Coronavirus: EU countries are pooling research efforts, says Minister

COVID-19 – Excerpts from the interview given by Mme Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to BFM TV

Paris, 10 March 2020


Q. – In Europe too, the 27 are reviewing the situation today by video conference. Do you feel that Europe is ready to cope with this epidemic threat?

THE MINISTER – It’s very important to understand clearly what Europe can do, where it’s useful and what its role is. Today’s meeting, which the French President wanted to see organized, basically aims to get three things done.

Firstly, to ensure in terms of information getting through, in terms of arrangements, that we have coordinated measures so that there’s a kind of coherence for everyone in what is done at local level and that we apply things effectively which are understood by European citizens everywhere.

The second goal is to pool our resources. It’s very important, in terms of research into vaccines and treatments, that we don’t do the same thing 27 times simultaneously. It’s very important for there to be coordination – there’s already been a major investment of over €130 million released in the past few days to speed up research into a vaccine in particular. We also share a great deal of information to keep track of how the virus is spreading, and here too it makes sense doing this at European level. At national level, there are things which are really the responsibility of every State, but there are things which are done very well at European level.

The third challenge is the economic response, so we can first support together, where necessary, the sectors most impacted by the partial slowdown of economic activity – think of tourism and air transport – and then also, in the medium term, reflect on how to support the economy after what we hope will be a temporary shock, because it will have consequences. And we’re trying – we’re seeing this in France with short-time working – to limit as much as possible the impact it has on French people’s lives, on jobs. So here too, a European response is necessary.

What everyone has to understand clearly is that there are things which Europe can’t do./.

Foreign policy – COVID-19/French nationals abroad/European sovereignty – Excerpts from the interview given by Mme Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs

Paris, 9 March 2020

Q. – The coronavirus continues to spread in Europe. We’ll come back to the situation in Italy in a moment. (…) You talk about reassuring the population. There are French nationals abroad, too, who sometimes feel a bit abandoned. Remember the repatriation of French people from Wuhan, China, which began very early on, the moment the epidemic broke out in the country. Nationals are also currently stranded in Egypt, for example. Listen to this young woman, Katia; she’s on a cruise on the Nile, on a ship which has been struck by the coronavirus. She’s partly isolated on the ship. She was joined by our colleagues from France Bleu Périgord: “We’re really powerless, we’ve got no news from our government and all we want is for France to come and get us. Come and get all of us.”

So that’s Katia, a French woman who’s upset and stranded on a ship in Egypt. What’s your reply to Katia?

THE MINISTER – We’ve got a crisis unit at the Quai d’Orsay and I’m going to make sure she’s clearly identified. Consulates in every country of the world are, incidentally, increasingly busy. I was in the United States myself a few days ago, and really all over the world consulates – reception points for French people abroad permanently or temporarily – are particularly mobilized. So I’m going to enquire about her particular case. The crisis unit is a unit which, precisely, allows us, from France, to clearly understand everything happening to our nationals in the world and, if need be, make resources available.

Q. – But are the Egyptian authorities reliable authorities? Because so far they’ve referred to only 48 cases in the country, 45 of which supposedly come from the ship Katia is stranded on. That would mean there are only three cases in the whole of Egypt.

THE MINISTER – Well, I’m sure you appreciate that the whole world is getting prepared. The whole world is adopting measures. There are some countries, as we can see, where the epidemic – in fact, factually, we’re actually seeing this in certain European countries – is only just starting to spread. I’m not going to pass judgement from here, the centre of Paris, on what’s happening in a country I don’t have any details about today. What’s important is international coordination, at European level, particularly for research.

Q. – Is there any today? We can clearly see that the European countries are all adopting different measures, depending on the disease’s impact in their country; is there coordination today aimed at joint, coherent, Europe-wide measures?

THE MINISTER – At EU level three things are happening, which are essential. Firstly, complete transparency about the epidemic and how the figures are evolving, so we can properly monitor the epidemic itself. That’s extremely important. Secondly, there’s a joint research effort so we don’t carry out the same research 27 times, but rather we pool, if we want to test medicines, if we want to test treatments – that’s essential. And there’s also a common philosophy about the idea that we do things differently, locally, that’s why…

Q. – So there are no joint measures?

THE MINISTER – There can’t be joint measures. If you’re in a system where the problem concerns health and must be dealt with as closely to patients as possible, health systems are different, the care is different, so we make all resources available. Afterwards there’s economic support, budgetary support, shared repatriations. So everything it makes sense to carry out together, well, we do together, and then above all there’s solidarity so that each country adopts the most appropriate measures. You’ve got countries such as Germany, Italy and France which have localized outbreaks so you take localized measures, and you’ve got countries which for the time being objectively are very little affected so are still in the prevention phase.

