Europe is "a project of sovereignty" - Foreign Minister

European Union – Debate on Europe – Introductory remarks and replies by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, in the National Assembly (excerpts)

Paris, 3 March 2021

European sovereignty

In less than a year’s time, our country will be taking over the six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union for the 13th time in its history. This is a major responsibility vis-à-vis our institutions, but also an international responsibility and a political responsibility. In a world like our own, increasingly brutal, gripped by unprecedented ecological upheavals and a war between political systems, it’s clear that the fundamentals of the European project – sovereignty, solidarity and a concern to prepare the future together – are taking on a new meaning and even a new urgency. (…)

For us, Europe is therefore first and foremost a project of sovereignty, fully in tune with the 21st century. Let’s be clear: true patriotism today consists in understanding that we don’t have to choose between Europe and the nation, and that to turn our backs on the former would be to weaken the latter. Far from excluding each other, our national sovereignty and our European sovereignty work together and reinforce each other.

That’s the reality we share; for most of us it’s a fact. The sovereignty we now assert as 27, on behalf of the 450 million Europeans, is an additional lever of sovereignty for each of our nations. If we want to remain players in our own history and masters of our destiny, if we’re keen to be clear-sighted and pragmatic in our view of the power relationships currently prevailing in international life, we must go further in building this common sovereignty, by continuing to map out a path of strategic autonomy for France and Europe.


In 2021, it would be absurd to confuse sovereignty with autarchy; on the other hand, it must be said that in the process of acquiring this sovereignty we’ve long confused naivety with openness. That’s what gives value to the European awakening we wanted to signal, so that our Union finally emerges from its period of naivety and, in very practical terms, gives itself the means to be respected. Respected first of all economically and commercially: last October, on our initiative, the European Union set up a filtering system for investments in strategic areas like telecommunications, biotechnologies and infrastructures. As reciprocity and fairness are essential to trade, Europeans now set clear conditions and no longer hesitate to defend their interests; frankly, this is a real step forward. (…)

I stress the vigilance we’ll be showing with regard to the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which the European Union reached with China in December. That agreement represents real progress for our businesses in terms of access to the Chinese market; it’s also a major lever that pushes China to incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals and virtually obliges it to combat forced labour. Indeed, this last issue is of the utmost importance for our country. Our trade partnership can’t be built on contempt for human rights, and we’ll be paying special attention to this.

The communication published by the Commission on 18 February 2021, setting out the European Union’s new trade policy strategy, is part of this movement of European awakening; in this regard, it represents a real paradigm shift. Reading it, I’m delighted that the idea of sovereignty isn’t restricted to competition, industry or trade. (…)

Over recent months, everyone has realized it’s crucial for us to improve the resilience of our value chains and reduce our strategic dependency. It’s about identifying our weaknesses, diversifying our supplies, building up European strategic stocks, facilitating recycling where relevant and, for some especially critical products such as medicines – including vaccines, M. Mélenchon – regaining supply capacity within the European Union by creating new production capabilities or relocating certain key segments.

Increasingly, our European partners are also realizing that our action at the WTO – the World Trade Organization – in support of trade regulation must necessarily be combined with a strengthening of European tools and increased political focus on combating unfair practices and the coercive or extraterritorial practices of some of our major partners.

I said “some of our major partners”; they can be identified. They [our European partners] are also gradually becoming aware of the need to make our trade policy consistent with our Sustainable Development Goals, particularly by making compliance with the Paris Agreement a central element in our trade agreements.

At the same time, we’re working on updating our competition policy to take better account of non-EU countries’ subsidies and State aid and strengthen our industrial policy, in particular when it comes to our strategic assets and the sectors of the future. That’s the purpose of the Important Projects of Common European Interest, IPCEIs, which we’re developing with our European partners and which combine public and private investment. Projects have been initiated in the batteries and micro-electronics sectors; we must now launch others in the fields of hydrogen, data storage, high-performance computing and health, as we’ve just done – out of necessity – with the new HERA Incubator, which aims to better control the entire vaccine research and development chain.


Sovereignty also relates to the security and defence fields. On the former, the Commission will make proposals in May about the future of the Schengen Area; it’s one of our most valuable achievements, the one that allows the free movement of citizens. I’d also point out to M. Anglade that free movement has in no way been called into question in recent months. There were certainly a few delays, at least at the outset, but the principle lives on within the European Union despite the health restrictions. In any case, because of the pressures the Schengen Area has been under for several years – migratory pressure, the terrorist threat and now the health crisis – it’s time to update it. For our part, we’ve already sketched out ways to strengthen our external borders, compliance with rules and governance within this common space, which must remain an area of freedom for Europeans.

