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We've had the Foreign Affairs Council with the [Foreign] Ministers. We focused mainly on two issues as you probably know. First of all our work on Syria: I presented to the ministers the first outcome, the first results of the EU regional initiative for the future of Syria, focusing with the regional powers on the future asset of a political transition, of elements of reconciliation and reconstruction, in an initiative that, as you might recall, started few months ago. And we have had just last week bilateral meetings here in Brussels to discuss several elements for a political transition with the delegations from most of the countries in the region - from Saudi Arabia to Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, [United Arab] Emirates - and we are going to have similar meetings in the coming days with another number of countries of the region to feed into the UN-led process, possibly to provide some elements already for the February intra-Syrian talks to be held in Geneva. I discussed this last week in Geneva with Staffan de Mistura [UN Special Envoy for Syria] and António Guterres [UN Secretary General], so working hand-in-hand with the UN on the political side of the efforts to bring a solution the Syrian conflict.
We discussed this with the ministers. I updated them on this EU-led initiative and I shared with them the plans to convene in Brussels together with the UN a conference on the future of Syria, in the spring, that we would co-chair possibly also with others. It will have two main objectives. On one side taking stock of the implementation of commitments of the donors’ community of the London Conference. You might remember that it has taken place last year on which the European Union has delivered in full, being the first humanitarian donor worldwide for Syria and for the Syrians in the region. But most of all it will be – and can - a political conference, hoping that could be the moment, a few months after the restart of the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva under UN auspices, for the international community to together turn the page and start the political transition, the reconciliation process and the reconstruction of Syria on the basis of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. And again these are all elements that we will continue to elaborate in strong connection with the UN and with the UN Special Envoy and with the perspective of supporting, facilitating, feeding into the work that the UN is doing on the intra-Syrian talks, because our approach is this: trying to facilitate a regional understanding of the future of Syria, to create the space for the Syrians themselves to decide on their own future.
The second point we discussed with the Ministers was the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP), the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The Council today strongly reconfirmed our consolidated EU position on the two States and on the trends that are endangering this perspective, as we outlined also in the Quartet Report and in the recommendations that are included in the report, namely the three elements I also mentioned yesterday in Paris: the settlement expansion, the violence and the incitement to violence, and the situation in Gaza.
I was in Paris yesterday, representing the European Union, as well as all the Member States were present in Paris. I signed up to the declaration that reflects fully the EU's consolidated position that you can find in several EU Council Conclusions – the last substantial ones, very substantial ones, date from more or less one year ago where you will still find all elements of policy that we reconfirmed today. If you want I can go more into detail, but that covers the full range of policies and positions that we reconfirmed today. As I said, the Paris Declaration reflects fully the EU's consolidated position that we reconfirmed today as well as the UN Security Council resolution that was adopted at the end of December fully represents the EU's consolidated position, as we have several times stated.
We also discussed - and this was the main focus of the discussion - the way forward for the EU's work on the MEPP. We had a brainstorming on how we can try to bring forward the work, first of all, with the direct involvement of the parties. The European Union is fully convinced that only through a full commitment and involvement and determination of the parties there can be a negotiation that is meaningful and leads to a solution, a real solution. No one can substitute this process, but we can facilitate and provide space and international framework for this to happen in the best conditions. This is what we have done last year with the Quartet; this is what we are eager to do and continue to do with our partners, starting from the United Nations, the United States and Russia in the Quartet. But also, and I would even say mainly, in some cases our Arab partners and we discussed this at length just a couple of weeks ago in Cairo with the Arab League and the Arab League’s Member States, starting from Egypt but also all the other Arab countries on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative.
So, these were the two main issues we discussed, on which we found a profound and useful unity that is going to be the basis for the work. On Syria, as I told you, continuing our EU initiative, continuing to link up with other initiatives that are looking more at the military aspects of the crisis and that we welcome. On the MEPP, trying obviously to continue to enlarge or to at least consolidate an international unity that can be the basis for the parties to directly re-engage.
