An official website of the European Union. See all European Institutions
Check against delivery!
Thank you. First of all let me start by thanking Ekaterina [Zaharieva, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria] and the Bulgarian Presidency for the wonderful hospitality, but also for an excellent preparation, also with our teams ahead of this important foreign ministers meeting. The fact that this is an informal one does not mean that it is less relevant. On the contrary, it is most of the times – as it has been this time – the opportunity to discuss informally and very openly among us very important issues, without the need to reach conclusions or agree on a text, but exchanging views in a more open, free, and forward looking way.
We had three main topics on the agenda yesterday. And this morning we had our traditional exchange of views with the foreign ministers of the candidate countries [Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey] that this time-focused on our cooperation in the field of defence and security.
Let me start from this. That was a very positive and productive exchange with all the candidate countries that were present. And we thank them for that; in particular on the common work we do and we want to increase on the common challenges we have in the security field, such as the fight against radicalisation, the exchange of information about the return of foreign terrorist fighters, but also our common work in the EU missions and operations around the world. And we had a good opportunity to update them on the work we have developed inside the European Union on the European defence which is a very important element of our common work within the European Union, that is important for the candidate countries to be aware of as they prepare to join our Union.
Yesterday I would say the highlight was the discussion with the Western Balkans on which I am sure Ekaterina [Zaharieva, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria] will say more, being this the top priority of the Bulgarian Presidency - something that we share. And it was the first opportunity for the ministers of the 28 Member States to discuss the Strategy on the Western Balkans that myself, together with the Commissioner [for European Neigbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes] Hahn presented last week in Strasbourg. And we had a very positive discussion with the ministers where I saw a clear unity of purpose in the support of the work we are doing together with the Bulgarian Presidency to guarantee the perspective of a common future inside the European Union with our partners in the region
We had an important point of discussion with the ministers on Syria. We see the situation on the ground is deteriorating - even if this does not hit the headlines of the media so often now, the war is still going on and the humanitarian situation is dramatic.
The European Union is keeping a very strong focus on the conflict and on the two key elements that would be at the centre also of our next conference. We will host together with the United Nations the Second Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region. Keeping this international conference focused on two elements. First and foremost, the humanitarian support to Syrians, both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries, namely Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. And - maybe even more importantly - the support to the UN [United Nations] led political process in Geneva. We see this as the only way to start a credible transition - a political transition in the country -, that can be the only basis for a Syria that is home to all Syrians; keeping the diversity of society and managing to consolidate the defeats against Da'esh - for the moment important territorial, military defeats - that now need to consolidate into, I would say, ideological and social victories.
And that - we know that very well - comes only through a clear, credible political transition that recognises the space for all Syrians, starting from the opposition and the minorities in the country in the future. Our support, as European Union, continues to be vital for the Syrian opposition in their preparations for the talks in Geneva. But we have also talked about our economic leverage. The European Union is ready to mobilise its own resources and to work with partners internationally to mobilise resources that will be needed both for early recovery but also for reconstruction in the future provided that a political transition is firmly and credibly under way under UN auspices.
We do not see alternatives to the UN-led process. To use a sentence that, as an Italian and as a Roman, comes easy to me: all roads need to lead to Geneva. Every effort needs to feed into the UN-led process. And this is the clear strong commitment that as the European Union and Member States we share. So the Conference we will hold on 24 and 25 April in Brussels, EU-UN co-chaired, will be the opportunity for us to mobilise both political support to the UN-led process and humanitarian aid for the Syrians inside the country and in the region. And I have seen yesterday a clear unity and a clear determination of all our colleagues around the table in making sure that this is and becomes the strong contribution of the European Union to the efforts to find a solution to the crisis, that has known too many difficult phases. And, again, unfortunately we see that this is clearly not over yet.
I think I will stop here and I am looking forward to your questions.
Link to the video: http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I150696
Q. You say there is a unanimity among the ministers of the European Union on the Western Balkans strategy. In this direction can we expect by the end of the Bulgarian presidency a date for the beginning of the negotiations with certain countries of the region? And a question on Turkey that is connected to Syria - have you discussed the Turkish operation in Syria and the meeting in March that is going to take place in Varna between the European Union and Turkey?
