Transatlantic Relations at times of Strategic Confrontation (Octobrer 21, 2022)



Max Bergmann: Minister, thank you so much. There’s much to discuss and you’ve put out much on the plate. Maybe I’ll just start with probing you a little bit about Franco American relations and the State visit. You had mentioned in your remarks that France hopes to seek greater cooperation on space, energy, digital and Trade Tech Council. Beyond that, beyond those sorts of specific areas, what do you hope to get out of the State Visit? Do you hope to establish sort of a new partnership, a new relationship with the United States or a newly improved relationship?

Ministre Catherine Colonna: Thank you for that key question. President Macron will come to Washington this coming December, first and second of December. The goal is to strengthen our relationship not only to show the vitality of our relationship, it is there, we demonstrate it every single day here or elsewhere, but also to go even further, for two key reasons: First, we must deliver concrete results now, within the framework of the joint communique they adopted (Presidents Biden and Macron) a year ago after the AUKUS episode, to be very diplomatic, that had been affecting the trust between our two nations and the reliability of our relationship. They did put everything on the table, they had a decision taken very quickly because it was just one month after the AUKUS decision to, I would say, do better, and they achieved a roadmap. We have ongoing working groups, and now it’s time to translate these working groups into decisions, whether it is regarding trade, energy, other issues and of course there can be exchanges on so many other areas, space, cooperation in the nuclear field, civilian and elsewhere. So that’s one of the things that we would like to see this visit achieve: one year after, going one step further. But in addition to that, and maybe even more fundamentally, I’d say that considering what happened in the world for the last 12 months, it is important to give the signal that we are all together and not only for us with the US. We are all together, with countries who believe in the international rule-based order, countries who believe in democratic principles, and people who believe in universal values and the rule of law. We are determine to tackle these challenges together, whether it is on the European continent in Ukraine or elsewhere, and if there are so many global challenges now, it is time to show that we’re determined to go further. We absolutely do realize what’s happening. I think nobody’s naïve in the world. None of us, no leaders either. And we would like to take one step further, not only regarding unity between us, but the messaging we’re giving to the rest of the world. Again, you know, we have our long standing relation with ups and downs, as I mentioned it but the rest of the world is watching us even more than before.

Max Bergmann: I want to ask you a bit about European strategic autonomy or European sovereignty. This has been a major theme of President Macron’s presidency starting in 2017. And there’s been some weariness in the part of the United States or different parts of Washington, that essentially European autonomy means drifting away from the United States. I think you gave a really strong rationale of why that’s not the case, how this would be complimentary to the United States. I am curious how the Biden administration is receiving that message. And if there’s been lots of progress on the Trade Tech Council, but it doesn’t look like there’s as much progress on the US EU security dialogue. So I’m curious, how good is the Biden administration in hearing that message that European strategic autonomy is ultimately in the US interest? Because it will mean a stronger Europe?

Ministre Catherine Colonna: Well, I think that it’s not something that is difficult to address between the two presidents because they share the same views. Indeed, it is complementary, and indeed, it is most needed to have a strong NATO. And we are, I believe, a reliable and strong partner for NATO, a good ally. And to have a better equipped Europe, whether it is in military terms, I mentioned the levelling up of our defense effort. We have been one of the good nations in this respect, but others are picking up and following this pace. So whether it is on the military side, or on what we call our strategic autonomy going beyond the defense aspect, we must regain the capability to produce some crucial goods and we’ve seen that during the pandemic. For instance Personal Protective Equipment or some medicine that we could not, or did not produce in Europe anymore or in the US anymore. So it’s going to be beyond the different security issues. So I think they are aligned on this. If there is still a question mark, about the complementary nature of these two pillars of what we are, it is the total misconception of what we are. That’s what we’re fighting so much to explain. I mean, come on, look at the world as it is. Who are the good partners? Who share the same values? We (Europe and the United States) have the same interests to defend?

Max Bergmann: I think the strong EU response, as you mentioned, on sanctions and with providing lethal assistance is as an example of that. I want to turn to the war in Ukraine and Russia. Putin, it seems as double, mobilizing much of his country, now firing missiles and kamikaze drones at the Ukrainian public. Could you maybe assess what do you think the situation is right now in the Kremlin? What is their decision making like? You had mentioned that he miscalculated over Europe’s resolve? Do you think right now, this is another miscalculation? How do you see his political situation?

