Q&A

French Ambassador: EU Working Toward ‘Common Action’ With Biden on Iran, COVID-19

But Philippe Etienne says France won’t surrender its dream of “strategic autonomy.”

By , a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the European Union headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 6, 2015.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the European Union headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 6, 2015. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

Prior to becoming France’s ambassador to the United States in September 2019, Philippe Etienne had a distinguished career working at the most senior levels of the French government, most recently as diplomatic advisor to President Emmanuel Macron and as ambassador to Germany. He is widely considered an expert on the European Union and EU political affairs. On Monday, Etienne spoke with Foreign Policy about the degree to which trans-Atlantic relations can be repaired with the new Biden administration after the disruptions of the Trump administration. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: Can you elaborate on what President Joe Biden and Macron discussed in their first talk on Sunday, especially on the issue of the Iran nuclear deal?

Prior to becoming France’s ambassador to the United States in September 2019, Philippe Etienne had a distinguished career working at the most senior levels of the French government, most recently as diplomatic advisor to President Emmanuel Macron and as ambassador to Germany. He is widely considered an expert on the European Union and EU political affairs. On Monday, Etienne spoke with Foreign Policy about the degree to which trans-Atlantic relations can be repaired with the new Biden administration after the disruptions of the Trump administration. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: Can you elaborate on what President Joe Biden and Macron discussed in their first talk on Sunday, especially on the issue of the Iran nuclear deal?

Philippe Etienne: I’m not sure I can give you any more details on Iran. It is a bit early. We want to leave the new administration some time.

French ambassador Philippe Etienne in Berlin on May 17, 2016.

Ambassador Philippe Etienne in Berlin on May 17, 2016.Annegret Hilse/Bongarts/Getty Images

FP: But do you foresee the EU, especially the E3 that helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal—France, the U.K., and Germany—taking a more or less common approach with the United States toward Iran and the Middle East? Biden has talked about rejoining the Iran pact but extending it to missiles, while Iran has said it will only stick to the previous deal.

PE: There are very clear signs of working toward common action with the new administration. We don’t want to prejudge what will be the exact position and action of the new administration. On this Iran question especially, the nuclear issue has become more complicated with the decision by the United States to withdraw from the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and Iran deciding to be more and more outside compliance. But we have kept this baseline, especially the E3. The goals we’ve stated are the same, which is to come back to compliance in the JCPOA and to build a stronger and broader framework covering other issues, especially ballistic missile proliferation. It seems to be very convergent with the United States. 

FP: Do you think there’s a real chance of going back to trans-Atlantic relations as they were before the Trump administration?

PE: We know that the world has changed. We know it is not as it was four years ago. But we think it is possible to come back to a very substantial and fruitful [relationship] between Europeans and the United States, particularly on topics that are most important on the agenda, such as the fight against the virus and climate change.

FP: Did Macron and Biden also find common ground in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic? 

PE: Yes, they discussed the strategy we follow not only in our countries but also worldwide because we are in one world community. It’s a global challenge. It’s a global threat. As you might know, France together with other Europeans launched ACT-A [Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator], including a vaccine pillar called COVAX [to promote global access to coronavirus vaccines]. And we were very happy that not only did the United States decide to reengage in the World Health Organization—it’s very important to have the United States work inside WHO to reform it to make it work as it was supposed to—but also said it would support COVAX and other elements of the ACT-A initiative.

FP: On Monday, Biden signed a new “Buy American” executive order to strengthen U.S. manufacturing, which is a reflection of rising populism and a turn inward by the major powers, making future trade agreements between the United States and EU more difficult. Your thoughts?

PE: For me, the priority would be to solve the disputes that have emerged in the last years because they do not help either of our economies and are bad for our jobs. I think there will be common wish to solve these issues as soon as possible within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—for example, to find common agreement on the issue of [digital] taxation. Then we will have to discuss across the Atlantic the consequences to draw from the pandemic in global trade, especially around the issue of making supply chains more sovereign. It is understandable that each of us would like to favor our middle classes and shape our policies for them. On the other hand, we can do it in a cooperative way of course.

FP: Biden’s new national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, had reportedly urged a postponement of the new EU-China investment pact announced at the end of last year. Seven years in the making, China seemed to push to get the deal done before the new administration took office. Is this a problem for the United States and EU, given Washington’s new confrontational approach to China?