FM: On the Western Balkans there was clearly a united approach from the ministers on the good reception, on the good assessment of the Strategy [for the Western Balkans], and the elements contained in it, and on the fact that under the Bulgarian Presidency we have a window of opportunities for moving forward with the entire region.
And I would like to stress very clearly one thing that I made clear also last week in Strasbourg, and that we reiterated today with the candidate countries: the Strategy addresses the entire region and does not create different boxes or different categories among the regional partners we have in the Western Balkans.
And the framework of the date, the horizon of the date, that Ekaterina [Zaharieva, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria] mentioned – 2025 – is a realistic, possible perspective - not a target, not an objective - not only for the two countries that are currently negotiating [Montenegro and Serbia] but also for others that could start to negotiate and – I personally wish – will start to negotiate from now to June .
This would be a decision that the Commission will take and then the Council will take. But definitely this is the framework in which we are working. And I know there is full convergence here between us.
On Turkey, yes, we discussed the Turkish operation recently started in Afrin. We have expressed, as the European Union and Member States, in the recent days and weeks, concern about, first of all, the civilian casualties, about the humanitarian consequences of this military operation - recognising the legitimate Turkish security concerns, but also making clear that, for what concerns the European Union, the target of military operations needs to continue to be Da'esh and the UN listed terrorist organisations. So, we reiterated this position to our Turkish friends today.
And I would subscribe to the words that [Secretary of State of the United States] Rex Tillerson said yesterday in Ankara that “we urge our Turkish friends to show restraint in their military actions”. Also because – as Ekaterina [Zaharieva] said – we are seeing not only there but also in other parts of Syria in these weeks a deterioration and an escalation on the military level that definitely is not encouraging in the current circumstances.
This is not in response to your question, but I forgot to brief you on one point or the agenda we discussed yesterday. I apologise for that. We also had with the ministers a discussion on the situation in the Korean peninsula, on the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]. We have as the European Union a very strict sanction regime in place on the DPRK that is going to continue. We are working to "demarche" third States so that they are encouraged from our side to fully implement the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
But we have always also indicated, as European Union, that the diplomatic track should be maintained open. And in these last days, with the Olympic Games, we have definitely seen some encouraging steps. We know very well that the important thing will be to see what will happen after the Olympic Games are concluded. It is our intention to work very closely with our partners – I discussed this with [Rex] Tillerson the other day in Kuwait – first and foremost with South Korea.
And we have decided to extend an invitation to the foreign minister of the Republic of Korea, of Seoul, to one of the next Foreign Affairs Council meetings in Brussels, so that we will be able to explore together what kind of additional pressure, but also what kind of additional diplomatic efforts the European Union can put at the disposal of the international community to reach the objective of a denuclearised Korean peninsula.
Q. On Syria, do you have a figure in your head on how much new humanitarian aid offerings do you hope to get in April at the Brussels Conference? And, speaking more broadly, the EU has given its support to the UN political process. But it had been stuck, it has covered very little ground over the many years. So what more is the EU willing to do? You talked about refusing to chip in for reconstruction unless there is a genuine political process. But the EU has also been saying this for a while and it does not change anything. So what more can the EU do? What political or economic pressure can it put and apply? Has there been any discussion for example about specific economic sanctions on Russia and/or Iran related to the Syria situation or the Middle Eastern conflict or any other ideas?
FM: On the first part of the question, it is definitely too early for me to put on the table any figures of expected pledges. What I can tell you is that this would be the international conference of this year mobilising pledges on the humanitarian side. And this is why it is so widely important – not only for the Europeans, but also for the UN system, and for Syria and Syrians, and for the region – that we keep the constant focus on the humanitarian situation of Syrians.
As we clearly said, the situation is not improving. We need to continue mobilising the international community’s solidarity for supporting our Syrian brothers and sisters. We will look at the implementation of the pledges made last year, which is essential because it is not only important that international players come and pledge to a conference but we need to track the implementation, state of play of the pledges done last year. We will have a roundtable – not only Europeans, not only the United Nations, not only the regional players, but all the international players that in these years have been working in the international context for Syria. Last year, if I am not wrong, we had more than 70 international delegations at ministerial level. We count on similar participation this year. And we count on new pledges.
From the European Union and from the Member States, we will deliver more pledges. And we expect this to be done also by the other international players and regional players that will join us at the conference. But again, we are still working on the pledges so it is early to give numbers.
