Check against delivery!
First of all, we discussed the situation Libya, even if it was not formally on today’s agenda, given the recent developments. I am following the developments by the minute, which are definitely not going in the right direction.
We shared with the Member States, first of all, the need to project a very united European message. Indeed, I have seen unity among Member States on these points:
First of all, urging all parties and all regional players to implement fully a humanitarian, immediate truce, as requested by the United Nations.
Secondly, to avoid further military escalation - and the news that are coming from the airport in Tripoli are definitely not going in that direction. We invite everybody to avoid further military action and go back to the negotiation table under the auspices of the United Nations and make sure that the Libyan people get what they really want, which is peace and stability for the country.
I think there is no single Libyan who is in this moment happy about the developments in the country. I think the political leadership and the military leadership of Libya need to take responsibility to deliver on a peaceful transition, finally. We will be there to accompany this.
I have seen unity of Member States in these respects. United, the European Union will reach out to the parties and to the regional players to push in this direction. And, obviously, we will keep in contact with the UN Special Envoy [for Libya, Ghassan Salamé] in these days, and as we have done so far, to strengthen and support his work as much as we can and as always.
We then discussed our support to the Afghanistan peace process. You might have seen the conclusions that have been adopted that highlight the concrete actions that the European Union is willing and ready to take in support of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, hopefully to be started already next week - as it was announced that intra-Afghan negotiations might start already next week.
We have been supporting enormously the work of the Afghan legitimate authorities in their preparation for that. I am glad to see that yesterday, President [of Afghanistan, Ashraf] Ghani announced the formation of the negotiating team and a senior council to lead them. I really hope that, also following our talks in Kabul a couple of weeks ago, this can open the way for negotiations that can lead to peace in Afghanistan without pre-judging neither the electoral process nor the achievements that the Afghan population has managed to reach, in particular on the rights of women, minorities and human rights in general terms.
We had then with the [Foreign] Ministers a discussion to prepare the Eastern Partnership celebrations, the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership that we will celebrate together with our six Eastern partners in May in Brussels, with a ministerial meeting between the 28 Member States – or 27 – and the six partners of the Eastern Partnership and also a High Level Event on the following day. We have gone through all the achievements and the positive developments that we have seen in the six partner countries and also the further work that is needed to consolidate some of the work.
In general terms, if you look back to four or five years ago, we have had enormous progress on many different fields, from visa facilitation to the people-to-people contacts, trade and economic investments. Obviously, more needs to be done, in particular on good governance, anti-corruption and the rule of law. We are determined to do that in partnership with our friends in the East.
What I can say is that I see clearly – also by meeting them often – that each and every one of them, in its own way, is very much willing to get closer to the European Union. We will make sure that this desire is met with a similar amount of enthusiasm on our European Union side, in particular in May as we will be celebrating our ten years of partnership.
Last but not least, we had a point on Venezuela. It was an informal point on the agenda, so no decision was taken, but it was a good opportunity for me and the Ministers that are part of the International Contact Group to debrief on the work of the Contact Group. We decided to continue working very closely with our Latin American partners and also with some of the members of the Lima Group on two main tracks:
One is the access of humanitarian aid inside the country that we think is vital. It is extremely positive that the United Nations and the Red Cross started their work in a more effective manner on the ground. This is also thanks to our support. We will continue doing that.
We will also intensify our work on the second track, which is the political one, trying to prepare the ground for presidential election to be held in a free and transparent manner as soon as possible. This seems to be a very-far-away-objective, given the expression from [Nicolás] Maduro of not being willing to engage in this process for the time being. But I also believe that it is essential that we engage as we are doing with all Venezuelan parties to try and prepare the ground for that.
We have discussed how to practically do that. We have works ongoing that are led by the European Union, in particular the European External Action Service, to prepare a roadmap that could highlight the steps that might be needed or might be an option to be taken to lead the country towards a democratic, peaceful transition.
This is it from my side. I am ready to try to answer your questions.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-170638
Q. Sur le Venezuela, il y avait une deadline qui était fixée à 90 jours. Peut-on imaginer que cette deadline sera reportée et si oui, à quelles conditions? Est-ce que l'option des sanctions, comme l'a dit M. [Josep] Borrell, est sur la table même si rien n'a été décidé, comme un instrument pour essayer de faire progresser les choses au Venezuela et notamment du côté de[Nicolas] Maduro? Sur la Libye, vous avez parlé de l'unité. Les 28 sont-ils unis pour condamner l'offensive déclenchée par le Maréchal Haftar qui a pris tout le monde de court?
