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First of all, let me say we have just concluded a productive, substantial meeting with the Defence Ministers. We addressed a series of issues. And now we are ready to start, I believe, an equally productive and substantial meeting with the Foreign Ministers.
Today we will address two main issues that are, I would say, vital for our foreign policy and for the global landscape. One is the situation in the Middle East, where we will discuss our support for the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, our support to UNRWA, including financial support, and our common work on Gaza.
We will also address the situation in Syria. I just spoke on the phone with Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who is currently in Syria and I will debrief the Ministers on ideas on how to proceed in this phase, both on the diplomatic, but also on the humanitarian front. And obviously, you might have seen the appeal of the UN General Assembly on Idlib, which I can fully subscribe to. I believe Syria does not need further bloodshed and Syrian people have suffered enough. The European Union will host a ministerial meeting on Syria in the margins of the UN General Assembly, so we will prepare with the Ministers this discussion.
We will also address the work we are doing to preserve the nuclear deal with Iran. But we will also discuss our position on the involvement of Iran on regional issues, including on Syria, where we definitely have serious concerns and profound disagreements with the Iranian approach to the support of the Syrian government. We believe that addressing regional disagreements with Iran can be done in a more effective manner if we maintain the nuclear deal in place. We believe in engagement and we believe that disagreements can be addressed through dialogue and talking politically. So we will look into that work that we are doing to preserve the nuclear agreement as well.
Then we will turn to our transatlantic relations – still strong, but challenging. So I think it will be more of a brainstorming meeting in that respect. It is the first time Foreign Ministers address specifically the transatlantic relations. I believe that after the G7 Summit, after the NATO Summit this is an appropriate time to do that. But let me stress that, regardless of the different challenges we have across the Atlantic, I believe that the friendship and partnership with the United States and its people remains as strong as ever. But we will have a discussion on that as well.
Then tonight we will be welcoming the candidate countries and tomorrow morning we will have a discussion on the Western Balkans and then a meeting with the candidate countries' foreign ministers on effective multilateralism: something that is at the core of the Austrian Presidency and we appreciate enormously because you know just how important it is for the European Union to support multilateral institutions, the multilateral approach and the rules-based global order.
Q: If Operation Sophia fails, would that be the end of the European Union as we know it?
The European Union existed before Operation Sophia and I am sure it will continue to exist after Operation Sophia. But Operation Sophia was the instrument through which the European Union finally - and too late, in my opinion - decided to be present in the Mediterranean to fight human trafficking and avoid the loss of life at sea. I believe that it would be a major step back: in terms of managing the flows; in terms of fighting the traffickers' networks – the criminal organisations; it would be a major step back in terms of our cooperation with the Libyan authorities and the Libyan Coastguard; it would be a major step back for the frontline countries, starting with Italy - because the situation before Operation Sophia was started, was that Italy was alone in the Mediterranean Sea.
I believe that it is not in the interest of anyone in Europe and beyond Europe to see Operation Sophia end. And that is why I was glad to hear today from all Member States – no-one excluded – that everybody is determined to find a way to keep Operation Sophia in place and this is what we will try to work upon. Not easy - very few things are easy in these times – but I will try to do my best to facilitate consensus among Member States.
Q: Who said they would take some migrants and who said they would not?
There are two different issues, and this complicates our work. The purely defence-related issue – the issue related to Operation Sophia – is to make sure that we know where our military vessels go in case they rescue people at sea. I want to stress one piece of data that is very important: the people rescued at sea by Operation Sophia represent less than 10% of the overall amount of people rescued at sea. And that number has gone down incredibly in these last couple of years. This means that the problem of disembarkation, for more than 90% of cases, does not concern Operation Sophia, but we do need certainty on where we bring the 9.6% of people who are rescued at sea by Operation Sophia. This is what concerns the military operation.
Then there is a much bigger issue, which is how the European Union member states share responsibility on asylum seekers, migrants. This is an issue we have been facing not since today, but at least since the beginning of this Commission. The issue of having more solidarity and responsibility sharing – I refuse to say burden sharing, because people are not a burden, they are people. The issue of responsibility sharing has always been there, it is not an external issue, it is an internal division of responsibilities that has to be addressed by Interior Ministers and Heads of State or Government. We will need to see how we preserve Operation Sophia, have clarity on the rules of where our vessels go, as the Interior Ministers and the Heads of State or Government find – try to find – a solution on the internal solidarity. We will try to coordinate that work. Everybody needs to do its part, which means cooperative attitude, responsibility, and the awareness of the fact that this is something in the interest of all Europeans. Because if the number of arrivals has gone down by 80% this year, it is the result of the common work we have done. In the absence of that, it is all of Europe that is going to suffer.
So again, it is not going to be an easy exercise, but today with the defence ministers I have seen that there is the political will to explore practical, sustainable solutions. Will it be port of disembarkation, will it be relocation after disembarkation, will it be other options – we will explore all possible, sustainable options, provided everyone takes a cooperative, reasonable approach, which is something I have seen today around the table very much.
Q: Assad and Putin – have they won? Did they win the conflict?
Do you think the war is over in Syria? I am afraid it is not. And again, I am extremely worried for what can happen in Idlib in the coming days. We have always been convinced that the people of Syria deserve peace. We have always been convinced that it is not up to external powers, including the European Union, to design the political or institutional future of the country. Sovereignty means this. But it is clear also that every single Syrian, those inside the country, and those outside of the country, will have to have a place to go back, a place to go home. And a place where they can be safe, free – in a democratic setup. That will be the end of the war I think. And I am afraid we are far from that.