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Ms President, Honourable Members of the European Parliament,
Russia-EU relations have come full circle since the 1990 Paris Charter. This Charter represented the equivalent of what we called the “End of History”, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The vision of a common space from Lisbon to Vladivostok has not materialised, and Russia has not fulfilled the expectation of becoming a modern democracy.
Instead, there is a deep disappointment, and growing mistrust between the European Union and Russia.
Many of the traditional pillars of Russia-European relations are giving way. Conflicts in Ukraine, the situation in the South Caucasus and Moldova/Transnistria are fueling EU-Russia tensions but they are also their product. Belarus also.
The Russian economic ties with Europe have been severely hit by sanctions. Energy shipments, that have been for decades the backbone of the strategic relationship between Moscow and Europe, will be deeply affected by the “greening” of the world economy. Maybe during our discussions we can come back to this issue.
Political dialogue has come to a standstill since the 2014 conflict in Ukraine. Since then, the Russian economy has been shrinking. Today the GPD per capita is 30% less and the adversity of the present political climate makes values and principles a sore point once again.
Then, there is the Navalny case. It is in this context that I decided to travel to Moscow last week. The purpose of the visit was twofold. First, to convey, eye to eye, face to face, the European Union’s position on matters of concern to us: human rights, political freedoms and the situation of Mr [Alexei] Navalny. This I did and they [the Russian authorities] did not appreciate [it]: the case of Alexei Navalny was at the centre of my tense exchange with Minister [for Foreign Affairs or Russia, Sergei] Lavrov.
Second, as part of the preparation of the discussion of the next European Council on [EU-]Russia relations – scheduled for March - I also wanted to test if the Russian authorities are interested in a serious attempt to reverse the deterioration of our relations and seize the opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue. The answer has been clear: No, they are not. They are not if we continue to put the political situation and human rights issues in the package. But human rights are part of our DNA; we cannot refuse to talk about it.
My visit included consultations with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meetings with civil society representatives, think tankers and representatives of European business, journalists and a number of European Union Ambassadors. I also paid tribute to Boris Nemtsov who was murdered six years ago, shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin. His tragic assassination - never clarified - was a warning of what we are seeing now.
This travel was taking place in a particularly tense context and this visit presented obvious risks. I took them. I took them, on the one hand, because we condemned the handling of the Navalny affair. On the other hand, because it allowed me to assess first-hand the challenges of engaging Russia. I had no illusions before this visit. I am even more worried after [it].
What [did] I take from my interactions? First, the Russian government is going down a worrisome authoritarian route. The space for civil society [and] freedom of expression continues to narrow and there seems to be almost no room for development of democratic alternatives. The Russian authorities have shown in the Navalny case that they are merciless in stifling any such attempts.
Indeed, the current power structure in Russia – I’d like to talk about the “power structure in Russia” and not about “Russia”, because “Russia” [is] the Russian people – the current power structure in Russia combining vested economic interests, military and political control leaves no opening for democratic rule of law. Strong push back on any discussion related to human rights and democratic values indicates this is considered for them as an existential threat.
Second, the visit confirmed the long-running trend whereby Russia is disconnecting from Europe, with little or no progress on conflicts in our common neighbourhood. And as I said, they are disconnected because they consider our liberal democratic system as an existential threat for them.
During my meeting with Minister Lavrov, the discussion became heated, as I called for Mr Navalny’s immediate and unconditional release, as well as for a full and impartial investigation into his assassination attempt. I also asked him if I could meet Alexei Navalny and they addressed me to the court. It was impossible due to time constraints and the fact that Mr Navalny was sitting in front of the court at that time. But a senior member of my delegation met with Mr Navalny’s lawyer during the visit and we will continue maintaining contact with the team to signify our support.
We also had exchanges on foreign policy issues. I insisted on the need to advance towards the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements and to fully respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. I underlined the need to heed the call of the people of Belarus to freely choose their President.
However, on a few issues, notably on the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), we have managed to establish effective cooperation over the past years. There may be other issues, such as supporting Israel-Palestinian dialogue, where we could expand our engagement. But the overall environment of the visit did not allow [us] to explore this further.
In my exchange, one thing became clear: there is no intention on the Russian side to engage in a constructive discussion if we address human rights and political freedoms. The news of the expulsion of three diplomats on the basis of unfounded allegations came when we were ending our talks. And it did not come as an announcement from the Russian side, we knew it from the [social] networks. I understood it was a clear message. The meeting was over. I asked Minister Lavrov to reverse this decision, but to no avail. That same night, I issued a statement denouncing such [a] confrontational move.
Now, allow me to look at the conclusions I draw from the visit. I am very concerned over the perspectives of the Russian authorities’ geostrategic choices and the implications that their actions will have for us and for Russian society. We are at a crossroads in our relations with Russia and the choices that we will make will determine the international power dynamics in this century and, notably, whether we will advance towards a more cooperative or towards a more polarised model, based on closed or on more free societies.
First, we will discuss this issue at the Foreign Affairs Council on the next 22nd of February and at the European Council in March. This will provide guidance on the way forward and it will be for the Member States to decide the next step, but yes, this could include sanctions. I will put forward concrete proposals using the right of initiative that the High Representative has.
Containment efforts should include combining robust action against disinformation, cyber-attacks, and other possible hybrid challenges.
Second, at the same time, despite any difficulty, it is of key importance to preserve space for official engagement where it is in our interest. Russia remains our biggest neighbour. We must define a modus vivendi that will avoid permanent confrontation.
Third, but not last, we must find a way to continue engaging with Russian society. Russians form, mostly, a European country and an important part of the Russian population wishes to maintain strong links with the European Union and harbours genuine democratic aspirations. We should not turn our back [on] them. Maybe the Russian power wants to disengage, to disconnect from Europe, but we should not disconnect from the Russian civil society, from the Russian people.
We have to find a way to advance on these issues, and in doing so, to preserve our unity and determination. Without unity, there will not be determination. And without determination, we will not be able to address a good partnership. Russia has been trying to divide us, they seek to divide us. They have not succeeded. On Ukraine and on human rights issues they have not succeeded on dividing us. This seemed to be a clear objective during my visit. We should not fall into these traps.
On my side, Ms President, Honourable Members, I will continue defending the need to speak and maintain channels of communication open, looking at each other in the eyes, especially on issues that are conflictual. Defending [Mr] Navalny’s rights in Moscow when his trial was unfolding is a way of showing that foreign policy cannot be reduced to issuing written statements from a safe distance, from my office in the Berlaymont or in the European External Action Service. I think it was important to show our concerns, directly, in person, at the right moment and in the right place.
I hope this discussion will provide enlightenment for the future decisions of the European Union Council and look forward how to handle our relationship with Russia.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-201832
Thank you very much for all your observations and comments, which varied greatly and covered a broad range of interpretations concerning my visit and relations between the European Union and Russia. I take good note of them and we will take them into consideration in the preparation of future discussions in the Foreign Affairs Council and in the preparation of the European Union Council.
However, let me say that listening to some of you, I had the feeling that I was the one who had expelled the European diplomats. Excuse me, it was Mr [Sergei] Lavrov [Russian Foreign Affairs Minister] who expelled the European diplomats. Was it in reaction to my public statements about the Navalny case? Maybe, but I suppose you would agree that I was right to make them.
And please, some of the things I have heard – about what you say I said, or I did not say, at the press conference – simply do not reflect reality. They do not reflect what really happened, because the transcript of the press conference clearly shows that I said twice to Mr [Sergei] Lavrov who was there – and I had told him in our meeting – that we were absolutely more than just “concerned”. We condemned the trials that were taking place against Mr [Alexei] Navalny, the attempt to poison him and the repression of the demonstrations this had led to in civil society. I said this twice, at the beginning and at the end. How can you come here and tell me that I did not raise the issue of Mr [Alexei] Navalny, or that I did not defend the opposition and the public demonstrations? You are not talking about the same thing. There is a transcript, read it.
Let us see, what is the problem? For some of you, the problem is that the visit took place, that the High Representative decided to visit Moscow. Do you know how many visits of official delegations (at ministerial or higher level) there have been to Russia from Member States in the last two years? 19 times there have been visits to Russia. That being so, should we or should we not go? Or can everybody go except the High Representative? Then what do you have a High Representative for? My colleagues can go but I cannot? 19 times. So, it seems that going [to Russia] is not so forbidden after all. In fact, it is a quite normal thing to do. 19 times.
Or perhaps the problem was that it was not the right time? Well, there are different opinions on that. Some may think that it was not [the right time] because the trial of Mr [Alexei] Navalny was taking place. Others may think that precisely for this reason, it was an appropriate time to state our position clearly, directly and in person. It is easier to write statements without moving from my office. It is certainly much more convenient and less risky. But to believe that this is the right time to do it, frankly, does not seem to me to be nonsense. Some may disagree, and think that it was too risky, that it would have been better not to go. Or not to go now, to go later, when [Mr Alexei] Navalny would already have been convicted.
Well, my assessment was different and, by the way, it was supported by the majority of the members of the Foreign Affairs Council. Only a few opposed it and a majority were in favour. Frankly, it seemed to me, and it still seems to me, that if the defence of human rights and of political freedoms is really in our DNA, there are times when we have to stand up and explain what we say in the statements so that it is clear to those who receive them. Has that harmed the opposition in Russia? Has it weakened the position of Mr [Alexei] Navalny? Frankly, I do not understand why it should have.
Then, we can argue about whether we should have done things differently when we were publicly expressing our positions. And there again, there is room for interpretation.
No doubt, in view of the general assessment, I should have approached it differently. But in my understanding, a joint press conference is neither a debate nor a boxing bout. I explained my position and I reiterated it. I conveyed the message I went to convey: that the European Union profoundly disagrees with and condemns the attempted assassination of Mr [Alexei] Navalny, the trials to which he is being subjected, and the repression of civil society and of the demonstrations. I say this and I reiterate it, because that is what I have come here to say.
And also, because this too is what I have come to say, that despite this, there are areas in which it would be possible to imagine cooperation to the benefit of both parties and, of course, the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] is one of these. I do not understand why someone has said that in the case of the JCPOA I have been supporting the Russian positions against those of the United States. Please, give me some substantiated criticisms; do not make up facts to support your criticisms. As the coordinator of the JCPOA, I have tried to keep this treaty alive despite the United States’ withdrawal.
Russia believes that the European Union is too divided for it to be able to come up with a firm policy against it and [Russia] also believes - and they say this to your face when you argue with them - that we are an appendage of the United States and that we will always condemn what they do and we will not [condemn it] when the United States does it because they are our friends and allies. That we have double standards. And I think that this too is something that needs to be called into question. We are allies of the United States, but we are not 100% aligned with them on all the positions they adopt and all the decisions they make. No. There are cases where, if we disagree, we have to say so - and we do. We do so when we believe it is necessary and appropriate to do so.
This is what, in some ways, may surprise some people because they have an overly one-sided view of events. But I have an obligation not to adopt a phobic attitude towards anyone. [My obligation] is to build bridges where possible and to take firm positons where necessary.
Yes, it may be thought that the timing was not right. But it can also be considered that it was. It may be thought that the result was not good and, of course, one has to accept and admit that the interpretation of the media and of the majority in this Chamber is that it was not good. But why was it not good? Because we should not have gone? Because we did not deal with the issues we should have dealt with? Because we did not defend the cause of [Alexei] Navalny and the opposition? There are different reasons and different facts that need to be analysed one by one if we do not want this to turn into an exchange of fire the only beneficiary of which is the Kremlin, which will be delighted to see our divisions.
Because, at the end of the day, this is about acting with unity and determination. Because autocratic or authoritarian countries believe that democracies are weak, inherently weak because of the way they operate and the division that this implies. But historical experience shows that this is not the case. Since the fall of the Berlin wall and the break-up of the Soviet empire, what has become clear is that democracies are more resilient, that we are stronger. Because we have an intrinsic unity over and above our differences, but we cannot let our differences weaken us.
And in this case, as in all cases, what must be built before and after my trip to Russia is the unity of the Member States and the unity of action among the European institutions. That is what we must work on from now on, at the next Foreign Affairs Council with the guidance and guidelines of the Council of the European Union at the end of March. And between now and then, we will have to seriously analyse what our approach is to Russia, and for that, inevitably, we had to talk to them.
Yes, the result has been what it is. [The result is] that if we put the question of human rights on the table, and in particular the case of [Alexei] Navalny, the Russian response is "we are not talking about anything else".
You talk about humiliation, but you can be sure that it has not been at all comfortable for the Russians either to see someone go there and tell them directly, expressly and in person what we have often said in statements. No, frankly, I do not think that it was not necessary to go and tell them to their faces what we tell them via correspondence. I think it was time to defend with all our strength, and with the strength that comes from the physical presence of a High Representative, our position on the case of [Alexei] Navalny. Regardless of all the mistakes, inadequacies and any other "buts" you can find, I think that if we really believe that human rights and civil freedoms are at the heart of our political project, the situation of [Alexei] Navalny and the Russian opposition demanded a firm and energetic presence.
Do you think I would not have liked to go head-to-head with Mr [Sergei] Lavrov and openly refute some of his remarks? For example, when he compared the case of Mr [Alexei] Navalny - who has suffered an assassination attempt and is going through one trial after another that can continue to convict him without reason or basis - with the case of a Member of the European Parliament sitting in this Chamber and some of his colleagues who are freely carrying out an electoral campaign in Catalonia at the moment? Do you think that this comparison makes any sense? I must be obvious to anyone that it does not. But I did not want to get involved in that discussion, because I did not see the point.
I preferred to repeat the message I went to convey: the European Union condemns, protests against and demands an investigation of the circumstances in which Mr [Alexei] Navalny was poisoned and demands that he be released, because he is not being guaranteed a fair trial. [The European Union] calls for respect for the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens and, at the same time, yes, it believes that there are issues on which it is necessary and inevitable to seek areas of cooperation.
But it takes two to cooperate. If the Russian authorities have been unwilling to do so, we take good note and we will have to look for other ways of developing this relationship.
In spite of everything, I believe that we have drawn positives from this visit. We now know better the ground we are treading and what reactions we can expect. And for all of these reasons, Honourable Members, I believe that what we must do from now on is to analyse intelligently and calmly in all the European institutions –Parliament, the Council, the European Council, the Commission - what our future steps must be in order to define our relationship with Russia. I hope this debate has contributed to that.
Thank you very much.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-201969