1. European affairs – COVID-19/vaccines/border controls/tests – Interview given by Mr. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France Info (excerpts) (Paris – January 17, 2021)
Let’s listen to the Prime Minister: “From Monday all those wishing to travel to France from any country outside the European Union will have to get a test before departure. Moreover, those concerned will have to make a pledge to self-isolate for seven days once they arrive in France, then get a second PCR test at the end of it.” That’s what the Prime Minister said. Should vaccine passports be required?
THE MINISTER – Well, first of all I don’t want things to get mixed up; the vaccine passport is something very different…
Yes, we’re going to come to border controls. But first, aren’t vaccine passports possibly the simplest thing, at the end of the day?
Let me say that we’re very reluctant about the idea. What exactly are we talking about? If it’s a passport, a document which authorizes you – in this particular case, for example – to travel to Europe, I think it’s a very premature debate. Why? Firstly, we know the vaccine is scientifically safe and it has beneficial effects, but we don’t yet know its full impact on virus transmission. So we’ve still got to get that point completely clarified. Secondly, we’re in a phase – throughout Europe, not just in France – of stepping up the vaccination campaign. At the moment, as you know, a few hundred thousand people in each country – Germany, Italy, France – have been vaccinated; they tend to be the oldest, the most vulnerable. Until you’ve entered a phase of vaccination for the general public when everyone has access – which will more likely be in the spring -, I think that telling people “you’re restricted to doing this”, when there still isn’t widespread access to the vaccine, doesn’t work, to be very clear. So it’s a debate certain European countries have started – particularly Greece, specifically – because they’re thinking of the tourist season, which you can understand. There are no good grounds today for such a discussion, and I think it would be shocking, while this vaccination campaign in Europe is still getting under way everywhere, to say that some have greater rights with a passport than others – that isn’t the way we think about protection and access to the vaccine.
OK, we understand, you’re clear on the issue. Nevertheless, in an IFOP poll in
this morning, French people are very much in favor of it. And you mention Greece; Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, very favorably welcomed Greece’s request. Does this mean that in your view, during the next European Council, there isn’t even anything to be discussed about vaccine passports? The European Council is next week.
Next week there’s a European Council of heads of State and government, in which President Macron will be participating. I’ll be preparing for that meeting from tomorrow morning with the European affairs ministers. It’s an idea – we’ll be clear about this – on which France doesn’t think a debate should be started now. Once again – let me stress this, because the language is important – I think we’re mixing up concepts. The poll I saw is interesting, because I think it shows what? It shows impatience; people are saying, “I want to go back to doing things, I want to be able to go to a restaurant, find a social activity.” Here, we were talking about travel to Europe with Ms. von der Leyen’s proposal. Those two things are a bit different, but I think it means that this vaccination campaign has to be carried out, speeded up. When there’s widespread access to the vaccine, it will be a different matter.
Let’s talk about border controls – this affects everyone -, let’s at any rate at least look at these controls in a very practical way. For those arriving [in France] from outside the European Union, the Prime Minister announced a test, carried out 72 hours beforehand, negative of course, self-isolation, or more precisely a sworn statement that they’ll self-isolate for seven days once they’ve arrived in the country, and another test. First point: the Prime Minister didn’t specifically say, but are we talking about a PCR test, particularly when you’re in the country [of departure], before entering France, or does an antigen test work as well?
The Prime Minister specifically said in his press conference that it’s a PCR test.
No, he didn’t. For the second test, yes, he specifically said PCR test, but for the first test he didn’t say.
Well I’m pretty sure he did; the first test is a PCR test which has to be negative, carried out on departure, before travelling, and before potentially arriving on French soil. And there is indeed this additional measure, a seven-day quarantine, which we’re asking everyone to comply with.
Still, aren’t we lagging behind a bit with these border controls, compared to our neighbors?
No, let me be very clear: the borders, outside the Schengen Area, outside Europe, are closed on principle. It’s an initiative France took on 17 March last year. They haven’t reopened. There were a few countries over the summer on a so-called green list, i.e. they had a favourable epidemic situation and we granted exceptions. But the principle which has applied since March, and is still being applied – I’m keen to say this because there’s no laxity – is that borders are closed, except to Europe. There are a few exceptions for our nationals, and now we’re clarifying this and applying it to everyone, including our nationals; a test must be carried out prior to departure.
