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Thank you Mr President,
The streets of the Middle East in Baghdad, in Beirut, in Tehran and other cities have witnessed large demonstrations – which in all countries are still ongoing. Events are unfolding and each case is different. Yet there seem to be some common causes.
The triggers have been specific policy initiatives, but the protests have then expanded, targeting inequality, sectarianism and corruption, and asking for better governance and better job opportunities.
Our response to these protests has common elements too: we have condemned any act of violence, from all parties. We have urged restraint in handling the demonstrations. We have asked for respect for freedom of expression and prompt investigation of instances of violence. We have also demanded that external actors always respect these countries' sovereignty.
Now let me briefly comment on a few specific cases, the ones you mention in the title of the debate.
First, on Iraq. The challenges that Iraq is facing are unique. The country is finally coming out of a long conflict: it needs reconciliation and reconstruction, but it also needs to deliver on its people's aspirations to a better life and better opportunities for all. These expectations need to be fulfilled if Iraq is to stabilise in the long-term. And I have seen myself during my last visit there in July how far the country has come when it comes to being ready to work on reconciliation and reconstruction but also how fragile this progress is. I think we are now seeing this clearly.
From the beginning of the protests, we asked for dialogue and steps to quickly address the protestors' concerns – including those steps suggested by the UN mission. This is even more urgent today.
We also continue to encourage Iraq to maintain its policy of constructive engagement with all its neighbours – in times when its role as a voice of wisdom is essential in the region.
We Europeans have always said that we want to help the people of Iraq “win the peace”. And this is what the people of Iraq are asking right now. So we will continue to be on their side, and to accompany Iraq on its path towards a stronger, more inclusive and fairer democracy.
In Iran, the recent protests also stem from genuine frustration with the current economic hardships. Citizens have the right to peacefully demonstrate and there is no justification for the disproportionate use of violence by the security forces.
All reports of these incidents deserve swift and full investigation by the relevant independent authorities. I also want to emphasise that we expect the Iranian authorities to ensure the free flow of information and access to the internet at all times.
Let me add something that is clear and obvious but it is important to clarify this once again, that this has nothing to do and should have nothing to do with the implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran.
We continue to fully believe in the diplomatic and security value of the JCPoA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], of the nuclear deal with Iran. Yet it is no secret that the preservation of this agreement has become increasingly difficult. A meeting of the Joint Commission [of the JCPoA] with [the E3+2 (China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom) and] Iran has been conveyed at Deputy [Foreign Ministers/Political Directors`] level on 6 December to this end. As you know, together with the role of High Representative also comes the role of coordinator of the Joint Commission of the JCPoA. And we have worked in this capacity so far very hard to keep the unity, not only of the Europeans -that has been done-, but also of the participants to the nuclear deal that have remained in the agreement after the US withdrew. I believe this unity is key to preserve the agreement as much as possible and we all agreed just a few weeks ago that we must spare no energy to preserve the deal. Let me also say that I wish my successor all the best as he takes over also this essential and difficult role of coordinating the Joint Commission of the JCPoA.
Third and last -but not least-, let me say a few words on Lebanon, where protests have led to the Prime Minister's resignation. Lebanon is a very special partner for the European Union – and it holds a very special place in our heart.
Today the people of Lebanon are asking for good governance, good governance and good governance, beyond sectarian lines. This is truly inspiring, as Lebanon society often is. It is urgent to address the demands of the Lebanese people, while preserving the peace and the stability that Lebanon has so hardly achieved in all these years.
This calls first and foremost for the swift formation of a functioning government to ensure political and economic stability, followed by the rapid and decisive implementation of effective reforms on governance and corruption, in line with the Lebanese people's aspirations.
This moment can become somehow an opportunity to deliver the reforms that Lebanon so urgently needs, while at the same time preserving the country's stability and resilience.
Let me add one word on something that is not our focus specifically tonight but is still there. Let us not forget that the whole Middle East remains an incredibly fragile place. We just discussed the situation in Israel and Palestine. Let us not forget that the situation in Syria is still far from being settled, on the contrary. In the north-west of Syria the situation has got worse once again, only a few weeks after the Turkish military operation opened a new front in the north-east of Syria. Regional tensions are still running high and this is putting even more importance and pressure on those in the region and beyond the region that are trying to calm down the situation and find sustainable outcomes to the current dynamics.
In these years, we have been trying to build multilateral solutions to all crises in the region. And we have worked very closely with our partners – including Lebanon and Iraq – to stabilise those countries, to bring investment for reconstruction and economic growth, and to support these countries in their reform agendas.
Each of these countries will have to find its own way to overcome their current difficulties. Nobody can do it for them. But the European Union will continue to support dialogue and accompany reforms.
It is one of the regions that is closest to us, I often say it is our common region, and the European Union will continue to engage as a reliable partner and as a force for peace in the Middle East.
Thank you Madam Chair.
I have seen that the majority of the interventions tonight on this topic confirm and encourage the approach that I have described at the beginning of this debate and I thank you for that.
Let me just answer specifically to one question that was asked, inviting the European Union to finance some concrete projects in the Middle East, in particular in Iraq.
For Iraq specifically, we have been financing concrete, existing, projects supporting demining, job creation, reconciliation; projects that we visit constantly at my level, at the level of our Delegation on the ground and I am sure some of you have also visited some of these projects we finance in the Middle East. We speak, in the last year, of €1.25 billion of concrete projects just for Iraq.
This to say that this is not just diplomacy, even though diplomacy in this particular time of global politics is a valuable element and sometimes we underestimate the power of our diplomatic engagement. But it is not just diplomacy, it is also about supporting very concretely the projects that help people on a daily basis. Many of you have said these are real people. They are real people with real needs. They are children and women and men who have faced difficulties not for years but sometimes for decades and who lived very difficult situations in security and in economic terms.
The European Union and the European Union Institutions are financing those concrete projects that are literally lifesaving projects for millions of people. I invite you to document yourselves on the projects you agree on financing in this area.
Having said that, let me say clearly that it would not be appropriate for me to indicate what will be the next Commission and the next High Representative’s position on this, it is for them to shape it together with the Council. But let me say that I hope and I believe that the European Union, with your support, will have to be even more a fundamental partner for the people of the region in the future.
Because sometimes we do not realise how important the role we play is. Whenever you visit, you hear from your interlocutors -not only the government or the institutions but the people, civil society, simple citizens that are the key of democracy-, that they count on us. And sometimes I have the impression that they recognise our role much more than Europeans do.
So I think that the road ahead will have to be investing even more in both economic, diplomatic but also security terms, in supporting this region in finding its way to sustainable peace and sustainable security.
And obviously, as all of you have said and as I said in the beginning, with the firmest rejection of any form of violence and disproportionate reaction in the handling of the protests from the authorities.
This is clearly unacceptable and this is exactly why, for instance in Iraq, we are engaged in the security sector reform system, because we see the need for a reform. Because we see the need to change and improve the way in which the security institutions of the country can handle this kind of situation and many others.
Again, I hope this Parliament will give all its support to an even further engagement and work of the European Union Institutions in the Middle East.
Thank you very much, I leave you in the good hands of Commissioner [for International Cooperation and Development, Neven] Mimica and I will see you tomorrow.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-180923