EU can be proud of its response to COVID-19 - Minister

European Union – COVID-19 – Interview given by M. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to Libé

Brussels, 2 November 2020

COVID-19/EU economy

Q. – Hasn’t the coronavirus pandemic signalled the return of national concerns, to the detriment of the European project?

THE MINISTER – The pandemic has indeed seen a return of national and even local concerns, because, by their very nature, the measures taken result in people withdrawing and shutting themselves off to protect themselves. But the criticisms made of the European Union are unfair, because it had no powers to act; if people had said a year ago that Europe must deal with health, everyone would have shrugged. A health crisis calls for a sovereign response, because the operational tools for protection are still very broadly national or local. This was seen in the federal countries: in Germany, the Länder took regional protection measures and didn’t initially cooperate with one another.

Having said that, in the areas where it had the power Europe managed to react quickly and strongly, whereas in the past it could have been criticized for acting too little, too late: the action of the European Central Bank (ECB) was decisive, and the Commission immediately suspended not only the rules limiting State aid to businesses but also the Stability Pact, thus enabling strong national responses.

Likewise, the €750-billion European recovery plan adopted at the end of July was drawn up and adopted in less than two months, even though it marks a break with the past by creating common debt: it’s an unprecedented act of solidarity aimed at preparing for the future!

It’s now up to the Member States, above all, to improve things by giving the European Union the powers it lacks in the health field. For example, it’s strange that we don’t have the same rules for counting cases and deaths, and don’t apply the same health measures.

The response by States hasn’t been to give the EU more powers but to undo some of the rules governing the way it works: competition, the Stability Pact, monetary policy, Schengen etc.

The risk exists that we’ll see Europe as a corset that we’ve loosened, and that ultimately Europe’s benefit is when it bothers us less. I don’t think that’s the right perspective for understanding what’s happened: the European Union has merely shown that it’s not a prisoner of its dogmas, contrary to what people said.

Fortunately we haven’t stopped there, either: the ECB’s monetary response on the one hand, and the adoption of the recovery plan on the other, have been responses of shared solidarity. Likewise, with regard to health, what’s being done on the vaccine is the opposite of “everyone for himself”. We’re ensuring it’s the EU that negotiates the contracts, so that 200 to 400 million doses are available with every laboratory, thus protecting all Europeans.

In addition, even when things haven’t been done at European level, there’s been a European crisis response model we can be proud of. Nowhere [else] in the world has combined solidarity and social protection, partly funded by the EU, and all amid open democratic debate. The Americans have had the debate without solidarity, while in Asia we’ve seen collective action without individual freedom.

States are allowing the EU less and less autonomy. For example, the recovery plan isn’t communal, because the Commission’s role will be confined to borrowing on the markets before signing cheques for States, which will spend them as they wish. Likewise, the new planned budget reduction means eating into the funding of Community policies…

It can’t be said the recovery plan will lead to renationalization, because – on the contrary – we’re creating common debt. Even though it’s true expenditure will be handled by States, there are nevertheless elements of “Europeanness”, because 30% of the sums paid will have to be devoted to the climate, which will make the EU the world’s biggest issuer of green bonds and will mean 20% of expenditure will have to benefit the digital sector. But it’s true we could have gone further on shared European projects. That’s why Germany and France have decided to focus their efforts on four major European projects that will be funded by our national recovery plans: hydrogen, artificial intelligence, electric batteries and the Internet of Things.

On the budget, France would indeed have liked it to be higher, to fund priority policies: defence, space, research, Erasmus and health. The European Parliament is politically right to battle for the ceilings to be increased. But it mustn’t lose sight of the fact that, in reality, the budgetary package amounts to more than €1,800 billion, if you add together the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (€1,074 billion over the period) and the recovery plan – which means that over the next three years this will double payments to Member States! And already, in the proposed budget, priority policies like research and education are going to experience increases of between 40% and 75%. Few national budgets have this level of ambition.

THE MINISTER – With several Member States deciding on a second lockdown, the cost of the crisis risks being higher than predicted. Shouldn’t we now launch a second recovery plan or extend the current one, which is planned for only three years?

This debate will take place, but it’s too soon to begin it. We can’t now say to the countries which were already reluctant to adopt this recovery plan that we’ve got to launch a second one when the first isn’t in place yet. Let’s make sure it’s a success and we’ll be able to begin the discussion on a new instrument. In the meantime, we’re going to have to speed up the implementation of the recovery plan to respond to developments in the pandemic without delay, as the President called for at Thursday’s summit.

Q. – What continues to unite European countries aside from the economic and financial advantages they derive from the EU?

THE MINISTER – Clearly we need to devise a new European contract. We knew this before the crisis, but it’s now a pressing need: we can’t continue the same way as before, since the existing weaknesses and failures have become gaping holes. We still need common rules, but they need to be rethought. For example, if we want an open area of free movement we’ve got to be much more serious and much firmer when it comes to external border control, our asylum and immigration policy and the fight against terrorism.

Likewise, in the economic sphere the competition policy and the Stability Pact will have to be tailored to the new situation. New rules will also have to be adopted to strengthen our shared contract: budgetary solidarity is natural, but it becomes impossible to defend if we tolerate our partners engaging in social, fiscal or environmental dumping or violating the rule of law.

Q. – So do the treaties need to be reviewed from scratch?

THE MINISTER – We can change Schengen, the Stability Pact and competition rules or enforce the rule of law without changing the treaties. If we want to go down that route, it won’t provide the right pace for responding to the crisis, since we need to agree as 27 and go through national ratifications. Changing the treaties isn’t off-limits, but in the short term there need to be practical solutions.

Common foreign policy/Turkey

Q. – When will there be a discussion about a common foreign policy? Because Turkey is demonstrating that the EU remains a geopolitical dwarf incapable of responding to acts of aggression…

THE MINISTER – Firstly, in the EU there’s a problem with the relationship to power, the European project having been conceived in opposition to the very idea of power, as States had misused it both with one another – wars – and externally – colonization. So it’s an internal reconciliation project which makes it very difficult to imagine that the EU could be responsible for security and defence issues. But the international situation has altered the scenario. There’s no longer any State in Europe which thinks our power can simply be delegated to the United States, as has been the case until now. There are obviously slight differences between us, but we’ve come a very long way over the past three years, as much in terms of trade as in security and technology.

Secondly, there’s a specific Turkey issue: Europe has been under an illusion about that country. Through Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish President, we’ve seen Christian democracy transposed to the Muslim world. But that’s not how it is; today we’re seeing the AKP [the President’s party] with its aggressive policy in the Aegean Sea, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya, the Balkans and even our societies, with President Erdoğan trying to position himself as a protector of Muslims. No one has any more illusions about what Erdoğan is, and we’re going to take a firmer line over the next few weeks. With Russia and China, it’s a test of sovereignty. Europe can no longer be Mr Nice Guy, all Europeans know this now./.

Published on 03/11/2020

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