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Good afternoon to all of you.
It has been a long, intensive and very useful [Foreign Affairs] Council by video conference, once again. Due to the travel restrictions, the [Foreign Affairs] Ministers have decided to hold this meeting through the plasma.
We had two important issues. One is the situation in Ethiopia and the other, let us say, the Russian cluster – all the issues related with Russia, but mainly Ukraine; the situation in the Ukrainian border, which is really very much worrisome. We invited the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to meet with us.
We commented about the situation on the border. The Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian border is very concerning. There are more than 100,000* Russian troops amassing at the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The risk of further escalation is evident.
We have to commend Ukraine for its restrained response and we urge Russia to de-escalate and to defuse tensions.
The message of all Ministers has been very much clear: a complete reiteration of strong support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Once again, it includes the non-recognition of the illegal annexation of Crimea and the request for the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. We will continue supporting the efforts of the Normandy format.
We welcomed increased diplomatic efforts aimed at restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity. We confirmed that the European Union will attend the Summit of the Crimea Platform on the 23rd of August.
At the same time, we talked about the need to speed up substantial progress on reforms. We welcomed Ukraine's ambition to approximate its policies to the European Green Deal. We talked about the delivery of vaccines by COVAX. As you know, we are the strongest contributor to this scheme.
But the most important message is our strong support to Ukraine and our concern about the Russian military build-up that has to stop in Crimea and on the border.
On the Russian issues, the second thing is the situation of Mr [Alexei] Navalny, which is critical. I have received a letter from Navalny’s team about his deteriorating [health] situation. I issued yesterday a strong statement on behalf of the entire European Union. Earlier today, we have had news reporting that Mr Navalny had been moved to a regional prison hospital. But it remains that the Russian authorities must grant him immediate access to the medical professionals that he trusts.
I travelled to Moscow in early February to raise this issue, eye-to-eye, face-to-face with the Russian authorities. Unhappily, our request was not heard. The situation is getting worse. Today, we are passing a united message to the Russian authorities: they are responsible for Mr Navalny’s safety and health and we will hold them to account for it.
Also, the Czech Foreign Minister [Jan Hamáček] briefed us on the announcement this weekend of the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats linked to the 2014 explosions in an ammunition depot. These diplomats have been identified by the Czech intelligence to be Russian military service agents. The European Union stands in unity and solidarity with the Czech Republic.
The second big issue was Ethiopia. We have seen recently some announcements by the Government of Ethiopia who went into the Tigray region by “blood and sword”, creating a very dire humanitarian situation. The progress remains very limited in Tigray: fighting is ongoing, humanitarian access is still being prevented, Eritrean troops are not withdrawing and human rights violations continue.
The Council received a report from the Finnish Foreign Affairs Minister, our colleague, [Pekka] Haavisto, who travelled to the region for the second time as my representative to reiterate the European Union’s requests and assess the situation.
He was able to go to Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, and learn from the ground how urgent the need for a monitored ceasefire is to improve security conditions in Tigray in order to make the humanitarian work possible. And that the so many times announced withdrawal of Eritrean troops should become a reality immediately.
One week ago, the United Nations Human Rights body issued a statement full of allegations about human right abuses, war crimes and gender-based violence, which should be investigated and those responsible should be brought to account. I encourage the deployment of the joint investigation between the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the [United Nations] High Commissioner for Human Rights, my friend [Michelle] Bachelet.
Finally, the government must show commitment to the organisation of a national dialogue in the run-up to the elections.
I also informed the Council about my decision to send an electoral observation mission for the forthcoming elections - unless the situation continues further deteriorating.
On the following days, we will continue following closely the situation in order to confirm our will to send an electoral observation mission in the country. Taking into account that in Tigray, for sure, is not going to be an election. It will be impossible to imagine such a thing.
Apart from the Russian cluster and apart from Ethiopia, we have been talking about the progress on the JCPOA [Iran nuclear deal], on the ongoing talks in Vienna.
Over the past week, the talks have moved from general to more focused issues: sanctions lifting and nuclear implementation on both sides. The talks continue and there are some lights of progress. Just the fact that the United States is re-joining the JCPOA and the return to the full implementation of the deal will make the world much safer.
So, we are working a lot and my Political Director [of the European External Action Service, Enrique Mora] is in Vienna helping with the contacts between the United States and the Iranians.
