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As I said earlier this morning, we had a shorter [Foreign Affairs] Council today because we are hosting our colleagues, the Foreign Ministers of the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], in a while, and then as of tonight, our Foreign Minister colleagues from the African Union countries. This has only been the first leg – let us say – of a very long day we spend together with the Foreign Ministers.
We had three main issues on the table with the EU Member States this morning.
First of all, our work on disinformation, to counter disinformation coming from outside the European Union. This is a work we are doing together with the different institutions - we have put together an Action Plan [on disinformation] that we presented already at the end of last year - and that is now subject to a common work for the implementation that requires a stronger determination and inputs also from our Member States.
We discussed with the Foreign Ministers their side of the work and ways in which we can do better in this respect. Obviously, in particular in view of the European Parliament elections, but there was a very strong focus on the need to look at all different kind of disinformation that come from within, from outside the European Union, and in different forms. We decided to move forward together, at full speed, with a lot of determination, and implement the Action Plan we have put forward.
Then we discussed with the Foreign Ministers the preparations for the ministerial [meeting] we will have with the League of Arab States on 4 February here in Brussels. It is going to be the 5th ministerial we will have with the League of Arab States, but it is going to prepare the first ever Summit between the European Union and the League of Arab States that will be held in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, at the end of February.
We have gone through different issues with the Ministers. Currently, we are working very closely together with the League of Arab States on the preparation of the political discussions we are having at the level of Foreign Ministers both on thematic issues - be it counter-terrorism, economic cooperation, migration and so - and on some of the regional issues that are high on both of our agendas, I think of the Middle East Peace Process, of Libya, Yemen, Syria obviously, and other situations that require cooperation between Europe and the Arab world.
We also had a very short point to prepare the ministerial [meeting] with the ASEAN with Council Conclusions adopted - you might have seen them already – where we particularly welcome the decision that will be taken this afternoon of upgrading our relations with the ASEAN to the level of Strategic Partnership. This is something on which I will debrief you more at length this afternoon, at the end of our Ministerial Meeting with our friends from the ASEAN.
I will be glad to join you again in the press room this afternoon with the co-chair from the ASEAN side, the Foreign Minister of Singapore [Vivian Balakrishnan].
We also addressed a few other issues under the current affairs. We do that every time we gather as Foreign Ministers.
You know that January is a special month because we have a meeting today and we will have an informal meeting of Foreign Ministers one week and some days from now [31 January-1 February] in Bucharest. There, we will discuss more at length about Syria, also in preparation of our Third Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region for Syria and the Syrian people in the region, that will be held in March here in Brussels.
But some issues we discussed today are current affairs on which we are continuing to work and I would like to especially mention one of them we addressed this morning - the car bomb attack that happened in Bogotá last Thursday.
I had a telephone conversation with President [of Colombia, Iván] Duque a few days ago. I have seen that today the ELN [Ejército de Liberación Nacional, National Liberation Army] has taken responsibility for this attack. Let me say very clearly that the European Union and all its Member States condemn this terrorist attack in the strongest possible terms, and we call on the ELN to release all kidnapped people and to stop and end all kidnappings.
We stand very strongly at the side of our Colombian friends and we also had reassurances from President [Iván]Duque that this is not going to have an impact or affect the implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia] that as you know we are accompanying and supporting even in these phases.
Link to the opening remarks: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I166520
Q. What were the conversations this morning about the Democratic Republic of Congo given that it seems we have increasing recognition of [Félix] Tshisekedi among African countries as the President. Where does the EU go from here?
We had a short discussion with the Ministers this morning about that. We concluded two things that I can tell you about. One is to coordinate positions and to have a coordinated EU position on this and secondly, to take the most out of the ministerial meeting we have with our friends in the African Union, starting this evening, to share analysis with them and also understand the way forward together with them.
We have always put a lot of emphasis on cooperation and coordination with our African partners, starting from the African Union to the regional players. So, we want to not only have a European Union position but also to coordinate as much as possible positions with them, and also seeing on the ground reactions in these hours.