We also had some other points of discussion with the ministers, focusing on priorities we will face in this beginning of the year; and I am happy to elaborate on any of those you want to raise. I especially updated them on the negotiations on the Cyprus issue. As you know, the European Union was taking part to the Conference on Cyprus last week in Geneva as a special observer with a special status, being an interested party, and we continue to do that work on the name of the European Union entirely. I stop here and I am ready to take some questions.
Q. Regarding the MEPP, what is your opinion on the conference of Paris? Do you think that such an event was useful given that the two main parties were not at the table and also with all the rumours around the possible moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? I don’t know if this was discussed. I know that on your way in you did not want to comment specifically on it, but is this something that the US should avoid in a moment that the US policy vis-à-vis the Middle East is not clear? The second question is concerning the conference on Syria: can we expect that for the beginning of April?
A: We can expect it for spring, we are working for April. Obviously we are liaising strictly with the UN to be in synch, but that could be for April. On the conference in Paris I think it was useful as a moment of gathering a large international community and reconfirming the commitment of the international community to the two-state solution, keeping this as the top priority of the international community. For the European Union this is nothing new because it has always been and it continues to be a high priority for us every single time and, as I said, consolidated EU positions were reflected in that. So to us what is key is that there is internationally a framework that encourages and facilitates a situation where the parties can re-engage directly. When it comes to Jerusalem – yes, we discussed that for sure -, the European Union will continue to respect international consensus embodied in the UN Security Council resolution 478 of 1980. We will not move our EU Delegation that is in Tel Aviv and we hope that there can be a reflection on consequences of any move that is taken. We still do not have a new US administration – we have an administration in the US, not a new one yet. And I believe that it is very important for us to refrain from unilateral actions, especially those that can have serious consequences in large of public opinions in large parts of the world.
Q. I understand that Britain essentially blocked a statement on the MEPP today which would have welcomed the past conclusions. I wondered if you could comment on that and if you think that is in line with what Mr [Boris] Johnson [UK Foreign Secretary] has been saying in recent months that Britain would continue to cooperate closely and not stop the EU taking its own decisions on foreign policy. Secondly, just on Jerusalem, what is the consequence if the US makes the decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem?
A: On the first part of the question: no, this does not correspond to what happened in the room. We had an informal exchange on this issue. You know that we always have one part of our Council that is an informal session, so maybe that contributes to spreading rumours which sometimes have a little bit of fantasy in it. The main focus of our discussion was - as I said - the consensus we have, so no divisions on that, unity on the consolidated positions of the European Union on the MEPP and the perspectives of our future work to create conditions for both - international unity and the parties - to work usefully in the future.
There were some exchanges around the table on whether it would have been useful or not to have short Council Conclusions today. They were some different views, not on the content, but on the opportunity to have them on not, and in which form. And normally, as you know, Council conclusions are prepared in advance and normally we do not decide them over an informal session on the spot. I do not exclude that we can have Council conclusions on the Middle East, and on the way forward of our work especially on the Quartet and our work with the Arab partners in relation to the MEPP in the future. But that will have to be obviously not only prepared, but also probably taken at a stage where things are a little bit more mature on the side of the new US administration when it comes to their own vision that for the moment is not yet clear, especially on the role of the Quartet. So, no, Boris [Johnson] did not stop or prevent any decision of the European Union. On the contrary, as always, he participated fully to all the points of the agenda, and we had a normal Council.
On Jerusalem: I cannot foresee today what could be a reaction or consequences to a decision or an action that is not yet taken. So it would be an "if/if" answer which is something that - as you know well - I never do. For sure, I am worried that large parts, as I say, of not only institutions but public opinion in parts of the world that are quite significant - the Arab world but also Africa, Asia, parts of Europe - could have in reaction to a move that for sure would not be in line with, as I said, the international consensus embodied in the UN Security Council Resolutions, especially 478.
