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Let me start by thanking Antti [Kaikkonen, Minister of Defence of Finland] and all the Finnish colleagues for an excellent couple of days – 24 hours - of this informal meeting of the European Union Member States’ Defence Ministers. It has been extremely productive and intense. Our agenda has been very heavy – heavy in terms of content, but light in terms of the kind of approach and relations we have had. The wonderful Helsinki sun has helped establishing a friendly atmosphere and I would say that the exchanges have been extremely consensual, productive and positive. Thank you for that, because your hospitality has contributed to set a positive and constructive tone.
We tackled with the Ministers mainly four issues. One of them jointly with the Foreign Ministers, who will then continue this afternoon and tomorrow morning with their own informal meeting together with me and the Finnish Foreign Minister [Pekka Haavisto], and that was our response to hybrid threats. We, the Defence and Foreign Ministers, just had a good joint session on a scenario-based discussion that the Finnish Presidency has organised and that has highlighted how important it is for the Member States to coordinate and to invest in a European Union coordinated response to hybrid threats.
There was a broad recognition on the fact that we have done a lot together in the European Union to counter hybrid threats in these last four to five years, also together with the Commission. Four or five years ago, our awareness and our attention and also our capacity to respond to these threats was definitely far from the one we have developed today. There was a general understanding that we need to continue investing a lot in common sets of tools and instruments. Let me mention here the Helsinki Centre of Excellence [for Countering Hybrid Threats], an extraordinary example of not only European Union work on hybrid threats, but also on EU-NATO cooperation in that field. I had the pleasure and honour to inaugurate the Centre of Excellence a few years ago together with Jens Stoltenberg [Secretary General of NATO] and the Finnish President [Sauli Niinistö].
One of the other three issues that the Defence Ministers discussed was artificial intelligence. Here we tried an experiment: we invited experts that we gathered already more than one year ago now in the Global Tech Panel, coming from different backgrounds in particular of the tech community, such as businesses, start-ups, experts, who have a different background, to present and discuss with the Defence Ministers how artificial intelligence and digital development impact the world of security and defence, including the complicated issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems and whether and how - in case if - there is a need to have standards and regulations to ensure that their use and application remain fully in line with international and humanitarian law and how humans can keep control at any time and stage of the use of the weapon systems. We discussed this with the Ministers.
We also discussed opportunities that artificial intelligence offers to the work of defence and security. In particular, we underline the fact that the European Union and the Member States have a role to play in helping the global community to shape some form of consensus around this issue that is particularly difficult to achieve, especially in the UN system. We discussed this in the presence of the UN and of NATO, because we want to look for synergies also in this field with our two main partners.
This morning we discussed two other issues that are particularly important from a strategic point of view for the European Union and that are also in nature global issues that require global and European responses. First of all, the issue of climate change. I think the European Union has been among the first to identify climate change as a security threat, a security challenge, as a security threat multiplier. And we have gone through the different connections – direct and indirect links – between climate change and defence and security issues. Also this we have discussed together with the UN and NATO, because we are looking for synergies in this field and we want to avoid duplication of thinking and reflections in this field. We can put together many of the work strands we, the EU, NATO and the UN, are developing on the links between security and defence and climate change.
In particular, we discussed with the Ministers two issues related to climate change and defence: one is how to make sure that the militaries contribute to address climate change issues, in particular reducing the energy dependency and its carbon footprint and in this way contributing to address climate change effects. That can also be helpful in terms of effectiveness and efficiency of operations on the ground. We also discussed the effect of climate change on conflicts, or on crisis areas that can affect the ways in which militaries could be deployed in these theatres. How can we foresee to adapt our capabilities, our way of working on the ground, in theatres where climate change creates situations that are different from the ones we have today. You can already see the connection present in some areas, in the Sahel for instance or other areas, where the militaries deployed - be they UN, NATO or EU or national militaries - have to face a situation on the ground that is evolving in terms of climate change conditions. We need to adapt our capacity to operate in these theatres.
