European Union External Action

Video conference of Foreign Affairs Ministers: Remarks by the High Representative Josep Borrell at the press conference

Brussels, 23/03/2020 - 19:02, UNIQUE ID: 200323_10

Video conference of Foreign Affairs Ministers: Remarks by the High Representative Josep Borrell at the press conference

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Today we held a video conference with the EU Foreign Ministers. Due to the exceptional circumstances in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the need to reduce travels and having people under isolation, it has been an informal meeting, instead of our usual formal Foreign Affairs Council. As an informal meeting, decisions cannot be taken, although some political agreements will be conveyed through a written procedure in the following days.

The agenda focused mainly on the international response to the coronavirus, but we also discussed a few pressing issues on the international agenda, where the work continues.

Turkey and Syria were one of them. I provided a short update on the work we continue to do. We have started the work on assessing the implementation of the EU Turkey Statement as agreed by the leaders. We have been having exchanges between the EU services and the services of the Turkey Foreign Affairs Minister at official level, and we will continue doing so as we present the first report of the European Council this week.

On Libya and Operation Irene, we took stock of where we are on the work in the Council working group, following our political agreement in February. A lot of progress has been made, but there are still some issues pending. I am sorry that I cannot say that we have already finished our work. I hope it will be finalized shortly, but there are some issues pending where there is not an agreement among Member States. This disagreement concentrates mainly on the disembarkment procedures in case the ships of this new navy mission would have to deal with migrants rescued from the sea.

The most important thing was the coronavirus and the international response to this pandemic. As you know very well, this is a critical moment. This virus ignores national borders. It is causing an unprecedented global crisis and the only possible answer is a stronger global cooperation, among people, among regions, and among countries. Closing borders and trying to find solutions on its own is not the way out, it is just sending the problem to the neighbour.

We have been discussing four important issues. The first is the repatriation efforts for EU travellers who  are stranded abroad. We are not talking about permanent residents. We have to avoid confusion and to make people believe that everybody, all European Union nationals living abroad have to go back to Europe. No. We are just talking about people who are travelling and have been prevented from going back home by the means and the ways they were considering when they started their traveling. They are stranded because there has been a strong disruption on the travel they have been were planning, and we have to help them to go back home by other means. There are many of them, and our priority is to bring these people home. It requires coordination among Members States, the European external action service, the EU delegations and Member States embassies locally.

There are some countries where we have some concerns: in Asia, in Latin America, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, where a growing numbers of travellers are seeking help with their return. We will continue working to bring them back to Europe. But first are foremost, it has to be done by the airlines and commercial flights. The use of the capacities that we have in our Civil emergency system was not designed to deal with hundreds of thousands of people. It has to be done by airline flights. These flights are more and more scarce because the most important airlines are grounding their planes and because the airspace is being closed down in many countries, especially in Latin America and in Asia. I have been phoning a number of colleagues in Latin America and Southeast Asia in order to ask for their help in order to allow the planes to be able to pick people up and fly back to Europe.

Second, we need to step up international cooperation and solidarity. We are working with international organisations, but in the next future, during the crisis and after the crisis, we will have to mobilize our efforts to support countries at risk and those that are more fragile. We have to be vigilant to the situation in Africa, where the impact of the pandemic could rapidly become out of control.

We specifically have been talking about the situation of Iran, the second most hit country in the world, where the situation is becoming dramatic. We need to continue providing humanitarian aid to Iran. “Continue” is a way of saying it, because by the time being, we have not been very much able to provide much humanitarian help. There are in the pipeline 20 million euros of humanitarian help that we expect to be delivered in the next weeks.

We also discussed the request by Iran and also by Venezuela to the International Monetary Fund in order to have financial support. Seventy countries have been asking for the financial support, Iran and Venezuela among them. We are going to support these requests because these countries are in a very difficult situation, mainly due to the American sanctions that prevent them from having income by selling their oil. On these situations, we believe that is has to be reaffirmed that humanitarian trade, such as goods, that can be delivered to these countries,  food, medicines and medical stuff, can be delivered to this countries and are not under American sanctions. This has to be reaffirmed because many people believe that if they participate in this kind of humanitarian trade, they can be under these sanctions. This is not the case, but it has to be reaffirmed in order for everybody to understand that they can participate in this humanitarian help.

