Delegation of the European Union to Georgia

Informal meeting of Defence Ministers: Remarks by High Representative Josep Borrell at the press conference

Brdo pri Kranju, Slovenia, 02/09/2021 - 17:51, UNIQUE ID: 210902_9

Check against delivery!

It has been a long discussion and I want to start this presentation by thanking the Slovenian Presidency and the Defence Minister for hosting this informal meeting of the Defence Ministers of the European Union in this really beautiful setting. I want to thank the Slovenian government, and you personally, Matej [Tonin, Minister for Defence of Slovenia], for your strong support for an ambitious security and defence agenda.

Today, there were two issues [on our agenda], apart from the lunch with the representatives of NATO and the United Nations. We focused on our missions, on the deployment of our missions in the world and, although in Afghanistan the European Union today does not have a mission - we had one four or five years ago and we cancelled it - all Member States have been engaged on Afghanistan in the last two weeks. So, Afghanistan was the backdrop of our discussion. It was obvious and necessary.

The Ministers recognised the good cooperation that the European Union and the Member States demonstrated during the evacuations.

Together, Member States evacuated 17,500 persons, including 520 European Union staff and their relatives – that were transported to the hub in Madrid and, from there, redistributed to the Member States that provided visas to them. This was done in a matter of few days, without previous notice and under difficult circumstances.

We discussed [Afghanistan] during the lunch with NATO Deputy Secretary General [Mircea Geoană] and United Nations Under-Secretary General [Jean-Pierre] Lacroix.

Everybody has been insisting on the need to draw lessons and understand why our efforts to build a modern state in Afghanistan have not led to a sustainable result. And, at the same time, that this is not the moment for disengagement, just the contrary. We have to increase our engagement in order to continue supporting Afghan people and, especially, the ones who were willing to leave and were unable to do so.

I said that we have been discussing about the lessons that we can take about what has happened. And I think that the first one is that Afghanistan has shown that the deficiencies in our strategic autonomy come with a price and that the only way forward is to combine our forces and strengthen not only our capacity, but also our will to act.

This means raising the level of readiness through joint military training and exercising, establishing new tools like this [Initial] Entry Force that will be discussed on the Strategic Compass that will be presented at the November Defence Council of Ministers - this would have helped us to provide a security perimeter for the evacuation of European Union citizens in Kabul, to strengthen further our military command and control capabilities, and addressing capabilities shortfalls through joint projects in PESCO and the European Defence Fund.

Second, [the debate] was related to the efforts for the stabilisation of countries, interventions and state-building efforts. We see clearly that what has happened in Afghanistan will be exploited by anti-Western actors and that is why we have to step-up our integrated approach, combining military, civilian, development and diplomatic efforts.

We need to be aware of the pitfalls of carrying forward state-building efforts in war-torn societies which are not structured along the lines of a modern state. And we have to ensure local ownership. Nothing can be done without local ownership. This is particularly relevant for the efforts that we are deploying in other parts of the world, like for example, in the Sahel.

Third, that we continue to be engaged in supporting the future of Afghanistan together with our partners and allies. We will talk tomorrow about it with the Foreign Affairs Ministers.

We will have to shape our relations with Afghanistan, including developments of relations and cooperation with the new government, depending on the path followed by the new authorities. We will continue encouraging an inclusive transitional government through negotiations. We have already increased our humanitarian assistance, but we need to remain vigilant to ensure that it is delivered in full respect with practice and standards. This is something that will also be discussed tomorrow with Foreign Ministers.

Then we went around other missions, like the Sahel itself, Somalia, Mozambique and Bosnia and Herzegovina. All of them are important, in spite the fact that, certainly, Afghanistan was at the centre of our discussion.

Thank you.

Link to the video:




Q. Was there concrete progress as far as the decision-making process is concerned? Are there differences between Member States as far as decision processes are concerned? What are the differences between Member States concerning the migration crisis that will follow the debacle in Afghanistan?