You will forgive me if I come back to you on this issue rather tomorrow in the course of the day, after our further talks about that issue with our African partners.
Q. What are the European Union objectives in co-organising the Summit with the League of Arab States, since the EU is a little bit weak today with the Brexit and the rise of the extreme right in Western Europe and other countries? On the other hand, the Arab world is divided - even subdivided - from the Western Sahara frozen conflict to the Iran nuclear programme and threats. Do you see any concrete area where there could be a kind of concrete cooperation?
First of all, let me say that seen from the inside, and maybe seen from Brussels or several capitals inside Europe, the European Union might be looking like facing troubles. But the reality is that it is the world that is going through a difficult moment. Divisions are there, also in other situations, in other organisations.
Seen from the outside, the European Union continues to be a point of reference. I think that this couple of weeks we have in front of us, with ministerial and summit meetings with the European Union, meeting and coordinating positions, and launching concrete projects, together with, be it Asia, be it Africa, be it the Arab world - as we did a few months ago with our Latin American friends, or with Canada and I could continue naming partners around the world - tell you that from the outside, the European Union continues to be and probably is even more now than before, a point of reference, an indispensable partner in difficult times.
Without touching upon important tensions and problems we have to face internally, from the outside, there is not one single day in which I do not hear one of our partners saying "You do not realise how important you are for the rest of the world" to the European Union. I think it would be important for the European citizens to hear these voices and realise how much relevance the European Union has in this troubled time in the world.
Having said that, we never had a Summit with the League of Arab States before, and this is the paradox of our region. This is our closest partner in terms of regional dimension, in terms of geography, in terms of history, culture, and we have Summits with Asia, with the African Union, with Latin America, with our partners around the world, with Japan, China, and the United States, and we never had a Summit with the Arab world.
This is why we have been working now for years to prepare the ground for the Summit to happen. In practical terms, the outcome I would envisage - here I speak under the control of President [of the European Council, Donald] Tusk who is responsible for overseeing the preparation of Summits at his level - is that of a strong partnership in handling some of the issues that are on the top of our agenda across the region. Take counter-terrorism for instance, this is clearly something where the European Union, its Member States, the League of Arab States, its Member States share the same interests, the same concerns and can share some common approaches
Or take the issue of migration: we have not discussed this today with the Foreign Ministers, but it is clear that it is something of high priority in both the Arab world and in Europe, and that can only be addressed together, in partnership. Take economic investments, job creation, or opportunities for young people, all the investments the European Union is doing and can continue to do in the Arab world, and the interest we have in offering opportunities for the younger generation in particular in the North of Africa.
Exactly in the same manner, we have been already cooperating enormously with our Arab friends when it comes for instance to the situation of the Palestinian people, I think of the crisis of the underfunding of UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] last year, and the common efforts we have put in place on the European and on the Arab side, to make sure that Palestinian refugees, through UNRWA, continue to receive support in education and healthcare, in this way preventing a major humanitarian crisis.
These are only few of the examples on which cooperation already exists, common positions already exist, and further and strengthened cooperation can definitely be one of the outcomes of the Summit. I would say from geopolitical issues on which we need to work together - from Libya to Syria - to thematic issues on which we need to cooperate, I would expect that the Summit will provide us a good basis for strengthening further our common work.
Q. Could you tell us about the thinking behind the imposition of the chemical weapons' sanctions today? Are EU or individual Member States worried that this might cause further tensions with Russia? Would you like to react to the statement of President [of the Russian Federation, Vladimir] Putin's Spokesman [Dmitry Peskov] today, which said that Russia's reaction to this was negative and that the Skripal suspects were suspected without any ground and no evidence had been produced of their guilt.