Sovereign Europe, the Europe that protects, is also about our programme to combat the terrorist threat, due to be implemented this year. In particular, this involves the strengthening of Europol, the role of the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator and the adoption of the regulation on terrorist content online. (…) These help assert our sovereignty in the security field but also the defence field. (...) Since 2017, concrete projects and initiatives have been launched to ensure the European Union’s strategic autonomy: a stronger and more autonomous Europe is obviously a strength when it comes to achieving a more balanced transatlantic relationship. The United States knows it generally has everything to gain from being able to count on a strong ally; my new counterpart, Antony Blinken, told us so explicitly from Washington at the last European foreign ministers’ meeting.

Today, powers that exploit the weakness of democracies in general and of Europe in particular, like Russia and Turkey, are finding us more united and more determined to defend our interests. We saw this last summer in the Mediterranean. We’re currently working, as Mme Dumas has just reminded us, on what’s known as the Strategic Compass. In practical terms, this exercise, launched under the German presidency at the end of last year, will enable us under our presidency to set European goals in this area up to 2030. It’ll be a matter of asserting the European Union’s increased capability and operational power on the basis of a shared assessment of the threats. In this regard, I’m thinking of certain conflict situations like the one existing in the Sahel, which we’ll be discussing tomorrow, but also disputed areas – areas from which some would like to exclude us and which are increasingly becoming new areas of conflict: the maritime, space and digital spheres. We’ll be able to face up to these challenges only through solidarity within the European Union.

Digital technology

And digital technology is the third major area in which Europe must ensure its sovereignty is respected. Some powers, as you know, have turned it into a playground – or rather, a field of influence, manipulation and destabilization. This is a threat to our security and to the vitality of our democracies. We face another challenge in the digital world, namely the attitude of certain platforms that have accumulated power unprecedented in the history of our economies and societies, without shouldering responsibility for it in fiscal or social terms or in terms of freedoms.

All these are considerable challenges for our countries. Of course, it’s the responsibility of each State to strengthen its resilience and protect its democratic processes. But Europe must lend assistance by updating the Directive on security of networks and information systems, known as the NIS Directive: that text will set the regulatory framework to improve the EU’s level of security and the Member States’ cyber capabilities. It’s essential to implement it so that we can face the future with confidence.

But in the digital field, Europe must also act directly where it alone can regulate effectively. This is what it’s already done in the area of privacy protection, through the standards of the General Data Protection Regulation. It’s what it has also done in the fight against terrorist content online. Two major pieces of legislation, the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA), were presented by the Commission in December to regulate digital services and markets and step up the fight against illegal and harmful content. France will be at the forefront in ensuring that Europe acquires these major instruments of sovereignty as quickly as possible.

Let’s be clear: this approach of strengthening our digital sovereignty is neither punitive nor protectionist in purpose. On the contrary, it seeks to preserve a free, open and safe Internet. It’s time to put citizens’ safety and freedoms back at the centre of digital life: that’s the goal we’re pursuing with our European partners.


Finally, I want to remind you that being sovereign and taking on board the balance of power doesn’t mean that we must give up our alliances and partnerships. It simply means making sure our interests are taken into account. This is true with regard to the new transatlantic partnership, which I’ve mentioned, but also – and this has often been mentioned in this debate – with regard to the relationship we must build with the United Kingdom after Brexit. (...) Thanks to the agreement we reached at Christmas, we can have a specific trade relationship with the UK. We agreed to the “zero tariffs, zero quotas” formula, but on one condition: “zero dumping”. That means in particular compliance with rules of origin, which must be robust, but also with the rules of fair competition. Clearly, the UK can’t serve as a platform for re-exporting products from non-EU countries to the European Union, and there can be no State aid or differences in standards that could have a negative effect on our trade relations.

Mme Dalloz spoke of the difficulties linked to customs formalities, which are important to put back on the table; not everything in the implementation of the agreement is complete. M. Favennec-Bécot stressed compliance with the Northern Ireland Protocol, and other suggestions have been made. We must now continue the discussions, but to prepare for all eventualities we’ve created a robust monitoring and sanctions system that provides for compensatory measures, so-called rebalancing measures and cross-retaliation in areas other than the one where the violation occurred, if this were to happen. We must show heightened vigilance on all these matters.

Thanks to the December agreement, we’ve also secured guarantees to defend the interests of our fishermen; we may discuss this in the Q&A session. France had said fishing won’t be an adjustment variable in the negotiations, and it hasn’t been, although there are still issues to deal with. I’ll talk about them in a moment.

