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Delivered by Commissioner Tibor Navracsics on behalf of High Representative/Vice-President Mogherini
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Mr President, honourable Members of the European Parliament,
Thank you for this opportunity to discuss Ms Kalniete’s report and to review our relations with Russia, keeping in mind the EU’s five guiding principles set out in 2016.
In April 2018, EU Foreign Ministers shared the assessment that the strategic challenges we face in our relations with Russia will persist for some time. As highlighted by rapporteur Kalniete, central to these challenges remains Russia’s violation of international law by the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the ongoing destabilisation of eastern Ukraine. The dangerous increase in tensions in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait is another consequence of the illegal annexation.
The Foreign Ministers reconfirmed the relevance of the five guiding principles agreed in 2016 for EU policy towards Russia and highlighted the need to strengthen the resilience of the EU and its neighbours against Russian threats, including hybrid threats.
The EU has responded promptly and proactively, to promote EU values and interests and increase EU resilience in line with the five principles. High Representative Mogherini has personally taken every opportunity to raise the EU’s concerns in her meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, including the need for progress on the implementation of the Minsk agreements, the illegal annexation of Crimea, and the security situation in both the Azov Sea and eastern Ukraine.
In February 2019, EU Foreign Ministers reiterated the Union’s support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and its condemnation of the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia. It was also agreed to provide further EU support for Ukrainian regions affected by the situation in the Azov Sea.
We have also raised with Foreign Minister Lavrov international issues such as Syria. We have stressed the need to preserve the ceasefire in Idlib and prevent another humanitarian emergency.
We are continuing to discuss not only how to support the Western Balkans in their economic development and EU integration efforts, but also Iran and Afghanistan, the need to preserve the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the importance of Russia’s remaining in the Council of Europe.
The report rightly highlights the fact that the space for civil society in Russia is shrinking and human rights defenders face a difficult situation. The EU delegation in Moscow maintains ongoing close engagement with the Russian authorities on human rights issues, including, among others, the situation of human rights defenders, women’s rights, gender equality, LGBTI persons and Ukrainian prisoners. EU support has been tireless, through frequent contacts with defenders, high-level demarches, media statements, field visits and trial observation.
In order to strengthen contacts with the Russian people, the EU continues to maintain an intense level of support. Russian citizens continue to be the largest group of recipients of Schengen visas and Russian students are the largest group of beneficiaries of Erasmus+ exchanges.
We will explore further ways to continue to convey the message that the European Union supports the Russian people. We are close to Russia and its people. We share centuries of history and culture, and this will not change, in spite of any disagreement with the Russian authorities. Russia is an important interlocutor for the EU, and we work well together on several files, from Iran to the Arctic. Yet we are deeply worried about certain aspects of Russia’s behaviour, not only in Ukraine and Syria, but also in Salisbury and with the espionage against the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Following the attack in Salisbury, and in line with the Council Conclusions, we have redoubled our efforts to strengthen EU resilience, including in relation to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear-related risks, and to continue strengthening our capacity to address hybrid threats.
A new EU regime against the use and proliferation of chemical weapons was set out in October 2018. In January, the Council imposed sanctions under this new regime, and also against the four Russian GRU (intelligence agency) officials deemed responsible for the attack in Salisbury. Work is ongoing to establish a new EU sanction regime to counter cyber-attacks as part of our wider diplomatic toolbox.
We are looking at strengthening our capacity to address the hybrid threats mentioned in the report, including in the areas of cyber-strategy communication and counter-intelligence.
We are also reinforcing our work on tackling disinformation. In December 2018, the EU adopted an action plan against disinformation, responding to the European Council’s call for a coordinated response to challenges, particularly with a view to the forthcoming European elections. I know that Parliament will hold a specific discussion about this tomorrow.
I take this opportunity to highlight our common interest in retaining a realistic and balanced approach towards Russia, as underlined by the report. Despite increased tensions, it is essential for the EU to maintain open channels with Russia on issues of strategic interest for Europe and for the world. We will retain a policy of transparency towards Russia and explore cooperation in areas of mutual interest, such as regional connectivity, while also working to support the resilience of partners in the region.
Closing remarks by Commissioner Navracsics on behalf of High Representative/Vice-President Mogherini
Mr President, I would like to thank the rapporteur and the honourable Members for their interventions.
From this debate, I conclude that we all share a common interest in retaining a united and realistic approach towards Russia. We will continue to look at how best to use all the instruments available to us in strengthening our own resilience, supporting our partners, continuing political exchanges in selected issues and supporting Russian civil society, human rights and democracy, and people-to-people contacts.
May I close by signalling once again my appreciation of Parliament’s role in keeping this important issue on the agenda.