You know very well that the European Union, before taking decisions on sanctions - as we have done today - has a long and very sound legal assessment of the basis on which we adopt these decisions, also because we need them to be able to resist the test of the courts. We always attach a lot of importance to the legal basis of our decisions, and I am a confident that Member States took this decision today on the basis of a very strong legal basis that was provided in the process.
You know that we started to discuss a specific sanctions regime related to the use of chemical weapons already in the previous months. The decision today was to fill in the list that was already open for the possibility.
That is part of our strong commitment and determination on contributing to the prevention of the use of, not only chemical weapons, but weapons of mass destruction in general terms. The European Union has always been a very strong supporter of the non-proliferation regime of weapons of mass destruction and we continue to put all our efforts in preventing their use and reacting to their use whenever we see evidence of that, on a very strong legal basis that Member States constantly assess through all the mechanisms that are in place.
Q. You have not commented on the US decision to downgrade the EU mission in Washington. I am wondering why you have not commented on it, what is going on with that, whether that will be changed and re-upgraded?
Secondly, on the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], my understanding is that the country has now ratified the results, the African Union has postponed a visit there that was supposed to happen today. By saying and doing nothing today, are we not allowing [Joseph] Kabila to present the world with a “fait accompli”?
I believe we are simply allowing us to consult - as we always do - with our African partners. We have always taken this approach; sometimes in a more evident manner, some other times in a less public manner. We have always consulted, not only on this issue, but on all African issues, with the relevant partners we have, be it the African Union or sub-regional organisations of countries that have taken a leading role for their position in the regions concerned. This is a principle that we always follow.
As we will be meeting with our African friends as of tonight, and as the situation has been evolving in the last hours from a diplomatic point of view, but will also continue to evolve on the ground - you have referred to some positions expressed, you have referred to the postponement of a visit - we also want to see the reactions on the ground in the country that are not irrelevant for us. As the Ministers are gathered here from now to tomorrow lunchtime, we will take our time to discuss with our African partners, in person, before we will express publicly a common position of the European Union.
We have already expressed all our concerns and our position so far in a very clear manner, that I know you have followed carefully, including before the elections. But we want to take the opportunity to have direct contacts with our African partners before we express a formal common position of the European Union in the coming hours anyway.
On the first question, personally I have not commented on that. You know that while we have good cooperation with the United States on some issues, we have more diverging views on others, but in general terms, we have a good understanding and common work ongoing on all the different files, from the Western Balkans to DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], from Syria to Libya, you name it. In general terms, work is still continuing to go well.
I have personally assessed that the change in the protocol order might not be the priority number one to comment on in these times of geopolitical trends that we are facing in our region, and in the world, and probably also in the light of what the United States are facing currently – they have been in shutdown for quite some time. There might be some confusion on that side as well, so I have not considered this to be a priority to be commented on from me personally in these weeks.
Le volevo chiedere se può dirci come valuta la situazione al largo della Libia, appunto con un mercantile che ha riportato a Tripoli una barca, un'altra che è adesso in mare. Lei ha un commento su questo? In particolare, un dettaglio: i libici pare stiano chiedendo ulteriori finanziamenti, lei ci può anche dire su questo fronte se c'è qualche sviluppo?
Non è stato un tema discusso nel corso del Consiglio affari esteri, ho però già detto ieri in serata, anche se non attraverso via ufficiali, che credo che quello che è successo in queste ultime ore nel Mediterraneo ci conferma l'importanza di una presenza dell'Unione europea in mare. Attraverso la nostra operazione Sophia abbiamo in questi anni salvato vite e contrastato trafficanti e addestrato la Guardia costiera libica non soltanto a fare search and rescue, ma anche a fare contrasto del traffico a terra e in mare e a farlo nel rispetto dei diritti umani - cosa sempre difficile, ma sulla quale come sapete siamo impegnati come Unione europea insieme alle Organizzazioni Internazionali Non-Governative, insieme all'UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] Insieme all'OIM [International Organisation for Migration]. Siamo anche riusciti in questi anni ad iniziare il processo di svuotamento dei centri di detenzione in Libia che ricordiamo devono essere chiusi, sempre insieme all'UNHCR and all'OIM - siamo noi a finanziare le attività dell'OIM e dell'UNHCR - in particolare l'apertura del centro dell'UNHCR recentemente a Tripoli. Credo che questo lavoro dell'Unione europea vada preservato ed è anche per questo che stiamo lavorando con gli Stati membri per cercare di trovare una soluzione per la continuazione del lavoro dell'Operazione Sophia nei prossimi mesi. Di più a questo stadio non vorrei dire anche perché come ho detto non è stato un punto all'ordine del giorno del Consiglio, nessuno dei ministri presenti ha sollevato la questione, vorrei evitare di aprire la pratica del commentare notizie che non sono oggetto di discussione al Consiglio.