On Myanmar, the news is that we adopted a second much larger package of sanctions, affecting ten individuals and also two economic entities belonging to the military. It is once again clear that humanitarian aid to the people of Myanmar needs to be increased. We decided to increase it by €9 million, but the important thing is to stop the repression.
During the meeting, the conversations in Georgia were going on. A new proposal was tabled under the authority of President [of the European Council, Charles] Michel to try to look for a way out of the political crisis.
At the end of the meeting, we got some news. I welcomed the positive indications that the Georgian Dream accepted the deal, which has recently been presented. And I hope that the other parties will move in order to reach an agreement. I am urging all parties to find a compromise in order to get out of the stalemate in which Georgia currently is and to continue its democratic consolidation. Let us hope that by the end of the day we are going to have good news on that.
That is all about our meeting today.
[* this figure has been corrected from 150,000]
Q. Did the Czech Republic ask for a coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats from various European Union Member States? And would you support such a move, similar to what happened after Salisbury? On Ukraine, we now have massive Russian build-up by the border, we have the news about Navalny, is the European Union preparing more sanctions on Russia?
The answer for the time being is no to both questions. There has not been a request for a widespread expulsion of Russian diplomats from all European Union Member States and for the time being there is no move on the field of more sanctions on Russia. Things can change, but the situation is the way I am explaining.
Q. You mentioned Georgia, what was the position of the EU Foreign Ministers during the discussions? What did they suggest to do, were there some new recommendations and ideas? The Georgian Dream party is ready to sign, two opposition parties are also ready to sign but the main opposition party, the United National movement is not ready to sign. What is your assessment, main recommendation and main message today?
In fact, this point has not been a matter of discussion among us, it was just a matter of information from my side, explaining to the [EU Foreign] Ministers that [by] working together, in coordination with the US, through our Delegation in Tbilisi, with the guidance of President [of the European Council, Charles] Michel, and with the support of the External Action Service, a proposal has been put on the table that was accepted by the Georgian Dream, the party of the government, and the negotiation was going on with the other parties to try to reach an agreement.
The prospects are good. But in fact it was not a discussion among Ministers, they were just receiving information and supporting our work. Let us see what is happening at the end of the day.
Q. On the JCPOA, you spoke about some lights of progress, how confident are you that both parties –the United States and Iran- will reach a deal in the few coming weeks? Could you elaborate a little bit in which terms you described the ongoing discussion this morning to the Ministers? Did you talk a little bit about Lebanon or not at all?
Yes, we talked about Lebanon, for sure. You know that there is a point on the agenda called ‘current issues’ and there is a long list of current issues and among them, for sure, Lebanon, where unhappily we see no progress.
No progress on government formation or on needed reforms. And the obstruction of the Lebanese political forces effectively blocking any way out of the crisis must stop. I think that the Ministers are very much worried about it, some countries especially. We need to look for ways to incentivise, through measures, the political parties, in order to push them to form a government and to face the real economic and governance reforms that Lebanon is needing so much. But it was nothing concrete, that is why I did not include it in my information about the [Foreign Affairs] Council.
On the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear deal], I updated the Ministers on the ongoing talks in Vienna. I talked with [United States] Secretary of State, [Antony] Blinken, last week when he was in Brussels. I also talked with Minister [for Foreign Affairs of Iran, Mohammad Javad] Zarif. I think that both parties are really interested in reaching an agreement. And they have been moving from general to more focussed issues, which are, clearly, on one side, sanctions lifting and, on the other side, nuclear implementation issues.
I cannot go into details, but I think that there is a real good will from both parties to reach an agreement and that is good news.
Q. You were mentioning the 100,000* troops on the Ukraine border. Does this figure come from the Ukraine Foreign Minister? Is it based on our own security information? If we compare that to last week have we seen a great increase over the past few days?
Yes, the military deployment of the Russian troops with all kind of materials, deploying field hospitals and all kinds of warfare has been continuing. I cannot tell you where this figure comes from but it is my reference figure. It is the highest military deployment of the Russian army in the Ukrainian borders ever. It is clear that it is a matter of concern, because when you deploy a lot of troops a spark can jump here or there.
The Minister [of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba] explained the number of casualties in the Ukrainian army compared with the same dates last year and it is clear that it is a very, very worrisome situation. Let us hope that this deployment will stop and that according to the request addressed to President [of Russia, Vladimir] Putin by, among other, Chancellor [of Germany, Angela] Merkel and President [of the United States of America, Joe] Biden, this deployment will be withdrawn.
[* this figure has been corrected from 150,000]
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-204391