The agreement, ladies and gentlemen deputies, does not exhaust our entire relationship with the UK, which we absolutely must reinvent in the areas of security, foreign policy and defence policy. While Europe – even without the UK – remains a huge power, particularly in terms of trade, it nevertheless has an objective interest in close cooperation with the UK in the foreign-policy and defence fields. (…)

That’s why we’ve always expressed, as I’m doing again today, our willingness to work on these issues with London – if only because we’re both permanent members of the Security Council, we’re both nuclear powers, and our interests converge when it comes to defending multilateralism or human rights, protecting the environment or fighting climate change. Moreover, since the Lancaster House treaties, whose 10th anniversary we celebrated in November, we’ve built a solid defence partnership between France and the UK which Brexit doesn’t undermine. So we must have these discussions with the UK, showing intransigence when it comes to compliance with the texts, vigilance as to their implementation, and a desire and willingness to work on other issues; that’s also what is actually happening.


Finally, with regard to external partnerships, we must ensure our interests and values are respected in the framework of the frank, firm and demanding dialogue we have with China, as I said at the beginning of my statement. We must also deal with China on issues of common interest such as environmental issues. We won’t be able to reach significant agreements in Copenhagen if China is absent from the negotiations. We must be aware of this, and it doesn’t prevent firmness on other issues, in particularly the issue of the Uighurs.

Ladies and gentlemen deputies, Europe is also a project of solidarity. We may have forgotten this when we wanted to make Europe a market and only a market. That was a mistake we must not only correct but also make sure not to repeat, at a time when we’re trying to make Europe assume its role as a power and when we’re also facing major upheavals.

COVID-19 and health

Because even though some people tend to lose sight of this obvious fact, solidarity remains our first weapon in the face of crises. That’s the case with the COVID-19 crisis, of course. (...) Let me remind you that a year ago, Health Europe didn’t exist, because health has never been one of the EU’s competencies. Today the situation is probably not totally satisfactory, not perfect; some people have criticized certain shortcomings, some of them important. But we must appreciate how far we’ve come! By moving forward at an accelerated pace, we’ve gradually managed to coordinate and organize ourselves. Faced with the urgency of an unprecedented crisis, we’ve laid the foundations for a Health Europe that is both sovereign and mutually supportive. (...)

On the vaccines issue, we can argue as much as we like. In any case, I think we’ll have to learn lessons when the story’s over, because that’s when the comparisons will acquire a meaning. (…)

Moreover, we were among the first to deliver vis-à-vis the World Health Organization, and there weren’t many of us then – I remember speaking about this point myself in the WHO framework… I repeat, I’m ready to begin the debate about the notion of public goods, without, however, prejudging what its conclusions might be.

Let me also remind you, M. Mélenchon, that the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative was taken by the United Nations at the instigation of the French President, in close cooperation with the European Union. Contrary to what you say, the initiative has had a very significant impact, particularly by enabling vaccine doses to start reaching Africa…

For example, Ghana received 600,000 doses on 24 February, Côte d’Ivoire 500,000 doses on 26 February, Angola 500,000 doses on 2 March and Nigeria four million doses on the same day. This is not make-believe, it’s a concrete example of solidarity resulting from the initiative we took as a matter of urgency. I don’t deny that questions must be asked, but the facts must still be established before being criticized.

I understand that it makes you uncomfortable when I tell you the truth about the Europe of solidarity, but that’s how it is!

If we’d presented ourselves to the manufacturers in a disorganized way, we would all have lost, because we would have fought to grab hold of the vaccines, which ultimately would have benefited the largest countries. At the beginning of the epidemic, it reached the point where people were fighting over masks in Chinese airports. We’re no longer at that stage, and we’ve been able to show solidarity at European level both in the purchasing and the sharing of vaccines. I really hope this momentum will continue and, even though the temptation exists here and there to break ranks, I repeat that the reckoning will come when the story’s over.

To ensure the EU’s long-term resilience to cross-border health threats – we know there could be further pandemics – it’s necessary to strengthen the momentum of Health Europe, which is created by moving forward. The process is under way; I’m thinking of the strengthening of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the decision to make the European Medicines Agency (EMA) a coordination framework, and the establishment of the European Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which will cover the whole value chain from research to industrial production.

In these various initiatives I see signs of a welcome burst of momentum. I agree with the [National Assembly Socialist group] President, Mme Rabault, who mentioned earlier Europe’s shortcomings in terms of production: indeed, we no longer produce a single gram of paracetamol in Europe, and it’s absolutely necessary to regain control in this field, which is essential to our sovereignty, as we’ve confirmed in recent months.


European solidarity also manifested itself in the agreement reached on the recovery plan: for the first time, European solidarity took the form of borrowing capacity and hence common debt. Without going back further over an issue that has been debated here at length, let me emphasize that this solidarity must also be expressed in the fight against social dumping: on this point, we must set an agenda of economic and social convergence between the EU States, particularly on the issue of the European minimum wage.


Solidarity is also what will allow us to find a European solution to the challenge of immigration – it’s even the only realistic way of doing so. I’m thinking of solidarity between Member States, but also the solidarity we must show towards our Southern partners. Member States must show solidarity and responsibility between themselves to support the countries of first entry and prevent secondary movements, and, as far as people who aren’t entitled to protection are concerned, together make the same demands of countries of transit and origin as regards returns and readmissions of people who aren’t eligible for asylum. Not taking this step amounts to killing the right of asylum, because it trivializes movements. The Migration and Asylum Package proposed by the Commission is a step in the right direction and serves as an excellent working basis for the 27, who will probably have views to express on this point during the French presidency.

As I was saying, solidarity must also be shown towards our Southern partners, because we can’t provide lasting solutions to this challenge without giving back to those who feel forced to leave for Europe future prospects which don’t involve the tragedies and dangers of exile. This is the whole purpose of the commitment we made together yesterday when you passed the estimates bill on mutually-supportive development and the fight against global inequality, and it’s the whole purpose of the commitment made by Europe, the world’s leading donor as regards development.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen deputies, Europe is a forward-looking project, a project which involves battles. Indeed, the common goods we want to pass onto the next generation tomorrow are threatened and we have to defend them, starting with our planet. Mme Maillart-Méhaignerie talked about the issues on the table as part of preparations for the Copenhagen meeting. Consequently the EU heads of State and government who met within the European Council set a new goal to cut CO2 emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.


We’ve now got to set out these goals by adopting a concrete strategy to speed up the decarbonization of the energy sector, strengthen the carbon sinks which are our forests and introduce the carbon border adjustment mechanism which France has wanted to see for 10 years. In the past our partners saw this initiative as just a form of protectionism and refused to follow us on this path. Today the European Commission realizes that such a measure is essential both to the effectiveness of our climate commitment and to maintaining the competitiveness of our businesses and industries. This realization, too, is to do with Europe awakening and no longer being naive, which I was talking about earlier. On all these issues, the Commission will present an energy-climate package in June, which we’ll have the opportunity to debate.

In 2015 we fought to secure the Paris Agreement, and for four years we’ve been fighting to protect it. Today the United States is back among us and we obviously intend to go on leading the way. It isn’t just a question of doing our bit in a necessarily collective effort, but also of encouraging our partners to do more right now, and the 2021 Glasgow conference on climate change – COP26 – will be the climax of this demanding initiative.


It really is a battle we’re waging, and we must play a decisive role in the progress of multilateralism. We aren’t engaging in occasional multilateralism; on the contrary, we believe it’s the only genuine way for the entire international community to move forward through dialogue, cooperation and the law, which are the constitutive choices defining Europe. The challenges of this multilateralism are absolutely essential, if only for defining standards. We’ve gained experience in this area over the past few years which we must now make the most of in order to take up all the challenges we face in a very conflictual international arena.

Finally, we’ve got to fight to make sure the promises of this new industrial revolution, the digital revolution, are honoured, by putting forward the model we’re currently devising. This projection in the international arena also complements the assertion of our sovereignty which I was describing earlier. We must now make these great balances which we’re working on defining for ourselves – innovation and regulation, the protection of individuals and the protection of data, markets and citizenship – the matrix of a better controlled, more human digital globalization.

Those are the battles awaiting us: Europe must give itself the means to fight them; it’s why the digital and ecological transitions are at the heart of the recovery plan and the new Multiannual Financial Framework. Of course, this doesn’t call into question the EU’s historical policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) or the flagship Erasmus programme. As far as the latter is concerned, which several of you have mentioned, especially Mme Racon-Bouzon, I welcome the fact that it will soon be given an extra €7 billion, even though it’s now sadly going to have to operate without the UK.

Yes, we’re going to give ourselves the means to prepare for the future, and this is clearly the purpose of the own resources we’ve got to develop, be it the carbon border adjustment mechanism, digital taxation or the financial transaction tax M. Bourlanges mentioned; it’s a tool we initiated long ago and which we’ve got to share as effectively as possible.

