Europe must become a "peaceful empire", says Minister

Germany – Opening speech by M. Bruno Le Maire, Minister of the Economy and Finance, to the French-German Business Forum

Paris, 9 November 2018

Allow me to say straightaway to our German friends that it is time for Germany to respond to Emmanuel Macron’s proposals and come to a decision about Europe’s future.

EU as a "peaceful empire"/European sovereignty

Why? Because it’s a key issue. There is only one issue today for future generations: building European sovereignty between Donald Trump’s United States and Xi Jinping’s China. In my view this is the only real issue. Yet to take up this challenge, the only way forward is an agreement between France and Germany; everything else is illusions and projects which will be short-lived. Only an agreement between France and Germany can allow us to build this European sovereignty, which is our challenge, the challenge of our generation, the challenge of the next 25 years.

Europe has a choice: nationalism or sovereignty. France chooses sovereignty, and I’ll go even further: I think Europe has to become an empire again; a “peaceful empire” in the words of Tocqueville, but an empire nonetheless. Between the American empire and the Chinese empire, Europe must assert itself as a peaceful empire.

An empire has allies – the United States. An empire has rivals – China. An empire has enemies and Europe has an enemy which no one names but which kills on our territory and continues to pose a major threat to all our nations: this enemy is radical Islamism.

An empire has economic interests; an empire has ambitions. Our ambition must be to assert ourselves as the empire of human rights, the empire of the rule of law, the empire of sustainable growth, capable of combating global warming.

Finally, an empire has a culture, because there’s a European culture which is the sum of this huge diversity of national cultures which make up the richness of the European continent in the deepest, most powerful and firmly rooted way, centuries and centuries of intertwined, interwoven national cultures, which have spread geographically down the centuries and allow us to be what we are.

This is my personal firm belief: Europe has got to assert itself as a peaceful empire in the next 25 years.

Beyond these great ambitions, it is essential to build this peaceful empire and European sovereignty brick by brick.

To be able to do this, every nation must recover its credibility. I won’t spend too long on this: I’m not here to set out the government’s economic policy. But my deepest belief is that by recovering its economic credibility, France also recovers its political credibility. Nations which run up deficits, which have no answer to growth problems other than more public spending and are unable to innovate or invest are discredited nations. Nations which restore their public finances and invest in the future are nations which are listened to and respected.

And this is exactly what the President, Prime Minister and I want to do.

Building this European sovereignty then means strengthening our economic power. I think this is the first brick we’ve got to make rapid progress on. We should be looking at weeks and months much more than years.

Euro Area

At the heart of increased economic sovereignty is obviously the Euro Area. The euro is the finest political achievement of the past 20 years in Europe, the most important, most significant, because it brings into play what is at the heart of the sovereignty of nations. The only question we should ask ourselves is whether tomorrow, in the event of a new financial crisis, the Euro Area would be able to cope. My answer is no. If there were a new large-scale banking crisis, would we be able to respond to this economic crisis? My answer is no. And it’s on this that we have a difference of opinion with some states.

I for one believe that we must do our work on the domestic front, that each European nation must do its work on the domestic front; that’s essential. France is doing this and I even think it can do better in the coming months and years. But that won’t be enough. And it’s here that I sometimes have a difference of opinion with my German friends, who say: “let everyone do their job and the Euro Area will get better: there’ll no longer be any economic divergence between the 19, there’ll no longer be any fiscal divergence and that will be enough”. No. There needs to be solidarity too. And the more we move towards each nation’s increased competitiveness through essential structural policies, the more it will be necessary, in the light of these national efforts, to promote European solidarity. Each national effort must also be translated into more European solidarity. This is how we’ll make progress on the Euro Area.

We now have an agreement with Berlin, the Meseberg Declaration. I have no hesitation in saying that it’s a historic agreement. Wherever possible, I avoid using that word, which has generally become a cliché for the merest sporting competition won or the merest grain of progress made on wholly trivial matters. Our countries worked on this for 10 years; this time, it has been decided. The Meseberg Declaration contains the establishment of a Euro Area budget. Germany had always refused this; it has agreed to it. And I pay tribute to the Chancellor’s readiness to compromise: she has agreed to the idea of a Euro Area budget. The declaration also contains the taxation of digital giants and the transformation of the international tax system. We can describe these many steps forward as historic.

