Speech by Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, at the Conference of Dutch Ambassadors (28 Jan. 2020)

Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs

Conference of Dutch Ambassadors

The Hague, Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dear Stef,
Dear Secretary-General,
Ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be here. It is a pleasure to see Stef Blok, with whom I have a relationship of great confidence and friendship. I am back in the Netherlands three months after my last visit to The Hague, so it seems this is a good habit. Last time I stayed three days, and I did not suffer the gastronomic shock you warned me of. I actually have rather pleasant memories of meals here, not just that with the Ambassador, but of the other tables that I ate at, so that was quite an incentive to return, and I also saw that Scheveningen wasn’t quite as pretty as Brittany, but at least it was by the sea, so there were common attractions and no doubt a “common maritimity”, perhaps I could say. Indeed, and perhaps I will talk about this with you later, ultimately, it is this common maritimity, to which I am very attached because of my origins, and because of that time in the distant past when I was Minister of State for the Sea, under François Mitterrand. That is almost ancient history, but this “common maritimity” should help us, I think, to understand the consequences of Brexit, which I will come back to. What ties us together is also the sea. It is also the tie with the other side, but quite precisely, our interests can be common. In any case, I am very honoured by your invitation. I also see it as a mark of trust and I am very honoured, very pleased, to be able, ladies and gentlemen, to speak with you, as the main theme you have chosen to focus on this year revolves, for us too, around a crucial question: how can we explain to our citizens the meaning of the diplomatic action we are conducting in their name?

In one way or another, we are all asking ourselves this question, as are all our partners, since, everywhere in the world, international and national issues are now intertwined, for better or for worse. Everywhere, we know that what is happening elsewhere, at times very far away, can have huge repercussions here. And everywhere, we know that we do not have the power to deal with our most pressing challenges alone.

And for us – in France and the Netherlands – this question raises another: is Europe powerless to deal with the emerging global disruptions to the world order? For Europe is the meeting point between our countries and the world.

I believe that it has the means to both affirm itself as a vital player in international competition and to be the master of its own destiny. And the two go hand in hand. I would like to be clear: I am intimately and politically convinced that there is no reason to simply stand by and watch the power struggles of the world’s superpowers across the globe – and even on our own soil. Nothing is stopping us from continuing to shape our own history as long as we are willing to do so.

I believe that the time to make choices has come. To decide what we want to be, and also what world we want to live in.

And I believe that we cannot meet the expectations of our citizens – their need for security, their aspiration to prosperity, their desire to prepare for the future – if we do not take action in every area to ensure Europe can do so. I am not denying the role of our nations. That would be quite audacious of me in a country that I know to be extremely committed to the principle of subsidiarity. However, given the world’s disorder and global fears, which are of legitimate concern to our citizens, Europe can no longer hesitate and needs to act every time it is necessary. As we are just a few days from Brexit, I do not say this lightly.


Ambassadors, Ladies and gentlemen, the year 2020 has started amid agitation and worry. And during this turbulent start to the year, Europeans have managed to be heard in a single voice and to show that they have a genuine ability to take action and rally. And that has been crucial.

Crucial to our own security, of course.

Crucial, also, because every time a crisis breaks out, what is at stake – along with the lives of the people exposed to violence, along with the stability of a region – is always a certain world view. If we give free rein to power games, we will commit three strategic errors, for which we will end up playing dearly.

  • 1) The error of allowing force to prevail over law. As if a stable order could be born of brutality. As if allowing arms to speak, without trying to return to the path of diplomacy and dialogue, could be a solution.
  • 2) The second strategic error would be to believe that the approach that has enabled us, that has enabled our continent to recover from two world wars and advance towards its reunification could only work for Europe.
  • 3) And lastly, the error of forgetting that history can always be tragic and that the lessons history has taught us could be swept away by world events and conflagrations.

And to these three errors, where cynicism competes with defeatism, we Europeans could add a fourth, due to our naivety: the error of believing that we can ensure our place and our security in a brutal and violent world simply through the example of our model and with our words. We therefore also need the concrete military, economic and technological means to better preserve our shared conception of the world order.

Since the start of the year, from the Middle East to the Sahel region, by way of Libya, we have, as Europeans, stepped up our initiatives and shown that Europe is back.

