French EU presidency "a significant, invaluable moment"

Foreign policy – French presidency of the Council of the European Union/Ukraine/Russia/NATO/Mali – Interview given by Mme Anne-Claire Legendre, Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, to RFI

Paris, 10 January 2022

French EU presidency

Q. – On Friday, Emmanuel Macron launched his European Union presidency by hosting a meeting with the 27 European commissioners and the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen. Among the issues Emmanuel Macron wants to make swift progress on is the so-called Strategic Compass. It’s a defence white paper analysing the threats facing the 27. Can you tell us a bit more about it? What stage is the work at, and how and by whom will the document be drawn up?

THE SPOKESPERSON – Yes, indeed, the priorities set out by the President at his press conference on 9 December included a sovereign Europe. And a sovereign Europe obviously requires a strengthened Defence Europe. As you know, that’s been a priority for France in recent years, and we’ve made a lot of progress on it. The Strategic Compass would be the first European defence and security white paper. And the document poses several challenges. The first is to develop, for the first time in the European Union’s history, a shared analysis of the geopolitical context the European Union finds itself in and the threats we face. The second is to identify the capabilities, and ways of strengthening these necessary capabilities, on the European Union side, to tackle those threats. And this must be deployed in areas that are currently contested: we’re talking about cyber security, we’re also talking about space and we’re also talking about maritime security, of course.

Q. – Well, a shared analysis – that’s also where it’s difficult, because one can well imagine that not everyone among the 27 identifies the same dangers, the same threats.

THE SPOKESPERSON – Yes, but that’s also what may in the past have made it hard for us to develop common strategies and approaches on a number of issues. And so that’s why this document is so important, because our intelligence services, our diplomats, our strategic affairs experts have been working on the document to produce, today, a common analysis of the threats facing the European Union.

Q. – And what about the Strategic Compass? Is that document nearly finished now?

THE SPOKESPERSON – Well, discussions are under way; proposals are currently on the table, and so it will be up to us, the European Union presidency, to ensure we make progress on this text to get it adopted, because that’s our goal for the European Council in March.

Q. – The French EU presidency is now going to take up a big part of France’s international policy. Is there a risk that it might basically take up too much space and put other major issues on the back burner?

THE SPOKESPERSON – No, absolutely not. We’ll obviously keep making active efforts on all the issues of strategic interest to France, but I’d like perhaps to turn the question around: I think what’s interesting to see in the French presidency context is a significant, invaluable moment. We haven’t held the presidency for 13 years, and it’s a moment that comes at what I’d say is a turning point, where we need a Europe which, as the President has emphasized, emerges from a Europe of cooperation within the EU’s borders and becomes a Europe powerful in the world, free in its choices and master of its destiny, as Jean-Yves Le Drian said. And it’s clear that on all the existential issues – whether it be the digital transition or the climate transition, the big issues we have to deal with today as diplomats – the effective response is from all 27.

Russia/Ukraine

Q. – American-Russian talks are due to begin in Geneva today. What should Europe’s role be in those discussions on the crisis between Ukraine and Russia?

THE SPOKESPERSON – So Europe’s role is very clear. As you know, the discussions between Russia and Ukraine following the previous attacks on Ukraine’s integrity are being handled in the framework of the Minsk agreements and the Normandy format, where France and Germany have played a leading role. And so this Normandy format is supported by the international community; it’s the only agreed framework for dealing with the Ukraine crisis. It’s supported by the Americans, as the President has said…

Q. – But not by the Russians.

THE SPOKESPERSON – The Russians have agreed to be part of the Normandy format, but since 2019, the end of 2019, we haven’t managed to hold a new meeting, which was nevertheless agreed on by President Putin. So it’s a good thing for there to be discussions between the Americans and Russians on the Ukraine tensions, and in this regard I must stress, as the French President has done, that the coordination with our American friends on this issue is exemplary.

Q. – But for the moment, then, Russia wants to talk only to the United States, and isn’t that a kind of failure for European diplomacy?

THE SPOKESPERSON – No, I don’t think so. I think that’s an attitude we’ve already seen in the past. I think what’s important today is to see how we’re mobilizing. There’s been a series of extremely intense diplomatic meetings: the foreign ministers met last Friday, during an exceptional NATO meeting. There are obviously extremely in-depth contacts before and after the contacts between the Russians and the Americans, and we have the NATO Council coming up, in which the Europeans are participating, and then, at the end of the week, this week, we’ll be having the Gymnich, which will bring together all the EU foreign ministers and all the armed forces ministers to define the framework for discussions with Russia, which is what we want.

Q. – Does France understand that Russia is worried and categorically opposes Ukraine’s entry to NATO?

THE SPOKESPERSON – France takes our partners’ real concerns into account, and let me remind you that in 2019, President Macron expressed the desire to renew dialogue with Russia, which we did. And so for us, it’s important to sustain the possibility of that dialogue with Russia, but to do so obviously on the basis of parameters that reflect our collective security interests in Europe. And in this regard, the Europeans must clearly be stakeholders in any discussion focusing on European strategic security.

Mali/Wagner

Q. – What information does France currently have about the presence in Mali of men belonging to the Russian company Wagner?

THE SPOKESPERSON – We have extremely clear information, and when I say “we” I mean France, but it’s a whole number of partners. On 23 December 2021, together with 14 partners – Europeans and others – we condemned the presence of the Wagner mercenary militia on Malian soil; the information we have is that there is indeed a deployment of mercenaries on the ground. We also know there’s a deployment of other capabilities. We know there are geologists, for example, from the Wagner company, which shows clearly that, in addition to the offer of security mercenaries on the ground, there’s also a whole predatory economy being established, which we’ve already seen deployed in other territories, particularly the Central African Republic. And we’ve seen the extent to which that didn’t contribute to security, because most of the time it contradicted States’ security interests and sovereignty, and also contributed to predatory policies to the detriment of the people.

Q. – Can the troops from Operation Barkhane coexist with the Wagner men?

THE SPOKESPERSON – What we said on 23 December was that we won’t abandon the Malian people to the terrorism threat. There’s a series of international commitments reflected in various presences on the ground, at this stage, but we’re obviously going to carry on reassessing the situation. We won’t give up supporting the Malian people against the terrorist forces that are unfortunately present on Malian soil.

Q. – The Armed Forces Minister and Foreign Minister have suggested several times, for a few weeks now, that Wagner’s arrival in Mali is a sort of red line, in a way. Is that no longer entirely the case today?

THE SPOKESPERSON – It’s never been about a red line. It’s very clearly been about the incompatibility of that presence with the…

Q. – Yes, but it could even have led to the withdrawal of French troops.

THE SPOKESPERSON – …with the international coalition’s efforts; it’s clear that that presence is detrimental to everything the international coalition is trying to do on the ground, and I want to remind you that there are obviously French forces, but there’s also Takuba, a European force. There are all the efforts being made by the Coalition for the Sahel and obviously by the United Nations forces on the ground to influence Mali’s stability and counter the terrorist threat.

Q. – So French troops won’t pull out, even if Wagner gains ground?

THE SPOKESPERSON – Obviously this is all being assessed on a daily basis. But I just want to reiterate what we said in that statement: we won’t abandon the Malian people to the terrorist threat./.

Published on 11/01/2022

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