European Union External Action

Video conference of Defence Ministers: Remarks by the High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the press conference

Brussels, 06/04/2020 - 22:28, UNIQUE ID: 200406_9

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Thank you to all of you who are listening to this press conference done by videoconference. Thank you to the interpreters who are there.

Today we held the first informal meeting of Defence Ministers done by videoconference. We discussed the defence implications of the coronavirus pandemic and the answer that we can provide from the military capacities of the Member States.

We focused on two pressing issues: first, military assistance to face the crisis and the situation in the European Union missions and operations that we have in the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy.

During this meeting, which lasted 3 hours, Defence Ministers shared remarkable examples of how our European armed forces are contributing to the efforts to counter the coronavirus crisis.

From many aspects, they are doing a remarkable contribution. They are providing transport and logistic support, building hospitals in record time, deploying their medical staff, and supporting the police and other national services. As a Spaniard, I am very well placed, because the Spanish army is doing an incredible effort in order to help the civil services to fight the pandemic. But same thing in other countries, especially where the pandemic has hit strongly the society.

In Italy, the Ministry of Defence made 7 000 beds available for citizens who have to undergo special medical surveillance, as well as medical staff support.

In Germany, 15 000 soldiers support the national efforts against the pandemic.

In Poland, 9 000 military personnel are currently involved in different activities related to the epidemic, with Armed Forces providing several dozen sanitary vehicles and mobile medical teams.

The Swedish Armed Forces have established around 50 intensive care units and around 90 medical sites.

In Lithuania, the Strategic Communication Department of the Lithuanian Armed Forces started conducting analysis of information attacks related to coronavirus.

It has been an incredible set of examples coming from the 27 Member States.

These are just examples, but these efforts are not only conducted at national level: military planes have helped repatriating European Union citizens stranded abroad. They have carried patients from one country to the other. They have delivered equipment, for instance the military of Czechia has delivered equipment to Italy and Spain.

And the French “Operation Resilience” has contributed to a quite an important move of patients evacuated from hospitals from France to Germany and Switzerland.

Romanian Armed Forces have transported 90 tonnes of medical equipment and supplies from the Republic of Korea.

All this work is crucial. For this reason, we agreed with ministers to explore how we could use the military expertise at European Union level to support exchange of information and sharing of best practices among Member States.

To do so, we could set up a task force within the European External Action Service, led by the European Union Military Staff. This will be done in full coordination and complementarity with NATO. I can assure you that there will be no duplication of work. But it is important that we, Europeans, work together to ensure a coordination effort and a mutual support where is needed, in full solidarity. In the current situation – as I said several times - we are also facing a kind of an “infodemic”. It is a toxic process that brings to the public a lot of fake news and wrong information. It is important to remind that Europeans stand together to fight against the crisis.

The second point we discussed is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our European Union Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations.

Let me remind you that we have 17 military and civilian missions and operations around the world: the most recent one is [EUNAVFOR MED] Operation IRINI, which is going to be deployed in the central Mediterranean, but we also have missions and operations in Eastern Europe, in the Western Balkans, in Somalia, in the Sahel... Today we focused in particular on our six military missions and operations.

Obviously, health and safety of our personnel remains a primary consideration. We have put in place a number of measures to protect our staff and we are following the containment measures adopted by the national authorities.

At the same time, we are making sure that our missions and operations maintain a presence on the ground and continue to conduct their activities as much as it is possible to avoid a negative security impact. The countries and regions where these missions are deployed are already fragile and affected by instability. I am afraid that the pandemic is only going to [deteriorate] this situation.

This is why it is important that we remain engaged and maintain our support, even if maybe we should reduce the number of staff in some missions. We will need to find smart ways to continue to support our partners, while adapting to the circumstances of the different missions. We will explore ways to help host nations tackle the pandemic and improve their resilience. We will act in a coordinated way, avoiding any kind of unilateral decision by any Member State engaged in participating in these operations and missions. There has been a strong commitment and I thank all Member States for it.

About Operation IRINI, we all agreed that its launch last week was an important achievement and that now it is essential to ensure the operation will have the means it needs to implement effectively its mandate.

Finally, we agreed also on the fact that the crisis offers an opportunity to reflect on how we can improve our resilience and use defence initiatives to develop defence capabilities required to address similar situations in the future.

We agreed that ongoing work in security and defence remains a clear priority, now perhaps more than ever. Because from now on, health becomes a security issue.

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Q. NATO announced last week that it will increase its coordination of air transport of medical equipment and personnel to fight the coronavirus. What plans are there to join forces on EU-NATO level? Is there an intention to increase the work of the Emergency Response Coordination Centre, and how?

