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Brussels, 6 March 2017
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I will try to keep it short, first of all because we talked several times during the day, and also because we have clearly run late. The second part of the Foreign Affairs Council - after a very important session with the Defence and Foreign Ministers this morning where, as you know, they have taken important decisions on European defence - focused, first of all, on the situation in the Western Balkans. I debriefed the ministers on my meetings, talks, from my visit of the entire region, in all the six partners. There was a clear, unanimous support for the messages I have been passing in the region and bilaterally to each of the six and a strong commitment to a credible European perspective for the entire region. We will bring this work forward on the occasion of the European Council in a few days from now.
We also hosted the Foreign Minister of Egypt [Sameh Shoukry] for an informal exchange of views. We discussed mainly the need to work together on the economic and social reform agenda of the country. The European Union’s main focus is the young population of Egypt and a very young population of the country that deserves all our support. The European Union is doing a lot to support especially job creation and education for boys and girls in Egypt. We also discussed rule of law and human rights issues. We also focused on some fields of bilateral cooperation that are mutually beneficial for the European Union and Egypt, such as our cooperation on counter-terrorism, security but also on migration. We then discussed with minister Shoukry the set of common engagements on the main regional issues we have as a priority, as a shared priority, first of all the Middle East Peace Process where we share the objective of keeping the two-states perspective alive and possibly advancing towards this. We decided to work together on this respect, but also the situation on Libya and Syria and in general terms the work in the region.
The ministers then discussed three other points. First of all, I updated them on the progress we are having on our external work on migration before I will bring the same assessment to the Heads of State and Government on Thursday at the European Council. The work is proceeding well – there is, as we all know, no magical solution to the issue of managing migration flows, but we see a series of encouraging results of our determined work, also thanks to the Maltese Presidency that is doing excellent work in this respect and our partnership with the IOM [International Organization for Migration] and the UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and obviously our migration compacts with our African partners.
Ministers also focused once again on the Middle East Peace Process. We reaffirmed our consolidated, common, united position on the Middle East peace process. I updated ministers on the contacts I have had in the recent month, including with the American administration. We are proceeding with the preparation for the Association Council with Israel, as decided in the previous Foreign Affairs Council in February as well as with the high level meetings with the Palestinian Authority.
Last but not least, ministers adopted Council Conclusions on the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the situation worries us a lot. This is, by the way, an issue I discussed at lengths during my recent visit to the Vatican last week.
Let me share with you further information, on which I also updated ministers today, even if it was not part of our formal agenda of the Council. The European Union will host, in Brussels, on 5 April, a conference on “Syria and the region: supporting the future of Syria and the region”, co-chairing this international conference with the United Nations and with the governments of Germany, Kuwait, Norway, Qatar and the United Kingdom.
It is a follow-up to the London Conference last year, checking where we are with the pledges of the international community to support Syrians inside Syria and in the neighbouring countries, but also strongly endorsing, encouraging and supporting the UN-brokered political process talks in Geneva, in constant contact with Staffan de Mistura [United Nations Special Envoy to Syria] to support his work. And also to assess the regional conditions and the conditions under which a post-agreement assistance can be provided, once a credible political transition is under way.
This is part of the efforts, the work that the European Union is doing on Syria, with our regional initiative, our round of talks with eight of the regional players. And we hope that the Brussels conference on 5 April can support strongly the UN work on the political track, but also try to establish a regional and international framework for that support, for the humanitarian work, but also for looking at the future, how we can, together, support the future of Syria and the region.
I'll stop here. I apologise we do not have too much time for the questions but we'll try to do our best.
Q: Regarding Libya and the discussion you had with Mr Shoukry, did you find ways how to bring the Libyan parties around the table, because since your last appearance on the issue in the European Parliament, there are more and more fights between al-Sarraj forces and some militia and Mr Haftar? And on Syria, since there will be another negotiation session in Geneva this month, which could be a positive signal since the Geneva did not fail, will the Syrian government be invited to the Brussels conference or is it too early to talk about involving the Syrian government in the reconstruction scenario?
FM: This is work that is up to the UN to do, in Geneva we strongly support these intra-Syrian talks under the UN auspices. We support them politically, we support them also practically, feeding into this process with any result of the talks we have. We constantly feed this into the UN process, for us it's clear it is the UN that has to lead the intra-Syrian talks. This is not going to move anywhere and for sure not to Brussels. We leave this happily in the hands of the UN. We trust them, we support them, we believe that the UN is the right broker for the intra-Syrian talks.
What we will discuss in the Syrian Conference is the support that the international community, including the European Union and the region, can give to this building up of the future of the country. So, hopefully, there will be some positive developments in Geneva and then it will be for us to start planning what kind of support, we, as the international community, can give to whatever is brokered by the UN in Geneva, by the Syrians and their talks.
On Libya, this has been one of the main issues we've discussed with Minister Shoukry. We support the efforts that the neighbouring countries, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, are doing to try and unite the actors on the grounds. I've discussed this also recently with [Fayez al-] Sarraj [Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord and Chairman of the Presidency Council of Libya] and with other regional actors. As I believe I have announced already, the European Union is going to join the League of Arab States, the African Union and the UN, in what has been so far a troika on Libya of international regional organisations, to try and support a Libyan-led and Libyan-owned solution. I will also personally join a meeting of this kind in the coming days.
Q. Concerning the topics of the Western Balkan countries, specifically on Albania, what were the concerns of the Members States? I know that during your visit in Tirana you made it clear to all the parties on what was expected by them, but, on the other side, I would like to know if all the Member States agreed on to set up a date for the negotiations with the country at least by the end of this year, hopefully hoping there will not be big surprises by general elections and there will be a smooth implementation of the first stage of the justice reform.