Q. Regarding the consultation you are having with the regional partners on the future of Syria, can you tell us what is your own vision regarding the future state of Syria. Should it be a secular one, an un-confessional one or a civilian one? On Morocco, last December the [European] Court of Justice issued an attesting decision dictating that the partnership should be between the European Union and Morocco but it should not be implemented on the Western Sahara. How will you deal with this complex issue?
A. On this you can refer to the joint statement I published that very same day with the Moroccan Foreign Minister [Mr Salaheddine Mezouar]. The very same fact that we reacted together to that pronouncement is in itself, I believe, in content and in symbolism, a sign of our strong determination to work in partnership. And for what concerns the legal aspects of the consequences of that decision - obviously we are still, our legal services are still, considering all the different implications - I can say that, again, our partnership with the Moroccan authorities has been excellent in reacting together and following together the decisions taken and I am sure that it will constitute a good basis for our relations to move to a different stage - that of a stronger partnership, even stronger partnership.
On Syria: the reason why the European Union is well-positioned to work on this initiative, on the political future of Syria, is not only the leverage that we can have on the economic reconstruction - which is a significant one -, but it is most of all, I believe, the fact that we have not been part of the conflict, we do not have our own political agenda for the country. But we do have an interest that is based on the relevant UN Security Council resolutions – so purely on the international legal approach and consensus – on having a united Syria, a Syria that is in peace and that builds a society where all citizens of Syria, regardless of their background, of their religion, of their ethnicity, of their political believes, can feel ownership – not only be respected as minorities but feel ownership of the country. This will require probably profound transformation of the institutional system but also the societal dynamics.
Syria is not the only country in the region that used to be a place of different communities living together. It still has the potential to be so and this is the only agenda the European Union has. One: to fulfil the UN Security Council resolutions that are relevant to it; second, to build a place or to help to build a place where all Syrians can feel home - those who are still in Syria, those who would like to go back to Syria -; and third, a country that can live in good cooperation, in peace, with all the neighbouring countries.
This is why we can be honest brokers in the region, making sure that all the regional powers - starting from the Arab countries - feel comfortable with the process of turning the page of the Syrian conflict. Because we know well that in the region, it is the regional powers, it is the regional countries, it is the neighbouring countries – and among them I put Europe - we have to make sure that we will be in the political conditions of supporting a transition in Syria. This has to be prepared. Too many times we have not prepared post-conflicts. This is what we are doing now, preparing politically the transition. As I said several times, the military arrangements for a cessation of hostilities are not something that concern the European Union in terms of our active involvement because we are not a military player on the ground. This gives us also the credibility with the Syrian people, all of them, because we have not been there engaged military on the ground, we are there for a political solution, for humanitarian support and we will try to help as much as we can but obviously for us one thing is clear: the reconciliation and the reconstruction, comes with the political transition.
Q. Donald Trump said this weekend that he does not care if the European Union splits apart. Can the European Union hold together with a Eurosceptic President in the White House? Are you doing anything special to ensure European unity on the face of a Trump Presidency?
A: I think that the European Union will stick together. I am one hundred per cent convinced of this. I respect the opinion of the future President of the United States, the President-elect - almost President - but I think that the European Union will be ok in the future. And, as you asked this, let me specify one thing because I have seen some interviews coming out in these hours. I would like to specify one thing that we discussed also with Boris Johnson [UK Foreign Minister] today and he was agreeing with me: it is absolutely clear on the European Union side that as long as a country is a Member State of the European Union, which is something that the UK is at the moment, seven months after the referendum still. So maybe this has also to be taken into consideration: seven months after the result of the referendum they are still here and we are still 28. As long as a Member State is a Member State, there are no negotiations bilaterally on any trade agreement with third parties. This is in the treaties and this is valid for all Member States as long as they remain Member States, until the very last day. I think this is fair for me to specify, because this is a framework that we all share, including the United Kingdom in this moment.