On the second question that was exactly the purpose of the discussion yesterday - to have a collective thinking and reflection informally and in a very open way on what more we can do, as European Union and Member States, to support and facilitate the UN-led process in Geneva.
We have never been active as European Union on the military ground but we see today that the military dynamics and the military leverage is definitely not the one that is going to move the process forward, and we have always said that from the very beginning.
What we have delivered to the UN-led process is an opposition, a Syrian opposition, that is today more united than ever before. We have worked on this with other regional players that have constant contacts with the Syrian opposition, as we have. I am going to meet them again next week in Brussels and we meet them regularly.
We have worked to have - as I said - a more united and a more prepared Syrian opposition for the talks, ready to engage into a process that has as the only framework the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions. We continue to work to support the Syrian opposition; we continue to support daily their work in Geneva, in all possible means. It is the European Union backing their daily work on negotiations.
There is clearly something we cannot deliver as Europeans because we have no influence and no contact with the Syrian regime. We have sanctions in place on the Syrian regime since some times. What we are doing in these days and weeks, even more intensely than before, is holding talks with those regional players that do have a leverage on Damascus, encouraging them to make sure that the regime engages credibly in the talks in Geneva.
It is - I believe - in the interest of all, at this stage, to guarantee that the UN-led process in Geneva takes a different kind of impulse and starts to deal with the real content of the political agreement.
I wish to see from now to the Conference [on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region] we will host in Brussels in April movements in Geneva that could allow the international community not only to look at the humanitarian aid but also to look to early recovery in some areas that could face de-escalation. At the moment, we are not seeing de-escalation; at the moment we are seeing escalation.
So, we are ready and we are willing to use the Conference also to mobilise resources for early recovery and especially in the areas liberated from Da'esh. But we need to see improvements on the ground, and the trend we are seeing today is exactly the opposite and this is worrying for us. And first and foremost, this is worrying for the Syrian people who are tired of war and simply want to go back to a normal life.
Q. Since you mentioned a European defence corporation earlier, I wanted to ask you about something that Secretary [of Defence of the United States, James] Mattis said yesterday "There is a clear understanding to include in written EU documents that the common defence is a NATO mission and a NATO mission alone". Has there insurance been given, did that come from you because certain EU Members States here were surprised to hear him saying that.
FM: Indeed, we had an excellent meeting the evening before yesterday in Brussels with the NATO Defence Ministers, as always. Whenever the Defence Ministers meet in Brussels, [NATO Secretary General] Jens Stoltenberg invites me to their working dinner to share the state of play of EU/NATO cooperation that is excellent and that has never been at these levels and at these steps before, but also to share with them in full transparency the steps forward that the European Union defence work is taking.
Indeed, there has been an excellent exchange of views with all the NATO allies Defence Ministers out of which - if I am not wrong - twenty have launched the Permanent Structured Cooperation [PESCO] within the European Union.
So, my briefing was also a collective briefing of NATO allies that are also EU Member States and it was for me the opportunity to reiterate and to reassure NATO and NATO allies, and especially the non EU Member States that are NATO allies, of what is already in the European Union Treaties, because the Lisbon Treaty already clearly states - I think it is article 42.7 - that NATO for those States which are members of it remains the foundation of collective defence.
This is already clearly stated, black and white, in the Lisbon Treaty, so no need to further speculate on that, NATO is mentioned in the EU Treaty as the responsible organisation for collective defence of those EU Member States that are NATO allies.
It is clear that what the work we are doing on European defence in the EU is not aiming at substituting NATO when it comes to collective defence. This was always the basis for our common understanding.
Having said that, we shared both with Secretary Mattis, with other NATO allies that are not EU Member States and with Secretary General Stoltenberg, who has always been extremely supportive of this work we have done on EU defence, that all the work that the European Union can do to strengthen the European defence is also something that strengthens NATO.
There was a full agreement on this around the table on Wednesday night. I think it was an excellent discussion and clarified things once more in a very useful manner and I can say Secretary Mattis in particular was adamant in saying that the United States are fully supporting this work the European Union is doing on defence.
Q. In the course of the informal discussions, did you see the positions merging on the topic of the name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and If Serbia is ready to start to work on accession, would the Kosovo issue turned out to be a difficulty in this process?