Another thing that worries us, and we have been talking a lot about it, is the clear attempt to discredit the EU, even through the stigmatization of European Union citizens abroad, presenting the coronavirus as a kind of white people disease or blaming European citizens. Some planes have even been prevented from landing because there was a big populist push saying that they were bringing the disease with them.

Spreading disinformation is playing with people's lives. Disinformation can kill. Our disinformation task force has been collecting and analysing evidence and found more than 100 disinformation cases that sometimes pushes to these kind of actions and prevents from things going smoothly.

There is a battle of ideas and narratives too. Today, we agreed that we will stand up for what we are and be more vocal about what we do. Because we do a lot and it is no being perceived. Some countries complain that they are not being helped, but in fact we are the most important partner that helps.

The European Union will continue to be a reliable partner also choosing cooperation over competition. This is not the time to blame each other. This is not the time to use one disease, or one virus, or Chinese virus, to try to blame each other. We have to strengthen the need for cooperation. This is the time to strengthened multilateralism in order to join efforts and to face together a threat to whole humankind. Some countries are more affected than others today, others were more affected yesterday, and others will be more affected than others tomorrow. The only way of preventing the widespread of the disease is through a strong commitment to work together.

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Q. Which countries are having more difficulties with repatriations? How many citizens are still waiting to come back? Is the European External Action Service planning further help?

For sure we are planning to do further help, but consular protection and repatriation is a responsibility and a competence of the Member States. We can only contribute and help on the margins through improving the coordination among Member States and providing - when there is no other solution - the flights of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. There are about 20 hotspots in the world, where the air traffic is in difficulty. Some Member States have faced difficulties in some Latin American countries. For example, Spain is having more problems with Latin American countries than with South East Asia. Other European Union Member States have more problems with South East Asia, because there is a bigger number of tourists there.

The numbers are changing every day. Two days ago there were about 100,000 people registered in the embassies and consulates, but there are many more than 100,000. The important thing is to distinguish between people who were travelling abroad and have been stalled and cannot come back because of the disruption on the travel structure and those people who are living permanently abroad. Not all of them are called to go back. Only the ones who were travelling and have difficulties to go back [home]. Nobody knows the exact number, but it is for sure more than 200,000. This number changes every day, because there are a lot of being people repatriated and in some countries we have difficulties. I am in touch with several foreign affairs ministers of South East Asia and we are doing that with Latin America later in order to ask them to free their traffic in order for our flights to be able to go back and forth.

Another difficulty is that many airlines are grounding their planes and reducing their flight capacities. It is becoming more difficult to have planes, but we will continue working and having a strong coordination among us in order to be able to repatriate as many people as want to be.


Q. China has sent aid to Italy to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Russia starts to do the same. How do you perceive this effort? The EU and EU countries have been criticised in Italy for their action in the context of the pandemic. Do you see risks for the unity of the EU as a result and do you see China and Russia’s influence growing inside the EU as a result of their action? 

At the beginning of the pandemic, when it was not yet a pandemic and China was the most affected country – maybe at a certain moment the only affected country – we Europeans we were sending a lot of help to China because at that time we had the resources and China had the need. We were helping China.

Now, unfortunately, the pandemic came and now we have a big focus on Europe. Now China is in a situation where it can give back the help that we gave them some weeks ago. Every help is welcome. Do not look at that from a controversial point of view. China was helped in the past; China is helping in the present. Russia is not too badly affected, that is good for them, and they are in a situation where they can bring help to one of the countries in Europe that is the most affected - Italy. Even Cuban doctors are arriving in Italy.

All help is welcome. We have been helping, we will be helping. We helped China, we help Italy, we do whatever we can with the resources we have. We have to strengthen European solidarity. Some events that were happening at the beginning where some countries were not allowing the medical capacities to be sent to some neighbours, these problems have been overcome. Now we are working in a better coordinated way.


