Check against delivery!
We just finished with the Ministers a very productive, very long day of Council, in which the EU Member States showed full unity on all the files we have been discussing and deciding upon.
I will try to be very short in my introductory remarks, so I can take most of your questions.
You will have seen on Syria we adopted this morning Council conclusions. They are very substantial, very long, very detailed, and they cover our common position and also our common indication for action for the coming weeks in relation to the crisis in Syria, extensively. So I would refer to these conclusions. I would just highlight that there was an unequivocal, strong wish from all Member States to use the Brussels Conference next week as the opportunity to relaunch together with the United Nations the political process to solve the Syrian crisis.
We had a very good discussion with the Ministers on the Iran Nuclear Deal [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA] where we reiterated our strong commitment to continuing the full implementation of the agreement in all its parts, by all. This entails support for the work that in particular France, Germany and the UK are developing with the United States' administration to address some of the concerns that President Trump has expressed, within the framework of the existing agreement. And at the same time working to reassure the rest of the international community, and obviously also the Iranian authorities, on the fact that the European Union not only is committed to the full implementation of the agreement but will also continue to implement fully the agreement in the future, because we see this as a strategic element of our security and also the security of the region.
Obviously this does not mean that other issues that fall beyond the field of competence of the agreement, meaning non-nuclear issues like the situation in Syria that we discuss separately, or the situation in Yemen that we discuss separately, or the human rights issues in Iran that we discuss separately, are not addressed. On the contrary, the European Union is probably the most active player when it comes to dialogue with Iran, but also we have a system of sanctions already in place addressing some of these elements. So we will continue to address these issues, but separately from the JCPOA that we will continue to preserve one hundred per cent.
We had a very extensive debate with the Ministers on our relation with the Western Balkans, in particular in preparation for the Summit that we are going to have in Sofia at the end of May. Re-stating our clear engagement and commitment to the region as a whole, our six partners there, and the perspective of the enlargement process. Enlargement is, as you know, not an issue for the Foreign Ministers, but still there was a clear indication of support for the Strategy that the Commission presented a few months ago and the continued work that we do with the Western Balkans, in the interest of the European Union and of the European Union Member States, to increase cooperation and to highlight credibility, strong credibility to the European Union accession path for the region.
Last but not least, we addressed two other issues: our relations with Russia, on which I will say a bit more because I covered this a bit less this morning coming into the Council, and a short point on the future of External Financing Instruments on which we had the first exchange with the Ministers on the MFF [Multi-annual Financial Framework] proposal. The proposal will come to the table in the coming weeks from the [European] Commission side, but let me say that there was a clear indication from the Ministers that all activities we do at the European Union level on the external action will need to have adequate financing in the future framework, because the level of activities has increased enormously, covering migration to counter-terrorism and multiple humanitarian crises and crisis management. We will need to have adequate resources to meet our needs and ambitions.
On Russia, we shared with the foreign ministers a common assessment of the challenges faced in the EU's relations with Russia. We have seen an evolving pattern of a challenging Russian behaviour in many different fields. Central to this challenge is of course still the situation in Ukraine, with the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the de-stabilisation of eastern Ukraine that continue to this day. Other areas of challenging Russian behaviour include obviously the Russian posture in Syria that we discussed in the morning, activities of disinformation, internal interference, hybrid threats, malicious cyber activities, and inside Russia a shrinking space for independent political voices, civil society, but also a decrease of respect for human rights and the rule of law.
In our discussion today with the Member States we reaffirmed clearly that the five principles we defined together two years ago remain absolutely valid for our relations with Russia and we have seen what we can do differently or more under each of these five principles, maintaining the overall importance of all of them as a balanced approach.
First, the full implementation of the Minsk agreements remains a key element for any substantial change in EU-Russia relations. We will continue to support the work of the Normandy format. We have looked at ways in which the European Union can help more, in particular Germany and France, to work for the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. In particular on the political level, but also with concrete steps in the humanitarian field, on de-mining, on the preparation for reconstruction in Donbas and obviously keeping strong coordination also within the UN framework.
