Round table on the geopolitical future of Europe organized by the journal Le Grand Continent – Address by Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs (Paris, 27 April 2021)
I/ Opening remarks
To begin, my dear Sébastien Lumet, I would like to thank you and Le Grand Continent for your invitation to these exchanges with Luuk van Middelaar and Cornelia Woll.
Dear Luuk, I know that you have a clear, ambitious outlook on European life and I am glad that the Collège de France has chosen you to open its new series of debates and discussions on European issues. Because with less than a year to go until the next French Presidency of the European Union, I think it is absolutely essential to broaden the French public debate to a European level. And you are making a big contribution to that.
And let me just say that I don’t intend to discuss theory today but, more prosaically, just talk with you based on my ministerial experience of almost ten years, and on my daily work.
As you know, the issue which brings us here this evening, the geopolitical future of Europe, was already part of my work as Defence Minister. Since 2012, I believe significant progress has been made.
First, in the area of defence and security, I remember that when I discussed the Sahel with my counterparts at the time, explaining that in terms of threats, the region was on Europe’s southern border, I sometimes received confused or even doubtful looks.
But now, everyone knows that the fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel is an essential fight for the security of Europeans. And in concrete terms, this has led to action which was unimaginable at the time, such as groups of European special forces working together within a task force.
I also remember another important milestone on that path, and not only symbolically, when after the terrorist attacks in France on 13 November 2015, it was my sad duty to invoke Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union, this “solidarity clause” which, as you know, provides that if it “is the victim of armed aggression on its territory”, a Member State can receive “aid and assistance from the other Member States”. This had never happened before.
Since we reached this collective realization which opened our eyes to the threats facing us as Europeans, the European defence structure has continued to grow. With the creation of a European Defence Fund. With Permanent Structured Cooperation, a major step forward. I could talk about this at greater length, but with regard to Permanent Structured Cooperation, I recall September 2016 in Bratislava when Ursula von der Leyen and myself, as Defence Ministers of Germany and France, proposed including the idea of Permanent Structured Cooperation in the field of defence, we were seen as somewhat odd. And look where we are now! And there’s also the European Intervention Initiative, and now the prospect of the “Strategic Compass”, which will help set – in what will be a major event under the French Presidency – European ambitions in this area for 2030.
More recently, Europe has made other key geopolitical shifts. These include, for example, the Commission describing China as “a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival for the EU”; the decision to create a genuine European strategy for the Indo-Pacific; foreign investment screening set up by the European Union last October in strategic sectors like telecommunications, biotechnologies and infrastructure; the press release published by the Commission on 18 February setting a course for a new EU trade policy strategy with clear requirements in terms of reciprocity and fairness of trade. And yet ten years ago, when France broached these issues in Brussels – reciprocity, European interests, strategy, a level playing field – our partners were somewhat perplexed, concluding that France was truly hopelessly protectionist. I am pleased that opinions have now changed drastically on this issue. I also have in mind the spirit of solidarity which, despite everything, enabled us to make the borders of the European space a tool to fight COVID. I will not go into detail on this issue, but this position was essential and we can only reflect on what would have happened without these initiatives, which had not been planned.
And as I observe in Brussels every month, there is no doubt that this series of shifts has given Europeans more confidence, which is now being felt by the powers which think they can still count on the supposed weakness of democracies, and of Europe in particular. They can see that we are now more united, and ready to stand up for our interests and defend our territory.
I am convinced that these are all signs of a geopolitical awakening in Europe. An essential geopolitical awakening, in a world with increasingly fierce and blatant competition. A geopolitical awakening from our naivety and innocence. A geopolitical awakening which must continue – and this will be one of the French Presidency’s priorities – by following the path of strategic autonomy and sovereignty which we have begun to map out together.
Because beyond the debates on semantics, which are of course important because the battle of words is always an important step, but beyond these debates, it is clear that the EU27 now understand the need to chart this course towards autonomy and sovereignty.
And even our American friends now understand that it is fully in their interests for Europe to be a strong ally. I was very struck by the first EU27 meetings we held with Antony Blinken, who expressed this need extremely clearly.
And this means a lot in the light of a new transatlantic agenda which we are determined to implement together, as it is true that on both sides of the Atlantic, we have everything to gain from closer and more balanced cooperation.
