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Today we had the second videoconference with the European Union Defence Ministers in just 6 weeks. The newly appointed Chief Executive of the European Defence Agency, Mr [Jiri] Sedivy, was with us for the first time.
Our discussion focused today on the security and defence implications of the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past months, we have seen that armed forces have been playing a crucial role in addressing the pandemic, by supporting civilian actors and providing cross-border support among Member States. There are many examples of that.
The Task Force that we established within the European Union Military Staff after our last meeting on 6 April has been working closely with Member States to gather examples of best practices and ensure exchange of information and lessons learned from each other.
As we face a global crisis, cooperation with partners is essential. This is why I have invited two of our closest security and defence partners to take part in our discussion today. NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, and the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, provided us with a very useful update on ongoing work in their organisations and the way we can increase our cooperation.
It is clear that this crisis will have far-reaching implications for our societies, for our economies, but also for our security and defence policy. Together with Member States, we have started to identify and discuss concrete lessons and strategic implications of the pandemic paving the way for the future of our security and defence policy.
There was a broad consensus that we should act along several axis:
First, to reinforce the modalities for the use of military assets to support civilian authorities in response to the pandemic. The armed forces, in different areas of expertise - security, medical and logistic - have provided and continue to provide a vital help in the fight against the spread of the virus.
This is why, for the first time since the Ebola crisis in 2014, the European Union Movement Planning Cell, within the European Union Military Staff, has been activated. This will allow to request European Union Member States’ military support to transport medical and humanitarian supplies at the request of the Emergency Rescue Coordination Centre [ERCC]. It will also allow responding to requests for support from our partners, such as the United Nations. There are several of these requests underway.
Second, we will continue to do our utmost to maintain our operational presence on the ground. While the safety of our personnel deployed in our Common Security and Defence Policy missions and operations remains a priority, we need to ensure that the missions and operations continue to deliver on their tasks to the extent possible, and explore ways to support our partners in tackling the pandemic. We agreed that the redeployment of personnel on the ground should take place in a coordinated manner as soon as conditions allow.
Third, we need to strengthen our own preparedness and resilience for the future. To this end, we can for instance conduct exercises, strengthen our work on cybersecurity or countering hybrid threats and enhance our efforts to counter disinformation, including related to the coronavirus. Intentional and coordinated disinformation campaigns - as we have seen - are real threats to European and global security.
Fourth, the lessons learnt from this crisis should be an additional driver for capability development and defence cooperation. There is a growing demand for military assistance in support of civilian response in the context of the health crisis. Some ongoing PESCO [Permanent Structured Cooperation] projects can play a role here and we will explore new areas of cooperation within this framework.
Finally, as this crisis also hits our economy, we need to secure the necessary funding for security and defence, both in Member States and at EU level. The pandemic will very likely deteriorate or security environment in the years to come. That is clear. The pandemic will be a new threat and will deteriorate our security environment. This will only increase the need for a stronger European Union security and defence, and for a stronger Union in the world.
We will continue working on all these important issues and we will revert to this during our next meeting in June.
After having explained what was discussed during this Council, I am ready to take your questions now.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-191220
Q. Next week we expect the Commission to come forward with the proposals for a new EU budget. Is there a risk that the EU defence fund and military mobility will not get the funding they deserve because of the need for an economic recovery fund?
First I am not sure that next week the Commission will be ready to present the results of the work we are doing on that very complex and difficult issue. But for sure, suddenly, a new factor demanding resources has appeared, it was not in the agenda. We have to completely change our approach to our financial perspective because we have a new and completely different scenario.
I hope that in this scenario, the resources allocated to the defence and security policy will not diminish, because as I said before, the coronavirus has brought a new threat and it requires a stronger defence and security policy, a stronger Europe in the world. And it depends also on the resources allocated to this policies but I cannot give you any specific details because the work is still not finished.
Q. Dans les pays de l’environnement de l’Europe, je parle particulièrement du Moyen Orient et de l’Afrique du Nord, vous avez parlé de l’impact à échelle internationale de cette crise. Dans ces pays proches de l’Europe, il y a la baisse des revenus du tourisme, il y a la baisse des revenus pétroliers, il y l’impact de la crise sanitaire, quand bien même limité. Pouvez-vous dire un mot si vous êtes inquiets que cette crise, combinée aux baisses des ressources économiques, pourrait déstabiliser les pays de la région ?
