Speech by Jean-Yves Le Drian in Bratislava - "GLOBSEC 2020 Bratislava Forum" (8 October 2020)


Dear friends,

Thirty years on from the year that saw the reunification of our continent and the adoption of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, I think that we can be proud of the progress we have made. I wanted to begin by saying that, for in these times of adversity, it is crucial to keep the memory of what we have already been through together intact.

In the middle of autumn 1990, the Europeans were at last recovering, alongside all the other freedoms, that of taking their own destiny in hand.

History was just speeding up: after brutally separating us, it suddenly reunited us. And suddenly, we saw the face of a world fade away which, for so long, had held us in a tragic division. Suddenly, the hope of building a “new Europe” was restored.

After long decades of confrontation and hemiplegia, Europeans were reunited, and Europe was at last reconciled with itself. That is why I prefer the beautiful word of reunification, which brings us together, to the world enlargement, which distances us from one another.

But this immense historic effort has, captured us: over the last 30 years, it has consumed all our energies, and we have let ourselves act as if the march of the world was ultimately not our business. Moreover, the guarantee of American power seemed secured, and the “end of history” appeared to have come.

And we used this geopolitical lull to focus on ourselves and carry out this colossal enterprise: the reunification of our continent as a community of values and interests which remains absolutely unparalleled.

Yes, unparalleled. Nowhere else in the world have nations decided freely to link their destinies to one another’s. To pool some of their prerogatives, even the most sovereign thereof. And to share a common currency. And we did that, all that. Not only to gain efficiency together, but also in the name of everything that, all together, brings us together and surpasses us. I mean the history that we share and a desire that is equally shared, to continue writing our history all together.

We must be clear: this long period – those thirty years – focusing on ourselves was necessary.
It was necessary given the scale of this colossal task.
It was necessary, too, given the challenges that we had to face successfully: the economic and financial crisis of 2008, terrorist assaults, the migration crisis, the coronavirus crisis, and the actions of external powers which have sought to confront us from the outside and divide us from the inside, attempting to exacerbate the disagreements that can emerge between our countries. It was necessary, and that was what enabled us to face up to all these challenges. It has always been the strength of our European solidarities – something that has not changed in the 70 years since the Schuman Declaration.

This time was necessary. But while we were busy thinking about ourselves and acting on ourselves, the rest of the world changed.

The international stage has become a little more brutal every day.
And we are seeing conflicts multiply, even in our own neighbourhood, all fuelled by the modernization of military capabilities, the proliferation of sensitive technologies, and the interventionist ambitions of external powers with no qualms about fomenting disorder to advance their pawns.

The international stage has changed; we are seeing the importing of foreign mercenaries, the use of private military contractors, the instrumentalization of refugee flows, and misinformation, used as new influence strategies.We are seeing destabilization become a fully-fledged power instrument.
And in Ukraine, in Syria, in Libya, and now in Nagorno-Karabakh, we are seeing these harmful dynamics internationalize and heighten crises with local roots.

For too long, we dared not look this reality in the face.
For too long, we have believed that thanks to a sort of European exception we could escape the perils of this new global context.

But we must be clear: the bloc we form is today being defied, marginalized and transformed into a theatre of influence.

That is a summary – a success and a negligence – the summary of these three decades, after which I believe the two great questions of the year 1990 are raised for us again: the question of the world to come, and the question of what we are. The difference is that it has become impossible to pretend these are two distinct questions.

That is why the message I have come to bring you is simple: we face a very clear choice: we must emerge from the withdrawal in which we have lived for too long, or be swept out of our own History.

That is a risk that I have no qualms about calling existential, existential for our Europe. And faced with that risk, our only option is to look anew towards the world, to defend our unique model.

I believe that the time has come for Europeans, if they really wish to keep control, to once more conceive their destiny within the march of the world. As far as I am concerned, there is no doubt that the construction of Europe is now also played out beyond our borders, in the efforts that we can and must make to influence international affairs and make a distinct and stronger mark.