So let’s come back, all the same, to the sequence: a PCR test prior to departure, self-isolation. But what does “self-isolation” mean? Do you have the means, does France, the French State, have the means to police this self-isolation?
Well, let me begin by saying that what happens beforehand is the most important thing. You are not allowed, except in exceptional circumstances, to come into France when you’re travelling from outside the Schengen Area, outside Europe. There has to be a good reason – for example, French nationals returning to their families, their country. There’s the obligatory test before departure, which must obviously be negative and recent – less than 72 hours old. We’ve added the quarantine measure. We’ve got to find a balance, we’ve got to be clear and pragmatic; can you put everyone in a hotel, under police check? No. Can you call on people to act responsibly, once again, in addition to the automatic verification, in this instance, provided by a test, to comply with this additional measure of civic protection and responsibility? That’s what we’re doing. If we’ve got to go further, we’ll see, but I think with these three things together – closure [of the borders] on principle and rare exemptions, an obligatory recent negative test carried out prior to departure and this extra measure -, we’re calling on everyone to act responsibly, but we’ve got few arrivals today. I think this group [of measures] provides protection, it isn’t lax. (…)
(…) What’s France going to ask for [at the European Council]? That ultimately the Schengen countries are all considered part of the “scarlet” zone, and that what applies to countries outside Schengen – which you detailed just before the reminder of the headlines: PCR test 72 hours prior to departure, self-isolation and a PCR test at the end of the self-isolation period – also be applied to the countries of the European Union? Is that what France is going to ask for?
What France is doing at the moment – this is why we didn’t announce any measures last Thursday for the countries of the European area (I say European area, because it matters; it also covers, for example, Switzerland, which is part of Schengen, and there are many cross-border workers). Firstly, I want to be clear about this because it’s important: whatever happens, our cross-border workers – 350,000 of them go to Switzerland, Luxembourg etc. every day – will be able to continue moving around. That’s essential: it’s their everyday life. Just as we can go to work, they can go on working, that’s important.
And indeed we envisage tightening control measures within the European area. There won’t be any border closures, because, precisely, particularly as regards the cross-border workers, we need goods to circulate, workers have to be able to go to work etc. But yes, it’s a possibility. Why haven’t we announced it? Because we’re in consultation with those European countries. Tomorrow morning there’s a meeting of European affairs ministers in which I’ll be taking part. On Thursday, there’s a discussion at heads-of-State-and-government level. So we’ll decide in the next few days.
It’s possible today – we’ve got a European framework – to make tests a requirement before travelling between European countries. Once again, not for cross-border workers, that’s certain. But, for example, if you fly to Paris or Berlin, Germany has required a negative test prior to departure for some time now. We can do the same thing, it’s legally possible, and we’re devising these tougher measures with our European partners. Why? Because it provides more consistency and is more logical. Everyone compares, it’s normal to do that together. We’re also checking the type of test we may require. Because there’s a technical, but important point: PCR tests exist everywhere; antigen tests are not yet recognized in the same way in all European countries. So we’re also working on that point. (…)
Are we going to discuss this with our German friends and our Belgian friends?
Absolutely. Let me take a very practical point, which concerns cross-border workers and also, more widely, movement in Europe. We’ve got to move gradually towards mutual recognition for antigen tests. So we’re working on a European list of potentially recognized antigen tests. Because, once again, PCR tests are a well established technique, recognized everywhere; antigen tests…
But why not require PCR tests, not antigen tests?
You’re right. That’s what we’re thinking about. If we require tests between European countries, we’ll obviously authorize PCR tests in that case, because, once again, they’re reliable and recognized everywhere. And we’re thinking – but this needs to be harmonized – about a list of antigen tests which could be mutually recognized throughout Europe. This still isn’t the case today. So today I’m taking a very concrete example, between France and Ireland, if you want to require a test before departure: PCR works, because we’ve got the same ones; antigens don’t work today, because Ireland still doesn’t recognize them. There you are.
So we’re trying to be as practical as possible and provide protection, even within – let me be clear – even within the European area. There may already be controls in border areas etc. to check that movement is justified. So we haven’t waited at all these past few days before taking tough measures vis-à-vis our external borders (…)
2. European affairs – Interview given by Mr. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to Le Talk-Le Figaro (excerpts) (Paris – January 15, 2021)
There’s another issue being talked about a lot less now [than COVID-19], namely Brexit. First of all, a quick question about the many French people who work, who live on the other side of the Channel: is there an exodus, are they coming back to France, because they’re obviously afraid of the future? It’ll be much more complicated for them.