Il n’y a pas seulement que cette région-là qui court le risque de déstabilisation politique. En général, tous les pays émergents et tous les pays en développement vont subir de plein fouet les conséquences économiques de la crise. Vous l’avez dit, et je le répète, j’insiste même encore plus que vous, les transferts des émigrants vont diminuer parce que l’activité économique dans les pays d’accueil va diminuer. La rente pétrolière pour les pays qui sont fortement producteurs de pétrole va produire une situation difficile dans son budget.
Mais il n’y a pas que le pétrole, les matières premières en général, et le tourisme, bien sûr. Donc nous avons des sources de financement qui vont se tarir, et tout cela ça va sans doute produire des problèmes économiques d’abord, peut-être politiques après.
Mais cela n’est pas seulement dans les pays de notre environnement proche. En général, dans toute l’Afrique et l’Amérique Latine cela va être un problème et, évidemment, je suis très préoccupé par les évènements qui peuvent se produire en conséquence de la crise économique qui a suivi la crise sanitaire et par la crise politique que cela pourrait devenir.
Q. On Operation Irini, do you think that with Malta blocking the budget and the appointment of the new commander the operation is at risk? Has any kind of deal been reached or is in the making with Malta to unblock these issues? And what is your answer to Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al Serraj’s interview saying that the operation is at risk of helping General Khalifa Haftar?
There is no deal to be done with Malta. I have talked several times, the last one this afternoon, with my colleague the Foreign Affairs Minister of Malta [Evarist Bartolo] and this issue has been raised in the defence council that we have just finished.
I understand the concerns of Malta, because they are facing a strong push of the migrants coming from Libya. I understand perfectly and I am trying to mobilise all our capacities, from Commissioner for Home Affairs [Ylva Johansson] here in the Commission and with the Member States that can be involved in order to help Malta to face the situation.
At the same time I do not think that the solution is to put difficulties for Operation Irini, because Operation Irini is conceived to stop the fighting in Libya. To stop the fighting in Libya is a way to stabilise politically [the country]. The political stabilisation in Libya is a pre-condition to control the migration flows in the Central Mediterranean. In the medium term, the best way of facing this challenge for Malta is the stabilisation of Libya and it depends on the good work of Irini – among many other things.
The Foreign Affairs Minister of Malta understood perfectly what I told him. I hope that these obstacles will be overcome in the next days and Operation Irini can start operating fully.
And about [Prime Minister of Libya, Fayez Al] Sarraj’s declaration, I am not aware of this declaration. I have been working behind closed doors on the defence council all afternoon. But I have had the possibility of talking with the Libyan authorities in the past days. I think that I have explained that this operation is a way of controlling by sea and by air the arms traffic, to control the arms embargo. It is not addressed against anyone. It is trying to help the United Nations in making effective the arms embargo, but it is not addressed against anyone. It is trying to control by air and by sea – this is what the European Union can do – the routes of the arms that go to Libya.
Q. High Representative, I saw your declaration on Libya and I was wondering if you have something more specific to say on the attitude that Turkey is taking in Libya. Are you worried that this situation will escalate more? On the Operation Irini, is the operation right now fully operational or because of Malta it has been stopped and it is not operating?
It was almost operating. Some hours ago I would say that it was already operating. The first naval asset, that thanks to France is already on the area, and the plane capacity provided by Luxembourg, is also operational. So they are operating. The problem is the funding. By the time being, we have already funding, but I hope that the Malta objection will be cancelled in the following days. But from yesterday, the mission is operating.
On Turkey, you asked me if I am concerned. To be concerned is my natural state, I am concerned the whole day for many different reasons. Yes, I am concerned by the situation in Libya. It is not a secret and there is nothing new: Turkey, together with other foreign powers, is intervening in the fight in Libya. In spite of the Berlin process, the ceasefire has not been implemented. By the contrary, the fight on the last weeks has been increasing quite a lot. For sure, I am concerned, but not more from Turkey than from the other foreign powers that are intervening in the Libyan war.
Q. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that on the government’s agenda should be discussions of possible annexations of parts of the West Banks. France thinks that the EU should respond with something strong and concrete, what do you think?
This is the most important item on the agenda of the next Foreign Affairs Council, which will take place next Friday afternoon. I hope that there, the European Union will present its position about a possible annexation. We already did at the beginning [of the year], when the Americans presented their so-called “peace plan”. We already did it, we will do it [again].
