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We had a long, very constructive and positive meeting with the Foreign Ministers of the countries of the League of Arab States plus the Secretary General of the League of Arab States [Ahmed Aboul Gheit] on our common work to relaunch the Middle East Peace Process. We have full convergence of purpose. The European Union and its Member States, and the League of Arab States and its Member States, see eye to eye first and foremost on the need to preserve the horizon of two states as the only viable one, with Jerusalem as the capital of both the state of Israel and the state of Palestine, and the need to preserve the status of the holy places. We have decided to coordinate our positions, our actions and it was a very clear commonality, as I said, of analysis but also of perspectives.
We discussed with the Ministers earlier in the morning a point that was not formally on the agenda, that was Syria. As I told you at the beginning of the day, we expect full and immediate implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution that was just adopted in New York the other day. I would like to thank Kuwait for its role as Chair of the Council, but also all the Members States of the European Union that are currently members of the UN Security Council - in particular Sweden - that have worked night and day literally, to achieve a consensus on a Resolution that for us is very important.
I will send a letter today to the three Foreign Ministers of the three guarantors of the Astana Process – Russia, Turkey and Iran - to ask them, as guarantors of the Astana Process, to work for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution and in particular, for the implementation of the de-escalation zones that were decided in Astana and for which they have a role to play.
During the Foreign Affairs Council today we also adopted conclusions on Moldova. I will meet the Foreign Minister [of Moldova, Tudor Ulianovschi] in a while.
We also adopted conclusions that I would like to flag to you on climate change and climate diplomacy. This is an issue in which the European Union continues to play a leading role. It is linked to our security and this gives us the framework for our future action.
We also had a discussion on the situation in Venezuela. We are living critical hours. We expect free and fair elections, the participation of all Venezuelan political parties to the political process to be allowed; all having equal access to media; a revised and balanced composition of the National Electoral Council, recognized by all political actors. This currently does not seem to be the trend but there is still time to take formal decisions. So, we hope and we expect that things can go in the direction of obtaining guarantees for credible elections. We stand ready to react promptly to any decision taken, in particular, to react to violations of basic principles of inclusiveness, fairness and transparency. We also decided to stay in close contact with all our partners in the region. All players that have a role to play, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean but also elsewhere.
We also discussed the humanitarian situation in Venezuela. According to the UNHCR, more than 1.5 million Venezuelans have already left the country. We are particularly worried for the situation that might occur in Colombia where 600,000 Venezuelans have already moved and we have decided to step up our assistance, in particular in Colombia, in Brazil and in the Caribbean countries. This comes on top of the support we already give to the population inside Venezuela through our corporation activities that are ongoing for 15 million euros in the area of food security and human rights.
Let me also say one other word on Venezuela. We expressed all a strong solidarity to Spain after the decision of the Venezuelan authorities to declare the Spanish ambassador persona non grata. We decided to continue working very closely in unity on the situation in Venezuela following the next steps and keeping all the channels of communication we have open but only with the opposition and with the government, and obviously as I mentioned to the main regional players.
Link to the video: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I151403
Q: You mentioned this morning, with relation to the Syria cease-fire, the need for monitoring mechanisms. Are you saying that you think something additional needs to be set up or do you think that the mechanisms currently in place would be sufficient?
FM: First and foremost, we need to see the cease-fire put in place, because as you know the United Nations [UN] Security Council Resolution adopted – and we define it as a positive, encouraging step, and very much needed - has a weak point, as there is no time framework for the beginning of it. So I have seen that some media reports, for instance yesterday, were saying that the cease-fire has already been broken. No, actually, it has not even started yet. So, the first message, also of my letter today to the three guarantors of the Astana process will be: let us have the cease-fire start as soon as possible, as a matter of urgency. Every single minute we wait there are people dying - children, women - and humanitarian situation is deteriorating. The first preoccupation we have is to have the implementation of the Security Council Resolution start immediately - immediately and fully – to have access on the ground and to have a monitoring system that can be efficient.
For us, what is essential is that those that have responsibilities exercise these responsibilities. Every role you take comes with a responsibility to be exercised. The de-escalation zones were the result that we welcomed of the Astana Process. Now the guarantors of the Astana Process have to take responsibility for the implementation of these decisions and to reinvert the trend. Go back to de-escalation rather than seeing an escalation.
And I will discuss, in particular tomorrow with the UN Under-Secretary General, Mark Lowcock, on the ways in which we can effectively help the United Nations deliver humanitarian aid and have effective access on the ground. Obviously, we will discuss also with the United Nations issues related to monitoring or implementation elements. By the way, I was in contact also with Staffan de Mistura [UN Special Envoy for Syria] today on this; not on the humanitarian access specifically, but on the need to reduce the military activities on the ground, so that the Process in Geneva can actually have a relaunch. We will use the Brussels Conference in April to push both on the political side and on the humanitarian access and delivery of humanitarian aid.
Q: On Venezuela, I understand that several Ministers asked for the possibility to prepare sanctions in case that elections are not free and fair in April. I do not know what is the time frame for you to present them, because I understand that, in any case, these would not be approved before the elections? Did Commissioner Stylianides announce today that there would be an extra two million of humanitarian aid from the Commission's side to try to alleviate the very worrying situation on the ground there?
