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We had, with the Ministers, a very good exchange today. As we do not have much time, I do not want to cut short the time for your questions and my answers, so I would be very brief in my debrief and leave more space for your questions.
We had as a first point on the agenda the Horn of Africa. I reported to the Ministers on the results of the good talks I had during my visit to the Horn of Africa last week and, in particular the European Union support to the wind of reconciliation and opening, in particular between Ethiopia and Eritrea, but also regarding the entire region – possible changes with Somalia and the engagement with also, obviously, Kenya and Djibouti. We are going to reinforce our work in the region, where we are already the first donor, but also the first presence in terms of diplomatic and security work, with a strong presence on the ground.
And then we had three other points, on which I think I told you already something this morning before we started.
On Ukraine, five years after the events on Maidan we had a broad discussion with the Member States on our support to the country in a year that is an electoral year, where we see the need to support and sustain the reform agenda; and, obviously, on our well known position on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country. We have also discussed further elements of support that we can give in particular to the areas of the Azov Sea region following a visit that we had from the European Union to the area and where we have identified possible areas for further support from the EU, in particular on railway and road connections in the area, training centres in some Ukrainian cities around the Azov Sea, and support for small- and medium-sized enterprises: all elements that together with the European Commission we are now going to follow up on, to strengthen support especially to this area.
We then had a point on Syria with the Ministers to prepare for the [third] Brussels Conference [supporting the future of Syria and the region] and to assess our common position that remains unchanged. Our consistent position is that of support to the UN-led political process, in particular the implementation of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, and the preparation of our work to support the eventuality of a reconstruction in the country being linked to the political process starting under UN leadership and auspices.
And last but not least, we had with the Ministers an update over the formal session we had just now on Venezuela. I reported to the Ministers on the work we have done with the International Contact Group that was established since we last met informally in Bucharest. We had the first meeting of the International Contact Group in Montevideo some days ago, most of the Ministers of the Member States that are part of the Group were present there with me.
We are going to send a technical mission, led by the European Union and Uruguay as the two co-chairs of the Group, to Caracas this week to work on the assessment of the support that can be given to open the way for a democratic and peaceful transition, a democratic and peaceful outcome of the crisis, and, in particular, the holding of fresh presidential elections. So, the work on that side continues.
I stress here our intention to, first of all, help create the conditions for early presidential elections, for a peaceful outcome of the crisis - we have categorically excluded any European Union support or understanding for any military escalation around or inside the country - and we have also stressed the need to work, as the European Union and its Member States, together with our friends and partners in the region to avoid that humanitarian aid can be used for purposes that are different from international humanitarian law.
We, as you know, as European Union have quite a consistency on humanitarian aid delivery, being the first humanitarian donor in the world. We dedicate more resources and work to humanitarian aid than the rest of the world combined, so we have a certain credibility to discuss about humanitarian aid and we can strongly advocate for humanitarian aid to be channelled through the proper channels, which must never be used for different purposes other than the one of reaching the population in need.
Q. On Venezuela. I am sure you are aware there has been a delegation of the EPP [European People's Party] that has been denied access in Venezuela. They have given a press conference in Madrid and have called for the EU to pull out of the International Contact Group. They also asked for the EU to take a two strip away from the diplomatic credentials for the Venezuelan ambassadors in the EU countries and also the ones in the EU. Do you think it is feasible? Is it politically correct? The EU delegation was warned in advance by the Maduro government that they would not be allowed to go in. Will this jeopardize in any kind of way the work you are trying to do with the International Contact Group? Could you give us more details? We understood it was going at the beginning of the week. Is the program already finalised? Did the Venezuelan government give the OK for this technical mission to go when that is sorted and the latest incident will not jeopardize the move?
We can definitely make sure that we share with you the details that are available about the technical mission that is going to travel to Caracas. To my knowledge there are no difficulties so far, so I expect this delegation, that is led by the European Union and Uruguay to have contacts with all different and relevant stakeholders with a clear purpose - the raison d'être of the International Contact Group - which is the preparation of the opening up of the space for a democratic and peaceful solution to the crisis with fresh presidential elections to be held.
Regarding the denied access to some of the Members of the European Parliament to Venezuela, our Head of Delegation was involved in this, together with the Ambassadors of the Member States of the nationalities involved. Indeed, there was the awareness of the fact that access would have been denied. I regret the fact that they were not allowed to enter the country. I think it would have been good for them to have the possibility of entering the country, have talks and especially hold relevant meetings. During the meeting with the [Foreign] Ministers, we have obviously discussed about the case and expressed our common regret.
We have not discussed the possibility of the European Union interrupting the work of the International Contact Group. On the contrary, all Member States have reaffirmed how crucial it is to have this instrument, which is currently probably the only one that we can use, to be at the same time in contact with relevant stakeholders and clear on the objective which is democratic, peaceful and early election outcome for the crisis.