Ladies and gentlemen deputies, that’s what the European project means for us in the run-up to the French presidency which begins in January next year. I’ll conclude by recalling an essential principle, namely that the European project is also a societal project, founded on principles and values we must never compromise anywhere in Europe: the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, freedom of expression and academic freedoms, freedoms which have made us what we are, in our eyes but also those of the world. (...)


When we talked about the agreement’s fisheries provisions, you yourself appreciated what we got: complete access to British waters in the 6-to-12-mile area until June 2026, regardless of whether species are covered by the quotas; a gradual, limited reduction to 25% of quotas up to 2026, when up to the last minute the British were demanding 80%; continued long-term access to the Channel Islands’ waters – a zone which, I admit, is more my concern than yours. All this has been achieved.

Yet you’re right to say that not everything has been resolved. We must get provisional licences converted as soon as possible into licences allowing permanent access to all British fishing zones for all our vessels. So with the Commission we must keep up our efforts and maintain pressure on the British authorities on several points. For instance, we’ve got to renegotiate the TACs – total allowable catches – which are still provisional, so as to have greater transparency, including for the current year. In order for competition conditions to be fair, we’ve also got to ensure standards are adhered to, especially technical standards; the agreement didn’t really provide for this.

We’ve then got to think ahead beyond the five-and-a-half-year period. One thing is for sure: a refusal to allow access to British waters during the post-2026 renegotiations could prove costly for our British partners given the compensatory, retaliatory measures already mentioned, which could go as far as suspending any economic and trade partnership if necessary.

We’ve got to be very vigilant and firm on this. (...)

Dumping/UK free ports

I share your concerns, as much from the practical point of view as from that of the economic dynamic and protecting sovereignty. As you said, the British Government has announced the creation of eight free ports which will benefit from advantageous tax and social regulations aimed at attracting foreign investment and trade flows – this is one of the risks of dumping I mentioned in my remarks concluding the debate. Chairing the Interministerial Committee for the Sea (CIMER) in January, the Prime Minister announced that he was going to begin work with elected representatives and parliamentarians to respond to this offensive without delay. Discussions are making swift progress.

EU/compensatory measures

The first step is to develop duty-free sales – a fairly simple measure – to compensate for what the UK is doing in this area. Another initiative: port taxes have already been lowered, giving rise to a number of exemptions. Discussions are focusing on two other issues. The creation of new free zones is being studied. Taking action is all the more important because many European countries, as you know, have started doing so with a view to this – I’m thinking of the Netherlands in particular. Moreover, CIMER has been tasked with studying this option and also that of special economic zones, based on tax incentives tapered over time which can be adjusted according to ports and activities.

In this way, in accordance with the Prime Minister’s commitments, work is under way and mobilizing many players. I hope that once complete it will be possible to win back market shares through improved port logistics and also more effective and dynamic customs arrangements. The latter are complicated to build due to Britain being unprepared for the consequences of Brexit, which several speakers have reiterated.

In any event, as far as special economic zones – indeed, free zones – are concerned, I’m absolutely prepared to work with you towards this. (...)

Brexit/academic cooperation/Erasmus+

Britain’s refusal to participate in the Erasmus+ programme is deeply regrettable. It wasn’t necessary, since other non-EU European countries take part in this great programme. The refusal is a political choice: in a way, the British are hoping to affirm their sovereignty in this way – even though I’m not sure this is a good way of thinking about sovereignty.

However, as with many issues linked to the new relationship between Europe and the UK, much remains to be specified and clarified. For the time being, Britain’s withdrawal from the Erasmus+ programme won’t lead to exchanges coming to an abrupt halt, since all the funding approved before 2020 will be deployed. We’re waiting to find out more about the Turing programme, which you referred to and which the UK announced was due to take over from the Erasmus+ programme, even though we know it will be less comprehensive in terms of financial aid, mobility capacity and academic cooperation, and it won’t be aimed solely at Europeans but the whole world, because it will form part of the “Global Britain” project.

In the same way, I note that some British universities are going to introduce specific mobility measures, providing for students to be exempt from registration fees. The UK actually remains a member of the Bologna Process, which guarantees a smooth homogenization of university courses. We’re prepared to step up our academic research cooperation with the UK – I talked about these prospects following the general discussion – and find alternative solutions with the universities.

M. Dumont emphasized the need to strengthen our relationship with Ireland. I confirm that we aren’t ignoring that opportunity. Indeed, it’s important to show that Erasmus+ remains a significant, highly stimulating programme, which plays a very important role in encouraging the mobilization of young people for Europe. So we’ll do our best to encourage new forms of mobility from France to the UK and vice versa, and, in addition, consolidate exchanges with Ireland, which is absolutely prepared to do this. (...)./.

Published on 08/03/2021

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