But they cannot, must not go unheeded. They must now be translated into decisions which alone will make the Euro Area a sovereign economic power. These decisions mustn’t be taken in six months; they must be taken in six weeks, at the forthcoming December European Council. Six weeks from now, we must have decided on the backstop, banking union and the capital markets union. Six weeks from now, we must have made progress on the Euro Area budget, particularly on the basis of the very interesting proposal made by Olaf Scholz, my counterpart, the [German] Finance Minister, which is to create an unemployment insurance scheme for the Euro Area. And for all those closely following the discussions in Germany, everyone has seen that one of the candidates for the CDU chairmanship – and not just any old candidate: Mr Merz – has proposed an unemployment insurance scheme for the Euro Area.

This is why we’ve got to avoid the gross distortions I occasionally hear about what’s happening in Germany. There’s genuine debate and you occasionally see political leaders, from areas of the political spectrum where you wouldn’t necessarily expect such a position, who take positions supporting more solidarity within the Euro Area.

It’s all the more necessary to decide, in that the Euro Area is the future of Europe. With Brexit, the Euro Area will account for 85% of European wealth: 85% of European wealth will now be produced in the Euro Area. And every state which isn’t a member of the Euro Area and saw Britain as an ally in remaining outside that area, is now deprived of that support and, as I see it, will be led sooner or later to join the Euro Area. It’s one more reason for strengthening it.

Trade sovereignty

The second instrument of sovereignty is trade sovereignty. Trade sovereignty means being able to say no.

When our American allies impose on us unjust and indefensible tariffs on steel and aluminium, I’m proud that Europe has been capable of responding in a united way by saying no and threatening retaliation measures, because I think it’s the only language Donald Trump’s administration can understand.

I’m pleased to see that when the United States imposes extraterritorial sanctions on Iran now, just as Iran is complying with the agreement that was signed, the JCPOA, Europe has been able to react. We had a joint declaration by the three foreign ministers and three finance ministers of the UK, France and Germany, to build a financial sovereignty instrument, the much-talked-about SPV [special purpose vehicle], which should enable us to act as a clearing house and resist those sanctions. This instrument isn’t specifically aimed at the desire to trade with Iran. Iran isn’t the real subject; the subject is Europe’s freedom to trade where it wants, when it wants, with the country it wants, provided it complies with international rules.

The instrument will initially take the form of a declaration. It will quickly have to have a banking licence. We’ll quickly have to identify where it’s established and provide it with the necessary capital. Then I hope that – as for the European Stability Mechanism – we’ll manage to turn it into a genuine European tool with all the necessary independence, so that in future we Europeans will be free to trade with whichever countries we want.

Technological sovereignty

The third brick in this European sovereignty is perhaps the most essential and the one that should currently alarm us: namely, technological sovereignty.

I sometimes get the feeling that Europeans are asleep and don’t see what’s happening, don’t see that a major Chinese communication company has just established an artificial intelligence research centre in Shenzhen with 15,000 researchers. One company, 15,000 researchers. I get the feeling Europeans don’t see the extent to which, in terms of artificial intelligence, the Chinese are in the process of building a veritable empire based on totally interweaving the civilian and military spheres. I get the impression Europe doesn’t understand that tomorrow – i.e. within three or four years –, if we’re not careful, our electric vehicles will be powered by Chinese batteries.

Let’s speak out! Politics dies when people don’t say anything, don’t put into words the realities, the threats and the considerable opportunities! We’re a powerful continent, we’re the world’s wealthiest region. We have a substantial technological lead, we have exceptional researchers, we have a culture that makes us strong. We believe in the rule of law, we have centuries of history behind us; we’re protected against easy wars and military conflicts that lead nowhere. That should make us the world’s leading continent… And we’re not! Well, our children would be right to criticize us – political leaders – for not saying loud and clear what I’m telling you: that Europe must assert itself as the world’s leading continent because it has the wealth, the culture, the knowledge for it, and it’s only because we’re not capable of working more and better together that we don’t achieve that.

And let’s be clear: it won’t be the responsibility of friendly countries I deeply respect, like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland or Sweden; it will be the responsibility of France and Germany. And history will judge harshly those great nations that haven’t been capable of rising to this contemporary challenge.

