Minister stresses EU’s role in tackling coronavirus

COVID-19 – Excerpts from the interview given by Mme Amélie de Montchalin, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France Inter

Paris, 29 March 2020


THE MINISTER – Today, 95% of Europeans are at home. They’ve all been asked to limit their social contact, to limit all gatherings, and indeed we’ve exerted a lot of pressure. Let me tell you very clearly: a moment came when, vis-à-vis the British in particular, we had quite a frank dialogue and told them: “we think that if we want to continue having a minimum level of exchange on goods, on cross-border workers, and a common management of our space at the borders, well, you’re going to have to do a lot more on the health issues.” That’s been done, and they’ve now adopted an approach which is the one the rest of Europe is taking. I can tell you that in the Netherlands and Sweden the measures are changing every day, because they really have realized – like everywhere else – that it’s not magic: you reach agreement.

What matters in health terms at European level – because some things fall under each country’s responsibility and authority – is really about research. The good news today is that more than €180 million has been released for research into a treatment, a vaccine, and fortunately we’re not doing the same research 27 times simultaneously. Fortunately there’s a great deal of coordination: clinical trials are being done together. Everything is being done to work really collectively, and on that point I think that in health terms we’re functioning well together, and that – particularly if we find molecules that work – we can, well, function [together], not each separately in a disorderly way.

Q. – You talked about European solidarity, and yet it was China that delivered masks to Italy. In turn, Cuba has just sent a contingent of doctors. 88% of Italians don’t believe the European Union is helping them. How do you explain Brussels’ absence in this crisis?

THE MINISTER – There again, solidarity mustn’t be exploited.

Q. – Meaning?

THE MINISTER – At one point China needed us. At the beginning of February, the end of February, we sent 56 tonnes of equipment to China. That’s very good, and I don’t think we should get into book keeping, manipulate things or keep tallies, which would be inappropriate. We’re showing solidarity, full stop. And I say that for everyone. What I see today is indeed – it’s true – that China has sent equipment because it has the capacity to produce.

But I can tell you that France has given Italy a million masks. We’ve sent tens of thousands of medical gowns and some overalls. Together we’re doing a huge amount of work, particularly at economic level, at health level and in terms of solidarity. Let me repeat to you what’s happening at our borders: we’ve worked a great deal with regions and prefectures to ensure that the German regions bordering France, as well as Luxembourg, Switzerland and now even Berlin, take in French patients. Eighty French patients have already been transferred across our borders. When you see the situation of the hospitals, that’s real solidarity. And the day may come when we, France, will take in patients from other countries because there’s a need there. So solidarity has always been reciprocal. Everyone helps where they can, with what they can offer. (…)

Q. – One of the dogmas this crisis has shattered is that of open borders. Is Schengen in danger?

THE MINISTER – There were indeed a few days when – partly through shock, partly through haste – a lot of countries took slightly disorderly measures. Today things have started functioning again in what I think is a coordinated way. We’ve laid down a number of principles. We’ve said that goods absolutely must move around, because we can’t add a food crisis to the health crisis. It was absolutely necessary for food and medical goods to be able to move around.

We laid down a second principle, namely that cross-border workers – who often work in the medical sector, incidentally – absolutely must still be able to cross the borders.

And we laid down a third principle, namely that everyone must be able to go back home, whatever passport they have. In other words, if you’re a French person who lives in Austria, you have the right to return to Austria. If you’re a Spaniard who lives in France, you have the right to return home to France. We managed to do that together. Together we also managed to lay down our rules in relation to the rest of the world: Indians, Brazilians, Japanese people, etc. That’s how our external borders were regulated – currently closed, in fact – to prevent the virus being imported and re-exported.

This did take a little time; we have to be very vigilant, because it’s like the economy: if you set yourself principles – particularly for the movement of goods and Europeans around an area – only when everything goes well, there again you see that solidarity goes together with a form of responsibility in the times when it’s most difficult. (…)

Q. – France has 5,000 ICU beds, Germany has nearly 30,000. Germany is producing tests; we have very few, as we’ve seen. How do you explain such a gap between these two European countries? And basically, isn’t there a lack of cooperation within the Franco-German couple?

THE MINISTER – Here again, as you heard, the Prime Minister and Olivier Véran [Health Minister] have announced that we aim to have 14,000 to 15,000 ICU beds within the next few days. Secondly, the strategy for equipping hospitals is different, and that’s something which comes under national powers. What I’m seeing is Germany today, let me repeat, offering us extra beds, especially in the border regions. German military aircraft are currently landing at airports in the Grand Est region to take patients to Germany, which shows that the Franco-German couple is working – you know, we sign treaties; we signed the Aachen Treaty, which opens up many very practical opportunities in our cooperation. I can tell you that for the past 10 days my daily job has consisted in putting these treaties, these principles into practice and today this is absolutely invaluable. You can see everything we’re doing in hospitals locally. If we didn’t have that cooperation, I think there would be even more difficulties. So yes, it’s working; only yesterday, Germany delivered ventilators to France. Of course, this Franco-German couple must be able to think, maybe after the crisis, about pooling our best practice. There may be things we’ll learn here in France which will be useful, also so the Germans themselves can prepare, since the wave, the peak hasn’t reached them yet. And I’d really like to thank them. (...)./.

Published on 06/04/2020

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