In the meantime, we are waiting for the new Israeli government to be in office and we will congratulate them. I will have a phone call - I hope - with the new Foreign Affairs Minister and with the information I can have from this contact I will go to the Foreign Affairs Council where we will discuss what is going to be the position of the European Union.
Q. I wanted to follow up on an interview you did one week ago on which you mentioned that the EU had been a bit naïve about China. Then a few days later, the EU’s ambassadors in China published an Op-ed striking a very different tone. As Head of the EEAS, what would you do when an Ambassador’s attitude does not seem to be in close line with your policy agenda?
I do not think we have to exaggerate the importance of these events.
[The fact] that China has State-controlled media and that there is censorship is nothing new. In its contacts with Chinese media, the EU delegation, as also other countries’ embassies, operates in this environment, and does everything they can to pass EU messages to the Chinese public, in spite of the obvious challenges. We knew perfectly in which environment we work.
So the Ambassador had to take a decision to pass the 99% of the European Union message, which at the end was not even possible because the Chinese version of the Op-ed was not published. And the decision taken, under great time pressure, one can consider - and I consider – that it was not the right one to take.
But the administrative hierarchy in the EEAS has discussed the matter with him to ensure that something like this will not happen again, as it was not the right decision to take. On these occasions, it would be better to go into consultation with the headquarters. But that being said, the Ambassador continues to have my confidence.
Q. Following this pandemic, I would like to understand how vulnerable or how prepared is the EU to stop a hypothetical virological attack? Did you discuss this? What could be done?
We have not gone deep into this subject, which is our preparedness and capacity to participate in a biological war. For the time being, it is not in our agenda. We are dealing with a natural phenomenon, something that is not part of a biological war. We have not gone deeply in the subject of how we could face a biological war because it is not in our agenda, thanks God.
Q. I wonder if you are planning to raise with the Chinese authorities the issue of the wet markets that are very likely to be the origin of the pandemic currently ongoing.
You know more than I do. I do not know which are the sources of the scientific authorities that you are using to say that the wet markets are likely to be the origin of the pandemic. We are supporting and we will support on the conference of the World Health Organization which takes place on 18 May a proposal for a scientific and independent enquire to know better which are the origins of the pandemic.
I certainly would not dare to say if it is because of the wet market or not, because I do not have the scientific knowledge about it. That is why we need scientific research, scientific enquire, neutral, objective, based on scientific grounds, in order to know more what has happened and in order to prevent this from happening again. Maybe they are part of the problem, but, frankly speaking, I would not be able to confirm your assumption.
Q. Does the EU have guidelines on the payment of a ransom for a hostage? Because in Italy there are quite some problems because there is a spokesperson of Al-Shabaab who said on the record that the sum which was paid to free aid worker Silvia Romano will be used to buy weapons. I wonder if it is a problem for you or not.
Yes, it must be a problem for sure, but, frankly speaking, I do not have more information to give to you. Sorry.
[Note from the Spokesperson: As the High Representative clearly stated, he did not have information on this specific case at the time of answering the question. What he meant when answering was that more generally, the issue of ransom is a delicate matter, and generally speaking this matter “must be a problem”. The High Representative by no means pronounced himself on the specific case of Silvia Romano.]
Q. After this contact you will have with the Israeli Foreign Minister, is there also an option to have sanctions on the table?
My contact with the Foreign Affairs Ministers of the new recently formed Israeli government is just a normal contact to congratulate him and to offer cooperation from the side of the European Union. I do not think we are going to go into deep discussions about which are their plans and which will be our answer. This is just not the right moment.
It is just a call to congratulate him and offer cooperation and maybe we will go in some specific issues but I do not expect to engage in a deep discussion about this very specific issue.
The important thing is to go to the Council and for the Member States to present their point of view. You know that everything in [EU] foreign policy requires unanimity, especially sanctions. We are for the time being far from discussing sanctioning. But it is important for me and for the European Union foreign policy to know what is the position of the Member States with respect to the respect of international law, and how we can judge this announcement and actions, in order to clarify the position of the European Union.
But I cannot [prejudge] the result because I know that this is a very divisive issue inside the Council and [that] different Member States have different positions. We have noticed it when we discussed it a couple of months ago. I suppose that this divide is still there so it will be a very interesting Foreign Affairs Council. Maybe next Friday at the press conference I will be able to give you more details about it.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-191221