By the way, we have created the International Contact Group upon the request of the European Parliament that passed a resolution in January – if I am not wrong – explicitly inviting me to establish this International Contact Group. We are actually fulfilling a request from the European Parliament, and the European Parliament as such is very much aware, I think, of the fact that we stand on the same position: the legitimacy of the National Assembly and its President [Juan Guaido], the need, as I stressed again and again, for a democratic and peaceful outcome of the current situation.
Q. You said you want to sustain the reform agenda in Ukraine. In view of the elections, what is the EU planning to do to sustain the reform process in Ukraine? Do you see a possibility of reforms, of achievements to be reversed after the elections. What is your message before the elections in Ukraine? Then, you said today that in the next weeks there was a possibility of a decision on new sanctions for what happened in the Kerch Straight. Did you discuss today any other measures – other than individual ones - for example on the freedom of navigation in the Kerch Strait?
I can confirm that there is political consensus on some further measures to be taken – personal, targeted sanctions. I believe the formal adoption of the legal acts will be finalised in the coming days. I would not elaborate more on that for obvious reasons but political consensus is already there.
When it comes to the reform process if you look back five years, Ukraine today is a different country. There is obviously still a lot to be done: in terms of economic and social reforms; in terms of anti-corruption. But if you look back five years, it is clear that Ukraine has come a long way, and this is most of all thanks to our Association Agreement, our [Deep and Comprehensive] Free Trade Agreement, the Visa Liberalisation Agreement we have in place, that have made it beneficial for the citizens of Ukraine to go along this path.
This is why I believe this reform trend will continue during this electoral year, and obviously afterwards, because it responds to the demands of the citizens of Ukraine. For us two things will be important: on our side, there is full commitment to continue supporting the reform agenda - both politically and economically. We would obviously expect free and fair elections that are internationally observed. The ODIHR [the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] - and we also discussed this - has standards for observing elections that we wish to see respected in full.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, we will continue to work with the institutions of the country, with the people of the country. Our relations are not based on party politics, it is based on friendship among people and countries. So I am sure that the work will continue in that direction.
Q. It has been much commented on and quoted the former Prime Minister [Matteo] Renzi said that you had had little influence on the major foreign policy files. I want to give you a chance to respond to those comments and whether you have any reflections on his record? On Zimbabwe, we noted that there was a decision today to slightly lighten the existing sanctions on Zimbabwe. Two people were taken off of a list of suspended sanctions. There was a lot of concern about events in January and a crackdown on protesters in which a number of people were killed and many people injured. We wondered why this step to lighten pressure and whether the EU is concerned that the new government has been less of a clean break than they might have hoped?
You know me well by now and you know that I do not comment on this kind of comments even if they come from former Prime Ministers or current Senators of the Italian Republic. Today here we talked about the work of the Council on Foreign Affairs. We talked about Venezuela, we talked about Syria, we talked about Ukraine, we talked about Zimbabwe, but we do not talk about personal assessments of my record. I might have the time to reflect on my legacy or others’ legacies, but not before 1 November. Until then, I try to do my best in a complicated environment, as you might have noticed. So, no comment on that and you would not have expected me to comment on that, I am sure.
On Zimbabwe, there was a Council decision today to uphold the arms embargo and the restrictive measures against Zimbabwe’s defence industry, to uphold individual restrictive measures against Robert Mugabe [former President of Zimbabwe] and Grace Mugabe [wife of Robert Mugabe], to uphold suspended individual measures against the Vice-President [of Zimbabwe, Constantino Chiwenga], the Commander of the Defence Forces [of Zimbabwe, Philip Valerio Sibanda] and the Minister of Land and Agriculture [of Zimbabwe, Perence Shiri], and to lift individual restrictive measures against two individuals, as you mentioned. This decision was taken in light of our objective, which is to encourage a commitment to uphold the rule of law and human rights as set out in Zimbabwe's Constitution.
We have seen a crackdown on demonstrations in January - just a month ago - as well as the disproportionate use of force by the authorities that called into question this commitment. Now the key question is to understand whether the old system has been dismantled definitely or if it remains in place under a different leadership. Obviously, all decisions, as you know very well, on listings - including new listings - can be swiftly adopted if the situation requires it. So we keep monitoring the situation very closely and stand ready to adjust our decisions accordingly.
Q. What was discussed and decided on the question of returning European ISIS' fighters? In particular, was there anything discussed or decided about a response to President [of the United States, Donald] Trump's call and threat for European countries to immediately take back their citizens?
It was an issue discussed; it was not the first time we discussed it. And it is not necessarily a response to President Trump’s invitation, also because these are European citizens that be it in Syria, be it elsewhere in the world will not disappear. The issue and the question of what to do in relation to them has been on the table before and continues to be on the table, regardless of the US President's request.
