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Today, we have been discussing the situation in the Southern Neighbourhood and the wider Middle East in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and on [the Middle East Peace Process] and the formation of the new Israeli government.
Apart from discussing these points, I have also informed the Ministers about the preparations for the fourth Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region. The Ministerial event will take place on 30 June, in a virtual format. This conference will be an opportunity to come with ambitious pledges and to express support for a credible political solution to the Syrian conflict mediated by the United Nations.
I have also informed my colleagues, Ministers, that the European Union will co-chair together with Spain a donors pledging videoconference for the Venezuela displacement crisis on 26 May. The Conference will support Venezuela’s neighbours who is receiving unprecedented levels of refugees, amounting to 5.5 million people. The crisis has been aggravated further by the coronavirus and this pledging conference is very timely.
I offered my support to France and other Member States’ Ambassadors in Venezuela whose residences or staff have been affected by gas and electricity cut-offs. I also explained that we should relaunch the International Contact Group as soon as possible after the pledging conference.
Today, the Ministers approved a Statement about the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, which demonstrates our unity in supporting Cyprus and Greece and sends a clear signal and a firm message to Turkey that we uphold our principles and interests. We will continue our diplomatic engagement with Turkey to try to steer our relationship towards a cooperative and constructive approach.
Let me say some words about repatriations. I am glad that today I can report “mission accomplished” regarding the repatriations of the EU citizens stranded abroad due to the coronavirus travel restrictions. In an unprecedented demonstration of consular cooperation, we, the EU and its Member States, have managed to ensure the repatriation of around 600,000 European citizens from third countries back home. At the beginning, we expected to have to repatriate 100,000 [travelers] and, at the end, we have reached 600,000.
I think that there are still about 10,000 more Europeans waiting to return. This is a small number, but they also have to be repatriated, so we will continue our efforts through standard consular means. I can declare the successful conclusion of the work of the European External Action Service-led Task Force, that we created for this unique endeavor.
Let me turn now to the main items on the agenda. We had a productive discussion on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa. We are very much concerned about the socio-economic fallout of the pandemic, which adds to the existing challenges faced by some countries, such as protracted conflicts and refugee crises. We agreed that this crisis is an opportunity to reflect on our relations with the region in the medium and long term.
We also had a discussion on the Middle East Peace Process. The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a priority and it is one of the strategic interests of the European Union. We continue being ready to participate on it.
We are on the eve of the formation of a new government in Israel and we look forward to working comprehensively and constructively with the new government once it will be in office, which we expect to happen on Sunday.
We are convinced that we need to work towards bringing a solution to the Palestinian issue and we reaffirm our position in support of a negotiated Two-State solution. For this to be possible, unilateral actions from either side should be avoided and, for sure, international law should be upheld.
We must work to discourage any possible initiative towards annexation. This will require reaching out, by all of us, to Israel, US, Palestinians and Arab partners, using all channels that the EU and the Member States have. Our discussions on this complex topic will continue, we will not advance events.
I would stop here and am happy to take your questions.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-191116
Q. On the Israeli issue, you just said that the European Union will not advance events in terms of annexation. I know that there are 9 or 10 countries that have asked you to prepare an options paper on annexation. Should I take it from there that you will not do so in the coming weeks, and that you will only do so after an annexation takes place –if it does? Or that you are ready to move forward on that work? Then, on the Middle East, even if it was not discussed today. On Iran, the United States is demanding that the international community continues the arms embargo on Iran and do not suspend it. Should the European Union work with the United States on that or will you, as chair of the Joint Commission respect the pledges embedded in the Iranian nuclear deal?
The answer is very easy for the second question, this issue has not been part of our debate today. We have been talking about several things on the broader Middle East, but - believe me - no Member State has raised this question. We have to think about it, but for the time being I cannot explain you something that has not happened.