Ministre Catherine Colonna: I think he made several miscalculations clearly. On the military front, the idea was probably to take over Kiev quickly. That didn’t happen. A second miscalculation is on the international scene. It requires some efforts and some explanation is needed. And we must be very vigilant and active in explaining that what is at stake is not only Ukraine or security on the continent, but what is at stake is the world order. And the pillars of the international community are being shaken and nobody can afford that, whether in Europe or elsewhere. And they (the Russian) did not progress in terms of support, they have been isolated from the beginning. And they still isolated with just a handful of countries not exactly the type of countries we are partners with. And the other miscalculation is on the internal Russian front. The call for a partial mobilization having not exactly been welcomed by the Russian population. We have hundreds of thousand people who have left the country as a consequence of that. And the question mark for all of us is: what exactly is the state of your decision making process in the Kremlin? But it is quite clear that it is an isolated power as well. So it leads to what we call “fuite en avant”, you say doubling down, but doubling down is a little of a higher idea. “Fuite en avant” is following the same trend but further and further. That’s when we have to be ready, calmly but steadily and strongly, to be there. Be there to support Ukraine, be there to support the international world order and be there to defend our values and be there together, being careful not to offer the Kremlin an occasion to divide us. And I’m a bit worried that - I touched this issue a moment ago in my introduction, remarks - the alignment of the policy, which is what we are doing right now must be supported by the alignment of our economic confrontation to that new scene. And that’s why the energy questions is key for our future.

Max Bergmann: I want to ask you, a leader miscalculating is one thing a leader miscalculating but that possesses nuclear weapons is another. There’s been a lot of concern about Russia’s potential use of a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield. How concerned about that are you? And if Russia were to use a tactical nuclear weapon, what would be France’s response be in that situation?

Ministre Catherine Colonna: I’d say, wisely, two things. First, never answer ever an hypothetical question. Especially this one. Second, when we talk about nuclear weapons, I think it is necessary to be not only cautious, but to limit the words we’re using. So I’ll just say that we call Russia to act as a responsible power. As it has to do considering its status of the being a nuclear power.

Max Bergmann: That was a very wise answer. What let me porobe a little bit about France’s provision of military assistance to Ukraine. I think, on the one hand, France and the European Union and European countries have provided significant military assistance in many countries for the first time providing lethal assistance abroad, including the EU. Yet it also feels insufficient given that Ukraine is fighting a major global military power effectively on its own. Looking out at the prospect of this war six months from now, or three months from now, how do you see France increasing its level of assistance? Do you think Europe will be able to provide increased assistance? What do you say to those that are critical that Europe hasn’t provided nearly the amount of assistance that the U.S has provided?

Ministre Catherine Colonna: Well, I’d say quickly, two things, we are doing our part, and we’re doing it efficiently. I gave the figures, I gave a few details. Regarding France, as you might remember, we’ve made the choice not to make every detail (of our military assistance) public, before it’s delivered. But we delivered everything we we’ve promised to deliver. This is one good point for France. And we don’t want to make everything public beforehand, because it’s not a useful information, I believe that it would not help Ukraine if we were to do so. All in all, we do our part and we decided to reinforce and we reinforced our help since the very beginning. We do it in close partnership with Ukraine, we try to answer with our capacities to Ukrainian demands and needs. So we’ve already as you know, delivered artillery, and we continue to do so and we will more, we delivered missiles, we delivered light armoured vehicles, we delivered ammunition, amongst other things. And I’ve been to Kyiv three times, and I met president Zelensky and other of my colleagues and other ministers. Every time I went there. I can tell you president Zelensky really appreciates what we’re doing and the efficiency of what we deliver. And what we deliver is what they ask for. So we’ve done that, and we will reinforce that and so will the EU with that new mission especially of training and so gaining time in their capacity to use, whatever material we deliver.

Max Bergmann: Just quickly on the EU or the European peace facility. It my solid it’s been recently increased by another 500 million euros to 3 billion. But that fund is now running short of funds or it’s used up half the amount of money that it’s been allocated to last till 2027. Does France support increasing the European peace facility or finding some other vehicle to essentially provide more assistance to Ukraine through the EU.