Q. – We were talking about the European response to the coronavirus, a response which isn’t necessarily unified and at any rate differs according to the country. A response is also going to be necessary to deal with the economic consequences of the coronavirus. Bruno Le Maire, your colleague from the Economy Ministry, is currently the guest on France Inter. He says the consequences may be quite significant, amounting to several tenths of a percentage point of GDP, which would have an impact on growth; growth could fall below 1% of GDP. Is this also your fear?

THE MINISTER – Well, what’s certain is that – and I trained as an economist – it’s very difficult to know today what the impact will be. We can clearly see that we’re at the start, in a way, of a phenomenon which is going to continue for a while. We’re going to try to ensure it’s as brief as possible and causes the least possible impact. Firstly, in terms of health, indeed, we’ve got to be extremely vigilant about this. I think it’s important to say that we’re mobilized to ensure, among other things, that all businesses, all the sectors most impacted are supported, sometimes with short-time working measures, sometimes with measures to stagger social and tax charges and sometimes with case-by-case assistance, sometimes also with measures coordinated with the big groups, when you’re an SME. So we’re doing things on a case-by-case basis. And clearly our priority is to protect jobs, economic activity, and so there’s a part, as you’ve seen in Italy, which also depends on public stimulus measures. So we’ve got a range of measures. I think we’ll have to calculate and see the impact, once it’s over. It’s very, very difficult today to provide figures.

Q. – Isn’t the coronavirus already an economic crisis, not just a health crisis?

THE MINISTER – It’s a crisis today which is already having an impact on global flows. Exports, imports, particularly from or to China, have in part slowed down, because China’s economic life following the confinement has itself slowed down a great deal. This is also having an impact on sectors – as we’ve said – such as tourism, tour operators, so today we’re taking a sectoral approach. (…)

Q. – Measures will be required to stimulate [economic] activity in France on the one hand, and at European level on the other; Bruno Le Maire is talking this morning about the need for a massive investment plan at European level.

THE MINISTER – That’s something we’ve been requesting for a long time already, i.e. we’ve already long been observing, over the past few quarters, a drop in investment, and certain countries slowing down.

Q. – But this is directly linked to the impact of the coronavirus…

THE MINISTER – (…) So all that indeed justifies the State investing in useful things, in the climate transition, in infrastructure, in things which will last beyond the crisis.

Q. – Italy, for example, is putting €7.5 billion on the table to stimulate the country’s economy; should we in France be somewhere on the same scale?

THE MINISTER – Today we must support things on a case-by-case, region-by-region basis. Already in France, we’re trying to support businesses themselves before achieving general figures. It’s clear that the situation isn’t anything like the same in Italy, where the economic heart and lungs have stopped, as it is in France, where today you have two departments that are especially impacted, and with some towns subsequently isolated. So there again, I think we must have a very calm, very pragmatic, very conscious view of the risks, of the necessary support, and of developing our measures in line with the situation…

Q. – And does that mean that – in this exceptional period of health crisis, with these measures we must take to stimulate and support economic activity – we must free ourselves from the obligation to reduce deficits, at least for a time?

THE MINISTER – Well, obviously exceptional circumstances call for an exceptional political framework. Cases of force majeure are provided for in the European rules. An epidemic is typically a case of force majeure. Secondly, as Thierry Breton very rightly said on behalf of the European Commission yesterday, the rules aren’t there to create things that are pointless, the rules are there to govern things in normal times; well, as these are not normal times, things are being adapted…

Q. – Let me clarify that Thierry Breton is European Commissioner for Internal Market. But will you have the endorsement, the support, of Germany, of Angela Merkel, who we know is very cautious about these issues of exemption from European rules?

THE MINISTER – What I can tell you is that at European level, it’s extremely clear that exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures and an exceptional approach. Hospitals aren’t run from Brussels, but on the other hand the repatriation of European citizens from China was handled effectively and jointly. We can manage our research from Brussels, and if there are sectors that are especially impacted we can do things together from Brussels. So there again, Europe takes action where it’s appropriate, it’s a power that can act at a certain level. There are things that are done at a very, very local level, there are things that are done collectively. So there again, we need common sense, and above all continue to take an approach of doing things gradually, according to needs, while being entirely mobilized, ready to do a lot more, but tailoring the response.