[English unofficial translation:
How do you see the situation off Libya, with a merchant ship that was brought back to Tripoli and then another boat currently at sea. Do you have a comment on this? In particular, one detail: the Libyans seem to be asking for more funding, can you also tell us on this front if there is any development?
This was not discussed during the Foreign Affairs Council, but I already said yesterday evening, even if not through official channels, that I believe that what has happened in the last hours in the Mediterranean confirms the importance of a European Union's presence at sea. Through our Operation Sophia we have in recent years saved lives and countered traffickers and trained the Libyan Coast Guard not only to search and rescue, but also to contrast the traffic on land and at sea and to do so in respect of human rights – which is always difficult, but on this, as you know, we are committed as the European Union together with the International Non-Governmental Organisations, together with the UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and together with the IOM [International Organisation for Migration]. We have also managed in the last years to begin the process of emptying the detention centres in Libya, which must be closed, together with UNHCR and IOM - we are the ones to finance the activities of the IOM and UNHCR - in particular the opening of the UNHCR centre [Gathering and Departure Facility] recently in Tripoli. I believe that this work of the European Union must be preserved and that is why we are working with Member States to try to find a solution for the continuation of the work of the Operation Sophia in the coming months. I would not say more at this stage as, as I said: it was not on the agenda, none of the Ministers present raised the issue, I would like to avoid start commenting on news not discussed at the Council.]
Q. On Venezuela, the EU representatives had a first meeting with the government of [President of Venezuela, Nicolás] Maduro this weekend. Do you have first concrete results? On Nicaragua: the EU adopted conclusions today. What can be expected next, sanctions?
First of all, on Venezuela: we had an exchange with the Ministers in the first part of the [Foreign Affairs] Council where I updated the Ministers on the common position we have taken on the occasion of the inauguration of [Nicolás] Maduro where the European Union has had a common view, common statements and a common approach. At the end of last week, over the weekend, the Heads of Mission of the European Union Member States present in Caracas had meetings with [Nicolás] Maduro but also with the new board of the National Assembly, in view of keeping all channels open, passing on our position in a very clear manner, as we have always done.
I have also updated the Ministers on the work we are doing to establish an International Contact Group that might start to work in the coming weeks, hopefully in February. The decision is not taken yet, we are completing our work with the partners in the region and international players. We want to try, next to our pressure policy that is in place, that is very well known and that is not changing - even more so now that the situation is deteriorating - to contribute to open-up space for a political process that, at the moment, is absent.
Without false expectations and illusions that do not have reasons to exist at the moment - to the contrary - the work on the International Contact Group is continuing and we hope to finalise this work in the coming weeks, so I hope I will give you more positive news for the Foreign Affairs Council in February.
On Nicaragua: as you said, we adopted conclusions today. I cannot foresee what the next steps will be, but I can tell you we are extremely worried about the situation. It is not to be underestimated at all, and the signal today is this: we pay attention, it is relevant for us even if the presence of European citizens is less relevant than in Venezuela. We do care about the situation there, not only on the political level but also in terms of humanitarian support and in support of human rights defenders in the country. We are doing our best to play a positive role in that context.
Link to the Q&A: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I166521