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First of all, we started already yesterday and held a very useful discussion with the Defence Ministers and the Austrian Presidency on our defence and security cooperation with the Western Balkans. I want to start with this because we traditionally see the Western Balkans as an area of instability, where the European Union is since many years - if not decades - security provider. We are now moving into a stage where we are partners in our common security and defence.
The Austrian Presidency is remarkably working on keeping the Western Balkans high on the agenda of the European Union, as the Bulgarian Presidency has done, and I expect the Romanian Presidency will do afterwards. So we discussed with the Ministers, together with NATO and the United Nations – our key partners in the region – how to increase our cooperation on security and defence in the region, which is an integral part of our work with the Western Balkans.
Today, we will continue with the Ministers our work on our defence package. When it comes to the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), we will look at the perspective of new projects and we will look at the whole set of issues that you know we have been putting in place over the last two years.
We will also discuss with the Ministers an issue that is on our table for a few months now. Since July we have been working with the Member States on the Strategic Review of Operation Sophia. As you know, it is a EU military operation that, as all Member States have reconfirmed, plays a key strategic role that is vital for the European Union to fight human trafficking, but also to train the Libyan Coast Guards and also to fulfil some of the tasks that the United Nations Security Council has given to the European Union.
We have to face the issue of the rules of disembarkation. I want to stress the fact that this is an issue that does not concern only Operation Sophia, but is much broader than this. Still, it is an issue that we cannot ignore. I will ask the Ministers today for guidance on how to address and solve this issue. We have been discussing during the summer - during the months of July and August - some proposals to solve this issue, including some proposals of mediation that I have put on the table in the last weeks.
So far, consensus has not been found. As you know, we need unanimity for the rules of our EU military operations. But I will see with Ministers today if there is space and what kind of space we have to find an answer to this question. This requires a constructive attitude from all and also that all Member States take responsibilities.
Q: Italy is feeling left alone. Is it a possibility that other states open their ports?
The issue of solidarity is not new. As you know, I have personally been fighting for this for years. The June European Council has discussed the issue of solidarity, internal solidarity, but more than that: the issue of how to share the management of migration flows that is not a single country's issue, but that is a European issue. This is why we have a European Union operation at sea. And this is why I believe – even if it is a very difficult discussion – it would be good if Member States considered taking more responsibility in this respect. But it is a difficult discussion and I will see with the Ministers how much political space we have to move forward.
Q: Do you think the deadline Italy has set will be met? And is it technically possible at this meeting to solve the issue of the ports, to change the O-plan of mission Sophia? Some Ministers are saying that this is for the Heads of State, is it?
There are two different issues and this complicates our work. We have the issue of the O-plan of the military operation and this is the responsibility of the Defence Ministers; actually the responsibility lies not always at ministerial level even, as our PSC [Political-Security Committee In the Council] normally goes through the reviews and the O-plans of our operations and missions by itself. So there is an aspect related to the military operation: the operation commander needs clear guidance. The ships of the EU Operation need to know where to go in case a search and rescue activity is carried out.
I want to stress this point: search and rescue is not the mandate or the core issue that is at stake here, because for Operation Sophia that is dealing with dismantling the trafficking networks. But, obviously, as with any ship at sea, if there is a search and rescue operation to be carried out, be it a fisherman's boat or be it a military vessel, it needs to be done. So we need clarity on the rules. We need predictability on how to behave at sea. This concerns the Defence Ministers and it is their responsibility to give guidance to a EU military operation – that is very easy to understand.
Then there is a different issue, which is the solidarity or the sharing of responsibility for those who are disembarked - what happens after people are disembarked in any EU territory. This is, indeed, not an issue for Defence Ministers or Foreign Ministers. This is, indeed, an issue for either Interior Ministers or Heads of State and Government. And this issue was initially addressed in the June European Council. And yes, I believe, that this, indeed, requires a different kind of set-up.
Obviously, the two issues are interlinked and we can definitely not afford leaving a EU military operation without clarity on the rules that it has to follow. We need to face this two parallel strands of work with coherence, with responsibility. What I would like to avoid is to see one forum sending the boats to another one indefinitely. Also because the Operation is currently working. All Member States, not even one excluded, have stressed that the Operation needs to continue. This is vital. So we need to give clarity and guidance to our military structures on how to carry out all the aspects related to the Operation.
In parallel, there is the internal angle that needs to be tackled, not necessarily by the Defence Ministers, it is not their job. But the two issues are interlinked. We will try to find a way and I will see what kind of space we have to find a solution. The important thing is that we manage to keep the Operation going, because I want to remind us all what the situation was like before Sophia was in place. It has been a remarkable achievement for the whole European Union. I think that the result in terms of fighting trafficking and smuggling, lowering the number of arrivals and also saving lives – which is not irrelevant, for me at least - has been obvious. I think this is the starting point. All Member States share the view that the Operation needs to continue. We need to see how to guarantee this.