Ministre Catherine Colonna: If needed, we will we will do it. I say if needed because it is not fully pledged already, it’s roughly 5 billion. So we’ve increased Monday by another half billion, reaching 3 billion now. There are still some room for manoeuvre if I may say even though this peace facility has an ironic title for delivering lethal arms, but this is the tools we have. This is an intergovernmental instrument by the way another not an EU budget funded fund and if necessary, we will have to do more. We mentioned it today and we’ll be discussing it another time Monday and we will do it if needed.

Max Bergmann: I want to ask you a little bit about the back channel diplomacy that President Macron has been playing with President Putin that has brought in a lot of criticism, I think from Eastern European countries, a lot of criticism on Twitter. What would you say to those critics? I mean, it seems like this diplomacy is fairly well coordinated with Ukraine with the United States. What is the nature right now of the Macron / Putin conversation?

Ministre Catherine Colonna: If I may correct you slightly, it is fully coordinated with our friends as it has to be. But of course it is. They are not easy conversations, you can imagine that. They might be difficult sometimes, and they don’t produce all the results, we would like to see. That’s clear. But we absolutely think it is crucial to keep a channel of communication with those making the decisions in Russia, including President Putin, we’re not the only ones talking to President Putin or to the Russian ministers. I even believe that some American ministers do so when needed, including recently. Because if we think about it, Putin is probably more isolated now and his very strange vision of the world and the way it could be run, so reinforcing this isolation of his, would not be a good option. Whether our messages go across, clearly not enough. But we need to use that opportunity to make him understand how we see things, what we believe he should do. We need him to hear when we mention our analysis and our assessment of mistakes he made, and what he could do to move on in a different direction. And sometimes it is achieving some results, like it did on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, where we could, after a conversation between my president and president Zelensky and there was president Putin and then myself to my colleague Lavrov, clear the way for the UN nuclear agency mission in Zaporizhzhia, which happened after long months of negotiation, but did happen, allowing international presence there, and possibly paving the way for a security zone around the plant, which is absolutely essential because it is too dangerous for them to use them as a zone of military confrontation. So it is not as useful as one could hope for but it is needed, critical and it must go on and we’re not alone.

Max Bergmann: I want to ask you a quick question about enlargement. Ukraine was granted candidate status to join the EU this summer, which I think was a very important step. I think we here in United States see potential EU membership for Ukraine is critical to its reconstruction. Yet, future enlargement of the European Union has sort of been stuck towards the Western Balkans. In order for the EU to enlarge and take on new members, does France believe that a new EU treaty will be needed, that a new treaty will be needed before letting new members in and to reform how the EU functions.

Ministre Catherine Colonna: Not quite. We believe, and we’re not the only ones to believe that a new EU treaty will be needed, but we know the difficulties. And the point is not to address the enlargement. The enlargement is a process, the rules are there. Everybody knows what they are. And nobody has an interest even those candidate countries to take a fast track where they would not be fully prepared when they join the EU. You mentioned Balkans, after the war in ex-Yugoslavia, we offered and we did offer, again black and white, the rules are clear, that they will be welcome in the EU as not only partners but members. Should they be in capacity to join us. So we do our part. Sometimes some countries have been joining because they were able to do their part. Some a bit late. One of the goals of what we’re doing is to help them realize that this is their future, that we’re ready to welcome them, and now that do their homework. I’m just quoting Zelensky, after the EU granted this status to Ukraine, he said that “now it’s up to us to do the job”. And we’ll be helping.

Max Bergmann: I will ask just a question related to French foreign policy overall in Europe, because it seems like you have become minister at somewhat of a challenging time, where relations with the UK have been difficult. There has been tension between France and Eastern Europe, there’s now been a change in the Italian government, which has been a strong partner of France, and also tension with Spain over the MidCat pipeline. There’s been some criticism of France, that France, when it comes to Europe, looks out for its own national interest first, and really defends very strongly and doesn’t always stand up for European interests. So how do you assess the kind of state of French foreign policy in Europe can France still lead in Europe?