The paradox – a fruitful paradox indeed – is that this dynamic of looking beyond ourselves, provided we give ourselves the means to do so, can serve at the same time to ensure we fully remain who we are. To rediscover the thread of our European ambitions, overcoming the narcissism of our small differences .To rediscover, in a word, the meaning of our collective adventure.

For our Europe sometimes appears to have lost its bearings. The shock of Brexit, the rise of populist movements and centrifugal forces, the repeated violations of the principles and values that are the very heart of our Union, and the promotion of “illiberal democracy” – a contradiction in terms – are signs that should alert us. They are the precursors of a sickness of languidness into which – no doubt – excessive introspection could thrust us.

The COVID crisis is a terrifying revealer of the fractures and loss of bearings that I have described as the characteristics of our time, and is also a great accelerator. But the series of undermining activities that today seek to blur the lines of international affairs did not, of course, arrive with the pandemic.

The idea that we all, the idea that we stand to benefit from establishing and respecting shared rules to organize our shared world, the idea that enabled us to recover from the tragedy of the two world wars, is no longer the subject of a consensus. Multilateralism is even suffering from a three-fold chronic illness:

  • The temptation of unilateral withdrawal – I have the Trump administration in mind;
  • Systematic blocking – I am thinking of Russia;
  • And instrumentalization of common institutions to benefit special interests – I am thinking of China.

The outcome is a world in which the frameworks for our regulatory and collective action have been weakened. To put it simply, a world that is increasingly stranger to who we are, we Europeans.

The undermining of the European security architecture, the foundations of which were laid by the Charter of Paris, is a case in point.

This architecture has, over the last few years, been dismantled methodically and systematically. Key principles of the Charter – the inviolability of borders and the sovereignty of States – have been flouted, such as in Ukraine, where Crimea has been annexed illegally, which we will never accept.

When repression and arbitrary arrests answer the people’s refusal of an illegitimate election in Belarus, and the offer of mediation by the OSCE is rejected, a foundation of the Charter of Paris is again flouted.

When arms control agreements are challenged on the pretext that the cooperative approach to governing strategic rivalries is excessively binding, it is the indivisibility of security that is weakened, and our security that regresses.

In a sense, these spectacular regressions confirm the truth in the conviction set out throughout the Charter of Paris that, “in order to strengthen peace and security among our States, the advancement of democracy, and respect for and effective exercise of human rights, are indispensable.” We cannot make the link any clearer between humanistic values and building our collective European security.

Ladies and gentlemen, the actions and strategy of Russia have played a significant role in this weakening of the European security architecture. The instability and the challenging of common rules resulting from this reduce Europeans’ security. That is why we consider that it is not in our common interest to accept this situation without seeking to restore channels for communication and to re-establish rules of behaviour which can strengthen our security.

This is the basis of our two-fold attitude with regard to Russia: dialogue and firmness.

Dialogue, without naivety, because we cannot envisage rebuilding a collective security system in Europe and restoring stability without seeking to involve Russia. The difficulty of carrying out this dialogue successfully must not sap our will to continue it.

But also firmness, for the violation of European and international norms cannot go unanswered. Because Russia must provide answers to the questions we ask it when we observe that a Russian opposition figure, Mr Navalny, has been the victim of an attempted murder on the territory of Russia, using a chemical weapon from the Novichok family that was developed by Russia. And because absent such answers, it is our responsibility to draw the conclusions, as we have done this week, France and Germany, proposing that the European Union should sanction those responsible for this attempted murder, which is unacceptable both from a democratic standpoint and because it normalizes the use of chemical weapons. Dialogue is not an excuse for playing for time.

We must be very clear: dialogue with Russia does not mean doing it a favour. It does not mean abandoning our ambition to build a peaceful continent. On the contrary, it means defending this ambition by asserting firmness, as I was saying, and getting ready to play hardball whenever necessary.

