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I would like first and foremost to thank Teodor [Meleșcanu, Foreign Affairs Minister of Romania] for the great cooperation that we have had in preparing and also managing this ministerial meeting. We even managed to finish on time, which as you can understand is quite remarkable. Let me say a few words to you - before I give him [Teodor Meleșcanu] the floor - on the main points that the Ministers have discussed over these two days.
Yesterday we started with a very important conversation on the Eastern Partnership, you know that the European Union has a special partnership with six European countries in the East. This year is going to be the 10th Anniversary of this partnership and together with the Romanian Presidency we intend to celebrate together these 10 years, looking forward with our partners. That will happen in May.
I shared with you already yesterday the discussions we had yesterday afternoon on Venezuela and the conclusions we have drawn with the Ministers. I can update you on the fact that then during the evening and during the night contacts continued at my level with some of our friends in Latin America, so the preparation for the ministerial meeting of the international contact group are advancing and I am hopeful that we will manage to have a formal communication about that in the coming hours.
Yesterday evening already we were joined by our colleagues, our friends, the Foreign Ministers of the candidate countries, for a social dinner at which we were honoured to be joined by the Prime Minister of Romania [Vasilica Viorica Dăncilă]. And today we had together with them and also separately – among us, the 28 [Member States] - a discussion on our relations with China: a strategic partner for the European Union and definitely an important country in terms of economic power, in terms of trade relations, in terms of its global role, which opens both some opportunities for us that we are ready to best explore together, in a manner that is coordinated as much as possible, but also some challenges, when it comes to some policies that are definitely different from our side and from theirs. I can mention our policy on human rights that is clearly different when it comes to Europe and China.
In these last years we have increased in particular our cooperation and our partnership with China on global issues. I could mention our common work on climate change, our common work to preserve the nuclear deal with Iran [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and other issues. In this mixed picture of challenges and opportunities, this has been a very important occasion for the Member States to exchange, first of all, information, to coordinate approaches and to share information and coordinate approaches also with our candidate countries, which is extremely important, because each of them also has important relations with China in different fields.
I would say that the main outcome – informal, as you know – of today’s exchanges has been the strengthened will to coordinate more our positions and to exchange more information among us. And I have proposed to the Ministers that we come back to our relations with China at one of the next Foreign Affairs Councils in Brussels, ahead of our annual Summit with China that this year will be in April.
If I can add two last things. We did not have time yesterday to address one point that was foreseen on the agenda: Syria. We will do it at the next Foreign Affairs Council, in mid-February – so a couple of weeks from now. I can still take this opportunity to share with you the news that we have convened the ‘Third Brussels Conference on Supporting the future of Syria and the region’, which will take place from 12 to 14 March 2019 in Brussels. I will be happy to share more about the preparations and the concept for that in the coming weeks. We have already had exchanges with the new UN Special Envoy for Syria [Geir Pedersen] on how to use this conference not only for a humanitarian pledge that we want to keep as high as possible on the international and European agenda, but also for defining how we can support a political transition in Syria and the UN role in this respect.
Last but not least, I want to close with good news that we did not discuss with the Ministers, but still I think it is good to end this excellent meeting we had with the Ministers with something to celebrate: today, we have the entry into force of the largest ever free trade area. The [trade] agreement between the European Union and Japan enters into force today together also with our [EU-Japan] Strategic Partnership Agreement. So this is good news that I wanted to share with you.
Teodor [Meleșcanu], once again, thank you very much for the hospitality and the excellent cooperation.
Link to the video: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I167288
Q. Was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces [INF] Treaty discussed this morning? We expect the United States to announce its withdrawal this afternoon. What does that mean for European security? In the discussion on China, was there any talk of how to persuade Beijing to participate in this kind of arms control?
We did not discuss this at our meeting but obviously, as so many Foreign Ministers were gathered in the same room, this was an issue for discussion informally, bilaterally with some of them. As you might have heard, we discussed this with the Defence Ministers Wednesday night here in Bucharest, together also with the NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and I already had on Wednesday the opportunity of saying publicly what I would reiterate here: European countries and the European Union as such are not parties to the INF [Treaty] but Europe has been probably the one that has benefited the most from this Treaty that we have valued enormously, that we value enormously. Our wish and our call is for this Treaty to be preserved with full compliance by both parties and you know where the issue stands there. We are working on a common declaration at 28 [EU Member States] that might be released in the coming hours.
Q. The United States' withdrawal from the INF Treaty was based on Russia's non-compliance with the agreement. What is the EU's official position on this fact?
