the COVID crisis has been illuminating. Europe no longer thinks of itself as an open space without protection, regulation or authority, where everyone is competing to attract investment.

Q. – So do we “close” Europe?

THE MINISTER – European sovereignty isn’t a bad pro-sovereignty drive applied at EU level. Europe isn’t a museum with an alarm system installed. The challenge isn’t self-sufficiency but self-empowerment, the assertion of European power on the same level as the United States and China. That requires defensive and offensive policies. In 2017, the French President proposed checks on non-European investments in strategic activities. A screening mechanism now exists. We’ll have to strengthen it, but the trend is under way. Secondly, there’s no reason why Europeans should always be the good guys! We must and can demand reciprocity in terms of opening up procurement contracts. But sovereignty isn’t confined to a protectionist agenda. Our businesses export and are open to the world. To regain our competitiveness we must improve our internal market, i.e. harmonize our national regulations. Then we must invest. We’re paying for our poor collective management in the years following the financial crisis, during which we tried to consolidate the public accounts too quickly. The recovery plan provides the right impetus, it’s a historic investment plan and it’s an opportunity for Europe.

Q. – Europe’s weapon is often regulation. Isn’t it the poor man’s sovereignty?

THE MINISTER – No. Regulations and standards are powerful tools. In the digital sphere, the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] has become a global standard. No one can do without the European market. Our trade agreements mustn’t stop at the first stage in the process – the lowering of tariffs – but be levers to impose our social, environmental and climate standards. That’s what being on the offensive means; it’s also the precondition in order for people to accept our involvement in globalization.

EU-China investment agreement

Q. – Doesn’t the signing of an investment agreement with China contradict this sovereignty agenda?

THE MINISTER – It’s just one stage in a continuous process. The breaking point came four years ago, when we avoided committing the act of madness which giving China market economy status would have been. That would have forced us to dismantle our anti-dumping arsenal. Since then, we’ve raised the level of investment controls. Last year, we got Protected Geographical Indications recognized. We pushed for China to adopt ambitious climate targets. And with this new agreement, we’re making the opening-up of our respective public procurement markets more balanced again and limiting the transfer of intellectual property.

The agreement is better than the one the United States signed last year. But it’s incomplete. China has, admittedly, taken a step towards compliance with International Labour Organization rules. We must fight more for our own human and social values – I’m thinking of the Uighurs. Not everything is just about the economy./.

Published on 12/01/2021

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