Second, we will continue to strengthen relations with our eastern partners and other neighbours, especially after the very successful Eastern Partnership Summit we had [in November 2017], but also with the Central Asia Strategy that is coming up, keeping a policy of transparency towards Russia on our cooperation with our eastern partners and exploring cooperation in areas of mutual interest. I have always made it very clear publicly, but also in our meetings with our Russian interlocutors that our friendship and partnership with our eastern partners is never against anyone, it is always cooperative, and we never think in a logic of spheres of influence.
Third, it has been painfully evident with the Salisbury attack that we need to reinforce our own resilience inside the European Union. We have discussed today how the European Union, together with Member States, can take forward the European Council decision to strengthen resilience to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear-related risks, as well as to increase capabilities to address hybrid threats, including in the areas of cyber, strategic communication and counterintelligence - and here Member States have a critical role to play, feeding into the work that the European Union institutions will do. We will come back on this point in view of the European Council in June.
Fourth and fifth are principles related to engagement. You know that we have started a policy of selective engagement with the Russian Federation in areas where we see a European Union interest to do so, and Member States agreed that this is still a very much valid principle. We need to continue to apply it, mainly in the areas of foreign and security policy: I mentioned the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] - the nuclear deal with Iran, I could mention the Middle East Peace Process, and the work we do in the Quartet [on the Middle East], I could mention Afghanistan, or the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea], or global issues like climate change, environment, migration, counter-terrorism, or cooperation in the Arctic, which is strategically important for Europeans.
Last but not least at all – I would say actually even first, and all the [Foreign] Ministers saw this point as a key issue - increasing our support for Russian citizens, civil society, human rights defenders, people to people contacts, especially with a focus on the youth of the Russian Federation. I do not have the exact numbers but I can share with you the fact that Russian students and researchers are among the first - if not the first - of third countries benefiting from the Erasmus+ programme. It is something we want to increase to make sure that links between our people are not only maintained but also increased. So, there will be a clear increase of our work and also hopefully of our funding on our work on people to people contact, especially with a with an eye on the younger generation.
Q. After the military strikes, which condition do you see as necessary for the relaunch of the negotiation process under UN auspices between the Syrians? Do you see these conditions at least a little bit around the second Brussels Conference on "Supporting the Future of Syria and the region"? If we remember well, last year we had an even more positive approach than this one.
FM: Last year, at the eve of the conference, we had another chemical attack. And last year, together with the Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres, we were launching a very strong appeal to the international community to consistently – let us say – work on the parties, which are the Syrians, to come to the table. You are right in pointing out to the fact that conditions today are not better than last year – actually they are deteriorating. We are seeing more violence, more destruction, more people dying, and it is true that the solution to the conflict seems to be even further away than ever in the past, in seven years of conflict. The paradox is that the more the solution seems to be far away and the more destruction we see on the ground - including the awful use of weapons of mass destruction we were never thinking of seeing again in our human civilisations - the more urgent a political solution becomes. It is quite evident that there is no process whatsoever that so far has brought a solution to the conflict. And even the military escalation of the recent months, even the Astana process efforts, even the Sochi event are not bringing any positive results on the ground.
I believe it is evident to all that the only way to put an end to the suffering and the dying of so many Syrians, and by the way the only way to avoid that the Syrian crisis further spirals into a wider regional or global confrontation, is to put all the pressure on the parties, and mainly on the Syrian regime, to come to Geneva with meaningful intentions for negotiations. Pressure needs to be exercised. Otherwise the pattern of destruction will simply continue. We will try to use the [second] Brussels Conference to push in this direction. The relatively encouraging element I see is that the level of participation of the different players, regionally and internationally, is consistent. This might allow us to help the United Nations to have minimum ground to restart and relaunch meaningful negotiations. I say "meaningful", because I talked yesterday with [United Nations Special Envoy to Syria] Staffan de Mistura, I will talk later today with the Secretary General António Guterres: nobody is in the mood for talks for talks. We do not need the process for the sake of the process. We need the political negotiations not only to start in Geneva, but also to be serious. We have worked enormously with the opposition. We have today a more united and prepared opposition to enter negotiations. They have shown repeatedly their willingness to do so and readiness to do so.