First, the International Contact Group does not have an expiry date. The terms of reference
of the Group, that are public, refer to the fact that after 90 days, the Contact Group - which is not just the European Union, we also have partners from Latin America in it - will review its results, will review its work. But there is no expiry date for the Contact Group.
The Contact Group does not only belong to the European Union. It is a European initiative, but we share it with our Latin American friends. We will obviously around the 90th day of our work - in May - review the results of our work and decide on the way forward.
Again, it is not a limited experience in time. Obviously, we can always decide to put an end to it, together with our Latin American friends, but there is no ticking clock that brings us to the end of the work in automatic terms. As I said, the exact wording of the terms of reference is “after 90 days the Group will review the results of its work and decide on the way forward”. This is what we will be doing. The Member States are fully aware and on board with that.
On sanctions, I want to be very clear, because I think it is extremely important that we pass a message of clarity, especially to the Venezuelan population.
The European Union does not have sanctions on Venezuela in place and it is not considering putting sanctions on Venezuela in place: we have targeted individual restrictive measures
on individuals that have had responsibilities in terms of either violence or of obstructing the democratic process. These are measures that do not affect Venezuela as a country or the Venezuelan people, but affect the single individuals that hold specific institutional responsibilities that are linked to the use of violence.
It is possible, it is not excluded, that Member States will consider further restricted measures on individuals of similar nature. Obviously, we will be updated on this in the coming weeks. In particular in the case of either the use of force against the population or in case of limiting or damaging the use of legitimate democratic institutions and rules, Member States will proceed in adopting targeted individual restrictive measures.
We are not talking about sanctions in economic general terms against the country. Our primary concern is the improvement of the humanitarian situation in the country and the well-being of the Venezuelan population - even if it sounds surreal to say so in these conditions, but this is our primary concern. And almost 1 million of the Venezuelan population are also European citizens. We are brothers and sisters. First and foremost we care about their lives.
We will possibly work on individual restrictive measures on some elements of the regime. Again, this is not excluded, but also not decided today.
On Libya, we did not take any formal written conclusions today, but there is a clear consensus among Member States on the call, as I said, to immediately stop all military actions inside Libya, be it from Libyans or - hopefully not and never - from external actors.
Q. On Afghanistan, I know that you proposed and the EU Foreign Ministers today expressed support for a role of the EU as a guarantor in Afghanistan. Can you spell out what you have in mind - a guarantor for what? For the peace process? For the implementation of the peace plan which would obviously be a much bigger commitment? How can this work in a context where the US is indicating it is politically and militarily planning to withdraw?
If you read the Council Conclusions
carefully, I think you will find many of the answers in the common position we have adopted today.
Let me be very clear on this: the European Union is already today playing a key role in trying to facilitate the beginning of the Afghan peace process. I said the beginning, because for the time being, there have been productive talks that we have accompanied, encouraged and supported between the US and the Taliban, but the Afghan peace process as such has not started yet.
We have worked together with the United States administration - this is one of the files on which we have been working more closely and better together with the United States administration so far - to prepare the ground for a full and immediate beginning of inter-Afghan talks, hopefully by next week already, in Doha.
The European Union has already been involved in the preparation of that, with contacts at all levels, with all different actors, none excluded, from our side, including my recent visits to Islamabad
and to Kabul
. There I reached out first of all to our Afghan friends, encouraging them to get ready for these negotiations, and also reassuring them that the European Union - in this case we are already a sort of guarantor, even if informally - will never accept to support any agreement or any process that would put in danger the achievements that have been already reached by the Afghan society, in particular in terms of human rights, minority rights, women’s rights, girls’ rights that are a treasure to be nourished and protected as much as possible. They are still not sufficient, but Afghanistan needs to build on them.
Another reassurance we have given is that we will continue to push for the democratic electoral process not to be taken hostage by the beginning of the negotiations. The formula I have used in Kabul and that the US Special Envoy [Zalmay Khalilzad] has used himself and praised himself has been: engage in the peace process as if you did not have any electoral campaign to run and engage in the electoral process as if you were not negotiating peace outside of the country. On this we are already guaranteeing the Afghans some basic standards that are key for them and are key for us.
The role that the European Union can have in the months ahead is multiple. We can for instance work on the inclusiveness of the negotiating teams. We have experience in this respect, I mentioned in particular the need to include women in the negotiations. No negotiation is sustainable if half of the population is excluded from them. This is a work we have been doing on Syria. We are continuing to do it on Syria but also in Libya, and we would be more than happy to support a similar work on Afghanistan. But not only women, also different political viewpoints, different elements of the civil society of the country.