FM: We did not discuss dates. We discussed and confirmed what I brought as a message in Tirana - that the European Union is ready to open negotiations in a moment when the justice reform is started to be implemented and, in particular, the vetting procedure. So all Member States were fully backing the message I was bringing in Tirana just a few days ago.
Q. You are just back from a mission to the Western Balkan countries. How deep are the concerns right now about Russian interference in a sort of countries here? And to what extend are Member States seeking action in that regard?
FM: I have seen in the Western Balkans in these days much more than ever before: a region exposed to different layers of challenges and tensions. Some internal, domestic politics dynamics that create tensions in some countries; some regional inter-ethnic tensions or between or among countries that are extremely dangerous because they could bring the region back a few years. Peace is never to be given for granted. And also I have seen a region exposed to some global tensions. The Balkans can easily become one of the chessboards where the big power game can be played. So the concern is there, also because this is happening just after a very good year for the Balkans. There is not one single of the six of the Western Balkans that has not done enormous progress last year on its European integration path - well, maybe one or two - but the general sense of direction last year was excellent, evident, uncontroversial and the result of a common determination both here, in Brussels, by the EU institutions, by the Member States and from the countries in the region.
So, the concern is there and is profound, but there is also the confidence that derives from the fact that there is no other power in the world that has so much impact for good on the Western Balkans, and that is the European Union. I shared with the ministers and they agreed with me on the assessment that the power of the European Union in the region is linked to the credibility of the EU integration process; and this is why I believe you will see also in the coming days in the European Council strong determination from Member States to give a stronger credibility to this path.
Also, because, let me tell you, yes, I came back from the Balkans worried in some cases, but also full of optimism and hope, because whenever you meet the students, the citizens, civil society, but also so many political and social forces in all the region, you see the enormous support and trust in the European Union. You see the desire to enter the Union and I have repeatedly said in the region - and I repeated to the ministers today -, while we reflect on the future of the European Union, we can be sure that it will not be at 27; because there is an energy, a pro-European energy, in the Western Balkans that just waits to be let in. And I think we have, and the Ministers confirmed that today, full interest in making this process credible, fast, consistent. This requires also a lot of work in the Western Balkans, but also on our side. So I am worried, but also we have all the tools to overcome difficulties and to offer to the people of the Western Balkans the future and the perspective they want: just peace, economic development, regional cooperation and I could continue.
Q. When you are talking about concrete results, what we will be to see or what will the citizens of the region be able to feel and to see regarding the concrete European Union engagement in the region in the next few days, months? And, maybe, is there something that we can expect from Serbia concretely to do in this way for all the region to go forward?
FM: The concrete results depend equally from the European Union and from the governments, the parliaments, the institutions of the countries in the region. Actually, they depend more on the institutions and countries of the region than from us. From us, what they can expect is a renewed engagement, a unitary commitment meaning all the 28 Member States strongly behind the messages I brought to the region. And this key message: the door is open, we want you to enter, you know what is the way to enter and this will transform societies and economic and social perspective of the countries. This means good regional cooperation, this means containing and avoiding rhetorics that can be dangerous, this means economic opportunities, trade opportunities, this means peace – again, it is not an irrelevant word in the region – and this is what the people of the Balkans can expect from us.
A serious, consistent, committed approach that recognises and acknowledges the steps done on the way to the European Union integration path and also supporting the countries and the people, especially the people in the countries. One of the things that were really positively striking to me during my visit was the enthusiasm of the young people, everywhere in the region, be it Erasmus students, be it those that are angry and frustrated because they do not get a job. All of them see the European Union as the key to solve the problems or the key to improve the situation. I think this is not only something we own to these generations in the Balkans, I think this is also something healthy for the European Union to bring this energy in. So this is what they can expect: commitment, unity, determination, even perseverance on our side and the rest will come. But, again, the institutions will have to do their part.
Q. You were in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia last week. Are you concerned about the stability of the country after your visit and your discussion there? Could you give us a little bit of the discussions this afternoon on the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia?
FM: I will not obviously give details of what one minister or the other has said, but I can tell you that in general terms all the ministers were backing strongly the messages I have expressed in Skopje – by the way, that I expressed in my meetings, with the President, with all the political leaders but also publicly, not only on behalf of the European Union, but also on behalf of NATO Secretary General [Jens Stoltenberg]. How worried I am? I am, but I am trying to learn to move beyond the worries and see the potential for solving institutional crisis, political crisis. I believe that what Skopje is facing today is still a political and an institutional crisis. My main worry is that this turns into an inter-ethnic crisis and this has been the main message I have passed to those who have political responsibility in the country: Do not play with fire, do not turn this into an inter-ethnic confrontation that would ruin the country and probably spread further beyond
I believe there are instruments: first of all, the wisdom of the President [Gjorge Ivanov] and second, the capacity of the Parliament to proceed for instance by electing a speaker I imagine, or de-blocking the situation, so that this institutional and political crisis can be managed with the instruments that Skopje has, without interferences. It is only normal that friends care about the state of play and the future of partners. So, this is where we are; we believe that there are possibilities to come out of the institutional crisis, that resources to do that in Skopje exist and I have had a very frank, but also constructive exchange on this with all political leaders in the Parliament and also with the President. So, I hope the wisdom will manage to prevail. Thank you.
Link to the video (remarks): http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I134398
Link to the video (Q&A): http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I134400