THE MINISTER – Since 24 December and the Christmas agreement reached between the European Union and the United Kingdom, we haven’t noticed any large-scale movement. First of all, there have been health restrictions, tough ones in England, but what we’ve noticed over several years, obviously in certain sectors like finance, but since the British referendum, is that there have indeed been several tens to hundreds of thousands – we’re currently making the assessments, yes – of Britons who have come back to the European Union: to be clear, they’ve sometimes been non-British European nationals who lived there and are coming back faster, sooner than they probably would have. So we’ve observed – I’ll take the example of finance – more than 10,000 jobs in total that have left the City for Europe, including the Paris financial centre; we estimate at 3,000 or 4,000 the number of jobs that have…
So is Brexit beneficial, from this point of view?
I don’t think it’s good for the UK, and it’s not good news for the European Union either. But it’s the European Union which has a kind of opportunity to use this crisis – because it is a crisis and bad news – to strengthen itself. I’ll take the example, more broadly, of the European recovery plan, which is going to revitalize our economies and enables us to invest 750 billion euros, more than 40 billion euros directly injected into France, from 2021 onwards. That’s not negligible.
Is that certain, is the process working?
Absolutely, it’ll arrive in the spring, yes. We have a vote in the national parliament, because there’s obviously a democratic debate…
Will the money start coming in the spring?
The money will start coming between now and June, to be precise, and this will magnify and supplement our recovery plan. I don’t think we’d ever have done that without the shock of Brexit and without the UK’s departure.
Is it Brexit that has facilitated this European solidarity?
There’s never one single factor, but yes, I think Brexit has shown everyone that when you criticize the European Union – and sometimes people are right, not everything works well, we have to speed up -, sometimes it can be very serious and lead to a rift. No one had really anticipated [it], to be clear. And I think everyone’s realized the fragility but also the value of our Europe, of our political project. It’s better to try and improve it than to break it or leave it, as suggested by the populists, who offer no solutions and are now watching this with a touch of sadness. Moreover, I’ve never really heard those people like M. Dupont-Aignan and Mme Le Pen, who at the time celebrated the UK’s regained freedom and sovereignty, explaining to us today how tremendous it is and that we should leave the euro and the European Union. You don’t hear it much any more.
Well, there was the Christmas agreement, which you talked about; very recently, at the beginning of the year, you went with Jean-Yves Le Drian to Brittany, the land where he was elected: to Lorient. And he said then – you did too – that the agreement must now be implemented – you went to see the fishermen, sorry – and that it wasn’t perhaps as simple as that to implement. What’s the stumbling block? Or is it complicated?
Well, there are two things, to be very specific. First of all, we must implement the agreement, because it’s [currently only] a piece of paper, if I can put it that way. Now – and I’ll take the fisheries example – we’ve secured access for our fishermen to British waters for the next six fishing seasons, for five-and-a-half years. That was one of the tough points of the negotiation, and we secured it.
With a few restrictions even so.
Yes, we’ve lost a few fish quotas, to be precise, but there’s access; that was very important, we explained it in Brittany, and I went to Hauts-de-France, to Normandy, to explain all that, together with the Minister of Marine Affairs. But now we need administrative access permits. So in the coming days we’ll still be fighting, we’re getting them very slowly; we must speed up so the agreement becomes a reality. (…)
Are there any other sectors where there are stumbling blocks?
No, but above all there’s another thing, and it’s very important. It’s that all the conditions for economic competition, State aid, the food standards that apply in a sector… we have an agreement enabling us to prevent British dumping. In other words, if the British carry out dumping or lower a standard, a regulation to a [low] level of requirements, we can react. By closing a sector through customs duties etc., we can react. But all this is in the agreement, and we still have a bit of legal work now to implement it.
Our demand – I was in Brussels at the beginning of the week – is that the Commission should make a very concrete proposal in the next few weeks, in the first quarter of 2021, and that – because a little legislation is necessary – it should all be adopted this year, of course, to prevent there being any British divergence that penalizes our businesses. (…)
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