We could work very usefully on the plans for the reintegration of the combatants and their families in the Afghan society. This is also a work that we have been doing in different conflicts, and as we have done for many different peace processes and peace agreements, we can act as a guarantor. In particular in Asia, think of Myanmar, think of the Philippines, the European Union is the guarantor of the peace agreements.
I have the impression that we are now still far from an agreement, but we could obviously play that role, both of guaranteeing the implementation of the agreement - the European Union has sufficient resources and presence on the ground to do so, and I would say even more importantly, the European Union enjoys sufficient trust from different sites and parties of the Afghan society, the region and the international community to play that role.
Obviously, we can also play a role of guaranteeing the process itself. I mentioned the fact that we have good relations with different players in the region. I think there is a clear awareness of the fact that peace in Afghanistan will require a concerted effort, if not a convergence of views, among different players that are very different and that have very different positions on many different things - from Iran to the United States, from China to Central Asia, to Pakistan.
The European Union has good relations, and I would also say the economic incentives that can make all these actors come together and enjoy the benefits of a peace process in Afghanistan that can be beneficial for the entire region. This is why, among the five points that are in our Conclusions and that I presented in Geneva last November
, there is the possibility for the European Union to finance and support infrastructure, trade and economic agreements in the region because this could create the incentive for peace in the broader region that we can probably provide.
Q. Since you mentioned Iran, with them there is a process where until now you have talked about Yemen. Could the subject of Afghanistan be brought to the table as well?
We discussed both with our Iranian but also with our American friends the need to have a channel open and obviously we are ready to do that.
Q. There are some divisions or different approaches of some Member States, at least two – France and Italy – regarding the crisis in Libya. How did you manage to overcome these divisions to get a proper, united approach regarding Libya?
First of all, I did not have to invent anything special to bring unity around the table today because the European Union Member States today were extremely united about that.
I think that there have been divisions or different perspectives from some Member States in the past but I think that today all Member States realise two things. First of all, the need for a united European voice in a moment where other international and regional players appear to be supportive to the UN process in a less convinced manner. The responsibility that lies on our shoulders on showing unity and responsibility in this moment in support to the UN efforts is extreme and it is in the interest of all Europeans to avoid that this current military escalation develops even further and escalates to the level of a civil war.
All Europeans are united in trying to avoid that from happening and are sincerely, I believe, putting all their efforts in trying to avoid this. This is out of a sense of responsibility that we feel, you know that we had a Quartet meeting in Tunis just some 10 days ago
and it was already clear back then that the European Union probably was the strongest and most convinced supporter of the UN efforts.
The others were also supportive but for us it is really a "DNA approach" that we have in all crises, but for Libya this is even more important given recent and less recent history. For us, it is essential that this process stays firmly in the hands of nobody else than the United Nations and the Libyans.
Then, it is also out of self-interest because the first to suffer from a military escalation are obviously the Libyans. This is why I made a very strong appeal to the Libyan leaders and in particular to [General Commander Khalifa] Haftar to stop military activities in this moment and to return to the negotiating table under UN auspices. We have an interest in avoiding that the situation deteriorates further.
Q. On Libya, do you still consider Libya a safe third country especially for the people right now? Did you discuss with the EU ministers any measures that you can take in order to prevent another refugee crisis or do you still trust the Libyan Coast Guards to rescue people at sea?
You might know that the European Union has not considered Libya to be a safe country in recent times. There is no change in this consideration. The recent developments sadly remind us all - if there was any need to do so - that Libya is still facing a difficult situation.
As far as the work with the Libyan Coast Guards is concerned, we are continuing and we will continue to work with them, in particular doing the training for the Libyan Coast Guards. You know that it has been a very important component of the work of [EUNAVFOR MED] Operation Sophia so far and it will continue to be a central part of the Operation activities. The human rights component of the training is for me particularly important.
We do not only train them to run their activities at sea as Coast Guards should do, but we also train them with the relevant UN agencies and NGOs to respect human rights at full, be it at sea or once people are disembarked in Libya. Again, I want to stress that the European Union’s position has always been clear in not considering Libya to be a safe third country.
Q. Sur le Partenariat Oriental, vous dites qu'il faut qu'on soutienne avec enthousiasme – si possible - le fait qu'ils [les pays du Partenariat Oriental] se rapprochent de l'Union européenne. Qu'entendez-vous par là? Parce que dans la notion de rapprochement, il y a deux visions différentes au niveau européen: l'adhésion ou se rapprocher en étant le plus loin possible de l'adhésion.