FM: As I said, we stand ready to take decisions and to react, depending on the developments on the ground. These are crucial hours where decisions are expected to be taken - or not - and the way in which they will be taken, and in what direction, will determine also the decisions we will take. I cannot predetermine now neither the timing nor the content of it. For me and for us all what is essential is that, first of all, the political stalemate in the crisis in Venezuela can be resolved politically, through dialogue, through real commitment to dialogue. And I hope that this can be seen in the next hours, because we have not seen much of that in the past days - to use a euphemism.
We are also, obviously, asking the opposition to remain united and engage in a political dialogue and process. But, obviously, any decision that would not guarantee free, fair and credible elections would create the need from our side to reflect on further measures. And, yes, the Commission announced an increase of the humanitarian funds available. And this is true for our support to the people of Venezuela that have always been at the heart of our considerations, in particular with an attention to the movements, as I said, of Venezuelans to other countries. I mentioned Colombia, because Colombia is going through a complicated time of implementation of a peace agreement that is putting challenges on the country and its leadership and its population as such, and it does not need to see a further burden that could be represented by a massive movement of people. So, we have decided to increase the support to neighbouring countries, also to border areas, in particular.
Q: Question on Cambodia, because you have adopted a conclusion also on that, saying that the EU may consider specific targeted measures if the government does not reverse the dissolution of the opposition party and so on. Which kind of measures are you foreseeing? Do you think that touching trade and the actual agreement or system between you and Cambodia could be a good idea to push Hun Sen [Prime Minister of Cambodia] in the right direction?
FM: As you mentioned, and as you know, and as the Council Conclusions that we adopted today clearly say, the political and human rights situation in Cambodia has badly deteriorated. In recent months we have seen the arrest of the opposition leader, the closure of several media outlets, increasing crackdown against the opposition and civil society. In view of these developments, the European Commission has already decided to suspend EU financial assistance to the Cambodian National Election Committee. This decision was welcomed by the Ministers today. An election, obviously, cannot be democratic if the main opposition party is prohibited from participating. So, it seemed to us an obvious move to make.
In addition, the Conclusions we adopted today, first of all underline the need for a comprehensive assessment of our development cooperation programme with a view to ensuring the strengthening of democratic principles and respect for human rights. Second, the Conclusions invited the Commission to enhance the monitoring of the situation in the area of trade preferences under the Everything But Arms scheme. And third, we confirmed our readiness to consider specific, targeted measures, if the situation does not improve.
I would not elaborate further on what these possible specific, targeted measures can be. The consideration will happen and when it will be the case you will know more about that. But, clearly, the respect for fundamental human and labour rights is fundamental for our EU trade policy and this underpins the legal basis of our trade preferences, including all the preferences we have granted under the Everything But Arms trade scheme. So this is something that clearly is in our framework.
Q: On today's meeting with the Arab League. Did the EU call on the Gulf countries to play a more intensive role in finding a solution to the Palestinian question?
FM: I have to say that we found each other on the same page in terms of recognising the high importance that we both attach to the Palestinian - Israeli conflict. I was pleased to see a united position of the Representatives, the Ministers that were representing the League of Arab States together with Secretary-General [Ahmed Aboul Gheit] and a determination to work in the direction of trying to solve or trying to contribute to solve the conflict. We have always thought that the Arab Peace Initiative can be a very interesting basis for moving forward. We have discussed about that. We have discussed about the need to use this moment to discuss the possibility not only to advance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also on the Israeli-Arab conflict. That could create an interesting incentive or environment to move forward.
But I can also tell you that beyond the opportunities that we have seen together, we have also shared a lot of concerns about the situation currently on the ground. The decisions by the US administration to move the embassy to Jerusalem and the current state of the financing of the UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] is something that worries us and our Arab friends equally. And our common determination to make sure that the Palestinian people, including Palestinian refugees in Gaza for instance, but also in Jordan or in Lebanon or in Syria, do not suffer from the consequences of an under-financing of UNRWA. So we have shared our determination to do more in this respect. There is currently work ongoing led by Jordan, Egypt, Sweden, together with the European Union, to mobilise at ministerial level support for UNRWA. And we are determined to work together on this.
We also know very well – both the Ministers of the League of Arab States and the European Union – that we have dealt with the conflict for long enough around our common table to know what can fly and what cannot fly. And we believe it is wise to consider what can fly and what cannot fly in terms of peace plans before putting any plan on the table and avoiding any false step. Because in the region any false step can be very dangerous.
Q. The conclusions on Moldova were pretty strong and pretty long. They were very critical on a lot of things: electoral law, banking fraud, judicial affairs, etc. Now at the same time the European Commission has agreed to grant an MFA [Multiannual Financial Assistance] to Moldova that was agreed in December, I believe, but the first tranche has not been paid out yet. Do you think – considering the strong Conclusions – that it is right to pay out the first tranche? And if so when?