Q. – The thing is, during this crisis we’re also discovering the extent of our economic dependence, or France and the European Union’s dependence, on China, in sectors sometimes as strategic as medicine. Here’s the proposal which La France Insoumise’s National Assembly deputy for the Nord, Adrien Quatennens, draws from this observation: “We do indeed want to establish a public medicine hub enabling us to relocate production of a number of medicines and ensure, in a way, a form of health sovereignty that we have indeed lost, yes.” (…)

Exceptional situations call for exceptional measures, you said. Why not nationalize the medicine sector, given our dependence, today?

THE MINISTER – I thank Adrien Quatennens for taking an interest in an issue the Government and Europe have already been working on for a few months. A mission…

Q. – So are you already heading towards nationalization of the sector?

THE MINISTER – No, not nationalization: sovereignty, the ability to produce medicines in Europe, particularly so we can have access to these medicines under all circumstances, is an issue on which a mission was also created by the Prime Minister a few months ago now, and proposals are going to be made; Jacques Biot is working on this…

Q. – But why? To re-establish the production of raw materials within Europe, within France?

THE MINISTER – In order to ensure two things. First of all, that under all circumstances we can have access to a number of medicines, and also that we can have some kind of control over prices. As you know, today you have some very innovative medicines, products which are sometimes a very, very long way from us but for which we’re dependent on the goodwill of manufacturers. The controls we have today, for example, on medicine prices in France and Europe isn’t necessarily applicable to people who sell them to you from the other side of the world…

Q. – But does that mean we take action on supplies or simply bring back the production of medicines?

THE MINISTER – There’s clearly an industrial challenge when you talk about European sovereignty, it’s a very central issue – in other words, being able to ensure relocation in areas that seem to us extremely important for our autonomy. It’s an issue Olivier Véran is already very involved in…

Q. – But how have we managed to reach this stage of being so dependent on a sector as strategic as medicines, with more than 90% of our medicines depending on production in China?

THE MINISTER – You know, in itself that’s not a problem, it becomes a problem when you have…

Q. – It’s not a problem in itself? By its very nature, in such a strategic sector, doesn’t it pose a problem, precisely in terms of building this much-talked-about European sovereignty?

THE MINISTER – But you have a lot of strategic sectors… no, but in itself, you have a lot of strategic sectors that depend on what are called value chains which are interconnected, which are international; there are bits produced in one place, bits in another, so theoretically international trade allows [it], it doesn’t pose a problem, I don’t want to worry…

Q. – There’s no European sovereignty…

THE MINISTER – I don’t want to worry the French people today by telling them we’re going to lack medicines. What we’re saying is that actually, today, we’ve noticed that, particularly in innovative medicines – things that haven’t necessarily already left Europe, but which may just never have been here – it’s worth ensuring we have our own production systems so that this sovereignty…

Q. – Did it take coronavirus to notice that?

THE MINISTER – No, that’s exactly why I’m telling you it’s been months, it’s already been several months; if you look at that mission the Prime Minister created, it dates from well before coronavirus; it’s an issue, among other things, for genomic medicine, essential…

Q. – And is it on track? Are the laboratories following?

THE MINISTER – Exactly. I can tell you these are issues the laboratories are working on, on the possibility of having production networks, particularly at European level. This absolutely isn’t an issue where we should tell ourselves to take radical measures; I’m not talking to you about nationalization. It’s an industrial debate. European industrial strategy, in a number of areas, demands that we have clearer control of a number of value chains. That’s central to the strategy of Thierry Breton, of Ursula von der Leyen, which France is asking for. And when we talk sovereignty, we’re very much talking about a concrete issue.

Sometimes people say to you: what does sovereignty mean? In this case it’s concrete: it’s the ability to produce at home, according to our rules, according to our prices, according to our economic models – for example, very innovative, personalized medicines. Those are things Europe is currently investing in, and I repeat, it dates back to before coronavirus, because otherwise the impression is given that we’re always lagging behind. On this issue, these are things we already had in the pipeline, well before. (…)./.

Published on 16/03/2020

top of the page