The European Union as the Union relies on the information that Member States share, including on this issue. As I had the opportunity of discussing many times, including during the NATO ministerial [meetings] and in the NATO headquarters in the last months, we have also had access to some of the information that NATO has shared with us. For the European Union - and then obviously Member States have direct sources of information and I am sure that especially those that are also NATO members or NATO allies might respond to this question also in their capacity as a NATO ally, which is true for the vast majority of the European Union Member States - what would be extremely important to see is full compliance with the INF Treaty and the preservation of the Treaty as a framework.
This is fully coherent not only with the security interests that Europe has. What we definitely do not want to see is our continent going back to being a battlefield or a place where other superpowers confront themselves. This belongs to a far-away history that both the INF Treaty and also the European Union as such have contributed to overcome once and for all. We definitely do not want to even consider the possibility of going backwards along this path, but this is also consistent with our overall policy on arms control that, we believe, is essential for the security of the world, and in particular an arms control architecture that is based on international treaties and multilateral treaties.
Q. Besides Russia, Turkey is the most influential power in the area of defence and security especially because the US stepped back. Turkey is on its path to accession to the European Union. Could Romania, which has a special relationship with Turkey, help in a better mutual understanding between Turkey and the EU?
Definitely so. This is also why I am so thankful to Teodor [Melescanu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania], to the Romanian presidency. But I have to say this happened also with some of the previous presidencies from the region - I think of Bulgaria, for instance - that provide a particular angle to our understanding and our contacts and our relations with a country like Turkey, at the same time a candidate country and a partner for the European Union in a region that is a priority for us.
I believe that the role that Romania can play is very important, both in terms of connecting us and in terms of properly understanding respective positions - not only for us to better understand Turkey but also for Turkey to better understand European Union positions and build on the potential of our relationship, even more in these coming months.
Let me add that I was in Ankara just a few months ago. We had, after a certain period of time, the first of our High-Level Political Dialogues together with Commissioner [for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes] Hahn, hosted by Foreign Minister [of Turkey, Mevlüt] Çavuşoğlu and we had good conversations, especially on foreign policy issues, on which the European Union and Turkey share an interest in trying to find positive solutions and positive outcomes.
We do not agree everything but there are many issues on which our interests converge, and I believe that intensifying this cooperation, especially in the strategic sectors of foreign and security policy, is of a mutual interest
Q. Was there a discussion among the [Foreign] Ministers of Huawei and the concerns about the company? Was there any push for a common position among the Europeans about these concerns? On the INF, if, as expected, the US does announce its withdrawing from the agreement today, what exactly can the Europeans do - I take the point that it is not the EU, but the Europeans? Belgium's [Foreign Minister, Didier] Reynders said on the doorstep today that the European countries will need to step up and negotiate directly with Russia to prevent this Treaty completely unravelling. How? Is that what you are talking about?
I would not expect this issue [INF] to be for the European Union, even if we have stepped up our role and our capacity as a security provider. I still see quite some way to go before we enter that kind of dynamics and I think there is definitely time to reflect upon that.
On the first question: There was no specific case discussed around the table, but there were discussions about how we can face specific security challenges that are related to new technological evolutions and Chinese presence in these sectors, including in Europe. We have an open market, as you know. We also have EU procurement rules that are in place, and we have an investment screening proposal to protect European interests. This is the framework within which we are working.
I have to say that it was interesting for me to bring this issue on the table of the Foreign Ministers, because as you know, this is something that covers different portfolios, not only in the European institutions, for which we are coordinating inside the Commission, but also inside governments. I believe we will need to have more and more a coordinated approach also with the Foreign and Security Policy angle at the European level. This is something we might consider doing, also and especially in coordination with my colleagues in the Commission that are dealing with that file.
Q. You said that we might see some extension of the sanctions [on Venezuela]. If you do not see more positive results in Venezuela. What would this mean more specifically? What positive developments do you expect to see in order to avoid an extension of the sanctions?
Some of you know that I tend to be an optimist. In this case, I do not have particularly positive expectations.
But just to clarify: European Union targeted sanctions are already in place since last year and they are based on a very solid legal basis and consensus from our Member States. They target specific individuals that have been responsible for either violence or impediments to the democratic expression of the population. These sanctions have already been extended, by unanimity by the Member States for one year.
I referred yesterday to the fact that with the Ministers we discussed the possibility of adding names to this list of persons that have been already targeted. The sanctions we have in place – I want to stress this - are never targeting the population. It is a travel ban and an asset freeze targeting specific individuals that, according to the legal basis that the Member States have agreed, have had specific responsibilities and very precise ones. [Foreign] Ministers have not excluded, have not ruled out the possibility of having a discussion on adding the same kind of targeted measures against individuals that have been responsible or would be responsible in the future in terms of exercising violence or obstructing democracy in the country.