Q. It might not been at the FAC [Foreign Affairs Council] today but certainly seems to have been a debate at Coreper over three sentences to do with the Paris Conference that seemed very anodyne indeed and those words did not seem to have the support from at least 25 countries and Britain, if not Boris Johnson - his representative Tim Barrow did make the argument that perhaps this language can be seen as fencing the President-elected before the inauguration, trying to bounce him into a policy decision. Do you regret that sensitivity? I am sure that this is not the best way to show unity and Trump does not seem to be showing any reciprocal or mutual sensitivity when he talked about the EU.
A: It is maybe because I have an Italian political background, my standards of sensitivity are flexible. I think the next U.S. administration will establish with the European Union a political relationship that I wish it was a partnership and I wish it will be a partnership. This is also the direction of our talks with Vice President-elect Mike Pence when we had a conversation about this. These are the signals we are getting, that of a willingness to build partnership and cooperation on the fields where we have mutual interests, from counter-terrorism to economic growth and several other issues around the region and beyond. So many things are not yet clear. I think also for the incoming administration, they will need to take some time and I am respectful of this process. Any transition takes time and I will not comment or elaborate on intentions expressed before they become policies, if not bilaterally, and maybe more quietly than in a press room.
But what we are looking for is a partnership based on common interests with the United States. The European Union has its own solid autonomous strong policies that - as I said several times - are not determined elsewhere than in the places where the European Union members states and European institutions meet, which is Brussels or somewhere else where we have our informal meetings. We always like to be in good company but we determine our policies by ourselves. The more common ground we find the better, because this will bring better results to our common causes. But there might be issues where we might disagree; it has happened in the past, it might happen in the future. This will have to be seen, once the administration is in place and takes decisions, that is not the case yet. We still have another administration in place.
On the Council Conclusions on the MEPP, as I said, but I can repeat it: today we had an informal discussion on the EU work on the MEPP and especially with the parties. The European Union is the first interlocutor both for Israel and the Palestinians on many different fields, starting from economic cooperation or financial support, to political talks. Our links with the two are strong and put on us a responsibility that we want to exercise at full. This was the point of discussion today. This is the main focus of our work which is a serious work, a daily work that we do, especially through the work of our EU Special Representative for the MEPP [Fernando] Gentilini who was here with us today. I would not go into comments of other dynamics that were not subjects of our meeting today. You do not expect my press conference to comment on the work of the ambassadors in Coreper I guess.
Q: I would like to ask your comment on the tensions that we have seen over the weekend between Belgrade and Pristina over the "train problem" so to say, the train that was sent from Belgrade to the north of Kosovo. How do you see the involvement of the two sides, the tensions and the nature of the [EU-facilitated] dialogue [for the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina] at this moment and how it will continue in the future?
A: I was personally not only following the issue of the train over the weekend, but also personally in touch; as you are from a Serbian media you know probably that I was in contact with Prime Minister [Aleksandar] Vučić, extremely worried about the situation that could have easily escalated. And my message to the parties has been to avoid escalations, trying to contain both acts and rhetoric and trying to see the common engagement through the Dialogue as something that is delivering for both. Not necessarily, or not so much for both institutions, but for both peoples, because the steps we have taken both with Belgrade and with Pristina last year are historical. And we managed to move so far and so much on the EU perspective of the entire region, also because we have managed to build on a positive Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. This requires sometimes political courage – I know that well – political leadership, political vision. We are here to help and facilitate. So the question about the perspectives of the dialogue is a question you should rather ask in Belgrade or in Pristina. But what I see is from the both sides a determination to continue. To me what is really important today is to make this process continue to deliver for the people; and agreements already reached implemented on the ground on both sides which is again sometimes involving difficult decisions, but I think this is a choice that was done knowing exactly what it was entailing for good reasons on both sides. The tensions are still high, we constantly see it, but the work I see and the determination I see from the leadership both in Pristina and in Belgrade is a strong one. And as you are from Serbian media, let me thank Prime Minister Vučić for the leadership he has shown in some difficult moments that I think is providing a good basis for him to continue to pursue the interest of his country, of his people and of the region through the dialogue.