COVID-19: Interview with Philippe Folliot on Allied mobilisation, countering disinformation, and impacts in the MENA region

27 May 2020

In this interview, Philippe Folliot, Vice-President and Head of the French Delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, examines how Allied response capacity, resilience, and solidarity play an important role in the fight against COVID-19 and how the ongoing pandemic could impact the stability and security of the MENA region.

Four questions with Philippe Folliot:

I.    The efforts deployed by the Allies to offer resources and humanitarian aid to the hardest hit countries proved essential to cope with this unprecedented global crisis. Could you tell us how the French Army has helped the other Allies and how France itself benefited from the assistance of the other Allies during this emergency?

Our governments demonstrated their unity, solidarity, and resolve to fight this pandemic as one. Severely hit by the coronavirus – particularly in its eastern regions – France was allowed to transfer patients with COVID-19 to neighbouring countries: Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Austria. I would like to express my gratitude to these countries. The geographical dimension enabled privileged access to bilateral resources and to the European Air Transport Command. Until now, our work has emphasised the support we have given each other in our mainland territories, and I would like to underline our joint action on the territories furthest – and most fragile – from our Euro-Atlantic zone. The French, British, and Dutch armed forces deployed three ships to the Caribbean in aid of local populations and to offer support to their authorities. Management tools for this type of military response - supporting civilian crises - had already been put in place in 2017 following the passage of Hurricane Irma. The aptness of joint and coordinated actions, on a bilateral basis, within the European Union or even NATO, to optimise national military contributions and provide greater agility and flexibility in responding to natural and health disasters is therefore well established. 

The rapid and effective mobilisation of the Allies mainly concerned three aspects: medical support to relieve civilian structures, logistical support, and the fight against disinformation. Regarding this last point, France took actions – including at the highest level, when the President of the Republic raised this subject publicly – to counter false narratives. France benefited from Allied cooperation to identify, monitor, and condemn acts of disinformation aimed at undermining France’s position and reputation and those of its Allies, countering such propaganda with a vigorous response. 

II.    What other measures should NATO and the allied armed forces take to support the national and international response to the COVID-19 crisis?

From the perspective of the French Parliament – the singularity of France is that a "reserved area" for the executive in the area of defence and diplomacy is enshrined in the Constitution and in the practice of institutions since General de Gaulle – the response of the Alliance to the COVID-19 crisis was assumed as a matter of urgency. Held at a very early stage, numerous ministerial videoconferences were followed by immediate actions, thus demonstrating the Alliance’s ability to rally. In due course, a project post-mortem process on the continued effectiveness of decision-making mechanisms in a degraded mode and in terms of the coordination of military means to support civilian crisis management – particularly in the areas of strategic transport or logistics – should be carried out. It will allow us to make necessary improvements and increase our response to the next crisis. As a supportive and pragmatic ally, France is eager not to leave any stone unturned for collective action in the face of the pandemic.

We all know that, in these circumstances, our armies will be closely involved in civil protection activities to defend our populations. We also all know that war has hybridised and that today, propaganda and misinformation are viral. In the fight against the pandemic, work has already begun to ensure that the actions of NATO and the European Union remain consistent in both these areas. In my opinion, the added value of NATO's intervention clearly stems from a coordination with the national, bilateral, and European efforts already made.

Notwithstanding the health crisis, our first and foremost priority consists in preserving the Alliance’s credible posture of deterrence and defence. The world has not become more peaceful since the onset of the pandemic. It has come to a standstill! NATO continues to perform its deterrent role. During the pandemic, France contributed to its mission at sea (several dozen ships are currently sailing the seas of the globe), in the air, and on land (participation in the air policing mission as well as in the Alliance's enhanced forward presence mission in the Baltic countries has been confirmed), etc. However, this crisis offered an opportunity to question potential vulnerabilities and to project ourselves into other challenges that could affect our posture. It is undeniable that we proved inadequately prepared for this crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic should serve to remind us of the possible scale of bacteriological and chemical threats that should be the subject of increased attention in our collective defence capacity.

Finally, this crisis is reminiscent of the financial crisis of 2008. At the time, defence spending was cut and although we largely reversed the trend, the effect is still felt today. Let’s not repeat the same mistake!

III.    As Chairperson of the Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group (GSM) of the NATO PA, how do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic could impact the stability and security of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel?

At this stage, in mid-May, COVID-19’s direct health impact on the populations of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel is relatively lower than initially anticipated on the basis of projections in the West, with the possible exception of Iran. The geographical proximity of the Gulf monarchies with Iran – the main source of infection in the area – and exchanges with China – the original cradle of the infection – in some African countries; the blatant shortcomings of some countries’ health systems; the size of a population living in conditions combining extreme promiscuity and insalubrity, such as in camps for Palestinian refugees, displaced Syrians or migrant workers, all seemed to create a particularly favourable breeding ground for a quick spread of the epidemic. However, we are not seeing as many cases as we might have expected, without being able to explain it clearly. The reaction of local governments seems to integrate the lessons of the countries most affected at an early stage and their own past experiences in managing sometimes much deadlier epidemics into their policies. Is this due to a more favourable age-gender-pyramid, different mobility habits, or is it the result of a lower reporting and testing capacity?

