France praises Greek stand on quakes

European Affairs Minister Laurence Boone tells Kathimerini ‘EU is no longer naive’

France praises Greek stand on quakes

Laurence Boone, France’s minister of state for European affairs, expresses Paris’ satisfaction at the lowering of Greek-Turkish tensions. Speaking to Kathimerini, she praises the Greek response to the earthquakes in Turkey and confirms France’s abiding interest in the Mediterranean. “It is our region, those on the other side of it are our neighbors and we have a common interest in ensuring peace and stability there.”

In a question about President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China, she rejects criticism that he failed to enlist President Xi Jinping’s support in the effort to get Russia to cease hostilities. Talks like those between President Macron and President Xi are “essential” so that “this war ends as quickly as possible, on terms which safeguard the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” she says, but also to prevent China from sending weapons to Russia.

Macron traveled to Beijing with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Did the two of them succeeding in projecting an image of Europe with a common approach to China?

“It was important from the point of view of the EU’s strategic autonomy that President Macron and the president of the Commission went together on this visit. It was important to show that the EU has its own voice, independent of the US. The EU is the world’s biggest economic power, with 440 million consumers, the world’s biggest trading bloc, the first in both inbound and outbound investment.”

‘It is our region, those on the other side of it are our neighbors and we have a common interest in ensuring peace and stability there’

“Especially after Covid, the EU has embarked on a campaign to align its commercial with its foreign policy and security interests,” Boone elaborates. “This strategy is founded on four pillars: a strong industrial policy, the protection of the internal market, reciprocity – this is especially pertinent to China – and sanctions. The message is that Europe is no longer naive, it knows how to defend its interests.”

The pandemic and the Russian invasion, moreover, “taught us that we can no longer rely on a small number of countries for critical raw materials and vital goods,” she adds, saying she is “very optimistic” about the ability of the EU to diversify its sources of supply. “The heads of state and government [of the EU] had a serious discussion about China in October and in December they asked for a response to the Inflation Reduction Act [the legislation offering subsidies to green industry moving to the US]. By mid-March, less than three months later, a series of proposals were tabled, from critical raw materials to the net zero industry act and the reform of the electricity market.”

The European response to the IRA, in particular, is “large and it includes measures which allow both the strongest and the fiscally weaker countries to support their businesses. The difficulty we have is in training enough people to allow the necessary investments [for the green and digital transition] to move forward speedily.”

On the energy front and the rupture with Russia, Europe avoided nightmare scenarios this past winter. To what extent was this the result of better policy coordination on a European level? “First of all, we were very efficient in saving energy – we cut gas consumption by 20%. The weather helped, but it was also the result of policy. The price cap on gas, though it was hard to agree on, helped, because it sent a signal to markets. Prices also fell because we increased the stocks in storage. Now the platform for common procurement is being implemented, which will allow for coordination and prevent the competition between member-states we saw last summer, which drove up prices. Finally, solidarity between European countries has worked well. France has sent gas to Germany and received electricity; Greece is involved in a number of infrastructure projects that will help its neighbors. Not everything has been resolved, but the glass is more than half-full. We are in a better situation than anyone could have imagined last fall.”

Internal strife

Meanwhile in France, the government continues to face major protests against its pension reform legislation, which includes the increase of the retirement age from 62 to 64. “Pension reform is always hard,” Boone notes. “Keep in mind that when President Macron was first elected in 2017, there were 10 million retirees out of a population of 65 million. In 2030 the number of retirees is projected to grow to 20 million. So the system needs to change. The president had announced this reform in his pre-election program and the bill was discussed for nearly 200 hours in the Assembly.”

“What we must focus on now is working conditions, the post-Covid work environment and especially the needs of younger workers,” she concludes.

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