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Let me start by thanking Mario [Kunasek, Defence Minister of Austria] and the Austrian Presidency for an excellent hospitality and for an excellent preparation, also an excellent weather – it does not harm – and also for a good cooperation on the political preparation of this informal Defence Ministers meeting.
Today, with the Ministers we discussed mainly our common work on the European Union defence and security package. As a few Ministers have said today: We have today in place European Union security and defence initiatives that were never in place before in the history of our Union and this is thanks to a good unity work that has been done on defence and security inside the European Union.
Today we discussed how to move this work forward, in particular, when it comes to the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). We have received more than 30 new proposals for PESCO projects that we are now assessing and that will be, I believe, ready for adoption in November and that will add up to the 17 already existing PESCO projects. It is moving forward and implementation is going on at a good rhythm and on a good level.
Also, we started the discussion on participation of third countries in PESCO projects. I expect that by the end of this year we will be ready to adopt conclusions or decisions on this aspect.
And we also have new instruments to deal with our military operations. You know that we have established in June of last year a Military Planning and Conduct Capability, which is basically the headquarters that is now responsible for running all our non-executive military missions in Africa [the EU Training Missions in Mali, Central African Republic and Somalia]. I proposed to the Ministers a way to reinforce its role and this is something we will do in the coming years, in a phased approach, gradually, but very consistently.
And obviously, we also looked at ways in which we can strengthen our military/civilian cooperation and I know this is also a very important topic for the Austrian Presidency, I am sure that Mario [Kunasek] will elaborate more on that.
We also further discussed a proposal that I put on the table of the Ministers already during spring: the establishment of an off-budget instrument, the European Peace Facility, to help us work on a predictable way of financing for all our military and defence related initiatives, such as European Union missions and operations, but also our support to third countries, in terms of not only training but also equipping and using the equipment we provide. Also on that, I have seen that the work can continue; there is support. Obviously, there are also issues to be addressed; we will do it in the formal meetings in November.
In general terms, I would say that the entire, massive European Union defence and security package we have built in the last two years is not only up and running, but moving forward with a very ambitious and a very practical and pragmatic agenda. So I am confident that this can continue until the end of the Austrian Presidency and also until the end of the mandate of this Commission.
Today, we also discussed one issue that I mentioned at the beginning of our meeting today: for one of our operations, Operation Sophia, we have currently a Strategic Review ongoing. The current Operation expires at the end of the year. There is a need to accelerate the review. In any case there is a need to discuss the rules, the O-Plan [Operational Plan], of the Operation for after the end of December. As you know, there is an issue concerning the sharing of responsibility over those that are disembarked from the vessels participating to the EU Operation Sophia.
Now let me frame this appropriately. First of all, the main outcome of the discussion with the Ministers today has been: full support by all Member States to Operation Sophia and its continuation. I was writing down the words that Ministers used to describe the Operation: from essential, crucial, key, to decisive, vital, strategically important. We could see full commitment from all Member States to the Operation and to the continuation of the Operation. And if you look at the numbers, the number of vessels used by the traffickers that have been neutralised, if you look at the number of traffickers arrested, if you look at the number of migrants arriving in Europe - that went down by 80 percent since the operation started -, if you look at the number of people dying at sea - that went down significantly, and this is not a minor issue, at least for me -, these are all numbers that speak for themselves, saying that Operation Sophia has brought results that were not there before.
One Minister said: "If Sophia was not there any longer, we would be in a situation like before, probably with a higher number of arrivals, a higher number of deaths and less instruments to dismantle the trafficking networks".
So, the first element is that we registered strong determination from all Member States - not one excluded - to continue the Operation and keep it effective.
This brings a collective responsibility that all Member States recognised and I think we registered today a very constructive, a very co-operative, also a very pragmatic approach - which is what you would expect from Defence Ministers - to face the challenges that arise.
We finalised the meeting with an understanding that we will continue to work together - obviously, I will try to facilitate this work - to find consensus on practical, sustainable solutions on the issue of how to manage the people that are disembarked by the vessels, with a constructive, co-operative and responsible attitude from all Member States, obviously with my facilitation.