Last but not least, we had a very good discussion on maritime security, one of the fundamental strategic interests for the European Union, both in terms of security, but also in terms of economic and trade perspectives. We are seeing a growing threat to freedom and security of navigation, and maritime security is currently challenged by growing geo-strategic rivalries, still by piracy activities – even if we have contributed enormously to downsize piracy activities, especially off the coast of the Horn of Africa - as well as by organised crime. And we are seeing growing demand for a European Union role as a maritime security provider not only in our region, but also further away - I think of Asia or the Pacific, the Indian Ocean -, where the European Union and the Member States have a clear interest in guaranteeing the freedom of navigation and the security of the maritime routes.
We have always worked in this respect: the European Union has deployed over the years two naval military operations in key strategic areas. Member States also deploy on a regular basis their naval assets around the world. Put together, the naval assets of the EU are of a remarkable number. We discussed today an idea, a concept, which I presented a couple of months ago: the concept of a Coordinated Maritime Presences in certain areas of strategic interest to the European Union. That would be an additional tool at the disposal of the European Union that would basically use the presence of national naval assets of Member States that would be put together on a voluntary basis by Member States and would remain under the chain of command of national authorities, but that would agree to share information, awareness, analysis and also would promote together international cooperation at sea and partnership with coastal countries of the areas concerned.
The concept is still at an initial stage of the development, but all Member States showed interest in working further on this. We decided to try to finalise technical work to prepare this concept for a first test, for a first pilot case in which we can use it: we mentioned the Gulf of Guinea as a first test we could have of this mechanism that would be very light. And I want to stress very clearly that it would not substitute, but it would complement and it would be in addition to the traditional military operations that the European Union has and can continue to have in the future.
I was very long, but I think that it reflects the number of issues and the good quality of discussion that we have had. Again, thank you Antti [Kaikkonen] for your excellent cooperation in preparing for this Ministerial. And also the excellent Finnish tradition of keeping short in time, something that apparently you did not manage to transfer to me. But I will try to improve. Again, the number of issues and the depth of the discussion and of the conclusions were such that I felt the need to refer to all the different aspects that we discussed.
Q. On the concept of maritime security, could you give us more details about the potential link between this concept and what is being discussed about security in the Strait of Hormuz? Would this be the option the EU would follow or is it too early to say so? On [EUNAVFOR MED] Operation Sophia, considering the political discussions ongoing in Italy, do you see some breakthrough about the Operation which was blocked by the veto of the Italian government? Would it be possible to restart some maritime operations in the Mediterranean under this Operation?
I will start with Operation Sophia. First of all, the Operation is still ongoing. It is temporarily without naval assets, but it is ongoing with other assets, especially the aerial ones.
The Operation’s mandate expires at the end of September so there is still one month for Member States to agree on its future. The discussions will - I assume - restart among Member States as early as next week. I imagine that by then, some ideas might be circulated among Member States on what kind of future direction they want to take when it comes to that Operation. It is early for me to say what kind of direction Member States would indicate they are willing to take, as regards of the future of Operation Sophia. You will probably have some indications next week about the orientations of Member States in this respect.
When it comes to the Coordinated Maritime Presences concept that I presented, this was first conceived from our side a few months ago, in a situation that is not linked to any specific tension, not in particular related to the tensions around the Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz, but as an instrument to better coordinate Member States’ naval presence in a certain specific area that would be recognised as strategically important for the European Union as such, making the best of the naval national assets in a coordinated European manner.
The main focus and the main objective of this instrument, once fully developed and operational - which is not yet the case - would be mainly, first of all, to get and to share information, awareness and assessments in a European manner, based on national observation and based on the presence at sea of Member States, and also to develop a possible coordination with partners, in particular coastal countries or particular countries that are exposed to threats at sea, that are also affecting European interests.
The reason why we have imagined to start from the Gulf of Guinea is that obviously this would require the ownership and the willingness of the coastal countries to have a coordinated approach also with us, and a shared interest in tackling, for instance, piracy or criminal organisations, attacks or threats posed to the maritime routes.
It has been conceived for a different kind of situation, as you can easily imagine. The discussion about the situation in the Gulf and in the Strait of Hormuz will take place mainly with the Foreign Ministers this afternoon in the context of a wider Middle East discussion. Because we know very well that and the situation in the Strait of Hormuz is not just an issue that relates to maritime security. It is the reflection of a wider political tension in the region with different elements that are mainly political and are not just related to maritime security issues.