Ministre Catherine Colonna: First of all, Brexit was more of a challenge to the French ambassador to London and to the French minister for Europe and foreign affairs. It is done. As you know, we took note of it. We signed new agreements. And this is it and we must turn now to a more positive future. It is no news that Europe is diverse. But it is a fact that we’ve been able to not only stay united, including during this crisis (war in Ukraine), that could have been extremely challenging, but that we’ve progressed towards more integration. So it requires sometimes a lot of time, it takes a lot of efforts, it’s not always easy, but we are progressing. Few years ago, nobody would have believed that we could have a common borrowing capacity and it happened. Only a few years ago, saying the words “Strategic autonomy” would be a bad word, and “European defense” a strange concept. And you know, the history of Europe, the economic common market was created after a failure to deliver defense. So we’ve been able - it took some time - but we’ve been able to reach that step where everybody knows that we have to be a more integrated Europe, a more political Europe and a more sovereign Europe for the sake of us all, including, and I insist, for the sake of those friends and partners who share our values.

Max Bergmann: We’re going to take one or two questions from the audience, we will have just a few minutes. But my final question is, and you mentioned this about climate change. You know, for many of us in America, a miracle happened this summer, when the U.S Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act, taking really bold, strong steps on climate. But as you know, that many of the provisions of that legislation require being made in America and don’t necessarily take into account the transatlantic dimension. Do you see this as a potential sort of green trade war that could emerge similar to the Airbus / Boeing dispute that impacted transatlantic relations, or do you think this is just sort of a solvable issue?

Ministre Catherine Colonna: We are certainly not looking for any war, and certainly not on that. It is a twofold reality. It is very welcome that the US are taking action to increase their reach on the carbon neutrality goal. We’re doing the same, so we’re not complaining that you’re doing that speed up that was needed, and it was needed. So that’s good news. Now, we’ll be careful – and we need to have a conversation with the U.S. administration and all our colleagues. We have to have a conversation of whether it would impact negatively not only the level playing field, which is, I would say, a trade issue, but more deeply, what I would call the economic alignment of our two entities. That is absolutely needed for, I think, our common prosperity down the road and especially in the current context of the war in Ukraine and what it will require from all of us to sustain the effort on the long term. We cannot afford any disruption. So we will be having some conversations.

Max Bergmann: We will take one or two questions. The one rule is you must ask one question and also identify yourself too please.

Dr Mona Kazim Shah (journalist VOA): Thank you for this opportunity. Madam Foreign Minister, my question is that France is an ally with Saudi Arabia. And after the OPEC plus decision, it said that you’re going to recession. United States is revisiting its relationship with Saudi Arabia, you being an ally of the US. Will France be revisiting its relationship with Saudi Arabia at this time?

Q: Thank you. My apologies if my question overlaps, I just caught the tail end where you mentioned Saudi Arabia, but concerning whether Russia is truly isolated or not. Saudi Arabia has just announced an interest in joining Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, in creating their own shared currency and means of economic exchange in order to not be totally dependent upon the SWIFT system, the dollar and the euro. Does that indicate Russia is not truly isolated? What do you think the possibilities of the BRICS countries challenging the hegemony of the dollar or the euro?

Ministre Catherine Colonna: Thank you. So very briefly, regarding Saudi Arabia, and I’m sure it was a disappointment for many countries, including for the United States, I’m sure considering the engagement that President Biden demonstrated very recently, actually to this country. It is not good news either for the rest of the world, because in a time of war in Ukraine, and energy prices rising. Having potentially these energy prices rising again, will affect the world economy globally. So yes, there is a need to talk further with Saudi Arabia. But they’re not alone in the OPEC, so we need to talk to other countries of the OPEC , as well, to see how we can bring down the prices. And that is needed, because we need more visibility. And probably some of the ideas have been around a price cap and some of it is difficult to put in practice. Even though we are progressing. Or the second question, I would say that each one of us is taking its responsibilities. We’ve adopted sanctions and disrupted most of the Russian financial system, so did the US. Some countries decided to stay neutral in this respect, which is not being neutral. And I can refer to the good and quite long developments made by president Macron on this topic at the UNGA, in his speech before the assembly. Nobody can stay neutral because this war is affecting every single country in the world. If you allow an invasion to take place, just because disagree with your neighbour, it’s really the end of the system and the beginning of trouble for everyone. But I mentioned that we need to probably address more than what we do the concerns of our partners. That was ending note.

Max Bergmann: Metal Minister, thank you so much. That was a tour de force. Merci beaucoup. Please join me in thanking the minister again in all the best in your meetings today in Washington and into the Franco American relationship. Thank you.