This is a discussion that we could have in the weeks to come with the [Foreign] Ministers. But the decision to extend the sanctions already in place for one year has already been taken.
Q. We are celebrating ten years since the Eastern Partnership this year. How do you understand the recent declaration of President [of Ukraine, Pedro] Poroshenko who said that in 2024 he will put in a request to accede to the European Union. There are presidential elections in May there and this is an electoral message.
I would not comment on the specific words or statements that have been made but I can tell you this: as the Minister [Teodor Meleşcanu] said, if you look back ten years ago or if you even look back five years, especially for Ukraine, five years ago was a quite dramatic time; I remember it very well. We have achieved so much with all of our Eastern partners, that, again, looking back even a few years' time, not to mention ten [years], some things would have been completely impossible to believe at the time.
In particular with Ukraine, but also with Moldova and Georgia, we have managed to achieve the three main objectives that we had decided to work upon with those three partners. The trade agreement that is the most advanced one we could put in place, the Association Agreement, that give us a framework for regular constant exchanges and cooperation on a political level on all different sectors, and that is moving forward and supporting all reforms that in this countries are asked for by the citizens and are beneficial for their society, their economy, the rule of law. And the visa liberalisation that has always been on top of the agenda for those three countries, and that I believe has brought an immediate and tangible change for the citizens of Ukraine but also of Georgia and Moldova.
Again, if you look back for instance at the beginning of my mandate, some four years and a half ago, all of these objectives would have seemed completely out of reach. I think we have something to celebrate also thanks to the determination of the Member States and of our partners in managing to achieve something that was impossible to even dream of at that time.
I would not comment about what would happen as of 2024, but we have closer targets that are at reach, we have agenda of 20 deliverables for 2020 - 2020 is one year from now - and we are convinced both, on the Member States and on the Commission side, that these changes that are doable, that are at reach and that are extremely concrete from the point of view of how they might impact the life of the citizens, both of their countries but also of ours, are something on which, in a very pragmatic and concrete way, we can work together and achieve excellent results.
But it is true that when we will celebrate in May the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership, we will have something to celebrate together with each and every of the six partners, because with each and every of them, including the three that do not have an Association Agreements with the European Union, we have advanced enormously in our partnership in terms of signing initial negotiating agreements, in terms of strengthening cooperation, in terms of internal reforms or steps towards internal reforms, that they have been doing. And in general terms, in terms of coming together so often and on a regular basis, respecting what their preference is when it comes to what kind of relations they want to see together with the European Union, in which fields, and a certain flexibility that I think we have adopted in the European Union, in adjusting our agenda and our cooperation with them according to this. When we say it is a tailor made approach, it is for real, and this has brought good results with all the six [Eastern Partnership countries].
Q. One question is the Republic of Moldova. The other day, a delegation of the Council of Europe visited Chișinău to assess the situation before the 24 February election. In their report, they mention some cases of violence, intimidation, pressures on independent journalists. To what extent are you worried about these issues? What are your concerns, taking into account that the United States two weeks ago already urged the authorities to ensure a fair and correct electoral process?
I would like to underline all that is said about the importance for the European Union - not only for the European Union, also for our partner organisations be it the Council of Europe, the OSCE [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe] or other partners in the world - the absolute importance we attach to the holding of free, fair and transparent elections. This is our compass and this is what we discuss constantly with our partners not only in Europe but also everywhere in the world.
Having said that, I will not go further than this in elaborating on politics of Moldova, one golden rule we have in particular when it comes to Eastern Partnership is that we relate to countries and with the population of the countries and with the institutions of the countries.
It is not for the European Union to have a say on the political agenda or the political parties inside these countries, but on the rules of the game yes, definitely so.
Rules of the game have to be transparent, fair; elections have to be fully democratic, and we stop there. We will have and we have partnerships that benefit the people of the country, and institutional contacts that do not enter into the political dynamics of parties. Obviously, Member States have different kinds of [approaches] but from the European Union side, this is the golden rule that I think is important to keep a certain stability in our partnership with these countries for the benefit of the population, regardless of political changes that might happen in one country or another.
It is important to stress this: the rules of the game have to be 100% transparent, reliable, respectful of democracy and we have methods to observe these processes - as the Minister [Teodor Meleşcanu] mentioned - together with our partner organisations. Our partnership remains the strongest possible together with the countries, with the institutions of the country, and the only interest we have is the benefit of the population - both on our side and on their side.
Link to the Q&A: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I167289