I want to mention in any case one number: the SOLAS [The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea] operations, the search and rescue operations, the people rescued at sea by Operation Sophia, represent less than 10 percent of all the people currently saved at sea, which means that this is only one part of a much bigger issue and that is how the European Union shares responsibility in managing asylum seekers and migratory flows. This is not an issue for Defence Ministers. This is not an issue for Foreign Ministers. This is an issue that the June European Council discussed at length - by night, by the way - and work is ongoing at a different level - Heads of State and Government and Interior Ministers - on how to implement the decisions of the European Council in June on that aspect that does not relate to Operation Sophia only, or only in a minor way.
We decided to look at ways in which we can preserve Operation Sophia - the full operational capacity and the full clarity on the instructions that our military has in Operation Sophia - in parallel to the ongoing work on the implementation of the June European Council on how to share responsibility inside the European Union on migration and asylum, which is, again, not an issue for Defence or Foreign Ministers.
We will try to guarantee that this is done with a constructive approach, which was there today, but also with a concrete outcome, hopefully in the coming weeks. It is not and it will not be an easy exercise, but I personally believe it is a must, because we proved in these years that the European Union is able to make the difference in the Mediterranean Sea and losing this asset would be a major step back for all Member States and for the Union and would be, I think, negative for the security of the Mediterranean and also the security of the people we are talking about.
I will personally continue to do all I can to help Member States to find a consensus that currently is not there on the practical solutions, but, let me say, is there on the need to find practical solutions. So work continues.
Let me say a last word - and I apologise for being long - on the importance of the session we had yesterday evening. I would like to thank Mario [Kunasek] for his proposal to address the issue of defence and security cooperation with the Western Balkans in this session of the Informal Defence Ministers meeting, because we are moving from the perception of being - as European Union – a security provider to the Western Balkans to establishing partnerships with the Western Balkans on security and defence in a common manner.
No need for me to mention the fact that just 20 years ago, we were facing a different security and defence scenario in the region. Countries like Austria and others in the region remember that very well. We have today a common set of security and defence challenges with the Western Balkan countries. We have a good cooperation, including participation to our European Union mission and operations from the countries in the region and we want to strengthen cooperation on security and defence with all the Western Balkan countries. This was the clear message from all Member States yesterday. With the Foreign Ministers later on today and tomorrow we will also discuss the Western Balkans and I am sure that this will complement in an excellent manner our discussion on other files of the region.
Q and A:
Q: What do you think of the Austrian idea of having soldiers at the borders to support police with border security? And on Mission Sophia: the Italian Interior Minister [Matteo] Salvini is now threatening to leave the mission if there is no agreement on the rotation of harbours. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? Is there any agreement on the rotation?
On the first issue you asked: as I said, the Austrian proposals go in the direction of strengthening civilian military cooperation and this is really the heart - the raison d' être - of the European approach. And in this regard they go in the same direction of all the work we have been doing in these years and provide useful contributions to further strengthen this work.
Obviously, according to our Treaties, all our Common Security and Defence Policy activities are and have to be projected outside of the territory of the European Union. This is the basis of our common Treaty and our common rules. But the idea of working more and more together - civilian and military - is, indeed, probably the best asset that the European Union has and the unique mix of tools that the European Union has when it comes to managing security issues. So, I think this is a useful contribution that would provide a basis for further work. Member States, indeed, welcomed some of the ideas contained in the paper that was presented by the Austrian Presidency.
When it comes to Operation Sophia and the Italian position: as I said, today was not the place or the format to take decisions on internal matters on which Interior Ministers have more responsibilities. Today, as I said this morning when entering the meeting, it was for me - and I guess also for some of the Ministers around the table, not least the Italian one - to check whether there was a political will to guarantee the continuation of the Operation. And this is definitely the case.
To the question do we want and do we firmly want to continue Operation Sophia, the unanimous answer was definitely yes. And, second and consequently, to find the answer among the Ministers to the question do we have the political space to explore practical solutions that would allow us to continue the Operation, the answer again was yes, given a constructive, cooperative, responsible attitude by all Member States.
This means that in concrete terms we would now look at the different practical solutions that could be put in place. One of them proposed by Italy in the last weeks was the idea of having more ports for disembarkation. Other ideas raised concern more the relocation after disembarkation, which is obviously something that goes beyond the competence of Operation Sophia and beyond the competencies of Defence Ministers and that is currently being reflected upon in other formats and, notably, after the European Council in June as a follow-up of the decision of the Heads of State and Government and by Interior Ministers. Other possibilities could be on the table. I have tried to facilitate consensus on some ideas. I will continue to offer my auspices to find consensus.