FM: There is an ongoing dialogue between Athens and Skopje that is very encouraging, that is happening under UN auspices. It is a bilateral exercise that we respect and that we follow with a lot of attention and that we support a lot. And let me say that this is positively reflected, I think, in recent steps that both Athens and Skopje have taken recently, and that are extremely encouraging for the future.
I would like to stress here one point: I know very well that disputes, bilateral issues, are always sensitive in the public opinions on both sides. And this is the nature of disputes of that kind everywhere, all over the world. And it needs a lot of political leadership, courage, but also, I think, clear determination and vision of what is better for your own citizens. And I think that we have a good window of opportunity now to link these encouraging steps to a perspective that would definitely be beneficial for the entire region and so also for two countries that in the region have an important role to play. So I am positively impressed and ready to support in all possible manners the ongoing dialogue that is seeing Athens and Skopje very committed. And I hope this can lead to good results soon.
For what concerns Belgrade and Pristina, you know that we are facilitating the dialogue and I see clear determination, especially from the side of the two Presidents - that is the level to which they decided to move the dialogue. It is positive. They have entered discussions on a legally binding agreement that would tackle the issue of normalisation of relations in a comprehensive manner and that would definitely be a qualitative change in the situation of both sides but also of the region. And I am realistically optimistic about the perspective of this to bring results within the end of our mandate, which is end of 2019.
Let me take the opportunity also to welcome another positive step that came today as the news broke just as we were gathered. I have seen the agreement between the President of Kosovo and the President of Montenegro on the border demarcation. This shows that even complicated issues can move forward. And now, obviously, we not only welcome all efforts in the spirit of good neighbourly relations but also we are ready to support the full implementation of this agreement. So an encouraging sign that needs now to be followed up.
Q: I would have a question on Turkey: just before you started your press conference we got the alert information that the German journalist, our colleague Deniz Yücel, was set free by the Turkish authorities. So my two questions to you: Could you confirm that? Did you talk with the Turkish Minister about that case which overshadowed the relations for a long time? And, perhaps for a deeper background, we heard that we will have the summit here at the end of March with Presidents Tusk and Juncker and President Erdoğan here in Bulgaria. Do you see this as a clear sign that President Erdoğan wants to restart the negotiations with the European Union on accession? What do you say about this?
FM: I can tell you that we constantly raise in our dialogues with our Turkish interlocutors - and these are dialogues that I hold quite often and regularly, I met a minister [Ömer] Çelik [Minister of European Union Affairs of Turkey] here today, Minister [Mevlüt] Çavuşoğlu [Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey] the day before yesterday in Kuwait, Minister Çelik in Brussels a couple of weeks ago - not only individual cases but also, in general terms, the need to comply with Turkey's own commitments.
Because we often forget that Turkey is not only a candidate country, but it is a full member of the Council of Europe. So it has its own commitments that it has taken voluntarily and spontaneously in that framework. So we always stress the need for Turkey to uphold the highest levels of respect of fundamental rights, rule of law, media freedom and that is constantly part of our discussions with them.
I would not confirm or deny individual news that you might have received just now.
On the Summit: As Ekaterina [Zaharieva, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria] mentioned, this was not the issue we discussed now, but this is part of constant contacts we have at different levels - more often in this last year - at my level, or Commissioner [for European Neigbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes] Hahn's level, so at ministerial level.
These have been contacts that are ongoing always, including on some sectoral cooperation - I think of transport, energy, economic fields where discussions have constantly been ongoing - with especially the aim of focusing on the Turkish population. We often focus on the institutional or political relations, which is important, or the accession process, which is important. I would like to remind us all - and you know that for sure very well - Turkey is and stays a candidate country even if we are not opening new chapters for negotiation currently.
But we do have a common interest, on the Turkish side and on the European Union side, to work on the positive agenda that improves the lives of our citizens, including the Turkish citizens - all of them - and that focuses on the common strategic interests we have in the region. Turkey is not only candidate country. Turkey is also a partner in the region. We do not always share the same points of view, as that was made clear in some of our previous replies, but we do work together on a certain number of issues not the last of which - let me just mention this - the settlement of the Cyprus issue that, for sure, will have to come back to the table at a certain moment.
Link to the video: http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I151118