France is actively working with EU partners to define vaccine strategy, says Minister

European Union – COVID-19/European recovery plan/external border checks/Turkey – Excerpts from the interview given by M. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to Europe 1, Les Echos and CNews

Paris, 15 November 2020

COVID-19 vaccine/EU coordination/preparations in France

Q. – The vaccine is on its way. Europe’s preparations seem uncoordinated; Germany, for example, already has a logistics strategy, storage centres, vaccination centres and mobile teams to distribute the vaccine to people. How about us, in France?

THE MINISTER – Since you mention this European issue, I’d like to say a few words because it’s a real matter of sovereignty, too, to be able to protect our populations in the face of a global pandemic. The vaccine – I’ll come to national strategies in a second – is currently being negotiated by the European Union. I think everyone needs to know this because we organized it, at France and Germany’s initiative, in the space of a few weeks; today we’ve got seven contracts with all the major international laboratories, not just European ones, which are researching the various vaccine solutions. We’ve got contracts financed by the European Union, negotiated by the European Union to ensure that every time there are between 200 and 400 million doses – i.e. almost equivalent to the population of Europe, who will be completely protected. It’s very important, because just imagine if Germany had the vaccine tomorrow but France didn’t, or vice versa. Health nationalism in Europe would be a disaster. So it’s very important. We sometimes talk about a Health Europe; we’ve got to be practical, this starts with the vaccine.

Q. – But that doesn’t prevent States too from directly negotiating other doses in addition, does it? That’s the risk.

THE MINISTER – It’s a risk, but for the time being, no, and Olivier Véran [French Health Minister] and I have been in contact with our German counterparts almost daily to ensure that we remain in a European framework. For the moment, that’s clearly the case.

Let me take as an example the vaccine which today seems – let’s be cautious – the most advanced, that of Pfizer and BioNTech – which, moreover, is a German company, therefore a European company whose research has been supported by the European Union; we probably wouldn’t be at such an advanced stage without European funding, and we’ve got a contract, the European Union has a contract for 200 to 300 million doses – that’s a considerable amount, covering a large part of the European population – for the vaccine. What will actually happen? Two things: first, each [country] will have the vaccine in proportion to its population. So there’ll be a clear rule which France is upholding. (...)

Q. – Why is very concrete action already being taken in Germany – storage centres, mobile teams being prepared?

THE MINISTER – No, I know this pessimistic French outlook, but we mustn’t have a kind of weak view of ourselves, we’re discussing it.

Q. – It’s a realistic one.

THE MINISTER – No, I don’t think it is; let me explain. We’re talking to our European partners, starting with Germany, so that by the end of November we’ll have defined the broad thrust of a vaccines strategy. It will be a joint one, this is also what the President wants, we’re in the process of talking about it – Olivier Véran at the helm, with the Germans – to define the same priorities: who will be vaccinated first? Because there needs to be an order; carers or the elderly or vulnerable people will probably take priority. Indeed, things have to be organized in the vaccination centres, logistics.

Q. – What will be done for storage at minus 80ºC? Have we got capabilities?

THE MINISTER – We’re assessing all that. In slightly mundane terms, there need to be very special refrigerators. No European country, to be very clear, currently has their whole plan set out. So let’s not say “Germany has done this and France hasn’t done that”; that’s not correct. We’re trying to define it together – probably with European funding, by the way. We’ll buy a certain amount of refrigeration and other equipment together. And so I think we’ve got an opportunity here – it isn’t a given, but we aren’t being defeatist, far from it. We’ve got a great opportunity to do something effective for Europe which protects French and European people.

European health agency

Q. – You were talking about R&D investment. The American agency BARDA has already spent 14 billion [dollars] on research into vaccines and medicines. What’s Europe doing to pull itself up to that level?

THE MINISTER – For the moment, if we add up research carried out nationally, we can’t be very far off a figure of several billion euros. There’s a European plan for this vaccine and for the future to create, precisely, a health budget and a European health agency modelled on America’s BARDA.

Q. – But that isn’t yet the case.

THE MINISTER – It isn’t the case but it has been endorsed, the European Commission presented it this week. We’re actively supporting the initiative.