The important thing now is that, first, there is full determination to continue the Operation Sophia by all, and that there is the political space to explore practical, sustainable solutions to the issues that were raised. If you ask me whether we will succeed or not in finding unanimous consensus on these practical solutions, I would not be able to say that. But for sure we will continue working to find the way out of this, because the alternative, which is not having Sophia in place, would entail heavy consequences, not only for Italy but also for other countries on the front line, and also for the entire European Union.
Let me mention this number again: since Sophia started, the number of people dying at sea has dropped and the number of arrivals has dropped by 80 percent. Are we ready, are we willing to go back to before this situation? Are we aware of the consequences of dismantling something that is working? So I think there is all the goodwill to find a solution to this.
Q: It appears as though there's a basic disagreement when it comes to the plan outlined by Austria in terms of military support for border protection, because that would involve militaries operating on EU territory. And I think you stressed just now that that is not something that you see EU military as doing. So can I ask you directly: Can you imagine EU militaries in any form of cooperation defending EU borders on EU territory?
It is not for me to explain or illustrate the content of the Austrian Presidency proposal. Obviously, Mario [Kunasek, Defence Minister of Austria] is much more competent to do that. But to my understanding, the Austrian proposal contains several aspects and several elements that all go in the direction of strengthening civilian/military cooperation. And this is exactly the spirit of the work we are doing. So it is fully coherent with that.
When it comes to the deployment of militaries inside the EU territory, indeed when it comes to common security and defence policy operations and missions, the EU Treaties, which are binding, foresee that this is done on the outside of the EU territory. But all steps that strengthen EU military civilian cooperation in all aspects are something that we are currently already strengthening and exploring and willing to explore. And I think that these are the two elements that you need to take into consideration when evaluating the proposal. But, again, it is not for me to elaborate more on the proposal, but these are the clear elements of it.
Q: Has any Member State come forward with a proposal or an offer to open their ports, be it France or Spain or Malta?
Today was not a pledging conference on ports. It was not intended to be the case and nobody expected this to happen I think. Today, as I said earlier this morning, the matter was to check the political intention of Member States to try to find a sustainable solution to this issue of disembarkation, which I want to recall - I cannot say minor issue, because it is an important issue for not only some Member States, but also the people concerned, the people that embark - involves human beings with a name and a story, sometimes a very dramatic one. So it is an important issue, but it is only one minor element of all the work that Sofia is doing.
And again, the disembarkations that come from Sofia are less than 10 percent of the total disembarkation that happens on EU territory annually, so we have to put this into perspective. Today was not a matter of pledging ports, today it was a matter of checking if there was the political intention to find a solution to that. And, yes, the political intention has been registered to find a solution to that in practical manners, in sustainable manners. It remains to be checked if that is going to be successful or not. As I said, this relates only partially to the work we do in relation with Operation Sophia. Most of this work is on other tables, namely with the Interior Ministers and the Heads of State and Governments.
Q: Concerning PESCO: Was there any particular progress today on particular fields or reachable, technical details of some PESCO projects?
Today we had an informal meeting of ministers, so no formal decision was taken. But it was extremely important for me and for all of us to check if the sense of direction is the right one and if all Member States feel comfortable with the ongoing work, very technical as you said, before we move into the form of decisions that will come up in November on further steps on PESCO. And that would imply mainly the adoption of the new set of products. Today we discussed some of them.
The technical assessment is currently being done, so I will present them formally with a recommendation in the coming weeks. And I think the Member States would be ready to adopt a new set of projects by November, which is, indeed, a remarkable step forward, because one year ago PESCO was not even existing. And today we have 17 projects already in implementation and 33 new proposals for new projects, out of which we will have new projects decided by November for sure.
In less than one year's time I think we have quite a remarkable, concrete result. And the other element where I think we started the discussion today in a positive manner, was the participation of third countries to PESCO projects, which is an issue that is important not only for third countries or for future third countries, like the UK, but also for the Member States themselves.
It is very important that Member States define their own understanding and a common understanding on what conditions and in what manners non-Member States will be able to be invited to participate to PESCO projects. This discussion has started today, so I think this is definitely a step forward also in this direction. I would say that the main two points on which we advanced today were these two.