That could be an option in the time to come, but again, we are still at an early stage. The discussions on the coordinated maritime presences are still ongoing, I hope to be finalised soon. I would say that, from the discussion today, there was a general consensus on the fact that the first pilot case, once the technical preparation is finalised, would rather be a different situation and a different area from the Strait of Hormuz. I would not exclude that that could be an option in the future but, again, it is definitely too early to say that today that could be an option for the European Union to use in that area.
Q. Is there going to be a Commissioner and a Directorate General for defence in the next Commission? If so, does it mean a fundamental change in the approach of defence for the European Union?
Thank you for the question, but I am afraid I am not the right person to answer that question. I am afraid you will have to put the question to the next President of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen. She is currently working, as far as I know, on the team, on the different mandates and the internal organisation of the future Commission but that is not for me to comment.
If I can add one thing - that is something we discussed with the Defence Ministers today - for sure the work we have done together, across the different institutions including the European Commission, on the European defence especially in these last three years, has been remarkable. It has been probably one of the biggest achievements that we have managed to build together, thanks to an excellent cooperation among Member States, between Member States and the Commission, the different European institutions, and NATO. I am sure that also given the background of the next President of the Commission, this work will be preserved. How to do this, it will obviously be in the hands of the next High Representative and the next Commission.
Q. I know that the host government of Finland has been very interested in what the mutual defence clause 42.7 means. I wanted to ask you if this question was discussed, especially during the lunch discussion on hybrid issues?
Yes, we discussed the use of article 42.7 in connection with the response to a hybrid attack or threat on a Member State. I think this was one of the most interesting issues that Ministers discussed in relation to hybrid threats. I have to say this is not a new discussion in general terms, because we have discussed how to use article 42.7 in the past – namely, when France invoked the use of the article after the terrorist attacks in Paris. At that moment we used the article asking ourselves and giving the answers collectively on how to activate an article of the Treaty that was never used before and how to use the mechanisms there – given that the provisions of the Treaty are relatively, I would say, flexible in the implementation of the article.
We tested already a first case but it was definitely not a hybrid kind of attack. The discussions of today focussed on, in case of a hybrid threat, how that article could be invoked and used, and how the different European institutions could contribute to making the European response effective in case of a hybrid attack on a Member State and in case of the activation of article 42.7.
I think that was part of the Finnish Presidency's preparation for this debate: The capacity to foresee that this would be one of the key elements on which Member States and the EU institutions could focus in the future to be ready in case needed.
Q. Il y a un changement formidable qui se passe en Italie en matière de gouvernement. Allez-vous finalement rester commissaire puisque votre parti – le parti démocrate - retrouve le chemin du gouvernement?
Vous savez que je ne fais jamais de commentaire sur la politique intérieure des Etats-membres, y compris le mien. Ici, je n'ai pas de parti politique mais je suis la haute représentante de l'Union européenne et je représente l'Union et les 28 Etats-membres.
Veuillez m'excuser mais je ne ferai pas d'exception mais c'est vrai que c'est un moment important pour la politique italienne. Je ne vais pas faire de commentaire dans ce rôle que j'ai maintenant.
Une précision sur la présence maritime, d'un point de vue formel. A quel horizon cette coordination pourrait être mise en place – dans quelques semaines ou l'année prochaine? Est-ce qu'elle prendrait la forme d'une opération ou d'une opération de PSDC? Combien de personnels, quel budget? Un pays a-t-il déjà proposé d'héberger cette coordination?
No, it would not be seen as a CSDP mission or operation. That would be a new very flexible and very light tool in addition to the possibility of establishing new missions and operations, which remains. It would simply - you know that simple things are sometimes are the most difficult ones to achieve - create a light mechanism to allow Member States to have naval assets or that already have naval assets, in a specific area of interest determined together by the Council, to share what they observe, what they analyse, the situational awareness that they develop and to coordinate their work in the area, or with partners in the area or, importantly, in relation with the area such as coastal countries.