 [Minister of Defence of Slovenia replies]

Your answer is perfectly correct, Minister. I do not think I have much to add.

About migration, this was not the Council of Home Affairs Ministers, nor the Foreign Affairs Ministers, but, certainly, the issue of – they call them migrants, but we have to call them what they really are: they are not migrants, they are asylum-seekers. There is a big difference. The Afghans that will try to leave Afghanistan…Do you think that the people who were trying to look for a place in plane leaving Kabul were migrants? No. They were people who were escaping the possibility of being killed. They are asylum-seekers and we have been treating them like this, like asylum-seekers, providing [them] visas.

The big problem that we will have to face is that a lot of people would like to leave Afghanistan and they will have to be considered as asylum seekers. The most important and crucial issue from this side is to try to take out of Afghanistan the people who were willing to leave on our planes and they could not. And they are still there, and they are the most vulnerable people. All Ministers insisted on the need, on the commitment – that will also be discussed today and tomorrow with the Foreign Affairs Ministers – to continue putting pressure and organising ways for taking out of Afghanistan these vulnerable people who were engaged with us, who were collaborating with us, working together with us, and they could not have been taken out. Yes, it was a big success the airlifting, from a point of view of the number of people that in a very short time we managed to take out of Kabul: 127,000. It is a lot. But it also has to be measured from the point of view of the number of people that we could not take out and this is our most important and pressing endeavour.


Q. One specific proposal that was made during your session on speeding-up decision-making was by the German Defence Minister. She suggested to use, for the first time, article 44 of the EU Treaty, which provides for a coalition of the willing, meaning that from the outset it is clear which countries participate in a mission. It still requires a unanimous decision, but of course it might speed-up. What do you think of this initiative? Do you see it as a feasible way forward? During your discussions, could this be something for which you will get common ground running up to November?

The Article 44 has never been used. As this Directive of 2001 related with how to offer protection to mass of people flying towards the European border, that has never been used. Article 44 has never been used either.

And yes, some Ministers, in particular the German Minister has put on the table the possibility of using this legal instrument. I am perfectly in agreement with that and we will explore this possibility. Good, but do not forget one thing: Article 44 requires unanimous decision by the Council. First, unanimous decision by the Council and, afterwards, some Member States [being] in charge of implementing this decision. So, not all of them have to be ready to participate, but all of them have to be in agreement to approve it. So, let us say that it is less a requirement from the point of view of implementation – because not everybody has to commit to participate -, but it still requires unanimity in the decision to do it.

Let us go, who goes? Not everybody. The ones who are really willing and able to do so. It is an idea that has to be taken into consideration, because maybe there will be cases in which not everybody will be ready to engage, but could be ready to approve.


Q. Once the heat and drama of Afghanistan has passed, how can you ensure that we do not end up in a similar situation that is like the one in 1999? There was a decision to create a very large force by 2003 and we are still having the same discussion 20 years later.

I cannot assure you on anything. It is true that the Headline Goal – because I suppose you are referring to the [Helsinki] Headline Goal - were willing to mobilise 50 - 60,000 soldiers, figures that today look enormous, because the world has changed and nobody goes with 50,000 soldiers.

Now we are much more modest, because we are thinking about operations like securing an airport or facing a concrete crisis that require less number of people. Maybe better trained and equipped, much better trained and equipped, but not in such a big number like in the aftermath of the Yugoslavian war people had still in mind.

The Headline Goal was declared but never implemented, but I have a hope – I do not have security - that the big discussions that we have been having during the last year and will finish in November about the Strategic Compass, will have created enough common understanding of the challenges and threats that we are facing, and Afghanistan is a good example - very timely example - in order to mobilise the will of the Member States and understand that there is no other way to face the new situation than having the capacity to act by ourselves.

President [Joe] Biden is the third President of the United States in a row who has warned us that the United States are disengaging from the world wars. President Biden announced yesterday or the day before yesterday the reasons why the disengagement on Afghanistan. It represents a warning for the Europeans, the need to awake and to take our own responsibilities. It is nothing against NATO, nothing against the EU - US alliance. It is a way of becoming stronger, facing our responsibilities and mobilising the resources in order to face the challenges that we will have to face.


Q. I have seen you quoted as proposing a 50,000 person Expeditionary Force and then a 5,000 person. I want to clarify which it is or whether you are suggesting a range. What do you say to other countries in the EU that are concerned about this idea that there will be a duplicative of NATO or that it will harm the transatlantic alliance?

Thank you for the first part of the question. It allows me to clarify that I think that I have never mentioned this 50,000. I do not remember having said that at any moment. It will be crazy from my part to claim that we need to mobilise 50,000 soldiers. Maybe there has been some confusion with the figure of the [Helsinki] Headline Goal that someone remembered was 25 years ago. No, it has never been in our mind to talk about 50,000. The real figure, the one that the military experts consider good enough in order to implement the new kind of missions that modern warfare requires is about this figure: 5,000.

And the second part of the question was about how much unanimity we have about this idea, no? Well, we do not have yet a complete unanimity, I would be lying to you if I’d say that today everybody agreed on that explicitly. But it does not matter, because today it was not a decision-making Council. It was a debate. The real decision will be taken in November and I am aware that this idea of the [Initial] Entry Force, this mobilising capacity of a quite strong military force will be an important part of the Strategic Compass. It will be an important part, because you will want to have concrete things, not deep thoughts and interesting exchanges of points of view, but concrete elements that can be implemented. That is what European citizens also will require. But in order to arrive to these concrete agreements, the European Union will need a long period of time of discussing and engaging. We are 27, not everybody shares the same vision of the world, not everybody shares the same strategic culture. And this requires time, but time is not unlimited, and we fixed the 16th of November in order to present and approve – I hope – this Strategic Compass.


Q. Could you please tell us what are the main obstacles to find unanimity on this topic? Were there discussions today about the needs to provide assistance to the resistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan at this moment?

With the Taliban we will have to have a conditions-based engagement. Let us call it like this, the conditions-based engagement. We have to develop a conditions-based engagement for everything, even to provide humanitarian assistance. I said the other day that the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan can be one of biblical dimensions.

Today they already have a big humanitarian crisis. The drought, the climate change, the war, women taken out of work. All that will create conditions in which the need for humanitarian help will increase.

We, at the European Union, have already increased it from €50 to €200 million and humanitarian aid goes without political conditions. You help people because they need to be helped. Humanitarian aid goes without political conditioning, but development aid and partnership agreements that go government-to-government, these are certainly politically conditioned.

We have increased humanitarian help [and] we have frozen development aid. And we will not restart until we know who is running Afghanistan and how they are running Afghanistan. We will do it according to the merits of the actions of the Taliban and the way they govern it. We will have to engage with them, even to channel the humanitarian aid. You need the help of the one who is ruling the country.

So, yes, we will have to engage with the Taliban, but on a conditions-based method.


Q. You speak about the deficiencies, what kind of deficiencies are Europeans having in Afghanistan in concrete terms? Political, technical? Could you elaborate on that? Are Member States willing to resolve these deficiencies? Do you think that Europeans could, if they want, do the same things in another countries like the United States has done in Afghanistan to coordinate the evacuation of Europeans?

After the discussion today and many hours of discussion preparing the Strategic Compass, I think that it is clear for all Member States – or almost all Member States - that we need to improve our capacity to be able to act autonomously when and where necessary. And there is no alternative to it.

I repeat it: we need to increase our capacity to be able to act autonomously when and where necessary. Were we ready to send a mission to take control and secure  the perimeter of Kabul airport? No. the Americans yes, we no. If we want to be able to act autonomously and not to be dependent on the choices made by others – even if these others are our friends and allies - then we have to develop our own capacities. And this is what – I think - we will be able to agree, and this is something that has to be built.

We have the armies; all together we have the resources. The problem is to have the coordination and the will to mobilise these resources.


Link to the video: