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Thank you very much. It is a pleasure to be back.
It will be a pleasure for me not only to share a few thoughts but also to have an exchange, to answer questions and to listen to your views - it is always the added value of me being in this kind of context, that I get ideas and inputs from you, sometimes you have the answer much more than I do – and to proceed afterwards with the award and I am very glad to be here for that.
I want to thank you all for being here today. I believe that in these times of turmoil, of chaos as you said, it is more important than ever to try and raise our heads above the confusion of the day, to analyse where we are – even if sometimes it does not happen to be a very good place but to be aware of the reality around us - and think about where to go next and how to get there most importantly.
Sometimes it is useful to imagine solutions that today might seem impossible to achieve – for instance, asking how to build a "regional security architecture" for the Middle East and North Africa, or trying to "reset" our thinking, as you have done through these two projects. I believe, especially in difficult times, it is important to look beyond the times and allow ourselves the luxury of being visionary and see what could be built over time.
Then, sometimes, amazing things happen. They might not be the turning point but I would define them as little seeds that we plant and that can grow over time. I think of a project that we financed in Jordan to have a research in particle physics - very advanced technology I understand nothing about, and a good example of scientific cooperation. But the added value in its case is not just a scientific one because the project brings together scientists from countries such as Israel, Palestine and Iran. You can imagine that the combination of scientists the three countries might not be the easiest one but science can do that on a – I would say – neutral ground and might then allow further steps to be taken in what we normally call the people-to-people work.
Whenever we invest in cooperation inside our region, we are serving our collective interests especially as Europeans, not only as Europeans but also as Europeans, as part of this region. When scientists, academics, think-tankers and researchers of our region work together, I believe it is a contribution to building a more cooperative and peaceful region. We may not realise immediately, but again I believe that whenever we manage to do that, we are planting the small seeds for a better tomorrow.
This is also what I have seen throughout our work with civil society organisations, but also with young people from across the region. I think of projects such as Young Mediterranean Voices: whatever can build a shared sense of community inside our region, across borders, be them geographical or psychological, mental orders, I believe is a good investment towards more cooperative regional dynamics – I believe the best investment ever.
Today I believe we must take any opportunity, but also create opportunities to invest in cooperation inside our region.
The Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa are somehow I believe at a crossroad. Here I would be interested in hearing your views. It is a very difficult context, we have lived in our region ten years of conflict and turmoil. There are maybe now little glimmers of hope that we cannot ignore but on the other side, I think that if we take a different road at the crossroad, things could go in a very much worse situation than it is the case today.
New hopes. There is finally a possibility for peace in Yemen, with the ceasefire agreement reached in Stockholm. Daesh has almost been defeated on the ground, and it would be the right time to relaunch the UN-led negotiations in Geneva to end the war in Syria. We will discuss about this next week, in Brussels. In Libya, we see that people all across the country are tired of war and are supporting the electoral process, the roadmap of the UN [Special] Envoy [to Libya, Ghassan Salamé] and try to finally bring an end to the transition.
Little glimmers of hope that are incredibly fragile. The possibility of peace - I believe - will not turn into reality if we do not invest all our energies for it.
Because at the very same time, the risk of new escalations and new crises is also tragically high.
The ceasefire in Yemen can be a possibility and a change for peace but needs to urgently evolve into something more solid, otherwise risk of backlash is serious. Some are tempted to turn the war in Syria into a frozen conflict and I believe this would be the perfect recipe for more ethnic tensions, more human rights violations, new spaces opening up for radicalisation and re-grouping of terrorist organisations, and ultimately more regional instability. And probably the most worrying for me, in Israel and Palestine, the two-state solution is being dismantled piece by piece on the ground.
As I see glimmers of hope that require all our attention and all our stubborn investment to try to consolidate at least some of them, I also fear times of even greater power confrontation in the Middle East and in North Africa. I fear rising tensions in the Gulf, I fear a new arms race in the region, and we all know that confrontation among regional powers is now spreading well beyond our immediate region, I think for instance of the Horn of Africa, where the influence of tensions around and across the Gulf are feeding further instability and lack of security in a region that already has its problems by itself.