As you know very well, the competence also on a legal basis is a Member States’ competence. Each and every country has a different legal framework, even different responsibilities within the Cabinets and the governments. It is an issue that requires coordination between and among Foreign Ministers, Interior Ministers, Justice Ministers, and intelligence services. It covers a variety of competences within single Member States, not to mention across the European Union. This to say that that there was no decision taken today and there is no decision to be taken at European Union level. It remains a national competence.
But I offered Member States the availability of our services to work on some ideas on how to coordinate positions in this respect, how to explore different possibilities on how to tackle this issue. Some angles are very sensitive: think of the children that were born or raised during the time when their parents or one of the parents was a foreign fighter or still is. There is an issue of, obviously, respect of rule of law and legal basis. We definitely do not want to create any vacuum in terms of responding to our citizens’ security needs.
What we can do, as single Member States reflect on what to do nationally, is to offer a common European Union understanding of possibilities that can be there to support and to have a coordinated joint response.
Q. This morning you welcomed the ratification and the entry into force of the [Prespa] Agreement. Are the chances now bigger for a concrete date for the start of negotiations with North Macedonia at the General Affairs Council in June? Do you have any news on a possible new round [of dialogue] between Belgrade and Pristina and do you hope that they will pick up speed?
The dialogue was not on the agenda today. Still I can tell you, as I have said publicly several times before, rounds of dialogue do not “happen”. I convene them and I would not convene a further session of the Dialogue until conditions are there. For conditions to be there, I expect the Kosovo authorities to lift, suspend or revoke the decisions on the 100% tariffs they have imposed on goods from Serbia and from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Until then, I do not see the conditions for a successful new round of talks in the Dialogue.
Having said that, at the moment when the conditions would be there, I am ready not only to call for a high-level meeting of the dialogue on the following morning, but also to lock us up for however long it takes, be it one week, one month or three months. I am sure we can usefully benefit from a positive environment, if we get it, to achieve a comprehensive agreement, legally binding, on full normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. But I wait for the right conditions to be there and so far I have not seen moves in that direction.
On North Macedonia: we started the Council this morning with an applause, which is not a usual way of starting our Foreign Affairs Councils. For once, we had a good news to celebrate and we all expressed not only satisfaction and congratulations to both leaderships and people, but also our conviction that this can be of good auspices for the rest of the region and for Europe as such. This represents a positive step that will have an influence on the opening of negotiations. It will not be the only element, obviously, but our friends from North Macedonia know very well that the focus on the reform agenda is as crucial as was the solution of the name issue. I have to say I have seen a lot of determination both in the government and in the Parliament on the reform agenda and I got reassurances in these last few days when I had the chance of meeting Prime Minister [of North Macedonia, Zoran] Zaev, Foreign Affairs Minister [Nikola Dimitrov] and [Deputy Prime Minister/] Defence Minister [Radmila Šekerinska Jankovska] that they know that very well and that they will keep focussing on the reform agenda implementation.
Having said that, it is not a mystery that I wish and I believe it would be good to have a beginning of negotiations both with North Macedonia, but also with Albania starting and decided in the Council in June.
Q. This morning you mentioned that the sanctions against Russia could be lifted if the conditions are right. Could you please elaborate a little bit? What kind of conditions should that be and what do you expect from Russia to do to lift that sanctions?
You can easily check the records of my last press conferences of the last five years and they have been repeatedly and consistently enumerated several times: first and foremost, respect of international law, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and full implementation of the Minsk agreements, which need to be fully implemented on both sides, obviously, but Russia has a special responsibility in that. They are fully aware of that and again, I had my last conversation with Foreign Minister [of the Russian Federation, Sergey] Lavrov about this last Friday.
Q. On Venezuela. Did you discuss about new targeted sanctions with the [Foreign] Ministers during your lunch?
You know that it is always a possibility for Member States to consider – to propose first of all, on the basis of a solid legal basis – new targeted sanctions, and obviously it is always possible for Member States through our normal procedures to adopt new sanctions. This remains a possibility.
At the moment, what we are focusing on is the work of the International Contact Group. But obviously, the possibility of introducing some further targeted restrictions remains for the future.
I want to stress one thing that is extremely important, because sanctions are of different kinds. I want to stress very clearly – especially in light of the situation that the people of Venezuela are suffering in these years – that the European sanctions already in place on Venezuela are targeting individuals that have special responsibility for the violence or the obstruction of the democratic life of the country. They were introduced last year and they do not target the population or the economy of the country. They target individuals with travel bans and asset freeze.
These are the ones in place that were recently renewed. And again, it is always possible for Member States to propose or consider adding names to this list, without touching and without affecting the population and their conditions. Because our main objective as European Union would be to manage to deliver aid to face the humanitarian difficulties of the population. The last thing we would like to see is something that can affect the already terrible situation of the population in the country.
As I said, the possibility to add names to the list is always there. Member States can propose it and then obviously discuss it and have a decision by unanimity on that. That was not a discussion we had today, but the possibility was raised and is still remaining on the table.
Link to the video: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I167843