No "European brake" on vaccine in France - Minister

COVID-19 – Brexit – Interview given by M. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to RMC/BFM TV (excerpts)

Paris, 8 December 2020

COVID-19

Q. – The British are now starting to vaccinate, it’s under way there today; and we’re still waiting for the European Union’s green light. First of all, the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, then we’ll need the go-ahead from the European Commission and then the go-ahead from the French National Authority for Health. Does Europe ultimately act as a brake?

THE MINISTER – No, I want to reiterate a few truths, really. First of all, we’ll see how things go in the United Kingdom. And secondly, let me remind you that you don’t base a strategy on a single vaccine. The Prime Minister and the Health Minister presented it last week: in order to gradually vaccinate as many people as possible and the entire population – at any rate, a large sector – there will doubtless be six vaccines, six laboratories producing those vaccines. So it’s not just a sprint, it’s a marathon, and it’s spread out over several months. So we mustn’t judge things on the basis of a single day, if I can put it that way, rather as if…

Q. – Yes, but ultimately, sorry: during that time, they’re still starting today. And we’ve been told so often that the vaccine is the solution, so why are we waiting, whereas they’re ready and getting under way?

THE MINISTER – Well, first of all this has absolutely no connection with any European brake or with Brexit, as may have been said via the official channels in London.

Q. – It has nothing to do with it?

THE MINISTER – No connection.

Q. – It’s not because they’re outside the European Union that they can begin straight away? Then why aren’t we doing that?

THE MINISTER – No, I’m going to tell you why: because there’s a legal framework which is the same until 31 December, they’re still legally bound by European rules until 31 December, the same legal framework in France, in the UK, in Germany etc. We’ve made a choice in France and in all the other European Union countries – except the UK, that is – to follow a European procedure. Why? Because it enables us to have certain access to all the vaccines, and that’s very important. And it enables us to have a procedure that is swift – I’ll come back to that – but also perfectly safe. We’re taking a few more days…

Q. – Does that mean that it’s a bit less safe for the British?

THE MINISTER – They’ve chosen – we could have done so – a so-called accelerated procedure, an emergency procedure that doesn’t provide exactly the same safeguards. I’m not health minister, but we know it’s a shorter procedure which therefore has a few downsides, because it doesn’t have exactly the same safeguards. And there’s been a debate in the UK. So I think they wanted to show they were capable of moving quickly on a vaccine, and they’re starting this week. We’ll see if it’s ready, we’ll see if people have confidence…

Q. – You seem slightly doubtful, all the same…

THE MINISTER – I am slightly doubtful. I was watching your reports this morning, too; a number of people have been slightly taken by surprise and don’t know if it’s properly organized, they don’t necessarily have confidence yet. And we know in our societies, in our countries, in France in particular, you have to create confidence in the vaccine. So I believe combining effectiveness and speed, on the one hand, and absolute safety on the other, is important, and that’s the decision we’ve made. And to be clear to the people listening to us, the European Union will give, the European [Medicines] Agency will give its opinion on the very first vaccines in a few days’ time. So we’re really looking at a gap of a few days…

Q. – Before Christmas? They’ve pledged to provide the response before 29 December. Could it be even earlier?

THE MINISTER – Maybe a bit earlier, but in any case there’s this deadline of 29 December for an initial vaccine, which is also the one being started in the UK. So you see we’re looking at gaps of a few days, and when you put all the vaccines end to end, the organizing we must do, the confidence we must create, I think we were right to take the extra time.

Brexit

Q. – I understand you: you’re saying the European Union guarantees us more safety and we do things better. But ultimately it’s true that on the British side it’s almost propaganda, it’s tangible, the idea of being able to say: today we’re the first, we’re going ahead, we’re vaccinating. They’re also batting for their own team, in other words they’re saying: well look, Brexit has also enabled us to be the first. On the Brexit front, we can nevertheless say, overall, it’s a disaster, at any rate from the point of view of the European Union, which doesn’t believe there will be an agreement – you’ll confirm that to us this morning. But in any case, on London’s side they were saying yesterday evening: there’s every chance of the post-Brexit negotiations failing.

THE MINISTER – Yes, even though they themselves – well, there again, as you’ve said, I don’t know if propaganda is the right word, but there are tactics, there’s PR, a bit about the vaccine undoubtedly and probably also about messages surrounding the negotiations. The truth of the matter is that negotiations are still under way. (…)

In practical terms it’s complicated, and we ourselves don’t want to give in to any kind of pressure the British might exert on us, because there are at least two very concrete priorities for the French, for the Europeans and for our businesses: fisheries – there are more than 6,000 direct and indirect jobs in a few French regions, particularly Hauts-de-France, Normandy and Brittany. That’s major, it keeps those regions alive; there’s no reason why we should surrender it all because it’s important for the British and then say to them: listen, never mind, you block our access to your waters and we’ll do things differently. That’s not acceptable. So making efforts, yes, compromises, yes, everyone knows that; we’ve been honest about it to French fishermen. But sacrificing our fishing and our fishermen? It’s a no. And the British know that.

Q. – So there’s fishing and there’s…

THE MINISTER – There’s fishing and there’s what are rather clumsily called fair competition conditions. In practice, this means we want – if the British have access to our market, which is what they’re demanding: to continue to be able to export to us, and we to them…

Q. – Then it’s a win-win, after all…

THE MINISTER – It’s a win-win, true, but when you export to a market like that of the Europeans, which is eight times bigger than the British market, you have to comply with some rules. I can’t tell French consumers; “we haven’t checked that the British comply with our health rules, our environmental rules, [for] chemical products, pesticides and other things”. We can’t do that, otherwise it’s unfair, and it doesn’t reassure consumers either…

Q. – But aren’t you fed up with last-chance meetings?

THE MINISTER – Yes, I admit we are fed up, but we’re not going to say we’re slamming the door because we’re tired, especially because it’s Michel Barnier who is negotiating for us…

Q. – But if you yourself… Because you’ve said, particularly about the fishermen: if I feel French fishermen are truly under threat, I won’t hesitate to use my veto. But what use is your veto to them, I mean the British? What will it change?

THE MINISTER – Well, it’ll change – to be specific, I was asked whether we’ll look at the agreement when it’s on the table: obviously, and we’ll analyse whether or not it properly defends our interests, particularly the fishermen’s. If we think the agreement is less good than not having any agreement, then we won’t hesitate to do that – like all the countries, incidentally, which will make that assessment.

Q. – So anyway, when they – the British – say the negotiations overall are going to fail, are you saying: no, they’re not yet completely done for?

THE MINISTER – No, I’m not going to formally acknowledge failure. I think we still have time for negotiations, a few days, and then we have to say clearly – because it’s also important for businesses, for our fishermen – “yes or no, deal or no deal”. (…)./.

Published on 09/12/2020

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