Some have compared the current situation to the Thirty-Year War that Europeans fought in the 16-hundreds, at the height of the wars of religion. I believe today’s conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa have nothing to do with religion. I am convinced they are about power, in some cases about money and not about faith.
Another common comparison is with the Cold War. But here again, I do not see a “cold” situation in the region at all: it is a very heated series of conflict, and it risks becoming even more violent.
And yet, I believe there is something we can learn from our past, from our European past. I believe that at some point, the Middle Eastern powers will have to discuss out of their own interest and convene some kind of security architecture for the region – just like the super-powers did in Helsinki in 1975, together with European states.
I believe the alternative is simply too dangerous to be sustainable for anyone in the region – as it was exactly forty years ago for Europe: a balance that could have exploded anytime, the risk being so high for everybody, and the right way was found to possibly, at the end of the day, find some common ground on shared principles that everyone understands and recognises.
For sure, this will certainly not happen without leadership, without courage, without perseverance on many sides. Some of you, or probably all of you, may think that it sounds completely unrealistic or impossible, even unthinkable. One of my favourite quote is Nelson Mandelas' "Everything seems impossible until it is done". I believe that afterwards, you recognise that it was the wise way to take. Before it takes a lot of courage and vision to embark into something that goes against the spirit of the time.
But it also seemed impossible in the 1970s, after thirty years of Cold War, after Prague and Hungary, and in the middle of the Vietnam War. It seemed to be completely out of touch with the spirit of the time. It required visionary leaders – but finally the US, the Soviet Union and the Europeans agreed on a shared architecture for security and cooperation in Europe, based on some simple ideas - unfortunately some of them have been violated or challenges these times – such as the recognition of every country’s territorial integrity, and the principle of non-interference in a third country’s domestic affairs – all issues that I believe could be of inspiration also for our broader region across the Mediterranean.
But the Helsinki Final Act was also revolutionary, with its “third basket” on fundamental human rights – such as the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.
I know that a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East today is definitely not on the agenda and probably it is impossible to imagine how to even convene it or build the way towards convening it. But I think the question that we can ask ourselves – again, taking the luxury of thinking it one step further – could be: how do we get there? What kind of seeds could we plant, so that the conditions in the future could be conducive to that. What can we Europeans do – as institutions, as an academic community, as think tanks, as citizens -, to prevent confrontation and incentivise cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa.
Because there are things we can do. I do not believe that peace in the Middle East and North Africa can be imposed from the outside. I want to say it very clearly, because I hear discussions coming back again about the recent history, I have my own ideas that are not a mystery: I do not believe that peace in the Middle East and North Africa – nowhere in the world – can be imposed from the outside. I think that we should have learnt it: it simply does not work, and sometimes it makes things even worse.
But we have a duty to think about a potential contribution that we can give to building a more cooperative dynamic in the region, and to continue acting towards this goal. Precisely for this reason, I have asked our services to come up with some new ideas and proposals in this respect. I also look forward to our conversation today – I think you might have some good ideas that we could transfer into the institutional work. We have entered into this strange phase, where everybody starts talking about the legacy, but we still have eight months to go, which is an enormously long time, especially in foreign policy. So, we still use this time to consolidate some of the results, avoid that some of the results are dismantled, but also plant some of the seeds that then can grow in the next institutional cycle in the European Union.
I will share with you a couple of ideas on what I believe we could do in a useful manner and in a realistic manner today.
First of all, I believe Europe needs to continue to engage – stubbornly, I would say, even when things get very complicated and even when people tell you that you are engaging in a situation where immediate success is impossible. I think that we have a duty to do so, even if and even when and, sometimes, even more so, when the situation is difficult.
This is what we have tried to do in these years, for instance, when we decided to reinvigorate the Union for the Mediterranean, and to hold annual meetings of Foreign Ministers from the region. Here again, I would like to thank Jordan for having co-chaired with me at the ministerial level in this format, where we bring together countries that otherwise do not talk to one another. In that particular format we engage on practical issues. And it is easier to realise that we share many of the same interests across the region beyond the ideological, or political or geo-political dynamics.