It will not be an operation or a mission, it would simply be a mechanism to allow Member States to coordinate in a certain determined area of interest, that would be determined at European Union level as interesting for the entire European Union. Because we simply noticed that, beyond the naval presence that we have at the level of the European Union - think of Operation Atalanta or Operation Sophia as long as we had the naval assets at sea - most Member States have a large presence at sea with their own national vessels in areas that are of interest to the entire European Union. Simply putting into synergy this presence of Member States in a specific area of interest could be beneficial for other Member States and could be beneficial for the European Union as such.
In terms of timing, I have seen today a lot of support for the idea at political level and the indication to our respective staff - European Union and Member States - to advance technical talks, so to finalise the concept as soon as possible. It is always difficult to imagine the time framework for these things to develop, but I hope that a matter of months might be a realistic expectation for us to finalise the concept. It would not be an operation, so you would not have the kind of necessarily heavy structure that a military operation requires.
For the mission that you are planning in the Gulf of Guinea, is it the same mechanism as the one that we have in Brest, France, for example?
But that is not a European coordination mechanism. That would be the kind of coordination mechanism that we would put in place, exactly, yes.
On the maritime mission, would the idea also be to have some coordination rotation of Member States in a particular place, in addition to information?
It is difficult to say. As I said, technical discussions on finalising this concept of a Coordinated Maritime Presences are still ongoing. You will get more details once they are completed, but a coordinated presence also logically implies some coordination about who is where and when.
On Afghanistan, it seems like we have a fairly imminent decision coming from the United States which will affect thousands of European troops that Defence and Foreign Ministers are responsible for. I wondered if we are at the stage where we are now getting some of the information and planning that the US is doing as it goes about its drawdown from Afghanistan whether that information flow is good enough? At what point or whether there is now some clarity of how the Europeans will respond to that?
The issue was partially raised today, because as usual we had the pleasure of having NATO's Deputy Secretary-General Rose Gottemoeller with us, and this is always an opportunity to discuss the topic of the day, but also to discuss other topics that might be relevant for both the European Union and in this case NATO or the UN.
The issue was mentioned briefly during the morning in terms of information sharing. It is strange for me to answer this question, because as you know very well, the European Union as such has no military presence in Afghanistan. We have some of our Member States that, through NATO, take part in the NATO mission there. But it is not for me to speak on behalf of NATO and it is not for me to speak on behalf of those Member States that are present in Afghanistan through NATO. It is not a way of not responding to your question, it is just a matter of institutional respect. It would not be fair from my side to speak on behalf of someone that I cannot represent.
What I can tell you is that talks at the European Union level with the US administration on the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan are constantly happening at all levels, through our Special Envoy and at my level, not only with the United States but also with different countries in the region. I had recently - just a couple of weeks ago - several bilaterals with our Asian counterparts, from China to India, on the process in Afghanistan.
The European Union is extremely active in supporting this process and trying to guarantee that this is a process that, first of all, preserves the achievements that have been built by the Afghan people and institutions in these years, especially in terms of human rights and role of women in the country. And also that this process is developed in a sense of ownership from the Afghan institutions and people. This is extremely important for the sustainability of the process itself. And last but not least, that this helps developing a cooperative approach in the region.
Peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan can be key for the security but also for the economic and infrastructural development of a region that, from Central Asia to Far East Asia, definitely needs peace, security, stability and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Everybody has an interest to contribute to the success of this process and everybody has to benefit from that.
We are trying to help shaping a certain regional consensus that can accompany the work that the US administration is doing in this respect and the negotiations. We are directly also involved in in them as well. But again, here I have talked far too much on an issue that was not on the agenda.
The Ministers have commented today on Brexit without a deal drawing nearer as the Prime Minister of Britain, Mr [Boris] Johnson, has decided to suspend the [UK] Parliament. Can you as High Representative of the EU comment on the EU's reaction on this and will you be addressing this in the meetings here?
No. I would not comment on that. As I often said in my capacity as High Representative, I still represent 28 countries and that includes the United Kingdom. No comments from my side on Brexit that will become an issue for the High Representative after Brexit has happened and when the UK will be a third country, that will be part of the foreign policy portfolio. So far, I still represent also the UK and the UK was present today at our meeting. So, no comment, and for sure, we will not discuss this at the ministerial meeting.