FM: The release of the first tranche of the Multiannual Financial Assistance [MFA] will be decided after an assessment of the fulfilling of the economic policy conditions of the related MoU – the Memorandum of Understanding – and of political preconditions. What you detected in conclusions - long, unanimous and very much appreciated by all Member States - is actually what we have shaped a balanced mix of messages. I can summarise the long conclusions with one sentence: the European Union is strongly supporting the country of Moldova and its citizens. It has to be clear that we do not have any domestic political agenda. The European Union deals with institutions to the benefit of the citizens. And that is the only agenda we have. But we all know very well – because we hear from the citizens of Moldova and we see the trends in society – that a certain number of measures need to be delivered in order for this support to be credible and to obtain all its potential. This comes with anti-corruption measures, work on the judiciary, and all the reforms you were mentioning. So the two things are not contradictory. What our support aims at is supporting the people and the country, and this requires strong and credible moves by the authorities of the country on anti-corruption, reform of the judiciary, and economic reforms. The two things go together.
Q. Since the start of the dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad, nothing has changed. Just yesterday the Iraqi Prime Minister [Haider al-Abadi] decided to extend the international flight ban to Kurdistan. What are you going to do? I know today you did not have it on the agenda. But right now the situation has been blocked, stuck.
FM: I will not comment on that. That was not an issue that we discussed in the Council even if – as you know – just one week ago, I was in Kuwait for the International Donors Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq. But I will not comment on this specific issue as we did not discuss this with the Ministers at all. It was not on the agenda.
Q. You have had a discussion on the Middle East in three meetings in a row now. I want to make sure we understand what the thinking is here. You have warned the U.S. not to go at it alone. Is this your way of bringing together Europeans and partners in the region, as a show of diplomatic force to say to Washington, as you just put it, to not make any false steps in what you propose?
FM: On the Middle East Peace Process, it is the convening power of the European Union. We have good relations with the parties. We have with Israel, as the first trade partner, political, economic, and social contacts that are very strong and deep. We have excellent and good relations also with the partners in the region, witnessed by the presence of all the Ministers from Saudi Arabia to Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, the [United Arab] Emirates, which is something quite exceptional. And we have, obviously, good relations also with the Palestinian Authority to which the European Union is the first financial contributor.
So, we have always been asked to play a role, and not only to pay the bills. And this is exactly what we are doing. We are convening the parties – Israel and Palestine. We are coordinating with partners in the region. We are coordinating also with the United States. I would like to remind you that we decided together with Norway to convene the first ever Extraordinary Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee last January, exactly to bring at the same table the United States, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel, for the first time after the decision on Jerusalem took place. We can play a role. We want to play a role without opposing any of our partners, but including them all, and by finding a way for them to talk among themselves. Because we believe that the Peace Process – as difficult and complicated as that one – requires all parties and partners to be involved without excluding anyone, taking into consideration all of them.
What we are saying is that there is a level of knowledge of the file, knowledge of the region, of the relations to different players and partners in the region, including the parties that Europe has, but also that the Arab countries have, that cannot be underestimated and that has to be taken into consideration properly, if we want to avoid false steps that can come from any sides. But, most of all, if we want to avoid that these false steps, that might occur, open the way of strengthening even more the radical positions. What brought us together here – I believe – the Ministers of the League of Arab States, the Ministers of the European Union, is this concern we have that any false step in the Middle East Peace Process, on Jerusalem in particular – and you see how sensitive the religious angle is – can strengthen the radicals' position, close the space for those that still want to live together, side by side, in security and peace, and could turn the conflict from a political conflict into a religious conflict. And then, we all have a problem that is much bigger than the one we have today. So it is not – as I said – a way to send signals or threats. It is a way to contributing, finding a good way to move forward. We are not against anyone. We are working with everybody.
Q: Can you tell us anything more about what you plan to raise in the letter to Russia, Turkey, and Iran? Russia obviously did not veto this resolution. Is the very fact that you are writing this letter underscoring the extent to which people think that whatever they [UN members] signed up to over the weekend, we are going to see exactly the same as happened in Homs and exactly the same as happened in Eastern Aleppo - a theoretical ceasefire that never happened?
FM: As with most of the things we produce here in Brussels – I guess you will have a look at the text once it is sent. The point is this: the de-escalation zones were a result of the Astana Process. The Astana Process has always been focused on the military dynamics on the ground. Eastern Ghouta is part of one of the de-escalation zones. So it is only natural from our point of view – and I imagine also from the UN point of view, as far as my contacts have been telling me – that we call on the three guarantors of the Astana Process to exercise their respective roles on the effective de-escalation from a military point of view on the ground – be it in Eastern Ghouta or be it elsewhere.
We have always said that the European Union as such has never been a military player on the ground. We are a political and humanitarian player. We appeal and we expect those that are military players on the ground to do all they can – and they can – to implement a resolution that was unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council, and that is fully coherent with the results of the Astana Process that was indicating the need for a de-escalation on the ground. Astana produced the de-escalation zones. The trend had to be de-escalation on the ground in order to have humanitarian access and to provide a solid ground for the Geneva intra-Syrian talks led by the United Nations. This is exactly what we expect to happen.
Link to the video: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I151404