A European security architecture can only be meaningful if the States within it respect common rules. This imperative applies to all, including Russia. That was true in 1990, when we signed the Charter of Paris. It is still true in 2020.

Dialogue and firmness is also our approach to China, which for us can be at the same time a partner, without which we cannot rise to the challenges of the environmental and climate emergency; a competitor, particularly in the economic and technological fields; and even a systemic rival, to use the words of the Commission, in the battle of models.

It is therefore indispensable to talk to China, and it is indispensable for Europeans to do so with a single voice, without naivety or taboos, on all subjects that are important to us.

Firstly, reciprocity in our economic and commercial exchanges.
And this requirement for reciprocity must be held high without any hesitation. In a relationship like ours, there is no place for one-way roads – I’m thinking of the Silk road.

Ultimately, what we have to say to China is very simple: we want to take what it says at face value. It says it is in favour of multilateralism? Very fine! Then it must agree to correct everything that weakens international cooperation, giving up any unilateral action, ending the asymmetry in access to its market, and making the requirements of sustainable development the new compass of our relations, including in trade, and our cooperation.

Next, China’s fulfilment of its international commitments also contributes to this respected and recognized multilateralism. I’m thinking of Hong Kong, and I’m thinking particularly of Xinjiang where the massive violations of human rights are violating Uighur rights.

We also need to be more assertive with the United States and in the transatlantic relationship, asking for a better sharing of responsibilities to be matched with a better sharing of the burden.

France’s commitment within NATO, alongside all our allies, including the United States, is intact. The President’s recent visit to Lithuania has further recalled our contribution to the enhanced Forward Presence, which is an integral part of the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture. The strategic reflection process France proposed within NATO a year ago should contribute to strengthening the Alliance, and in a few weeks we will receive the conclusions of the work carried out over the course of a year by the group of experts mandated by Heiko and I during a NATO ministerial meeting.

One of the absolute prerequisites for a strong Atlantic Alliance is now that Europeans act more proactively and shoulder more responsibilities, within an overhauled and rebalanced alliance. There cannot be European defence without NATO, just as there cannot be a credible and sustainable NATO without lasting European defence commitments.

This reality has led us to take important steps since 2017 in consolidating tools aimed at making European forces more capable, more proactive and better equipped. This dynamic must continue.

Whatever happens in November, we cannot expect American voters to answer for us the questions we are asking ourselves. Everything we have done to strengthen our ability to defend our defence and security interests is not done against one party or another. And even less so, of course, against the transatlantic relationship. It is done for ourselves. We must never lose sight of this fact. The debate in Washington also sketches out the prospect of a profound change in the security guarantee America offers its allies. And whoever the next President is, it will be easier for him to defend increased US engagement alongside Europeans with his voters if the Europeans shoulder their responsibilities.

When our interests are threatened, we must stand united to act and, once again, get ready to play hardball, without abandoning dialogue. That is what we are doing in the Eastern Mediterranean, deploying all options at our disposal in response to the tactics of fait accompli and intimidation, and to bring together the conditions for constructive negotiation.

In June, a Turkish Navy ship engaged in hostile manoeuvres against a French frigate – the Courbet – which was doing nothing other than executing the orders received from the NATO chain of command to monitor illegal flows in the Central Mediterranean. The Courbet suspected a Turkish merchant ship, the Cirkin, of participating in violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya.

I welcome the response made to this serious incident:
At NATO, first, where the Secretary General took the responsibility of working on safety measures to ensure such behaviour did not occur again between allies;
Then, at the European Union, where the 27 Member States decided, on 21 September, to sanction the shipping company responsible for the Libya embargo violations committed by the Cirkin.

That is the only valid approach to deal with autocratic powers that test our limits. And this approach, those who, legitimately, demand firmness with Russia – and I said this is essential for us – must also dare to apply it to Turkey. In the name of Europe, and also in the name of NATO, I believe it is how we should proceed. For throwing a prudish veil over abuses of this sort will not help strengthen NATO. The problem must be named, and we must grasp the nettle, through dialogue.