However, we must prepare for a health crisis that would touch already fragile and particularly vulnerable health sectors in a context of deteriorating cooperation and fierce global competition to access health facilities and drugs. Any mobilisation against the virus in the North Africa-Middle East region and the Sahel must be comprehensive, both in terms of financing and for the transport of medical staff and equipment. Moreover, any new vaccine must be declared "a global public good", to use the words of the President of the Republic.

Today, the economic and social repercussions of this pandemic trigger increased internal tensions, particularly in the already fragile countries of this vast area. The severe measures implemented to fight the pandemic will be difficult to sustain at long-term, since they will disrupt trade, create more shortages, and intensify the precariousness of a population that often lives from hand to mouth. Such measures pose a real threat of provoking or rekindling protests. Deploying a real safety net requires budgetary capacities, which are already affected by the decline in revenues generated by the global slowdown in trade and fall in price of raw materials such as oil. We should be ready to see the re-emergence of internal protest movements in Algeria or Egypt, or see new ones arise, in Jordan for example.

Wars do not stop during a pandemic. While a humanitarian ceasefire has been declared in Yemen, the opposing forces continue to push their pawns in Libya and Syria. In the Sahel, terrorist groups have added to their nefarious arsenal by exploiting the virus in cyberspace, so far to no avail.

In my opinion, the COVID-19 crisis illustrates and heightens existing realities rather than creating new ones: although fragilized by its own health and economic difficulties, Russia remains opportunistic and ready to seize opportunities in Libya, Yemen, and Syria. China pushes its pawns and its agenda through its “mask” and “wolf warrior” diplomacy. In the name of the common fight against the pandemic, discussions have resumed between the Middle East states and Iran. Although this dialogue might be encouraged by the US withdrawal and the weakening of Saudi Arabia, it could be challenged by the situation in Lebanon. Increased tensions in the eastern Mediterranean undermine cooperation, which is essential to guarantee security and stability based on international law. I would also like to raise the fundamental issue of the role models and values: the most resilient entities such as autocratic regimes, terrorist groups, and criminal networks are often presented as more effective than democratic systems.

If we are not careful, long-term geopolitical consequences could affect a region that shares our challenges. International coalitions in the Sahel and the Levant have adapted to this additional operational constraint. Provided we win the "narrative battle" and that Europe reinvests in this part of its neighbourhood, new opportunities could emerge from this crisis: rebuilding trade, particularly economic trade – the new demand for shorter production chains could be a formidable accelerator – would further strengthen our existing relations in a mutually beneficial way.

IV.    What roles do parliamentarians play in this crisis? And what role can interparliamentary diplomacy – including in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly – play in mitigating this emergency and eventually prepare for a similar danger in the future?

Faced with the challenges posed by the health situation, the French Parliament plays its role, having quickly adopted four major bills – two on the state of health emergency law, and two draft Supplementary Budget Acts – that offer the country’s executive branch the means to act swiftly and effectively through a range of exceptional measures. Simultaneously, both Assemblies fulfil their constitutional mission by closely monitoring actions of the public authorities: maintaining questions to the Government in a format that has undeniably been modified, but that allows the expression of all views, adapting the functioning of the standing committees to play an active and useful role during this period, setting up the implementation or planning ad hoc control and monitoring missions on measures linked to the COVID 19 pandemic. 

It is legitimate and extremely useful that the Government should be controlled by Parliament in these times of crisis. At the very core of democracy, the Parliament is even more important at a time when difficult decisions that clearly impact the lives of our fellow citizens must be taken. While parliamentarians continue to assume their traditional role of support and liaison work in their constituencies, some elected nurses, caregivers, and doctors have put on their white gowns to lend a hand to the medical teams on the ground.

Since its inception, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly offers a forum for legislators from NATO countries to engage in political dialogue, particularly on sensitive issues, and to share their experiences and knowledge. Together, we can find good practices and track disinformation faster. Moreover, we can learn lessons from this crisis to strengthen the response capacity and resilience of our States and civil societies. While we do not yet grasp the plethora economic, social, and thus political consequences of a crisis that could mark a turning point in history, we have a duty of responsibility towards future generations that the reflection process currently underway in our Alliance cannot ignore.

Philippe Folliot, Head of the French Delegation and Vice-President of the NATO PA
Philippe Folliot is an elected Deputy of the Tarn since June 2002. President of the centrist Alliance since 2016, he is a member of the parliamentary group La République en Marche. At the National Assembly, Mr Folliot is a Member of the National Defence and Armed Forces Committee after having been both Vice-President and Rapporteur. As the Head of the French Delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Mr Folliot is also the incumbent Vice President of the Assembly, and since 2018, the Chairperson of the Mediterranean and Middle East special Group.

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