Sur les relations avec le Royaume-Uni dans les opérations de PSDC – le Royaume-Uni a déjà plus ou moins quitté ces opérations – comment, d'un point de vue temporaire, pourrait-on conclure un accord pour que les Britanniques puissent continuer de participer aux opérations avant ou après le Brexit?
Avant [le Brexit], il n'y a aucun problème. Après, nous verrons. Je peux déjà vous dire que l'engagement de la Grande-Bretagne dans nos opérations et missions civiles et militaires est extrêmement réduit. Il était plus ou moins de 5% et maintenant, il a été presque complètement réduit, si ce n'est pas déjà fait, c'est une questions de jours. Nous sommes prêts à gérer la transition, si et quand cela se passera, d'une façon qui n'affectera d'aucune manière l'efficacité de nos opérations et missions. Nous aurons d'autres problèmes auxquels il faudra faire face mais nous en discuterons mercredi soir avec les chefs d'état ou de gouvernements.
Sur le Partenariat Oriental, je pense qu'il y a bien plus que deux options pour interpréter le niveau de rapprochement de nos partenaires à l'Union européenne. Il y a des considérations très différentes, premièrement de la part de nos partenaires. Certains d'entre eux envisagent un type de rapprochement, certains un autre type, et à l'intérieur même des pays, il y a un débat sur le type de relations et de proximité à avoir avec l'Union européenne.
Je pense qu'une des clés du succès du Partenariat Oriental que nous avons développé ces dernières trois, quatre années est le respect pour les différentes approches que chacun de nos partenaires a ou veut avoir par rapport à la relation à avoir et établir avec l'Union européenne.
Avec certains d'entre eux, nous avons des relations très étroites du point de vue économique, commercial et politique, et cela marche bien avec un impact positif sur leurs économies. Avec d'autres, nous avons intensifié nos relations sans aller jusque-là, cela a aussi bénéficié les populations dans ces pays ou dans l'Union européenne.
Je pense que le mot-clé ici est le respect. Respect pour les aspirations, mais aussi le respect réciproque de la part de nos partenaires envers les aspirations et les perspectives qu'ont les Etats-membres par rapport au futur de l'Union européenne.
Nous allons bien sûr discuter du futur du Partenariat [Oriental]. Au moment où nous célébrons ses dix ans, il est normal de se projeter aussi vers les dix prochaines années. C'est une discussion que nous aurons au mois de mai avec les Etats-membres.
Prenons les choses les unes après les autres, et essayons de travailler sur un agenda qui soit positif et concret pour les populations. Je pense à la libéralisation des visas, à l'intensification des rapports commerciaux, aux exportations, au nombre d'étudiants qui peuvent étudier dans les deux sens, aux infrastructures, au soutien à la société civile et aux médias dans ces pays.
Je pense à toute une série de mesures très concrètes qui ont déjà un impact extrêmement positif sur la vie des citoyens de ces pays et aussi des nôtres. Là sont la priorité et le focus principal de la célébration des dix ans du Partenariat [Oriental].
On Libya, do you think that the developments there could lead to a worsening situation with migration in the Mediterranean? In this context, will the [Operation] Sophia’s mandate be sustained without naval operations?
You might find it hard to believe but today’s discussions on Libya did not touch upon the migration issue. Let me stress this because it is very important. I think it is important for the Libyans and it is important for me, personally.
Libya is a country in itself and Libyans deserve peace, stability and security for themselves. Then, there is also a migration issue as a consequence of the instability and the security situation in the country. But the reason why we work on Libya and with Libyans is, first and foremost, the fate of the Libyans. I want this to be to be very clear.
Today, we did not discuss Libya as a transit country but as a country that is a neighbouring country to us, so close geographically, culturally and economically to many Member States, and so important for the security of Europe and of the entire region. This was the angle through which we discussed the situation in Libya today, and I think that this is the right angle to be discussed today.
On Operation Sophia, you know very well that I personally believe, and not only me personally, it was our assessment that a naval operation without naval assets cannot be expected to be as efficient on its mandate as it is supposed to be. This was the decision of the Member States and we are implementing it as we can.
I can only hope that Member States will find a different kind of agreement considering the need to keep extreme vigilance in the Mediterranean, on the migration flows and also on the security situation because Operation Sophia with naval assets was also implementing UN Security Council resolutions that are extremely important for security in the Mediterranean.
Without the naval assets, obviously this can be done to a very limited extent which is regrettable, and I can only hope that Member States will revert to that decision as soon as possible.