We need now to have Damascus coming to the table and committing to a process. Not because of goodwill - we have seen that there is no goodwill on that side -, but simply out of the reality that without a political negotiation this cycle of destruction will simply continue. And it risks to become an endless conflict, that is in the interest of no one and, most of all, it is not in the interest of the Syrian people that are just asking for the war to stop.
Q: On Iran, two questions. First of all, is there a political consensus for new sanctions on Iran by May 12? Secondly, when you were speaking on the work of the E3 with Washington, you expressed support for it, but said you will have to resolve the concerns the Americans have within the framework of the existing agreement. Is that another way of saying that the work that has been done on the sunsets, which you know very well is at the heart of Sunday's discussions, is not welcomed?
FM: First of all, on the sanctions. As I said this morning entering the Council, this was not foreseen to be a decision taken today. Let me stress one thing: the European Union has, as you know very well, a set of sanctions already in place. We have a set of non-nuclear-related sanctions already in place on Iran and we have a set of sanctions related to the Syria conflict. Some of these are overlapping. The proposal that some Member States have put on the table for consideration - and consideration will happen in the coming days or weeks among Member States - is related to the Syria conflict, not to the JCPOA. I want to make it very clear, also because the link between this proposal and the date of 12 May does not stand, this proposal being related to the Syria conflict. One thing is 100 percent clear to all of us: we want to preserve the nuclear deal with Iran. We want to see the full compliance by all to all commitments included in the deal. And this has to stay separate from any other consideration related to regional dynamics, the conflict in Syria, the conflict in Yemen, ballistic missiles, human rights - this might be something less relevant for others, but it is extremely relevant for the European Union. It is absolutely clear for us: the JCPOA has to stay. We will stay committed to its full implementation. We are ready, we stay ready and we continue to stay ready to address other concerns we share with the United States, and others, on some other issues, mainly related to the regional dynamics, but this needs to be addressed outside of the JCPOA. There is no connection between proposals that are related to the war in Syria and the implementation of the JCPOA. When I said that we support the work the E3 [France, Germany, the United Kingdom] are doing with the US administration, this is the reality of fact. This is a work they are trying to do in difficult circumstances, but with all our support, because our aim, our objective is to keep all committed to the full implementation of the agreement. Any effort will need to be made to reach this objective - obviously in the framework of the full implementation of the agreement, otherwise we would be contradicting ourselves.
As you know very well, I never refer to a sunset clause, the agreement does not have a sunset clause. The agreement contains different provisions that have different durations. The duration of the different provisions was, as you know very well, part of the negotiations and are part of the agreement as being agreed and as being currently implemented. You know very well that I have a special role given to me by the United Nations Security Council to ensure the full implementation of the agreement as it stands.
Q: L'accord sur le nucléaire a permis de lever un certain nombre de sanctions, notamment l'ouverture de ce qu'on appelle les marchandises à double usage. Pourrait-on considérer que l'on remette des sanctions sur ces marchandises à double usage qui effectivement rentrent dans la composition du programme balistique qui fait tant peur aux Européens? Le retour à ces sanctions est-il envisagé, sachant que vous ne voulez pas lier l'accord sur le nucléaire et les activités de l'Iran en Syrie?
Sur la Syrie, comment peut-on imaginer que le régime syrien puisse venir à la table des négociations sachant que la plupart des membres autour de la table des négociations veulent sa disparition? Comment voulez-vous que Bachar Al-Assad vienne négocier quoique ce soit alors que la condition sine qua none est qu'il quitte la scène?
FM: La condition sine qua none est que les parties syriennes s'engagent à une discussion sérieuse entre elles, sous la direction des Nations Unies - qui sont les seuls à avoir la légitimité internationale à le faire-, pour entrer dans une phase de transition politique, pour adopter l'approche très pragmatique qui consiste à voir comment tous les Syriens, tous les citoyens syriens puissent se reconnaitre dans des institutions, dans un partage de pouvoir qui puissent garantir, dans le futur, la protection minimale de l'existence et des droits de tous les citoyens syriens – qu'ils soient actuellement en Syrie ou en dehors. Car on parle d'un nombre important de réfugiés qui sont des citoyens syriens et qui doivent également avoir le droit de revenir dans leur pays.
La base sur laquelle les négociations à Genève ont toujours été préparées – je parle ici sous le contrôle de Staffan de Mistura [Envoyé Spécial des Nations Unies pour la Syrie] - est premièrement, la Résolution du Conseil de Sécurité  adoptée à l'unanimité – donc un cadre commun - sur la base de laquelle les parties syriennes sont appelées à trouver leur propre manière de réformer la Constitution, de partager le pouvoir, de trouver leur façon de parvenir à des institutions inclusives, qui puissent protéger le droit de chaque Syrien et de chaque Syrienne de participer à la vie démocratique, réellement démocratique, de leur pays.
Cela se base sur la Résolution des Nations Unies adoptée à l'unanimité, donc c'est aussi une question de cohérence, d'inviter ou de pousser le régime syrien à participer à des négociations qui sont prévues par une Résolution du Conseil de Sécurité qui n'a pas trouvé d'opposition, au contraire, qui a été rédigée à l'époque avec la contribution de la Fédération Russe.
Par contre, je vous invite à noter que, que ce soit le processus d'Astana ou l'évènement organisé à Sotchi, ils prévoient des passages politiques importants qui envisagent un certain degré d'engagement de la part du régime syrien, qui par contre, ne s'est pas matérialisé ni après Astana, ni après Sotchi. C'est une question de cohérence de la part de la Fédération Russe, de l'Iran et de la Turquie de pousser dans cette direction.
Sur la première partie de votre question, cela n'était l'objet de la discussion d'aujourd'hui. Comme je l'ai déjà dit, le cadre dans lequel l'UE et ses Etats Membres sont en train de travailler est pour la pleine, totale mise en œuvre de l'accord tel qu'il est, c'est-à-dire sans remettre en cause, dans aucun scénario que ce soit, notre propre mise en œuvre de nos engagements prévus dans l'accord.
Q: I would like to go back to your answer to the question on Iran. You said that one should not link the sanctions being proposed with the May 12 deadline. I was surprised by this since lots of people seem to think that this is part of a package to be presented to the US administration ahead of May 12 with precisely the aim of trying to persuade the administration that Europe is taking its concerns seriously. Can you just outline a bit more what you meant by saying that there is not such a link?Secondly, can you just also outline to us what are the obstacles to an agreement on these new sanctions that have been proposed by the E3?
FM: The agreement with Iran is a nuclear related agreement, when the sanctions that have been proposed are related to the Iranian activities in Syria which are not related to nuclear activities. So, it is quite clear to me that the nuclear agreement and the nuclear agreement implementation are not related to sanctions that are proposed for activities on the ground in Syria.
As you might know, the European Union has already a sanctions regime in place related to the war in Syria that covers also - by the way – some of the Iranian entities and persons. The two issues have always been clearly very separated in our discussions and in our decisions, then the perception might be different but this is the reality of our discussions.
By the way, our American friends know very well that we take the Iranian activities in the region extremely seriously and that is why we have already a sanctions regime in place, addressing some of these behaviours - otherwise we would not have them.
So, we are very serious on that - by the way not only through sanctions, but also through dialogue and engagement. We started a specific dialogue with Iran related to developments in Yemen, that is appreciated in Washington as far as I am told directly by our colleagues there, and that is leading to some movement. So our consistent policy of putting pressure on the basis of merit-based decisions - and as you know always on a very solid legal basis, because we have a legal basis system for our sanctions regime that is different from the American one and that has to be one hundred percent solid - is always going on in parallel with the engagement through dialogue and discussions. And we have a high-level political dialogue with Iran in place that covers also regional aspects, including the war in Syria, the situation in Yemen, the security framework in the region and so on. But we have also started other sectoral dialogues with Iran. I mentioned the human rights one, I can mention the dialogue we have with Iran on migration issues, on sectoral cooperation and many other things. So we have always had this double approach.
And to come to the second part of the question: there is no specific obstacle. It is simply that, as I said, always when the European Union decides or starts a discussion or some Member States propose to introduce sanctions in any framework, there is a discussion, there is an evaluation of different elements, be it political or legal. There are procedures, but also internal debates within the Member States that are currently taking place and that is it. So, I would not dramatise neither in one sense nor the other. There is no decision. There is no consensus at the moment on the fact that these measures would be useful in this moment or appropriate in this moment. I do not exclude that this would happen in the future but this is not the case today. And as I said this is not linked to the JCPOA. It is more linked to the discussion on the war in Syria, on which, by the way, we as the European Union keep a very open channel with the Iranian authorities. And I believe that also in this field our dialogue with Iran is valuable and important, us being among the few that are talking with Tehran on the war in Syria. So we need to keep that channel of communication definitely open.
Q: I wanted to ask how exactly do you want to put pressure on [Bashar, al-] Assad to go back to negotiations? And in that context who will represent Russia, Turkey and the United States at the Syria Conference next week? Could you confirm, because last year the absence of senior officials from these three countries that are crucial in the conflict was visible?
FM: I cannot confirm at this stage the presence of any country, because we have decided not to make the list of Ministers attending public at this stage. We have a good feedback, especially in terms of regional presences. But I would rather avoid mentioning the level of attendance of one country and not of the other. And you will get the full list of attendance in the coming days. But the level of attendance is, for the moment, relevant, especially as I said from the regional players, including some of the ones we have just mentioned now.
On the pressure we could put on Assad: Pressure can be put on Assad mainly by the ones that are supporting Assad, which is definitely not us. So the discussions we are having especially with the Russians and the Iranians are based on the pressure we can put on them so that they can exercise influence on Damascus to enter serious negotiation. Here I believe there are two elements. One is an element of political will from Moscow and Tehran to do so. The other is an element of effectiveness. Even if they have political will, would Assad listen? And I think these are the two elements we need to consider in analysing the situation as it is. Because if I am not wrong, Sochi, for instance, was pushing in a certain direction that was not necessarily being followed up swiftly in Damascus - to use a euphemism. So there is an element of political will in the capitals that have an influence on Damascus and there is an element of responsiveness of Damascus to those pressures that might be put in place.
One of the leverages we definitely identified is the economic one. We have made it clear, we reiterated it today and we will make it clear also at the Brussels Conference next week: the European Union together with the international community and in particular some of the international financial institutions is and would be ready to finance the reconstruction of the country. That would require an immense amount of resources. But it is simply and completely unthinkable, it is unrealistic for us to do so in case of no changes and no movement on the political side.
So the money for the reconstruction from the European Union's side and I am sure also from the international financial institutions will come - and this is the good news. But it will only come in the moment when the political transition, a political process would be firmly under way under UN auspices in Geneva. The Brussels Conference will also be a way for showing not only the Syrian regime but also the ones that are supporting it - mainly Russia and Iran - what they are deciding to give up in terms of economic resources for the reconstruction of a country, in case the political process doesn't properly start.
And I need to make a specification on this point. This has nothing to do with humanitarian aid. Because I have seen sometimes the argument is twisted. Humanitarian aid does not fall under any political consideration. It is given purely on the basis of humanitarian needs. There is never a political consideration from the European Union's side on how we give money to the people in need in humanitarian cases. But the reconstruction of a country after more than seven years of war is a different thing and it is simply unrealistic to imagine that anyone in the European Union or in the international financial institutions would simply give money to the current regime in Damascus to reconstruct the country. Even if we would love to guarantee to the Syrian people a reconstructed country, a reconciled country, a democratic country, a united country, an independent country and so on and so forth. Thanks.