Q. – When will it come into being?

THE MINISTER – I hope it comes into being next year, but we aren’t hanging around because it’s nice to create agencies and “thingies”, to quote General de Gaulle, but the goal is to be effective. On the vaccine, we haven’t waited for an agency; we’ve got European contracts and European funding which has already exceeded €2 billion.

This week the European Parliament, negotiating, with our support, the European budget, tripled it for health, which will reach over €5 billion for the coming years.

So things still aren’t perfect, but for the first time we’ve got – and in the space of only a few months – a very concrete Health Europe which is being created, for the vaccine.

Developing countries/access to vaccines

Q. – We hear you; Europe is in control, for its own sake but also for that of the poor countries, at least on the face of it. Europe and France have put several billion euros in the pot but there still isn’t enough to fund, precisely, possible vaccination programmes in those countries. What can be done? Where can the money be found?

THE MINISTER – Firstly, we have indeed – first and foremost Europe, including France – been financing various initiatives since April, amounting to several billion euros moreover. I think a little over 10 [billion] has already been raised so that the Southern countries, the developing countries, the poorest countries have access to vaccination.

Let me say a word on this. This isn’t just – even though it’s important – about solidarity. That’s essential, but it’s more than that: it’s in our interest in terms of health too, because the pandemic will only be beaten, we’ll no longer have different waves like the ones we’ve got, if throughout the world we make efforts concerning health, and tomorrow the vaccine, which are equally ambitious. I think it’s a question of solidarity, but it’s also in our interest.

So the European Union is prepared to provide more funding. We mustn’t be the only ones, so I hope the American administration, by returning to the WHO, by rejoining various international efforts such as those on the vaccine, will provide more funding as well. We issued this appeal only this week.

Vaccine/“global public good” status

Q. – Will the vaccine allow pharmaceutical companies to grow even richer?

THE MINISTER – No. We’re negotiating, and let me give an example because it’s a crucial point. We’ll very likely be paying a lower price for the Pfizer and BioNTech doses we announced this week – again, let’s be cautious, but it’s a wonderful step forward – than the one the American agency has negotiated. So again it’s a case of strength through unity, because when you negotiate 200, 300, 400 million doses in one go, as the European Union is doing for each contract, you’ve got a lower cost price.

Q. – Does the vaccine have “global public good” status?

THE MINISTER – Yes, we should spell things out clearly here as well for those listening to us: what is meant by “global public good”? It means exactly what you were talking about earlier: international solidarity. It must be accessible to everyone. European funding makes it possible to reduce the cost of the vaccine here.

Q. – And why not say at cost price?

THE MINISTER – That’s what we’re currently negotiating on a case-by-case basis. I’m being cautious because the contracts aren’t all finalized, but the goal is to bring down prices as far as possible.

It’s clear we must be clear and honest about this too: when it’s a start-up – for example a company like BioNTech, supported by the European Union – that finds a solution, it doesn’t have the same investments and they haven’t been absorbed over decades like a group like Pfizer or other major international laboratories. I think we must be pragmatic, [keep it] under public control; I’m in favour of parliaments, national and European, having access to these contracts when they’re ready, so that everything is transparent and there are no delusions and no problems. And we’ve said – to get back to the global public good – that we’re ready to reserve some of our vaccine purchases in Europe for developing countries. (…)

Migration

Q. – Following a meeting with other European leaders at the Elysée Palace at the beginning of the week, the President complained about the fact that migration policy in Europe has drifted off course; let’s watch and listen to him here:

ʺIn all our countries we’re witnessing a distortion of what the right to asylum is. What we want is to build our concerted, common response more effectively, better protect our shared borders, better tackle these contemporary phenomena, in order to keep the borders between us open.ʺ

Is there a problem of trust with the partners? Our correspondent in Brussels reminded us of it earlier: more than one in six people are not thoroughly checked when they enter the common area, according to a study by the Frontex agency. Is that going to change?

THE MINISTER – It’s already changed, it must change, we must step up the checks on our external borders. Again, as everyone can see, there’s no solution when it comes to border security over the migration issue without European action. Are we taking the right level of action? No, not yet. But we have one acquis we must protect. The President mentioned it: namely, that in Europe we move freely inside what’s called the Schengen Area. That’s very valuable, and I emphasize this, it’s not something we must disregard, and it’s not a luxury or a whim on the part of people who oppose borders on principle; not at all. We mustn’t be naïve at all. It’s very important; let me just take the example of France: we have 350,000 people who earn their living by crossing a European border – sometimes they don’t even realize how simple it is any more – every day, to Germany, Italy, Luxembourg etc. And our goods, our medicines also move around Europe.

However, we must be firmer and stricter about the control of our external borders. I don’t want people to think we don’t control our external borders today. (…) It’s not Italy’s fault that, because of its geography, it’s located closer to the African coast, to North Africa – hence the migratory flows. It’s not Spain’s fault there are currently a lot of migrants coming from Algeria and Morocco. So we have to help them through European actions: it’s known as Frontex, it’s a border protection agency, but today [it comprises] only 1,500 people; that’s very few, we must increase it to 10,000. That’s a very practical response. (…)

Terrorism

Today we have the budget to do this; we’ve decided on it. What the President said this week was that we must speed it up. I can tell you that when Turkey organized pressure at the Greek border in February, they tried – deliberately – to get migrants through to Greece to put pressure on the European Union and probably obtain money. We held the Greek border, I think we were right, and we did so with European and in particular French resources. That’s very important. Sorry, about asylum and immigration – because that’s also very important – sorry, asylum, immigration and terrorism: there’s no conflation. It would be madness – and wrong – or it would quite simply be a factual error to say immigration brings about terrorism. I remind you that out of 30 terrorist crimes that have been committed…

Q. – No, but terrorism can take advantage of migration…

THE MINISTER – Of course: as I said, out of 30 terrorist attacks that have taken place in France in recent years, 22 have been committed by people born in France, who lived in France. So you can bury your head in the sand and say, ʺno more immigration, no more terroristsʺ – it’s a lie. And so we’ll never fall into that conflation trap. On the other hand, it’s clear that borders are a means of limiting networks, people-smugglers, trafficking, which exploit human misery and poverty and the difficulties of migrants. And yes, it’s clear that amid these networks and this trafficking there may be confusion and some people who are a threat to our security may slip in. I never, ever, ever say a migrant equals a terrorist; the President will never say it. However, protecting our borders is a way of making our choices about immigration, at the same time as fighting various and varied trafficking: drugs, arms… and also terrorism.

Q. – But even if he said it cautiously, the political message was sent. At the same time, terrorism experts at European Union level…

THE MINISTER – A laissez-faire message would be destructive for Europe, so I have no problem with that.

Q. – There are also analyses by terrorism experts at European Union level who say that in reality, the threat is inside the Schengen Area, that it’s radicalized Europeans who are most dangerous. What is… How do you distinguish, and ultimately wasn’t it about Emmanuel Macron’s message being essentially political?

THE MINISTER – Every message is political, so I don’t think the President has any problem taking responsibility for it. But what is his message? A European solution. Even on what seem like very national, sovereign issues like the fight against terrorism, you need a European dimension. The President is true to his DNA, to the language he’s always used since the presidential campaign, in which he’s said that in every major crisis there’s also a European response. We’re doing that. We could have used very different language, that of the far right, which consists in saying let’s close everything; that’s not our language.

Secondly, it’s obvious that if you make do with talking about the external borders you’re not being effective about the terrorist threat! It’s also at home, it’s first and foremost within our countries. It requires education, it requires us to combat the separatism we’ve allowed to take root for too long. And the Government has also been very clear on this. We didn’t discover the fight against terrorism with the Schengen issue. But it’s one of the instruments. It’s one of the instruments we must take on board. Then we saw it with the Vienna attacks, etc. We must fight at home, against an enemy who is trying to kill our freedom, our values – to kill, full stop. And obviously this fight against radicalization also leads to our own countries!