PE: I don’t know about the Chinese, but for us in Europe this timing has nothing to do with the election here in the United States. As you rightly said, the negotiations had been ongoing for seven years. Point two, contrary to other trade pacts signed with China under the Trump administration or by Asian powers recently [for example, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership], the EU’s Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China is a targeted tool that for the first time makes improvements, including partly for Americans, on climate, environment, and worker rights provisions under the International Labor Organization. The European Union used its leverage to get things nobody else had gotten. Finally, it was not signed at the end of last year; it was politically concluded. There is still the process of ratification. Also, there will be monitoring on how it is implemented. Obviously, yes, we will have discussions with the new U.S. administration on all of this. We have just created a U.S. channel to discuss this and other issues—for example, forced transfers of technology and the screening of investments as well as political questions and human rights issues.

FP: Do you foresee a common approach to China between the EU and United States?

PE: The EU established its doctrine on relations with China in March 2019, with three pillars called rivalry, competition, and cooperation. There is some common ground with the way the new U.S. administration describes its own policy with China, including the necessity to engage on global challenges. And there is a lot of common ground on political, human rights, and economic challenges. For example, I think we’ll have a good opportunity to reform the World Trade Organization to make a level playing field for the global economy.

FP: The WTO has been much criticized within the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party in the United States for favoring China, among other failures.

PE: Precisely. That’s the reason why we should reform it. 

FP: Is there any agreement on how? 

PE: We have made some headway on industrial subsidies, for example, with Japan and the European Union, and we were only kind of stopped by what I would describe as the bilateralism of the former U.S. administration. Now we have a new administration that is committed to a more cooperative approach. Not only toward the WTO but other organizations. The point is that now we have a United States that is ready to do that from within those organizations.

FP: Macron has pushed for greater “strategic autonomy” for the EU. Does that continue now with Biden in office, especially against the opposition from Germany?

PE: When we speak about strategic autonomy, we mean a stronger European Union and of European democracies. I think it is deeply in the interest of the United States to have a strong partner because it makes all of us together stronger and also because Europeans will be able to take a larger share of the burden for their own security. Macron, since he was elected and even before, put the European vision and politics at the forefront of his actions. We will continue to work with all member states because he has continued to develop not only a stronger relationship with Germany but also with all other European countries and institutions. The EU is growing, becoming stronger through different crises, including the pandemic—for example, last year when Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided for the first time that the EU would raise money on the market so as to grant money to member states. It’s a positive evolution of European integration. We need to grow stronger, more sovereign, but stay in alliance with the United States, including NATO.

FP: France historically has been somewhat reluctant to commit to NATO.

PE: But frankly who else in Europe has a military able to project itself outside the region? Look at what we do as a force in the Sahel. We were the first European country to adopt an Indo-Pacific strategy. And we have a stronger partnership in Asia with many countries. So I think we are reliable and capable not only in counterterrorism but in many other areas. In NATO, we were a part of the enhanced forward presence in the Baltics, for example. The point you make is not only through the history from the time France went out of NATO but then back in. It’s also linked to criticism Macron made against NATO a year and a half ago about the lack of consistency of political vision. And frankly it was quite justified by the lack of consultations with the previous U.S. administration. But most importantly, since the action taken by Turkey against our own allies in the fight against the Islamic State, NATO has started a process of reflection, and we have a France not only committed to launching this exercise but also to make it a success. 

FP: In the wake of the pandemic, it’s interesting the degree to which even some on the right in the United States are pointing to the European model, in terms of health care and protection of the middle class. The political axis has shifted leftward to some extent.

PE: Indeed, in terms of the social protections, there is a model in Europe that is more developed, and it was clear in the ways the U.S. Congress reacted that you had to create mechanisms that did not exist but did in the EU. I don’t know if there will be longer-term convergence, but I think we will have to draw some longer-term lessons—for example, the problems in inequality that will have to be addressed.

FP: In the nearly year and a half that you’ve been ambassador, you’ve had the opportunity to witness some of the most tumultuous events in the history of American democracy, culminating in the attacks on the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the inauguration of the new president. What does that make you think about sustainability of American democracy?

PE: At the end of the day—literally at the end of the day on Jan. 6—democracy prevailed in the fact that Congress reconvened that same day and restarted the vote certification. I was honored to represent my country with my wife at the inauguration. And frankly we have seen the true success of democracy in this. We have the same challenges inside our democracies.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh