UN General Assembly week is the highlight of the diplomatic calendar. For one week, the political and diplomatic world is coming to New York for a frantic schedule of summits, ministerial and bilateral meetings, media interviews and more. A week of “diplomatic speed-dating”. For the EU, this was a chance to reiterate our support to the UN and to multilateralism, and to address the most concerning current global issues: Afghanistan, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal), and of course the fall-out after the announcement of the AUKUS partnership and the cancellation of the Australia–France submarine contract. The week provided an opportunity to meet many counterparts and partners from around the world in a very short space of time to address these issues.
World leaders addressed the General Assembly to paint their vision of how to move our world forward and reminded us that we stand at the crossroads in many ways. UN Secretary-General Guterres, for instance, stressed that “we face a moment of truth” and that it is time “to deliver, to restore trust and to inspire hope”. He reminded us that the very raison d’être of the UN and multilateral cooperation is the belief that we are capable of great things when we work together. Equally, US President Biden underlined that we stand ahead of a "decisive decade for our world" and that the planet stands at an "inflection point in history". He promised, the US is committed to work with its partners to collectively face this point, and stressed the importance of doing so within the framework of multilateral institutions and of using 'relentless diplomacy' instead of military might. Speaking for the European Union, President Michel also stressed that “we face another focal point in human history” and that the EU will continue to be the leading sponsor of peace and sustainable development. Also by developing our strategic autonomy and being less dependent, with the aim to strengthen our positive influence.
At the start of the week, all focus was on the Australia, UK, and US pact and the potential impact this could have on transatlantic relations. This announcement had taken the world by surprise. The following reactions were not just about a deal on sub-marines that did not go through, but about the wider ramifications for EU-US relations and the EU’s role in the Indo-Pacific. The lack of consultations and communication between the close partners that we are, created real difficulties. It provided a negative image of an uncoordinated or even divided West, where we should show common resolve and coordination, not least as regards geostrategic challenges.
We discussed the AUKUS issue with EU Foreign Ministers on Monday and Ministers expressed clear solidarity with France. We decided to ask the US, Australia and the UK to explain how and why they arrived at their decision. There was also agreement that the challenges of the Indo-Pacific require more cooperation instead of more fragmentation. The EU’s Strategy on the Indo-Pacific - that we unveiled on the same day as the announcement of the AUKUS alliance – is precisely about how the EU will step up its engagement in and with the region, including on security. A clear priority of the strategy is to work with willing and like-minded partners.
Also on Monday, I met Marise Payne, the Australian Foreign Minister and underlined our expectation that close partners inform and consult one another. The Foreign Minister and I agreed that the EU and Australia have many common interests in the Indo Pacific, supporting regional stability and cooperation and keeping the regional order open and rules-based.
During a phone call between Presidents Biden and Macron on Thursday, the US side recognised that the process had not been well handled and that prior consultation would have been beneficial. The US also stressed the importance of working with the EU and its member states, including France, in the Indo-Pacific. Also crucial was the clear expression of support by President Biden for a stronger EU role on defence, in complementarity with NATO. This was an important message for the future of EU-US relationship.
This positive message was reiterated when I met US Secretary of State Blinken. We reaffirmed the strong alliance between the United States and the EU and agreed to continue working on practical steps to deepen our dialogue and cooperation. The problem could have been avoided by ensuring to reach out to partners before. We need to put in place a system to avoid such issues as around AUKUS in the future. A structured dialogue with the United States on security and defence, as we had agreed to set up during our EU – US Summit earlier this year, could provide the ideal platform for this.
A lot of work lies ahead: to repair trust, to implement vigorously our own Indo-Pacific Strategy working with US and others. And to ensure real progress in acquiring the defence capabilities we need to shoulder a greater part of our responsibilities.
I have long believed that a militarily capable and strategically aware EU is in the interest of the US and NATO. Especially in the EU neighbourhood, there are and will be occasions where US and NATO do not want to engage and Europe must be able to act on its own. This is one of the reasons why we work on the Strategic Compass, to set out our common ambitions. What we need are concrete actions on capabilities and, strengthening our will to use them, when required.
Recently, there were also various important developments on Iran and the nuclear deal: the Iranian elections and a deal between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran on the verification measures including the use of cameras at Iran’s nuclear facilities. This deal had narrowly averted a formal censure by the IAEA Board, after we have seen growing concerns over expanding Iranian enrichment activities and negotiations in Vienna have stalled in recent weeks. In this context, my hope was that, as coordinator of the Iran nuclear deal (also known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), I would be able to convene a Ministerial meeting, as in previous UNGA weeks. A full ministerial meeting proved impossible, but I had a long bilateral meeting with the new Iranian Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian, who also met many other counterparts to explore how we can move forward.
The most important outcome was that he confirmed that Iran would return to the negotiating table in Vienna. The new Foreign Minister has been in office for less than a month, but we must return to negotiations soon and revive the Iran nuclear deal in all its aspects, meaning a US return and a lifting of sanctions in exchange for full Iranian compliance. The sequencing of these steps is the crux. Iran is struggling, US impatience is clearly growing, and the wider regional context including the Taliban take over in Afghanistan is creating turbulences. Therefore, we will have to work hard in the coming weeks to narrow the gaps and achieve results.
Afghanistan was for me the third priority for this week. With the Taliban now in control and the economy in freefall, a serious humanitarian crisis looms. There is a broad international consensus on the need to judge the Taliban by their actions and not to allow the country to collapse completely, which would be dangerous for the entire region and overall international security.
I had the opportunity to meet and discuss the way forward with several regional actors and international partners, such as Secretary of State Blinken, and the Pakistani, Turkish and Russian Foreign Ministers. In all these talks, it emerged very clearly that we need to work closely together as international community to address the situation on the ground. We need to address collectively the economic situation in the country, as well as the human rights and humanitarian situation and to work on common interests such as counter-terrorism, organised crime, the trafficking of drugs and people, and a balanced approach on migration.
For all these issues, we need indeed a regional approach and we will work on a regional format, ensuring full ownership of neighbours. We will strive to develop the benchmarks discussed with EU Foreign Ministers during the informal Gymnich meeting, including as to women’s rights and girls education, into an international support program. In all of this, it is important to avoid a proliferation of initiatives that could also lead to greater confusion and I will continue working towards this goal.
Finally, an issue I had to raise with the Russian Foreign Minister and discuss with my Malian counterpart was the situation in Mali and the potential deployment of the private security company Wagner group. This would affect negatively the country’s stability and would therefore have consequences on the cooperation between the European Union and the Government of Transition in Mali.
It was my first meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov since we had seen each other in Moscow in February. I repeated a clear message to him this week: yes, there are fundamental differences between Russia and the European Union. But there are also issues where we need to work together, in the interest of global security and stability, starting with Afghanistan.
Finally, I had many other meetings during this hectic week: a dinner with the Western Balkan leaders, plus meetings with the Gulf Cooperation Council (next week I will also travel to the region), and meetings with the Foreign Ministers of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Peru, Chile, the President of Ecuador and African leaders, to name a few. We also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Colombia, which will take our cooperation to the next level and had several other meetings on Latin America.
Overall, I leave New York with a sense that, together with both EU Presidents, we managed to make Europe’s voice heard in international affairs and in developing global structures for building a better world, a staunch defender of multilateralism and working with our allies and partners. On Iran, Afghanistan, Libya and many other issues, there is still a wide demand and compelling need for Europe to speak up and back up its positions with the instruments and forms of leverage we have. In this regard, it is important that we overcame the AUKUS rift between the EU and our allies. Hard work lies ahead now to translate the pledges of consultations into concrete deliverables, in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere, and to address global challenges and contribute to shape the world in line with our interests and values.