Q. – Indeed, Gérald Darmanin has taken action to support the expulsion of radicalized foreigners. He made a tour of the Maghreb countries. It doesn’t seem to have proven very persuasive. Can’t we increase the power balance and have other ʺweaponsʺ to enable those expulsions?

Q. – What was the result of that round of visits?

THE MINISTER – You’re right, one of the issues is that – to explain to everyone, because everyone says, ʺwe must deport people who don’t have their papers in orderʺ and especially people who pose a threat to our security – the main obstacle to these deportations, these expulsions is that the countries of origin or transit are currently refusing. But you have to deport a person somewhere. And so I think, again, we have to overcome the naïvety, require European action here too, because we’re stronger [together] under this pressure. We must tell those countries that they’ve got to take back people who are identified as their nationals and, as Gérald Darmanin said, we have levers to do so…

Q. – But what?

THE MINISTER – For example, visas.

Q. – Would you be prepared to limit the number of visas, for example for certain countries in the Mediterranean basin?

THE MINISTER – For example, for people: targeting people, political leaders, economic leaders. Yes, that’s one of the levers the President and the Interior Minister [have got]. (…)

Turkey

Q. – Also regarding pressures and levers, sanctions against Turkey are to be considered at the European Council in December. How can we impose sanctions on Turkey?

THE MINISTER – A few sanctions already exist: they’re what we call individual sanctions – in other words, we tell an individual, a political leader for example…

Q. – They’re not effective…

THE MINISTER – No, it’s not very effective. It’s also generally a symbolic tool. But we have to go further. And so we’re looking at every option for the European Council in December. At the last European summit in October we gave a chance to Turkey, which had provided small conciliatory signs, withdrawing a vessel from Greek or Cypriot waters. Now it’s chosen the path, once again, of provocation and systematic aggression…

Q. – So what sanctions are there in this case?

THE MINISTER – It may be further individual sanctions. We’re looking again at every option. It may be so-called sectoral sanctions, i.e. economic ones in this or that sector. It’s still too early to take a decision because, again, we’ll do so with all our European partners. But France has, I believe, changed the European position on Turkey. And I’ll take one example – they aren’t only sanctions, they aren’t only direct sanctions; this summer, when there was an action by Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, sometimes with warships, we sent our navy to show our presence and block the Turks. If we have to take those kinds of measures, we’ll do so again. So it’s a toolbox, a range of measures where we mustn’t rule out any option, including economic sanctions.

Q. – Despite your statements and your desire to provide reassurance in this way, the feeling is that France is nevertheless a bit isolated. With regard to Turkey, the other European partners are a lot more cautious. Germany has its priorities; the Maltese Government too has its priorities regarding Turkey. Ultimately, isn’t France on its own against Turkey ?

THE MINISTER – No, first of all France isn’t on its own against Turkey, and we’ve made the European consensus on the issue change. You’re right, for 10 or 15 years we thought Turkey was a friendly Eastern-style Christian democracy that would gradually modernize… It isn’t that. It’s about aggressive Islamism, culturally, geopolitically, in every field. We’ve seen this again in Nagorno-Karabakh in recent days. And so we mustn’t be naïve in any way. It was France that spoke out first: for example, we supported Greece in a very practical way against Turkey’s pressure in February. Now, even in Germany the view has changed; I think it was a necessary precondition for action. And today I don’t think any European country has any illusions any more about what Mr Erdoğan and his regime are. And now we’re going to move to act; we’ve started: I was talking about our presence in the eastern Mediterranean this summer; that’s not negligible. As early as last year we imposed sanctions on Turkish leaders who were carrying out drilling in the eastern Mediterranean. And we’ll go further, undoubtedly…

Q. – The relationship with the customs union; there’s integration, there’s the modernization currently being negotiated…

THE MINISTER – There’s no magic wand, but all options are on the table; you mentioned the customs union; I don’t think that’s the most effective one, but I mentioned – after all, it’s very powerful – possible sanctions in some sectors of the economy. That’s a possibility, we must discuss it, but with our European partners I think the view has completely changed and the Europeans are finally ready for action. (…)./.

Image: NIAID

Published on 19/11/2020

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