It is back with clear objectives, which are to ensure our security, prevent escalation, find the path to negotiations everywhere, and commit to restoring stability over the long term.

It is back with the pragmatic method Stef mentioned just now, of combining the clout of our institutions and the agility of action coalitions that bring together, on a case-by-case basis, the most willing European players. There is no contradiction here. Proof is in the support that Josep Borrel, the new High Representative, has provided to these initiatives. This agile and pragmatic diplomacy that Stef just spoke of is what I want to see at the heart of France’s action. And this is why we very often end up working together to act because we have the same approach.

Pragmatism often brings success. And, as a matter of fact, it is with this method that eventually Europe has regained its strength.

  • 1) Firstly, on the Libyan crisis.

If an important meeting could be held on 19 January, it was thanks to the combined efforts of European actors: France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom in particular. This is crucial because what is happening in Libya directly concerns Europe: terrorism, migration and the power games of powers. These are the issues of the ongoing conflict.

In Berlin, the President of the Commission, the President of the European Council and the High Representative were by our side and the EU is now going to play its full role in implementing what was decided. Our immediate priority is to support the United Nations in order to consolidate the truce. Our second priority is to then achieve a lasting ceasefire. And work has also been launched to enforce the arms embargo and document blatant violations, using all the means at our disposal. This work must continue. The agreement was important. Now it is time to ensure its implementation, to achieve a swift resumption of the political process.

  • 2) Josep Borrell and Charles Michel were also in Pau two weeks ago, when France held a crucial Summit with the G5 Sahel countries.

The EU and the Member States supported the launch of the International Coalition that we proposed. I believe this is a major turning point for the Sahel, that we need to support collectively with the four goals that the International Coalition has given itself:

  • a. Stepping up our action in the fight against terrorism;
  • b. Building military and intervention capabilities of G5 Sahel countries;
  • c. Helping to restore the government control and services in the areas concerned;
  • d. Doing more and better in terms of development.

One week after the Pau Summit, my colleague, the Minister for the Armed Forces, visited Bamako with her Swedish, Portuguese and Estonian counterparts to ensure the commitments of all parties continued. I would like to highlight here how useful, precious,essential and timely the Dutch contribution has been. I saw that for myself: I myself saw the presence of the Dutch helicopters.
The deployment, in a few weeks, of European special forces of the Takuba Task Force will mark an additional stage in our work in the Sahel region. I would like to repeat now that we need the Netherlands to take action with us in the Sahel region because our security and that of Europe’s southern border are at stake. Indeed, that is the reason you intervened in the MINUSMA framework.

  • 3) The Europeans have also worked to address the cycle of violence and military escalation that we have seen in the Gulf region.

Together, at an emergency meeting called by the High Representative in Brussels, we backed the same call for restraint and de-escalation. This is crucial to the stability of the region and the combat that we are waging against Daesh within the Global Coalition. This fight by the Coalition against Daesh has to continue, while respecting Iraqi sovereignty. The message sent by the Iraqi Parliament a few days ago, although it came in a particular context, must be taken as a political message. The continuation of the Global Coalition against Daesh’s action requires proper linkage too with the concept of Iraqi sovereignty. I believe we have understood.

Along with seven other Member States – Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Portugal and, of course, the Netherlands – we just launched the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) mission, in this spirit of restraint and de-escalation. It will be up and running in the coming days. The contribution of your country to this mission, with the departure of the De Ruyter frigate for the Gulf is an important step. I am very, very sensitive to the fact that the frigate departed on the day I am speaking here. I imagine that was a choice. I believe it is an elegant gesture, and I am very touched by it. The most important thing is that it signals the Europeans’ strong commitment to defending their security.

Regarding the JCPoA, the European Union and its Member States reiterated their determination to preserve the agreement and to get Iran to resume its compliance with its commitments as soon as possible. Along with Germany and the United Kingdom, we have decided to activate the JCPoA conflict-resolution mechanism. We have done so to ensure the agreement is respected, and did so within its framework. We did so in order to open a space for political dialogue and to signal a rejection of the US maximum pressure approach that only heightens Iranian resilience and precipitates exactly what it is meant to prevent. We need to do everything we can to prevent a nuclear proliferation crisis from compounding the current situation of instability.


