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We had a very good and intense meeting both yesterday afternoon and this morning. I would like to thank Pekka [Haavisto, Foreign Minister of Finland] for the wonderful hospitality, but also for the very substantial contribution that the Finnish Presidency - and you personally - have given to the preparation of this Gymnich.
As I have the opportunity of doing this also in front of the press, let me also thank you for all the excellent cooperation we have had over the first months of this Presidency on foreign policy issues. Your contribution, you help, in particular on Sudan, but also other issues, has been really vital in these months. Thank you for that. The way in which you have started your Presidency is remarkable. So thank you.
We had three main topics on the agenda, during this informal Council. I will try to be very brief, because time is very short and I want to allow time for questions.
Yesterday we discussed the situation in the wider Middle East, covering many different issues, from Yemen, to the Middle East peace process, or rather the lack of it. But I would like to mention and underline mainly two issues: one is Syria, where there was a clear support from our side for the work that the UN Special Envoy [for Syria, Geir] Pedersen is doing with a very strong concern about the situation in Idlib and strong support to the constitutional committee to be established soon. We will have a European Union event, as every year, at the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York, where we hope that we will be able to pass clear messages not only on the economic and humanitarian aid, but also on the need to finally find a political solution to the conflict in Syria.
The second point I would like to underline from these discussions on the wider Middle East is our clear and strong position on our full support to the preservation of the full implementation of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], the nuclear deal with Iran. The European Union and its Member States continue to be fully behind it and are doing all they can to try to have this fundamental element of nuclear non-proliferation in place.
When it comes to the situation in the Gulf and the tensions around the Gulf, the main message that comes from the European Union is the need to de-escalate, to avoid further escalation and to open channels of dialogue and cooperation across the region, having a clear and unequivocal respect for the international rules-based order, part of which for us is fundamental and that is the freedom of navigation that includes the Strait of Hormuz.
Among the points we discussed this morning has been, first and foremost, the Arctic that is a priority Finnish Presidency, but it is also a priority for the entire European Union. We worked a lot in these years on the Arctic and as we see more tensions on the region from different parts of the world, but also as we see developments that are of serious concerns. When it comes to the preservation of the fragile environment of the Arctic region, the European Union will do even more than it has done up to now. First of all, to protect the environment of the Arctic, to support and accompany sustainable economic and social development in the area, including with a special attention to the livelihood of indigenous peoples, and obviously to try to keep the Arctic region low-tension, cooperative and away from a geo-political return to issues related to hard security. We believe that the Arctic should remain an area for global cooperation.
Last but not least, we had the pleasure of welcoming our partners from our six Western Balkan partners. This is a format that has been used already before in different meetings, even if it is not the traditional format of inviting the candidate countries that we have used in the last four to five years at our Gymnichs. This does not create a precedent. This is simply because we wanted today to discuss the developments in the Balkans – integration and cooperation in the region. We wanted to do it with our partners in the region, as we do at several levels on different occasions. We welcomed all six of them and had a very intense, very candid, very constructive, interesting and lively conversation with them, underlining the importance of being consistent on their side, on the continuation of the reform processes, of reconciliation processes and of regional integration and cooperation among them.
We also need to have a consistent approach of the European Union, especially when it comes to upcoming decisions to be taken, be it the decision on opening negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, be it the decision to work in the Council on the Kosovo visa liberalisation. We obviously hoped and discussed the need for Serbia and Kosovo, for Belgrade and Pristina, to come back to negotiations under EU facilitation. I can say that I am quite encouraged by the positive spirit and the atmosphere - given that it is still the Balkans – that was expressed during the meeting by our partners in the Balkans, but also by our Member States.
Thank you again, [Pekka Haavisto], for an excellent cooperation.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-176697
Q. On Iran, we have heard a lot in the past weeks of the Biarritz initiative but we heard much less about what is actually on the table. Do you think that this is potentially a game changer which could lead to the de-escalation that you and the Europeans have been talking about the last few months? If Iran takes steps away from the nuclear deal on 5 September which they threaten to do, would that imperil to diplomacy? Is it clear what Iran needs to do, can you enlighten us on that?
