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With Biden in office, an opportunity to restore U.S.-European relations

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office next month, many see an opportunity to restore U.S.-European relations after a Trump administration that backed away from the two side's traditional multilateral framework. Nick Schifrin spoke with Philippe Étienne, France's Ambassador to the U.S., to discuss Brexit, climate change, Iran's nuclear program and future relations with America.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is yet another critical moment between the U.K. and Europe.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Brexit, Biden, Iran, the future of U.S.-European relations, it's all on the agenda in Brussels and here in Washington.

    And one of the men at the center of those negotiations will be Philippe Etienne, the ambassador of France to the United States.

    Ambassador, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Let's talk about Brexit for a second. There are three major issues preventing a deal:, fishing rights, legal oversight, and the so-called fair play the U.K. needs to meet. Has France taken a maximalist position preventing a deal?

    Philippe Etienne, French Ambassador to the United States: Well, thanks, Nick, for having me.

    Indeed, as far as the negotiation, post-Brexit negotiation is concerned, we are in a race against the clock. France has not a maximalist position. We are all united among the 27 member states.

    We have given a mandate to our negotiator. We have one negotiator for the whole of the E.U. And, as you said, we have three issues which have still to be settled.

    Those are both technical and politically quite sensitive. The most important one in terms of an economic effect is what you call — what we can call the level playing field, so that the competition is fair to — in access to markets.

    But, also, we have the governance, what can we do, what could we do, what should we do if we disagree, and the fisheries.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Will improved relations with a Biden administration mean that Europe goes back on promises and discussion on increasing European self-reliance, on increasing European defense spending?

  • Philippe Etienne:

    We have to increase our defense spending. It was a request by all recent American administrations, Trump administration, Obama administration. We need to — we need to spend more for our defense.

    And the U.S. needs Europeans, European allies, which are stronger, which are able to take their part, their share in the burden. So, we are doing that. We are increasing nationally our defense budgets, France in particular, but not only France. And we're also developing new defense capacities, defense instruments at the level of the European Union.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the major policies that the U.S. and Europe will work together under a Biden administration is the Iran nuclear deal, of course.

    Is it sufficient if the Iranians return to compliance in the Iran nuclear deal, and the U.S. joins? Or do you want the Biden administration to try and gain concessions before lifting sanctions?

  • Philippe Etienne:

    You know, our position has always been and our president has made it clear already three years ago that we have to keep the JCPOA. It's a constant position by France, the United Kingdom and Germany, the so-called E3, because we need the JCPOA for fighting against proliferation of nuclear weapons.

    On the other hand, we recognize and we have always recognized that there are other issues in the original security issues, ballistic issues, which have to be to be treated, to be looked at. And we think that what is now being discussed, both U.S. and Iran getting back into compliance with the JCPOA, is really a very important step.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But do you think fear at all that, if the U.S. returns to compliance and Iran returns to compliance, the U.S. will lose leverage created by the Trump administration sanctions over 1,500 people and institutions that have helped push the Iranian economy really to the brink?

  • Philippe Etienne:

    Well, Nick, what we're looking at right now is that Iran also is no more in compliance with the JCPOA, and the situation is more and more risky in terms of proliferation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It is almost the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate accords. Joe Biden has said the U.S. will reenter those accords.

    What difference does it make if Joe Biden follows through on his promise on January 20?

  • Philippe Etienne:

    Well, it makes a big difference, because we need here, too, like in other domains, American leadership, because it's a global challenge. And we need the U.S. to address this global challenge.

    The comeback of the United States, the appointment of somebody like John Kerry, who has been one of the most active negotiators of the Paris climate agreement, all of this is positive for the work, which is very important, which we have to do in the future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Global emissions are expected to drop this year. But, as you know, that's expected to be temporary. A new U.N. report says wealthier countries need to triple their pledges in order to limit the Earth's warming.

    Isn't that the reality of the threat that we all face, even more than the U.S. or the Europeans have admitted so far?

  • Philippe Etienne:

    We have always been, I think, honest. We have recognized that we must increase our efforts.

    And, by the way, the Paris agreement is also about each partner, each country, all countries united in disagreement. I have said that we will step by step review the national commitments, and we need to increase those national commitments.

    The European nations have increased their financial contribution to their Green Climate Fund. We have one direction, carbon neutrality in 2050. An intermediary milestone and one of the milestone which the European leaders will be discussing today or tomorrow in Brussels is about 2030, increase the level of ambition of the European Union.

    So, it is not only about words. It's about really actions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Philippe Etienne, France's ambassador to the United States, thank you very much.

  • Philippe Etienne:

    I thank you, Nick. Thank you very much for having me.

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