Therefore, Ambassadors, to continue bearing this singular message that could be heard, throughout January, and to defend both its security and its world view, along with all its interests, Europe needs to be free to make its own decisions and its own choices. In a word, it must be sovereign.

That is no doubt our greatest challenge, and that which will determine our ability to face the others. It is also today our greatest duty to our peoples, who expect us, if I may, to “take back control”. Our duty is, above all, not to leave sovereignty to the sovereigntists, bearing in mind that, in the political world, as in the physical world, nature abhors a vacuum and therefore, if we leave the field open, they will dive in.

And so, in face of the rivalry between powers that is redefining the world, I think that the time has come for a European aggiornamento. We need to open our eyes to the reality of international power relations. In a way, we need to stop being naive.

Yes, stop being naive, not only to preserve our interests, but also to defend what we believe in as Europeans. I will take the example of the climate. It is of course essential to set ourselves an ambitious objective. And that is what we have done, with the goal of climate neutrality that we have collectively endorsed for 2050, and what we will do soon, when we strengthen our CO2-emissions reduction commitments ahead of COP26 in Glasgow. But that is not enough. We also need to guarantee the justice and effectiveness of our approach, both at the same time, with the carbon border adjustment mechanism to curb ecological dumping because it is neither fair nor effective with regard to our own interests. This is what we also need to do by aligning our commercial policy on our environmental commitment. That is precisely the aim of the “Green Deal” that the Commission proposed in December and that France is supporting. In a world experiencing a climate emergency, the Europeans are determined to lead the way, as they did in 2015 with COP21 in Paris.
On this vital question, as on many others, the collective realization that we so desperately need has therefore begun, as shown by the new EU Strategic Agenda.

I know that you, too, have taken note of this new international context and are acting in accordance. In the speeches by the Dutch authorities, including speeches by the Prime Minister in Zurich and Berlin, I noted the concerns in terms of reciprocity, defending the conditions of fair competition, and protecting the strategic interests and intellectual property of European companies. I also noted what was said about social convergence. Just a few weeks ago, your government announced proposals for an overhaul of European competition policy.

You have, in a way, done your bit. And I am here to tell you that we have too. Europe’s sovereignty, as we see it and as we are proposing to build it together with you, as founding members of this new stage for Europe, is not a protectionism that will not be called as such; nor an approach based on government funding alone. It is not, let me say quite clearly, a new 27-party Colbertism that we are trying to instil into our procedures. And the fact that a Frenchman is saying this means something!

And to illustrate this vision, I would like to take the example I consider to be major, which is digital technology. An example among others, I won’t dwell on that, but that may be emblematic of other actions to take in other areas. This is an area in which it is particularly important for us to set down the conditions today for renewed exercise of our sovereignty.

As a matter of fact, digital technology is now an integral part of our daily lives. Talking with our friends and family, working, news, entertainment and culture now all also involve new technologies. These technologies are now central to our lives. When the devices we use are made in China, when the content we consult is produced in the United States, when our companies are threatened by innovations designed on another continent, when our private lives are known in every detail and we lose control of our personal data, our citizens are right to ask themselves questions and also ask us questions. And we have the duty to answer.

What is at play for Europe – for its States, businesses and citizens – is, deep down, maintaining freedom to act, at a time when our room to manoeuvre is limited and threatened by the capacities and actions of others, and this is something that we can see together today.

What is at play is our ability to promote the original European vision: a vision that does not seek to ensure our supremacy, or to turn us inwards, but to guarantee a safe, open, single and neutral space. This is the vision that we need to promote.

  • 1) A safe space, because there can be no sovereignty in a cyber space where our infrastructure and data are not protected, and that could even be diverted for terrorist purposes.
  • 2) An open space, because we cannot exercise our sovereignty if cyber space is subject to access restrictions decided by others.
  • 3) A single space, because a segmented, inward-facing cyber space would be incompatible with the values we promote.
  • 4) A neutral space, because there can be no discrimination, for reasons of profits or politics, on the basis of the nature and origin of the data that circulates on digital networks.

In Prague on 6 December, I mentioned the actions that need to be taken to further this vision of European digital sovereignty: cyber security, our capacity to innovate, our role as a standard-setting power, and the protection of the common goods, which are shared, open digital infrastructures.

None of these actions that I just mentioned can be set aside without promoting models that do not suit us. We do not want a model of digital sovereignty that is solely security-focused, which would not be in line with the liberal democracies that we are. Nor do we want a model of unbridled innovation, governed by no rules. Nor do we want a solely standards-based model, incapable of adapting flexibly to the development of technologies, or a utopian model unable to ensure its security.

Today, I am going to focus on the economic and technological dimension of this fight for our digital sovereignty. It is absolutely fundamental.

In just a few years, the flow of radical innovations that transformed the world gave way to a few highly monopolistic global players, which now occupy positions of economic dominance with an unprecedented power to set the course, to the extent that it is now difficult for European businesses and governments to innovate without making use of the resources shared – under conditions – by the sector’s giants. It is difficult – although not impossible – to host data without them being stored in the United States and governed by laws such as the Cloud Act. And it is difficult to sell books, hotel reservations and soon air tickets without going through a giant intermediary.

What’s more, it’s a vicious circle because every time we use the resources of these companies, we strengthen their dominant position by giving them access to more data – our data, which then become their data – and often, without realizing it.

As in security and defence, the need for European sovereignty should be our compass. Europeans are not doomed to be solely consumers of products and services produced abroad. What is true in the real economy is just as true in the digital economy. We therefore need to fight to ensure that our companies, governments, scientists and citizens can enjoy conditions allowing them to innovate without being dependent on technologies owned and controlled by others, without being bound by terms of use under Californian law, or depending on Chinese or Russian companies with national models differing from our own.

And I am convinced that we cannot achieve that, as we have sometimes envisaged, by creating industrial giants from scratch, at the initiative of the State or States. I believe that what we need is a new type of industrial policy. Several European countries have already introduced these concepts nationally. Now we need to move beyond these local initiatives, with a comprehensive, coherent effort.

  • 1) We need to implement a genuine incentive strategy to encourage our companies to work on disruptive innovation. We need to do that by clearly focusing on future technologies, including niche technologies, which tomorrow will give us the means not to be independent, closed and inward-looking, but rather the means to make our own, free choices in an open and globalized world. For example, I have in mind quantum computing research and certain aspects of cloud computing. The key here is not to increase government funding, although it does need to be commensurate with the level of research, but rather to organize and encourage Europe’s citizens, scientists and engineers to innovate and prepare the next generation of digital technologies.
  • 2) We need to position ourselves for the coming battles, trusting our companies, our European companies, giving them what they need, a framework, the rules required to innovate, and to finalize the creation of a European digital market that takes on board this need for European sovereignty. For example, thanks to Nokia and Ericsson, Europe is one of the few powers to have industrial capacities for 5G infrastructure. That may be an incredible asset, enabling our continent to have securesolutions to this essential industrial challenge.
  • 3) And of course, at the same time, we need to identify the new strategies of digital domination and work together to find ways and means of regulating them. I particularly have in mind the issue of artificial intelligence and big data. The aim here is not to give in to what could be called Europe’s “passion for standards” or “excessive standards”, a more French than Dutch passion I must say, since in France it’s all about legislating. No; the aim is to set minimum rules, in accordance with Europe’s model of digital sovereignty and its underlying values. This is what we have done with the General Data Protection Regulation, the GDPR. There is no reason why we would not know how to do it in building on this action.

This agenda to build digital sovereignty is ambitious, I know. But Europeans, and certainly not the founding members of the European Union, have ever faltered in the face of difficulty.

“All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare”, [Omnia praeclara tam difficilia quam rara sunt]. These words, written centuries ago by one of your most illustrious compatriots [Spinoza] have not, I feel, lost any of their power, and I think today we still need to be guided by them.


Because our two countries have much in common – interests, values and a certain world view, great ambition for Europe – we should join forces and step up joint initiatives, we have already accomplished much, but we need to do more to invent, alongside our partners, the European sovereignty of the 21st century, a confident sovereignty, an open sovereignty that is true to the liberal values of our Europe. That is, in short, the conviction that I have come to express today. Thank you for listening.