Let me get back to some very specific things about batteries: Total has just embarked on a magnificent operation with Saft to carry out research on fourth-generation, solid-state, lithium-ion batteries that will use no cobalt, which poses real difficulties because it’s taken from mines run in unacceptable conditions and which poses recycling problems. Meanwhile, Germany is conducting its own policy. Why are we waiting to combine our efforts, and above all ask our manufacturers to guarantee a market for these new-generation batteries?

We’re going to work on it at national level – I had the opportunity to talk to Carlos Ghosn about it yesterday; I know Peugeot is already working a lot with Total and Saft; so much the better. French car manufacturers are now ready to provide a market for the research Total is carrying out with Saft. But I’d like German research and German manufacturers also to be in the game in future, and I’d like this battery to be a Franco-German battery. The fourth-generation, solid-state, lithium-ion battery for our electric vehicles must be Franco-German.

And I can mention many technologies – artificial intelligence obviously, on which Peter Altmaier has made a number of proposals, space and health – where it’s time to make progress.

This also applies to research on disruptive innovation, to which the United States and China devote vast resources. In France, as you know, we’ve set up a disruptive innovation fund: €10 billion, with regular returns of €2.5 to €3 billion over 10 years. We’d like this French fund to prefigure a European fund to finance this disruptive innovation.

Technological sovereignty also means us being capable of protecting ourselves. Look closely at America’s CFIUS [Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States]. You’ll see that our American friends are infinitely less liberal than we are in Europe. They’ve understood perfectly that an empire protects itself, that the definition of an empire is that it has borders, including technological borders. Well, I’d like us also to have our technological borders, and I have no desire to invest taxpayers’ money in cutting-edge technologies in alliance with our German or our other European friends only for other major powers to come and help themselves off the shelf and plunder our technologies in future.

And technological plundering has never been so aggressive worldwide – first of all because the technological resources allow it, and secondly because the stakes are very high. So let’s protect ourselves! That’s what Europeans expect. The draft European regulation is about to be adopted; so much the better; it’s proof that awareness has really been raised. And for our part, I can guarantee you that we’ll strengthen our decree on foreign investments in France, to prevent the most sensitive technologies being plundered.

Finally, technological sovereignty – this is the third aspect we must work on – means European industrial champions. States aren’t going to finance everything; it must be big corporations that fund those technologies, and so we need big corporations that have the critical size. The planned merger between Siemens and Alstom still has my total support, so that we can have a rail transport champion capable of rivalling CRRC, which in just 15 years has taken hold as the world’s leading champion of rail transport. Siemens-Alstom would make us the leading power in terms of railway signalling; and everyone knows that, in rail transport, carriages now matter less than signalling. Well, let’s make a success of this merger, because it’s an affirmation of that technological sovereignty I believe in.

Tax sovereignty

Finally, the last point of this sovereignty, in addition to financial and economic sovereignty, trade sovereignty and technological sovereignty, is tax sovereignty.

Let’s be clear: I won’t give an inch on the taxation of digital giants. I understand there may be technical difficulties; let’s work on the technical difficulties; we have four weeks to do so. But I think I’m capable of responding to any of the technical arguments against taxing the digital giants, and explaining why those arguments don’t stand up to analysis – I did so during the finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels last week.

Some people tell me – and it’s a powerful political argument, I admit – that you can find a solution in the OECD framework. It’s true it would be better to have a solution in the OECD framework rather than a solely European solution.

My proposal is very simple: to adopt the European directive in December while giving the OECD two years to find a better solution. We must have an instrument available in the event of the OECD not managing to agree on this digital sector taxation. And in that event, Europe will have paved the way, while allowing for the possibility of a wider-ranging international agreement. That’s the final proposal France is making; we won’t go further. And I believe that on this basis, we’ll manage to secure a decision by our German friends. We have until 4 December – that’s the next meeting of finance ministers – to do so. I believe that on that basis we can and must obtain support from Germany, which, I remind you, for more than a year, at the level of both ministers and heads of state, has always said it too wants to tax the digital giants.

We’re at a moment in our history when a race is under way between, on the one hand, the rise of extremes and, on the other, the affirmation of this peaceful empire Europe can become. Everyone who believes deeply in the European project – like the French President, like myself – must put all their strength into this battle, because it’s now that things are being played out, and the decisions we take now must enable us to affirm Europe as an empire with the size and power of China or the United States but with totally different goals.

It’s time to move forward, it’s time to decide, and you can count on the total commitment of the President and his government in this area. Thank you./.

Published on 26/11/2018

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