The first formal meeting of EU foreign ministers of 2015 was dominated by discussions on how to fight terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks and recent Boko Haram atrocities in Nigeria as well as a discussion on the EU's future relations with Russia.
The monthly Foreign Affairs Council is chaired by the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini.
Speaking to the press after the meeting Federica Mogherini summarised the discussions on the threat of terrorism: "As you know, we started our work with the point on terrorism, reacting to what happened in Paris earlier this month but also a common threat not only for Europeans but also countries and people in the Arab world, in Africa, in Asia."
She went on to say "when it comes to decisions we have taken, first of all on the security level - which is obviously, clearly a dimension for the Interior Ministers and for Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos (Migration and Home Affairs) - we took the decision within the Foreign Affairs Council to coordinate in a much more active way than has been the case so far. The second point on the security level is that we have re-invited the European Parliament to work on the Passengers Name Record - the PNR."
Federica Mogherini also stressed the importance of cultural understanding: "the second level of decisions we have taken is to raise our level of cooperation both bilaterally and multilaterally with Arab and Mediterranean countries starting with the League of Arab States. And third, we have decided to work on the cultural message. As I said – and I know the secretary General of the Arab league has also said it - what we need is an alliance, a dialogue, work together because we are all facing the same threat."
She went on to say that "when it comes to concrete, immediate actions that I can personally take, there are two things that I have agreed to the Ministers: on one side, to have security attachés in the European Union Delegations in relevant countries. This means regular contact among professionals on our side and on the country that is hosting the delegation's side to develop cooperation on security issues and counterterrorist issue.
On the other side, the second thing that I want to do is to improve our communication with Arabic speaking populations, be it in the European Union and with the larger Arab communities in the World. I think we need to improve our capacity to speak Arabic, read Arabic, explain to the Arabic-speaking population our policies and also to listen to the messages that are coming from the Arab world. Also I think this is a basic communication strategy that we need to implement from the very beginning."
During the Foreign Affairs Council the High Representative released a declaration on behalf of the EU on the Boko Haram Insurgency which has claimed hundreds of lives. It read "the attack by Boko Haram on the border town of Baga is the latest in a long series of atrocities killing hundreds and displacing thousands of innocent people. Christians and Muslims alike have been targeted, with victims including traditional and religious leaders, teachers and students, farmers, market traders and villagers, and soldiers from Cameroon and Nigeria. The world has been horrified by the violence, particularly against women and children. The EU condemns in the strongest terms these indiscriminate killings by Boko Haram, which represent an attack against human rights and human dignity. It went on to say "the EU expresses its condolences and solidarity with all victims and those close to them and underlines the urgent importance of supporting all the affected countries in ensuring the protection of their populations."
With acknowledgement of the growing regional threat, it said "increasingly frequent attacks, notably into Cameroon, demonstrate that the threat from Boko Haram has taken on a regional dimension. The insurgency has provoked a growing death toll, and population displacement on an unprecedented scale, within Nigeria and extending into Niger, Cameroon and Chad. The humanitarian situation is exacerbated by the remoteness of the areas concerned and the growing insecurity for humanitarian workers.
To fight this it said that "only intensive regional co-operation between Nigeria and its neighbours can generate the local leadership that will bring a durable solution to a multidimensional challenge. We look forward to the achievement of concrete results at the next ministerial follow-up meeting to the Paris, London and Abuja Summits, to be held in Niamey on 20 January, at which the EU will participate."
One of the principal topics of the meeting was a discussion on the EU's relations with Russia in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine and EU sanctions on Moscow. There were no formal conclusions after the summit but speaking after the meeting to Journalists Mrs Mogherini summarised the discussions:
"We then had a long discussion on our relations with Russia. As you might remember, we had a discussion on that already in November that was focused on Ukraine and at that time ministers agreed on the need to have more to start a strategic discussion on some open questions in EU-Russia relations. This was also something that was indicated as useful by the European Council in December which, as you might remember, discussed the issue of Russia. And to follow that up, and also to start preparing the European Council in March – that would need decisions on the first set of sanctions expiring – I had agreed, together with Council President Tusk, with Commission President Juncker and with the Latvian Presidency, to submit an issues paper for Ministers to reflect."
She went on to say "Let me start by saying that starting a strategic debate does not mean and has not meant changing the course of our relations with Russia. We stay the course, as it is stated in the issue paper for the Ministers. And we are united on this. Those who were expecting divisions, major divisions today on Russia, I think will be a little bit disappointed, because we are united. We were united and we are still united on this. Our relations with Russia can only change if and when – I hope when, but at the moment it's as if – commitments that were taken in Minsk are implemented. And let me say that the latest developments on the ground are definitely not encouraging, rather the contrary."
Mrs Mogherini went on to say that "our support to Ukraine, and not only to Ukraine, but also to all our Eastern Partners, is there and it is not going to change. Our pressure on Russia, with the sanctions policy, where as I have said several times: any decision will be based on, first of all, the non-recognition policy of the annexation of Crimea and on the full implementation of the Minsk agreements, on the situation on the ground. And again today, the situation on the ground is definitely much worse than in the last weeks." She went on to say "we need to explore further, at technical level, some options for sectorial dialogues on, in particular, a couple of fields: Energy – as you know, this is not new – this has been a dialogue that has been going on all through the crisis, in particular in the last months and is going to continue. And to explore elements for people-to-people contacts that could be useful to engage not so much the Russian authorities but the Russian population with the European Union."
Mrs. Mogherini said that the European Union will work on its strategic communication to promote correct, impartial and independent information in the region. "So, as you see, and as you have heard - from I guess all the Ministers, I have not checked their declarations coming out - the consensus in the room was definitely higher than in many other occasions in the past. There is no normalisation; there is no back to business as usual in any way. There is a reflection on how to use in the best possible way our tools, our role, in addition to the policies that we have been following in the past. And we will definitely come back to this in the coming Foreign Affairs Council meetings before the March European Council. As you know, we have another Foreign Affairs Council in three weeks and then again in March."
At the meeting Ministers reacted to the recent elections in Tunisia by releasing a joint statement saying "the European Union congratulates Tunisia in the wake of the legislative and presidential elections which mark an historic step in the country's democratic transition." It went on to say "the EU congratulates Mr Béji Caïd Essebsi on his election as President of Tunisia, as well as the newly-elected representatives of the Tunisian people. It wishes the new authorities every success with the inclusive preparation and the implementation of the reforms which is key to consolidating the rule of law and the democratic achievements of the new Constitution, guaranteeing the security of all Tunisians and meeting the economic and social aspirations that were behind the 2011 revolution."