So I think we agree that the future of Europe is geopolitical, that Europeans are finally understanding this and that we have begun, as you say, the “metamorphosis” which will put an end to our role as mere spectators in our own story which others could be writing instead of us. But of course, we still have a long way to go!
Much remains to be done to restore European manufacturing and technology. As you know, dear Cornelia, as all of us now know, we have a very long road ahead. Not a single gram of paracetamol is currently produced in Europe, which is completely unacceptable. We must also prevent State-subsidized foreign companies from distorting competition within our internal market. We must continue to establish our European sovereignty in the highly strategic energy sector.
But in my view, this geopolitical awakening will not be complete unless, alongside this path towards strategic autonomy and sovereignty, we work to build a new type of geopolitics: a new geopolitics of influence; a new geopolitics of common goods; a new geopolitics of values.
I am well aware that these expressions may seem paradoxical. But I can assure you that they are very real concerns for us EU27 Ministers, as we work together daily to create a specifically European geopolitics tailored to today’s challenges.
I would like to stress that 21st-century European geopolitics must be genuine geopolitics but must also be truly European and truly 21st century, because we clearly cannot remain in control of our own destiny by adopting the geopolitics of others, just as it is clear that the “Return to History”, as you rightly pointed out Luuk, requires a return to geopolitics, and that this return to history does not mean returning to the past. This “Return to History” is on the contrary a return to events, as you explained, and as we can see in the crises we must deal with each week. But it is also the establishment of a new international order.
A new order which leads me to a slightly different outlook, but one which I believe is complementary to yours, on the fundamental concepts which form the starting points for your article: power, territory and narrative. And I would like to try to share this outlook with you so that some practical conclusions can be drawn.
1/ In my view, this new order is first and foremost defined by the spread of international competition to all areas.
Today, everything has become an opportunity, if not an excuse, to stoke this competition to serve what can only be described as the exclusive interests of the powers.
Our citizens have been able to see this since the outbreak of the pandemic. We can recall the “mask diplomacy” and the empty promises of vaccine propaganda made by certain actors.
As a result, while geopolitics is now everywhere, and still in displays of military power, but also where we would least expect it, our geopolitical “toolbox”, to adopt an image which you often use, actually has more tools than we thought.
In other words, we are more powerful than we thought. Because, provided we use them strategically, our European advantages can be used to devise a new geopolitics of influence.
With its 450-million-strong consumer market, Europe has understood that it has the power – and I mean power – to play a key role in the environmental choices of its trade partners. That is why we made the Paris Agreement a condition of our bilateral trade agreements. That is also the meaning behind the carbon border adjustment mechanism, which we are currently discussing.
As you can see, it involves intelligently making use of all of our means of action to achieve the priorities we have set out. It is indeed a geopolitical matter.
2/ This new international order is also characterized by the globalization of challenges.
The pandemic crisis has also been revelatory in that area. Just like COVID-19, climate disruption, the erosion of biodiversity and even cyber threats affect us all, in one way or another, wherever we live. In different areas, these scourges are deep factors of global instability and unrest. Whether we like it or not, these challenges re-establish shared experiences in a fractured world. It is a reality that any forward-looking geopolitical approach simply cannot ignore.
Consequently, while European geopolitics of the 21st century must be rooted in a specific region, they also sometimes play out beyond those borders.
You are right, dear Luuk, to highlight how essential it was for Europeans to accept a new awareness of themselves in a space defined by boundaries. However, I believe that if we wish to preserve all of our interests and protect ourselves from all the threats facing us, then we must also make sure to shield ourselves from anything that could be qualified as “geopolitical short-sightedness”. Because, to build a truly sovereign Europe, we must also be prepared to look further, anywhere our future is likely to come into question. Sometimes, that means far from our borders.
Dear Luuk, I noticed that you quote the philosopher Hegel quite often; one striking phrase comes back to me: “The force of mind is only as great as its expression”. It aptly evokes what we are currently discovering: that Europe must accept its role as a fully-fledged international actor in order to realize its potential. This may be a paradox. But today, it is a paradox that defines us.