The discussion about the Middle East Peace Process and the relationship between the European Union and Israel and also with Palestine is a complex one. There have been several proposals on the table -from different approaches, as you can understand, and some Member States said that we have to think about how we manage to enhance our relationship with Israel and which things we can do in order to try to prevent any possible annexation. Also in order to see how we can reinforce our outreach to all actors in the area and what we can do in order to get closer to the [solution of the] problem. As always, we are thinking about what a geopolitical power like the European Union can do using its capacities. That is what we will do: think about our geopolitical capacities in order to influence on this process. It does not mean that we are going to do that tomorrow, but we are permanently engaged on that and we will do it as soon as possible.
Q. On the complications with Operation IRINI, have you discussed the issue? Where you able to end Malta’s blockage? What are the next steps?
I launched a request to Member States to support [Operation] IRINI. IRINI has been criticized, from inside and from outside. It was very difficult to reach an agreement. At the end we managed to do that, to assure to everybody that we were not going to have a “pull effect”, which were the purposes of the mission, where the mission was going to be deployed. We have been discussing for a couple of weeks, no, months.
Now IRINI is already in the sea and in the air. I want to stress that it is not only a naval but also an aerial mission that will survey the flow of arms on the sea and in the air. Also from the air, to observe what is happening at the border between Libya, Egypt and the Sahel countries. To watch what is happening at the borders with all countries that have been affected by the spreading of the Libyan crisis.
Now we have a problem, where the Foreign Affairs Minister of Malta [Evarist Bartolo] assured me that it was going to be solved. I have also made a call to all the Member States that can support Malta in facing this recent wave of migrants that are coming from Libya and which will not be solved until we stabilise politically Libya. I hope that thanks to the help of some and the goodwill of others we can solve the last problems still unsolved. But IRINI is already in the sea and in the air, there is a plane and a warship working.
Q. The government of Israel is not in office yet, but the relevant parties –like the Palestinian Authority- already threatened that it might be forced to dismantle its administration. King of Jordan [Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein] threatened that Jordan may terminate the peace deal with Israel. Will the European Union take concrete steps to deter the Israeli government to go with the annexation plan if it comes to do it? Will the European Union consider the recognition of the Palestinian state among these concrete steps? Any concrete initiative to stabilise the North African region because of the complication of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, which is multiplying the local economic and social difficulties in countries like Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan?
As you know, the stabilisation in the region was a problem before the COVID-19 crisis and the COVID-19 has acted as an accelerator of the process. We can say today that the risk of destabilisation is bigger than before the crisis and the COVID-19 has not stopped the war in Libya. On the contrary, the war in Libya is today increasing from the point of view of the number of casualties, number of military means engaged in the fighting.
So, yes, the coronavirus is a big threat that increases due to economic and social reasons – the political instability in the region and in the countries that you mentioned. We are very much engaged in trying to help them not to go onto a path of increasing destabilisation. I know this is going to be difficult, because our resources are limited. We have already spent almost until the last resources that we had in the budget, because we are running on the last month of the 7-years budget. But we will be mobilising all our efforts in order to help our partners and neighbors.
If the European Union is something, it is a diplomatic power. What everybody agreed is that we have to increase our efforts and our reach out to all relevant actors in the Middle East in order to avoid that something that we do not want to happen, could happen. Believe me, we are ready to do that and we will do that on the next days using all our diplomatic capacities in order to prevent any kind of unilateral action. And if this happens, then we will see. But for the time being, our efforts are devoted to the diplomatic action in order to avoid any unilateral action and in support of a negotiated Two-State solution, as well as in support of the upholding international law. International law has to be upheld -here and there, and everywhere.
Q. On Israel, do you agree that the West Bank can be compared to Crimea - as one of the Foreign Ministers said? On these press reports that according to Le Monde the Belgian intelligence is afraid that the Maltese Embassy could have been bugged by the Chinese. Do you share these concerns that the Maltese or any other Permanent Representations in Brussels could have been bugged by the Chinese?
Yes, I have been informed of this news but I only have the news form the press, I do not have any more information about this. It is difficult for me to pronounce [myself] on something that I just heard from a press report. If the Belgian authorities have something to tell us, they will. For the time being, it has not happened. I cannot tell you anything more than what you already know better than I, because you are working in the press and you know quicker than I what the press is saying. It is a surprising news but I cannot pronounce myself on something that I have such a small amount of information on.
The comparison sometimes does not bring a lot of logic. I do not know what kind of intellectual exercise you can do by comparing one thing to the other, but the annexation of Crimea was against international law, and we say that we have to respect international law everywhere. Crimea was part of a sovereign state sitting in the United Nations. We can discuss how alike is the situation in the Middle East but international law has to be respected everywhere. We cannot have a selective backing of international law.
Q. I would like to know if you are planning to visit Israel once the new Israeli government is in office to speak with the new leaders and, especially, with the new Foreign Minister about the issues that you mentioned?
[Given the ongoing coronavirus situation] I am not planning to travel to Israel nor anywhere else. For sure, it is an important issue for us to have the best relationship with the new Israeli government. We will congratulate them once they are in office. I hope my phone call will be one of the first the Foreign Affairs Minister of Israel will get in order to express what we have been talking about today in the Council [of Ministers of Foreign Affairs] and our willingness to continue working with Israel on all possible cooperation [fronts].
Unhappily, travelling is going to be difficult, to Israel and everywhere else. But, why not? It will be a good idea to visit Israel. For us it is important to have the best relationship with Israel, to visit it, and know them personally and to talk to them. It would be a part of this cooperation.
Q. On Turkey, you sent today a strict message to Turkey and at the same time you continue the efforts for cooperation. Are you optimistic about this relationship? What is the state of play for the talks between EU and Turkey on the review of the Statement?
The coronavirus has been changing a little bit the schedule of our activities. Maybe without coronavirus we would have been more engaged in talks with a lot of people, with whom we have to be a little bit slowing [down] our relationship. Not because there is something wrong or we do not want to do it or that they do not want to do it, but every minute and every hour devoted to the coronavirus crisis is a minute and an hour less available to continue being engaged in the [other] conversations we had.
We continue being in touch with Turkey. How could we not? It is impossible not to be engaged with Turkey every day because there are so many links and so many things that link us that make Turkey a permanent item on the agenda. Our statement today is a clear message of support for Cyprus in front of the problems of drilling – you know very well what I am talking about. But it doesn’t prevent us from having to talk with Turkey about many, many issues – Libya is one of them. The drillings themselves are a question to be on the agenda. So we will continue engaging in talks but there is nothing new in the last days.
Q. I would like to ask you about tensions between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, all with the filling of the [Nile] dam. It is a long negotiated issue, but unfortunately, it came to a stalemate. What is the role of the European Union? The first visit of Madam [Ursula] Von der Leyen [President of the European Commission] was to Ethiopia, a major partner of the EU in the region. It is a lot of investment, also human investment there. What is the role of the European Union there to help to resolve this crisis? Would you personally be engaged?
For us, this dispute among neighbours as important as Egypt, Sudan and also Ethiopia, is a matter of stability for the whole region and we are closely following the talks that have been facilitated by the United States. And I regret that they have not been able to solve or to bring any kind of solution.
But there are talks facilitated by the United States. We are not part of this facilitating activity - we would be very happy to participate if we were called for, but at the time being, it is not the case. We are ready to contribute to appease the situation and to find a pragmatic solution.
I have been talking during the lasts weeks with all parties and strongly encouraged them to continue engaging to find a commonly agreed way forward. I also want to remind that we are going to hold soon, on 25 June, the Sudan Partnership Conference, together with Germany, the United Nations and Sudan. It will be an opportunity for the international community to recall and renew their support for the ongoing political transition in Sudan and include, I hope, concrete pledges.
About this problem that you mentioned, today we have not talked about it. There is nothing new, we are not part of the facilitating talks. This is something done by the United States, but we are ready to participate in the talks.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-191116