Q. What is the state of play of the new military operation Irene, to enforce the United Nations arms embargo in Libya? Is there an agreement? When will you launch it?

Unhappily, there is still not 100% agreement. We have been overcoming with a lot of talks and a lot of patience all the legitimate worries that many Member States were putting forward about this Mission. But there are still some [worries] remaining. Not everything has been solved.

I think that the worries about the so-called ‘pull effect’ have been solved by taking some precautionary measures. But there are still some worries about what to do in case that there is a need to save migrants on the sea and then what is the distribution among Member States. This, I am sorry, has not been solved yet. But I am hoping that it can be solved in the next days. My hope is that the Mission could still be launched by the end of this month. Because I hope that these disagreements which are still pending could be solved with a little bit of good will among the Member States that will participate in the Mission in the following days.


Q. Has there been progress on talks on renewal of the EU-Turkey Agreement? When do you envisage them to be completed? Is there any sign of Turkey ceasing the pressure on the Greek border?

The situation at the Greek border is much better. The situation has not been worsening; on the contrary, the situation is better than some days and weeks ago.

What we are doing is to try to analyse the implementation of the 2016 EU-Turkey Agreement. What were the difficulties of implementing this Agreement with the resources that we committed, the resources that have been delivered in order to help Turkey to take care of the migrants? And other issues that were also part of this agreement like visa liberalisation, custom duties modernisation… Many political issues, which were not just a matter of financial help. All of that is being assessed in order to really have a clear, shared picture of how this Agreement has been working.

This is not the end of the world. We have to continue having an agreement with Turkey. But for the time being our efforts are mainly directed to analyse what have been the difficulties of implementing this Agreement and what the prospects for future agreements can be. For the time being, the work continues and I think by the end of the week, when the European Council will meet, we will be able to present a first assessment of the situation and the prospects for a future agreement if this is the case.

But it is clear for everybody that this agreement is of mutual interest both for Turkey and for the European Union Member States. It is also the only way in which we can alleviate the situation of the migrants in Turkey and the migrants that are being pushed by the Syrian war towards the Turkish border.


Q. Teheran is lobbying the international community, including the European Union, to put pressure on Washington to lift sanctions on Iran, so that the country can better deal with the crisis. What is your view on this?

As I said, we are going to support the request by Iran to get financing from the International Monetary Fund, because this country - in the situation that it is in – one of the most affected countries in the world by the pandemic -, needs to have these financial resources. We also believe that all humanitarian trade of goods and services that can alleviate this situation are not under the American sanctions. And since they are not under the American sanctions, they could be delivered normally, without the companies involved in this trade being afraid of falling under the American sanctions.

This is what we are going to transmit, because in order for us to deliver humanitarian help – and we have more than €20 million in the pipeline -, we need the companies who are providing these goods to be willing to participate. The situation in Iran requires humanitarian help and resources. And I also want to [remind] that Iran has been saying that they are ready to go back to the full compliance with the nuclear deal (JCPoA) if the sanctions are being lifted. The only thing that the European Union can do is to keep alive the nuclear deal, provide humanitarian help and to make clear to any operator that participates in this humanitarian supply of goods and services that they are not under the American sanctions.


Q. Who is trying to discredit the European Union by stigmatising European citizens? Which specific governments and why do you think they are doing this?

It is not a government, you know, it is ordinary people. We see sometimes the idea that Europeans are the most affected and that Europeans are believed to be the focus of the illness. People can be pushed to believe that any European is bringing the disease with them.

When the other day some European planes were prevented from landing in Guayaquil because the airfield was cut by the mayor of the city claiming that this plane – which by the way was coming empty from Europe just to pick Europeans and bring them back home – was bringing the disease, this is a way of stigmatisation.

In many countries, we know that there have been instances that we condemn and regret, of some European tourists being singled out as suspicious and rejected and not being hosted because people believed that they were bringing a risk to them.

It is not a matter of any government making declarations against Europeans. It is the fact that the widespread threat of fake news produces reactions in the social body and produces attitudes among people who are very dangerous because they can stigmatise Europeans.

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