So, in concrete terms, to preserve our health, to protect our planet, to ensure our Internet is free, secure and open, we must step firmly onto the international stage, with all the levers of European power. In other words, we must conduct new geopolitics founded on common goods, built on multilateral cooperation and the rule of law. That is what we tried to do with the Alliance for Multilateralism that I launched with Heiko Maas. It has already enabled the creation of a One Health High-Level Expert Council backed by the WHO, which will be a sort of IPCC for global health. It is also what we are doing by mobilizing our partners ahead of COP26 in Paris, and ahead of COP26 in Glasgow. The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace is another manifestation of this action.
These successes show that European geopolitics is not condemned to be geopolitics of conflict. While we must be ready to accept power relations when necessary to safeguard our sovereignty – and we have shown that gradually we are doing so – we must also know when to play the international cooperation card. Intelligently, of course.
I fully understand the reservations that Luuk mentioned concerning “universalist thinking”, which would simply lead to stagnation. But I believe that European strategic thinking cannot ignore these tangible universal concepts which shape our future.
3/ That is why I think that the great global challenges of our time call for a new universalism, and simultaneously a new humanism, and it is in our interest to promote them in the clash of models and values that also defines the new international order.
Let’s be clear: this new humanism is not, to my mind, the last vestige of a European idealism that places itself centre-stage. Even less the prerogative of “the West”.
We must not fall into the trap of values relativism, which is a danger to both thought and action, as there is a fine line between “it’s all relative” and “anything goes”. What is really at stake, is a certain concept of what is human, and human dignity. This concept has universal reach, because individuals have fundamental rights that must be respected, wherever they are born. Beyond the differences that exist between peoples, is the unity of humankind. This has not always been seen as obvious, and terrible tragedies have occurred as a result. It was hard won. Today, faced with the threat of the worst regressions, we must win it back again.
There is now a universal legal translation of the notion of humanity and human dignity: it is a central tenet of international law which, collectively, we drew up together, in the wake of the Second World War, with commitments made by all nations who freely chose them together.
This common history, which is therefore not just the history of Europeans but in reality a history that ties Europe to all the other continents, must not be forgotten. On the contrary, we must have the courage to overcome the civilization-related myths and all the nationalist fables that today are used as a pretext by those who, behind this mask, have in fact a political interest in undermining the universal principles that are the foundations of international law, especially precious because they are also the foundations of the political project that brings Europeans together. Which is why we absolutely cannot accept that they may be flouted within the EU.
So, I believe that we must not just recount this geopolitical narrative that you are calling for to ourselves, as if it was the story of Europeans talking to Europeans alone. We must also be able to write it and develop it with the civil societies of the entire world, beyond the supposed cultural divides and beyond the "blocs”.
That is the meaning behind the third path that Europeans wish to propose building with their partners in Latin America, the Indo-Pacific and Africa, but nonetheless without keeping China and the United States equidistant. Because we know, there are our allies and there are the others.
For me, this narrative that Europeans must forge with their partners to form the framework of a shared world must be the narrative of a new humanism. A new humanism that unites us as Europeans and which must imperatively be the political horizon of our Union, which is more, much more, than a simple market. But a new humanism that simultaneously calls for clear values-based geopolitics, which we can use to take action with all those elsewhere in the world who also recognize that certain universal requirements apply to us all.
This is what I wanted to begin by saying, dear Luuk, following on from your reflections: first to welcome the geopolitical awakening of Europe, because it is indeed a question of our future; but also to stress the need to use this momentum to find a new geopolitical approach that looks to the world of tomorrow.
It is the path of strategic autonomy and sovereignty. It is also a path to working with our partners around the world to maintain what is important to us, what we are committed to and what we believe in. I believe that the potential for true European geopolitics of the 21st century will play out at the crossroads of these two requirements.
To conclude, one tangible example of this approach which incorporates in a coherent whole the concerns of “traditional” geopolitics, the tools of geopolitics based on law and cooperation among nations, and the compass of geopolitics founded on universality and values is the resolution adopted last Tuesday by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), at France’s initiative. This resolution sanctions Syria for violating its international commitments by carrying out attacks using chlorine and sarin gas. Thanks to eight years of European mobilization, the international community sent a clear message: there are principles of universal rights that no-one can violate with impunity. And it was essential to carry out this combat that concerns the issues that I mentioned, to try and set a geopolitical course for the future.