I will try to give you some additional elements on the work we have been doing in these days. First of all, as I also mentioned yesterday at the beginning of these two days of work, any development that goes in the direction of talks, contacts, channels that open up and diplomacy, is welcomed and supported by the European Union. Obviously, what happened in Biarritz a few days ago, goes in that direction and is extremely welcomed and supported by the European Union.
There is another element on which this new momentum, if real - and this is we will only find out with time and work -, can build on: the work that we have been doing all these years and that we continue to do in these days, weeks and months, to preserve the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. The two things are not alternative, the two things might be complementary.
You know well my specific role - not just for the European Union but also through the clear mandate that we received by the UN Security Council - is to preserve the full implementation of the existing agreement. If something else can be built on it, this will be welcomed and accompanied by the European Union. We have had this morning a brief coordination meeting with the E3 [France, Germany and the United Kingdom] to update each other and see what kind of follow up we can give to the Biarritz events and meetings.
In parallel to that - as we support that process, as we contribute to that process, on which obviously I would not give details - our work as European Union with Member States, but also with Russia, China and the Iranians continue to ensure that, first of all, there is full compliance from the Iranian side to its nuclear commitments under the JPCOA; second, that there is advancement on the instrument we have put in place, INSTEX, on which I told you already a few weeks ago, the first transactions are being processed. It takes time, a lot of time, but it is also complicated. That process continues.
In parallel our work to preserve the full compliance of the nuclear deal [JCPOA] with Iran also continues. If something else adds up to that, that would be very positive news, but this is the basis on which the European Union is committed to preserving what we have, that in itself can contribute to de-escalating the situation, also in other fields across the Gulf.
Q. On Iran, first a point of precision: you said that the first INSTEX transactions are still being processed and they are not yet completed?
Yes. I also said that what happened in Biarritz is not a substitute to the work we continue to do on the implementation of the JCPOA and that includes the work on INSTEX.
Q. About your meeting with the E3 Foreign Ministers this morning. Can you give us a sense of what you agreed in concrete terms what next steps will you go and do will, that they go and do, to pursue the diplomatic path?
We exchanged face to face - the four of us – an analysis of what happened in these last days. We agreed on, as I mentioned, continuing our common work to preserve the nuclear deal [JCPOA] and its full implementation.
I am not going to enter into the details of what we are going to do next. I can tell you that work is ongoing, not only with the E3, but also as I mentioned, with Iran, Russia and China about the follow-up of the Joint Committee we had during the summer. Work is ongoing at that level, and obviously, we also mentioned our common support to the follow-up of the Biarritz Summit.
We will continue to coordinate action in that respect. Our common wish - that reflects the common wish of the 28 [Member States] discussed yesterday at the informal Council [of EU Foreign Ministers] – is to contribute diplomatically to a more general approach to de-escalate tensions in the region.
I would like to stress this point because there are many initiatives that have been mentioned, with different perspectives, different scopes, different approaches or similar approaches, different levels of ownership from the region. I want to stress this point. If I have to summarise in one headline the main message that comes from our debate yesterday afternoon on the wider Middle East it is the strong commitment from the European Union and the Member States to support any initiative that is inclusive and that has a full ownership in the region, that can lead to de-escalation, and even if limited, to more cooperation in the Gulf.
Q. The situation in Hong Kong appears to be escalating. There were arrests of pro-democracy activists who have now been bailed but evidently the authorities are trying to prevent more protests. I understand that this was discussed albeit briefly here. Can you talk about your concern for that?
The point was raised. This is an informal meeting so beyond the agenda we also had the opportunity to discuss issues of relevance for our work. Definitely, the developments in Hong Kong, especially over these last hours, are extremely worrying.
We expect the authorities in Hong Kong to respect the freedom of assembly, expression and association, as well as the right of the people to demonstrate peacefully. We will continue to follow very closely, as European Union but also in coordination with the Member States, the situation in Hong Kong, also when it comes to the impact on EU citizens and on EU economic interests in Hong Kong.
Again, this is something on which the Member States have shown remarkable unity in the last weeks and we will continue to pass messages publicly and privately, and continue to work for the situation to, at least, not to continue to go into the wrong direction but rather the opposite, to reverse to a more positive trend. This is the common approach we have taken.
