Check against delivery!
Good morning to everybody, even if I do not see you I know you are there.
Today we convened for the second time with the foreign ministers via videoconference due to the current exceptional circumstances. We focused on the international response to the coronavirus pandemic, following up on our discussion from last week and taking into account the last events.
We discussed three aspects of this pandemic from the point of view of its external dimension. First, the big efforts we have been doing for the repatriation of European Union citizens from abroad and also consular cooperation to bring them home. Second, strengthening of the international cooperation and assistance to third countries. And third, disinformation and the need to continue fighting its negative impact on our societies and people’s lives.
On the first issue, consular coordination and repatriation of European citizens, Member states have acknowledged the progress and work done by institutions in coordinating the consular assistance of Member States to their citizens abroad. Our Delegations and the European External Action Service’s Consular Task Force have been working around the clock to assist Member States, reaching out to third countries, organising repatriation flights, ensuring landing rights and access to airspace, as well as transit access and extension of visas.
As far as I know, the last data said that thanks to these efforts we have brought home more than 350,000 Europeans. But there are still 250,000 remaining, and many operations are still under way. Things become more difficult everyday due to the fact that many airlines have been grounding their planes and also because the airspace has been closing [more and more] every day. But we continue our efforts in order to offer the possibility of flying back to Europe to these 250,000 Europeans still requesting it.
On international cooperation, we agreed that this is a global crisis and the answer should be global. Priority should be given to the assistance to the most vulnerable countries, as this is also in our interest in the longer term: their problems will be also our problems. We cannot solve this pandemic just at home. Even if we solve the problem in Europe, it will not be solved if it is not solved everywhere, because there can be backlash at any moment. If we do not solve the problem In Africa we will not solve it in Europe.
And Africa is of particular concern to us. They are our neighbours and the pandemic there could get out of control very rapidly. Unfortunately, they do not have the same healthcare capacities that we have in Europe. Just remember that in Europe we have about 37 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants. In Africa they have 1 doctor for 10,000 inhabitants. If you compare the number of beds in the hospitals, if you compare the number of intensive health care units, the difference is overwhelming. So, it is clear that the same threat can cause much more damage in Africa than in Europe. We have to help Africa – it is also in our own interest because if the pandemic spreads there, it then could bounce back to Europe.
In some countries, in some areas which are under big trouble, with heavy fights like in Syria, Libya or Yemen, the devastating effects of the coronavirus can be multiplied [if there are] two conflicts at the same time. That is why we fully support the United Nations Secretary General's [António Guterres] efforts to coordinate a worldwide response on the pandemic. And we also support his appeal for an immediate global ceasefire.
We have also discussed that sanctions should not impede the delivery of essential equipment and supplies necessary to fight the coronavirus. And we have been working on a communication that would bring support both to the United Nations Secretary-General and to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. This communication is underway, let us see if it gets unanimity of the Member States in order to ask for softening the sanctions for humanitarian reasons.
We will discuss further these concrete measures with development ministers on 8 April.
And finally, last but not least, because it is very important, we have been sharing the same concern about the infodemic – we can call it like this, infodemic, a pandemic of information – that accompanies the coronavirus pandemic. Mis- and disinformation continue to proliferate with dangerous impact on public health. All ministers have expressed their big worries about this phenomenon and putting the emphasis on the need to increase our activities and capacities in the fight against disinformation.
The European External Action Service has a rapid response cell which was created in another moment when disinformation became a problem. We will continue to tackle disinformation effectively and coordinate better the efforts with the Member States and with all Social Media Platforms, in cooperation for sure with the Commissioner in charge of this issue.
This is a brief summary of today’s discussions. And now one unrelated issue but an important one. The Council finally adopted the decision appointing Miroslav Lajčák as the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade – Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues.
I am sure that Miroslav, with whom I have been working before, when we were colleagues in the Foreign Affairs Council, and now in my responsibility of High Representative and Chair of the Council and I am sure he will be doing an excellent job helping me to relaunch the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade.
Thank you for your attention.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-188222
Q. Could you please give us details on the Member States participating in the Operation Irini and the assets that might have been pledged by these countries?
Unfortunately, I cannot, because this is work in process. The [Force Generation] conference that took place has not yet finished its work. So, I cannot give you a precise and final information, because it is still being cooked. But as soon as I can, I will inform you about it.
Q. In these times, when all is focused on coronavirus, the attention of the rest of the world has faded. What can be done that citizens will not be surprised if Syria, East Ukraine, Central Africa or any other will emerge through the coronavirus cloud?
That is true, the coronavirus and the fight against the pandemic have shifted the attention of everybody, but it does not mean that we have forgotten other problems that we have – by the way, some of them are worsening . We continue following closely what is happening in all these scenarios that you have mentioned. I spent most of my time -10 hours a day- phoning, talking with everybody about all these issues.
Libya, for example, is not just about [Operation] Irini. We have to regret that the fight around Tripoli has been increasing in spite of the call for a truce from the United Nations Secretary General. We are following closely what is happening in Syria and I am in touch with the Iranian authorities. Do not believe that we are not paying attention to these things.
But happily for us, for the time being, the coronavirus has created a certain de facto truce in many places - with the exception of Libya - and they are not, at that moment, a hotspot. Let us hope that it is going to last.
Q. What is the European Union’s position on China’s call for foreign diplomats not to return to China? Will the European Union ask diplomats from the European External Action Service and from the Member States to follow this advice?
To tell you the truth, I am not aware of this decision and I do not have any official confirmation. In any case, this is not an issue that was taken into consideration by the Ministers in the Foreign Affairs Council. I cannot give you any information about it.
Q. What is specifically foreseen for Africa -which is a very fragile continent-, considering the future EU global reinforced strategy with Africa?
You are perfectly right. We have been working during these last days in order to put together all our resources to redirect these resources towards the fight against coronavirus in many fragile African countries.
I have called a meeting of the Ministers of development, which will take place next week. There, together, we are going to put our efforts and capacities in a kind of ‘team Europe’ where the resources of the European Union institutions and the Member States will create a package in order to try to help the African countries that – as you said - are in a much fragile situation than we are. Next Development Council will create a ‘European Union plus Member States’ package to face it.
Q. Les Etats-Unis ont annoncé en début de semaine avoir débloqué de l'aide financière et matérielle pour plusieurs Etats membres (dont Italie, Espagne, France), pays des Balkans et aussi africains. Est-ce qu'il y a une forme de concertation et/ou coopération avec les autorités américaines afin d'identifier au mieux les besoins ou est-ce que ces discussions sont exclusivement bilatérales avec les pays concernés?
Nous avons une bonne coordination et communication avec les autorités américaines, comme ça ne pouvait pas être autrement. Mais par rapport à cette aide que vous mentionnez, c’est une affaire strictement bilatérale entre les États-Unis et les États membres de l’Union européenne concernés. Il n’y a pas eu de coordination ni d’intervention de la part de l’Union européenne, il s’agit de rapports bilatéraux.
Q. New UE Special Representative Miroslav Lajčák took the office today. When can we expect his first action in the Western Balkans and what action will it be concretely? Do you expect continuation of the Belgrade-Pristina talks now, when tariffs are removed or Kosovo reciprocity measures towards Belgrade are still an obstacle for the dialogue?
The removal of tariffs is a good news, for sure it is going to help. Miroslav has been nominated just this morning. He will start working this afternoon, but I cannot tell you which is his work plan. By the time being, the difficulty to travel will for sure put a break on the immediate efforts. But I am sure that he will be able to help to relaunch the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade. I have full confidence that he will help me in order to pay due attention to this problem.
I said at the beginning of my mandate that this is one of my priorities and one of the things where we should be able to achieve improvements. Maybe we cannot solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we should be able to solve a problem that is in our immediate neighborhood and that affects one state and Kosovo - which has not been recognized by all Member States of the European Union - but with whom we have agreements of cooperation in order to open its way to Europe. I am sure that the nomination of Miroslav is going to be a profitable investment.
Q. What are the first findings of the analysis process of the refugee deal with Turkey? When do you expect to deliver conclusions? You talked yesterday on the phone with the Turkish Minister of Foreign Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, could you tell us more about the conversation and on Turkey’s response to coronavirus.
Despite coronavirus I have been very much in touch with my colleague and friend, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Turkey. Not only me, but my cabinet and his cabinet, have been involved in continuous talks and exchanges of papers and discussions in order to continue looking for a solution to many issues in which we are engaged. The last European Council mandated me to continue developing these talks and engagements, and the work is in process. By the time being there is nothing concrete, except the will of dealing with all issues.
The relationship with Turkey cannot be just limited to the migration issue. It is just not a matter of financial support for the migration pressure that Turkey was supporting. This is an important part of our relations but there are many others from the political point of view. I think that we have to talk openly and frankly about all these issues in order to improve our relations and find solutions to our common problems. We are engaged on that but at the time being, there is nothing new concrete that I can tell you. It will come.
Q. Could you give us an update of the repatriations of the EU citizens in the Covid-19 context? How many has the EU Mechanism helped already? How many are still stranded abroad? Which are the countries you are facing most difficulties with?
Thank you, this is a good question because there I think we can be proud of the intense work we have been doing during these last days. We have to make the difference between people who have been repatriated using the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism (EUCPM), which is a last resort procedure, and people who have been repatriated by commercial flights organised or chartered by Member States and, even in some cases, by military planes.
With the first way of repatriation, using the EUCPM, the numbers are around 10,000 people. I do not have the precise figures now, as it changes every time, but yesterday it was about 10,000 people. But this has been done as the last resort, when there is no other way, flight or airline willing to fly. In this case, the European Union charters non-commercial flights, it takes care of an important part of the cost, and it is being done under the demand of a Member State who has been targeting a specific group of nationals that for whom there is no other way to come back home.
But there is a much bigger number when we talk about the coordination with commercial flights or chartered flights by Member States. In this case, we are talking of 350,000 people. You can imagine that there is a big number of flights all over the world. I am happy that some of these flights, when they were landing, they were wearing not only flags of the European Member State who chartered the flight, but also the European Union flag. I have seen pictures of a German plane with both flags, the German and the European, landing in a country very far away to pick up European citizens. This is a good image. I really would like to see it repeated many times. Because I think that Europe has to touch the heart of Europeans in order for them to perceive that the European Union is really able to protect them.
But unfortunately, there is still 250,000 people more, one could not image that there were so many European people stranded in the world. Tourists, visitors and short-term workers. We are not talking about permanent residents. We are talking about people who were travelling and their travelling plans were disrupted by the measures taken by many countries, cutting flights, closing their air space, closing hubs, or where airlines were just not flying. There is still 250,000 people requesting to come back. Over the next days, the efforts will continue although it is everyday more difficult because the airlines are grounding the planes, the air space is everyday more closed, the hubs are being impossible to use, the transfers are more difficult, but little by little, all of them will come back home.
Q. Could you tell us more about the content and outcome of the discussions about disinformation?
All ministers expressed their concern about the fact that there are news which are damaging even for the health of the people, for example news saying “do not wash your hands”. These are dangerous news, not fake news, dangerous news. Other [news] are more political.
There is also the will to stress the importance of what the European Union is doing, because we are doing a lot. There is much more solidarity among Member States than what has been noticed. I think there is a narrative about the role of Europe, what Europe is doing, what the European Member States are doing to help each other and also to help others. There is something that is becoming more and more important, that is the geopolitical consequences of this crisis. One thing is disinformation and another thing is the lack of good communication from our part.
Q. How do you rate the events in Hungary? Is there anything the European Union can do, other than send a warning? Is Hungary still a state with rule of law?
I know that some Member States have issued a statement talking about the fact that the fight against coronavirus should not come at the expense of fundamental principles and values.
It has been raised in the Foreign Affairs Council, but I told my colleagues that this was not an issue for the Foreign Affairs Council to deal with. Foreign affairs is one thing and internal affairs is another thing.
In any case, this has to be taken into consideration by the General Affairs Council and by other colleagues of the European Commission that will take care of that.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-188223