As I suggested, ladies and gentlemen, it is time to globally assert what we are, and what we stand for.

That means, firstly, asserting ourselves as a united bloc, faithful to our values, and defending the autonomy of our model, while going further in building our European sovereignty.

This common sovereignty is not the opposite, but rather the continuation, the supplement and even, in the context of the brutalization of international affairs and the normalization of predatory attitudes I described earlier, the guarantee of our national sovereignties.

And I say this today in Bratislava, in Slovakia, a country where you know what it means to be dispossessed of its sovereignty and to recover it thanks to European reunification and thanks to our Union. The strength of our European solidarity, through which it is true that we bind one another together, is also, paradoxically, that it protects our independence! Those who do not accept it, and prefer simplistic oppositions, understand nothing of this continent and of its history. Asserting yourself as a European does not mean turning your back on your country. On the contrary, it means loving it enough to give it every chance to strive.

We have begun to strengthen this common sovereignty in the most strategic sectors: industry, trade policy, defence and digital technology. This is a vast effort that we will continue in each of these key fields.
And now, of course, also in the health field, to prepare us for the eventuality of further pandemics.
And in the energy field, starting by diversifying our supplies.

But to fully reconcile what we are for ourselves and what we are in the world, we must also – assertively – turn our model into a humanist force in this competition of values which I am convinced is one of the essential dimensions of international competition today.

We can be proud of our European model, so long as we acknowledge that the price of this pride is the duty to always stand ready to defend it, including against political leaders who, even within our Union, deliberately twist its demands. Yesterday, we made it the foundation of our reunification. Today, we need to propose it as the compass for a change of course in globalization.

This model has made Europe the most advanced continent in the protection of fundamental rights and, most revealingly, the continent of the abolition of the death penalty. The continent, too, that has upheld the rule of law to the highest degree. The continent of landmark regulation, environmental protection, support for the most vulnerable and fight against all discriminations. The continent of intellectual and academic freedoms. A continent, lastly, which, after decades of civil war, managed the exploit – no less – of making its diversity of national histories and cultures live together.

This model made us, just as much as we made it. And that is why sharing it on the international stage is a natural next step in asserting our sovereignty.

But that is not all. If I had to describe it in one word, I would say it is a humanist model, simply because it is based on nothing other than a certain idea of humankind, its dignity and its potential. Not on transcendence. Not on Providence. But on humankind, and humankind alone. That is, I believe, what gives it a universal reach, and I would go so far as to say, universal power. And that is what makes it the possible matrix of a useful third way, here again for us but also potentially for others on our planet.

A third way to overcome the rivalries that undermine the international community. For we have nothing to gain from allowing a new duopoly to form. That is what drives our European efforts to bring together all powers of good will within the Alliance for Multilateralism that we launched barely a year ago with Heiko Maas in New York to demonstrate that collective action is more than ever before a guarantor of effectiveness.

A third way to overcome the false choices that paralyse us in the face of today’s challenges.
Such as, in the digital field, the false choice between the proponents of an “authoritarianism 2.0”- you know who I’m thinking about - and those who are prepared to blindly hand over to ruthless, lawless private actors. We have to show controlled development of new technologies, and we know how to do that at European level.

A third way – and this is crucial – to defend our common goods.
Our health and our planet, to cite just two examples, deserve better than to be sacrificed to antagonism and individual greed, particularly health.

A third way that is up to the many challenges of tomorrow, that is, my dear friends, the direction Europe can take to rise up to the many challenges of the “world of after”, as well as to its very own challenge : fully emerging from the age of innocence to finally enter the age of responsibilities. Together, we can make sure it succeeds. Always together, because our strength lies in solidarity.

That is the vision promoted by France, and it is not alone. That is the meaning of the initiatives we are taking as a Union, of 27 States, alongside our partners in the Americas, Asia, Africa and elsewhere. And it is in this spirit that France is preparing to hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2022.

Thank you.