Last weekend we finally held – as another example - our first ever summit between the European Union and the Arab League in Egypt. The conversation was not always easy, but I am glad that we finally managed to have this kind of summit. It was real for me to see that the European Union has summits with all other regions in the world, but with the Arab region. And I am glad that we managed to fill in this gap, because having summits with Latin America, with Asia, with Africa and not with the Arab world was, indeed, a paradox.
Again, I know that there has been also a lot of discussion about our choice to engage in this format. [There were] questions about whether our “principled pragmatism” – as we call it in the Global Strategy - is too pragmatic and not principled enough. I believe it is a duty we have, to engage and try to have the situation improve, having some difficult and frank conversations - first of all on human rights, on the death penalty, on issues where Europeans are very clear on where they stand. We also know very well that some of our friends and partners in the region stand in a different place, on a different position. But I believe that we should have no taboos and be mature enough to have a frank conversation about everything, recognising that we have common ground, but also that we differences and we can discuss about this openly.
I believe the European Union has a special responsibility in this respect, because we engage – I would say – like no other power does, especially on difficult issues, like the one of the role of civil society or human rights. If you thinks of the work we do to support civil society in our region or to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, you see the European Union as the player that engages more than anyone else and more than ever before in the region. And I think this is an added value.
The second and last element - I think we are in a time where we have to focus on preventing the darkest scenarios from turning into reality. This does not sound particularly encouraging, but it is influenced by the times that we are living in. I think today’s situation worldwide is difficult. New conflicts and new escalations are, I believe, possible and would represent a point of no return for the situation in the region and globally.
I think we must prevent a collapse of certain situations. Sometimes, you realise that you are living in times where you can really work to make progress on some files, achieve some agreements, finalise some negotiations. Some other times you feel that what you can do is basically - and I do not know whether this is an image that exists only in Italian – to put your feet in the door to avoid that it slams and to prevent things from getting worse. And wait for better times, prepare conditions for better times. So, for instance, we might not get to a two-state solution by 1 November. And that was my first visit. The first visit I did when I took office in the first days of November 2014 was to Israel and Palestine, to Gaza and I said that in five years’ time we could have peace in this region and that we could finalise and agreement. And I still believe that with political will this is probably the easiest of the conflicts that we have on our table, because everybody knows more or less the parameters that would allow a solution to be found. But today we do not have these political conditions, nor the political will. So, I think that today the point we can have realistically on our agenda is to avoid that the two-state solution is dismantled for good and to keep that horizon in place and to build the conditions for getting to a political place where we can have that done.
We must prevent a nuclear arms race in the Gulf and I will not elaborate more on this, but obviously I am ready to come back on this point in the questions. We must prevent new disasters in Syria or in Yemen, because the situation could get worse. I do not know whether this is an optimistic or pessimistic assessment – this is up to you. It is realistic, probably.
Again, there are times in history when resistance and resilience are the most important contributions we can give. Again, I am afraid this is not the most optimistic vision or our times, but I think it contains an element of optimism, because if you manage to contrast the forces of chaos at a given time – and I am afraid that this is the kind of time we live in – then the time might not be right for building a new regional security architecture. But we can work to prevent disasters and lay the foundations for better times that I am sure will come.
The third and last contribution is this: we must plant the seeds for a more cooperative regional dynamic, and a more cooperative world order as well. Investing in cooperation, when we hear others speaking more and more the language of confrontation and power of struggle mainly.
This is what, I believe, brings us today together. The belief that better times will come, but - and this is the other side of the coin – they will come only if we give our contribution for this to happen. If we let things go all alone following the spirit of the time, I am afraid that better times will not necessarily come. The positive side is that I am convinced that they will come, but it requires a bit of work from our side collectively. So I think we have to take all opportunities that we have to invest in cooperation – as we Europeans have done over the last 60 years - and make it grow – so that tomorrow can be better than today also in the Middle East and North Africa.
I thank you very much.
Link to the video: http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I168476