For sure, this is what it is all about. What we have decided today is to increase the exchange of information and the coordination between our capacities and the needs required here and there.

The Secretary General of NATO [Jens Stoltenberg] has been in touch with me to explain their plans and we will cooperate with them according to the requirements arising from this this coordination procedure.

Q. On Operation IRINI, I still want to know about the Member States taking part in the mission and the assets provided. Is Irini already operational? In what area?

I perfectly understand that you would like to know the list of Member States with the assets that they are going to facilitate to the mission. I still do not have it and in this meeting we have been talking about it, but the purpose of this meeting was not to finish this list.

There have been more commitments by some Member States, but this is something that has to be done on the conference devoted to this purpose. I hope that in the next days I will have the complete list of Member States being operationally engaged to provide naval capacities to this mission.

Q. Pouvez-vous nous préciser combien de militaires sont atteints par le COVID-19 dans les missions et opérations militaires PSDC de l'UE? Est-il bien exact que les formations sont suspendues ? Est-il exact qu'un pays a demandé aux Européens de rester confinés ou repartir craignant une infection supplémentaire ? Dans un avenir proche, les missions PSDC pourraient-elles à la demande d'un pays tiers faire du conseil ou de l'assistance pour contenir l'épidémie de coronavirus, profitant de l'expérience de l'Europe en la matière ?

Pour l’instant nous n’avons pas de problème, nos missions et opérations ont pris des mesures rapides pour atténuer les risques et lutter contre la pandémie là où elle se trouve.

Evidemment il a fallu prendre des mesures de limitation de l’activité. Les réunions et déplacements non essentiels, ainsi que les activités en dehors des camps, ont été annulés là où ils ne sont pas fondamentaux pour la mission. Il y a des contrôles quotidiens du personnel et des règlements et installations de quarantaine ont été mis en place mais pour l’instant heureusement il n’a pas fallu les utiliser.

Du point de vue du degré opérationnel des missions, [notre opération navale] Atalanta ou [EUFOR] Althea maintiennent un fort niveau de capacité opérationnelle et nous pouvons dire qu’elles sont 100% actives. D'autres, comme nos missions militaires de formation, ont réduit le nombre de formations également en raison des contraintes imposées par les pays hôtes, mais maintiennent autant que possible d'autres activités, telles que des activités de conseil et en particulier maintenant ces activités de conseil s’élargissent à comment faire face à la pandémie en utilisant l’expérience que nous avons acquise là-dessus.

Ici à Bruxelles nous suivons [la situation] de près avec les commandants des missions, tous sont en contact avec les pays hôtes et les autres acteurs internationaux. Il y a une évaluation quotidienne des mesures qu’il faudrait prendre, le cas échéant, pour s’adapter à la situation telle qu’elle pourrait évoluer.

Q. Les ministres ont-ils discuté de l'appel de l'ONU pour l'assouplissement de certaines sanctions pour aider les pays à faire face à la crise du coronavirus ? Vous en avez parlé vendredi à la fin du Conseil. Que comptez-vous proposer précisément aux Etats membres? quand est-ce que cette proposition pourrait être publiée?

Les Etats membres se sont déjà accordés sur une position qui a été publiée sous la forme d’une déclaration et dans cette déclaration nous établissons de manière très claire qu’il faut absolument que les sanctions n’empêchent pas l’apport d’aide humanitaire, c’est pour cela que nous avons donné notre appui à la haute-commissaire aux droits humains, Michelle Bachelet, et nous avons demandé que tout le monde accorde les conditions nécessaires pour que tout le monde soit sûr que il n’y aura pas de sanctions pour ceux qui interviennent dans le cadre de l’acheminement de l’aide humanitaire.

Dans le cas des Nations Unies et de l’Union européenne c’est bien clair, nos sanctions ne posent pas de problème du point de vue de la facilitation de l’aide humanitaire. Mais nous demandons que cela soit fait [également] par d’autres pays qui ont établi des sanctions, et qu’il y ait des exemptions humanitaires pour fournir du matériel médical et des équipements aux pays qui subissent des sanctions: Cuba, Iran, la Corée du nord, la Syrie, le Venezuela, [afin que les sanctions] n’empêchent pas l’apport de l’aide humanitaire.

Je pense qu’il faut absolument éclaircir ce sujet, parce qu’il y a des acteurs financiers qui sont très réticents à participer au cheminement de l’aide humanitaire car ils ont peur de tomber sous des sanctions. Il faut absolument que cela soit mis au clair, que dans ces circonstances, plus que jamais, il n’y aura pas de sanctions pour ceux qui participent à l’échange de biens et services qui ont un rapport avec l’aide humanitaire plus nécessaire que jamais dans ces circonstances.

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