Q. Iran and Russia are already building up military exercises in the Gulf. Could you elaborate how do you see Russia's role in this whole thing and is there now a risk that the European Union is opening a new front of problems especially with Russia?
I can be very direct. This angle is obviously of concern, because what the wider Middle East definitely does not need is to add to the number of theatres where the proxy chess game is exercised, and definitely does not need the number of players to increase in the region. This is definitely something we are watching very carefully. But it is probably not the first reason for concern when it comes to the wider Middle East.
I think that the main point - and I visited the region recently – is to try and support some elements of rationality inside the region that can work on the common interest that the countries across the Gulf share of - not becoming friends but at least - not putting into question respective interests. I think of all the economic interests, I think of the security interests, I think of the interests of the people that are living across the Gulf.
Our approach would be to try and help those forces in the Gulf that are trying to invest in a cooperative approach, even with the pragmatism of recognising that positions might differ very much and that it is more convenient for everybody across the Gulf to find a way of living together and guaranteeing basic but fundamental respect for international rules and norms, and to reciprocal respect in that area.
This is what we are going to focus on with a strong component of support for the local ownership of this process, exactly because we do not want the wider Middle East to become even more the chessboard of players that are not from the region.
Q. I was very pleased to hear that Albania and North Macedonia are being considered for opening the negotiations. Kosovars and Albanians are being discriminated in the whole Europe without visas – you mentioned it. Have you decided on a deadline for when the Kosovars will be treated like all other Europeans?
I mentioned the visa liberalisation for Kosovo. There is no mystery about the fact that the European Commission has indicated to the Council that the time has come to take this decision. Now it is up to the Council to take that decision, and I have reminded the [Foreign] Ministers that we believe it is high time for the Kosovo citizens to see this happening. I personally was in Pristina, I guess already two years ago, saying that time was come and I hope that the Member States will take this decision that is now in their hands as soon as possible, because the requirements have been fulfilled.
Q. On the Western Balkans, could you precise how is the unity between the Member States, concerning the development of this possibility to process forward; Finland is supporting this idea of advancing but how are the other ones? Could you elaborate on how the other Member States are feeling about this?
My general rule is that I never comment publicly about single Member States' positions on issues we have discussed behind closed doors. I think this is only fair as I chair the Council. What I can say is that I have seen today an even stronger support, determination and awareness among Member States on the strategic importance for the European Union to be consistent on the next steps of the enlargement process.
Normally, we take this from the point of view of the aspirations of the candidate countries or the Balkan countries in this respect, but we forget to focus on how important it is for us, the European Union, when it comes to reuniting a continent. I personally believe that the enlargement process, when it comes to the Western Balkans, has two specific elements issues.
One is that the enlargement is not in that case a proper enlargement: geographically it is a reunification because all the Western Balkan countries are neighbouring EU Member States, it is an island in-between the European Union. So, it is not an enlargement it is a reunification of the continent.
It is in our interest, economically, security wise, in terms of management of refugee flows, in terms of infrastructure, to integrate as much as possible the region inside the European Union. It is an interest for ourselves, but also not to forget, it is probably the only region today where the accession process towards the European Union has a deep value of peace-building and reconciliation.
Let us not forget that some of these countries were at war just 20 years ago and that is a very short period of time. Only the perspective of being together in the same family, in the same institutions, I think, can give them, not only the economic incentives but also the institutional and political incentives to come to terms with a very heavy and difficult history, and to look at the future, which is exactly what the young population of the region expects.
I am always positively impressed by the numbers of support for the European Union in the Balkan countries that go up to 70, 80, 90 % in certain cases. This is an energy that we, European Union, need and not only them.
I have seen those elements very much reflected in our debates today. I would not to disclose if there is unanimity on specific steps to be taken but there is a general sense that this region is strategically important for the European Union, and that if the European Union is consistent, in particular in its enlargement policy, there is no reason for concern on any other player, in any other part of the world, playing a role that is bigger than the one the European Union has. Our trade and our investments in and with the Balkans are far beyond the numbers that any other player in the world can put in place. There is a large awareness of that.
Link to the Q&A: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-177053