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Today, our agenda was too long, too long to cover all topics, because Afghanistan took a lot of time.
Nevertheless, we have had enough time to look at our relation with China, which is experiencing complicated times, notably due to the issues of Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
The Ministers insisted on the idea that we need a pragmatic, realistic and coherent approach with China and that we need unity and a shared sense of responsibility. Also, we have to engage with China about Afghanistan. Competition, but also cooperation in trade and economic issues, are an important part of our relations with China.
After that, we had the pleasure to receive here – thanks to the initiative of the Slovenian presidency – my friend the Indian Foreign Minister [Subrahmanyam Jaishankar], with whom we had an exchange of views about what is happening in the Indo-Pacific region. Later this month, we are going to relaunch our work on this field, releasing a Joint Communication with the Commission on the Indo-Pacific Strategy. We shared with the Indian Minister our views about what is happening in this part of the world that is going to be the centre of gravity of the 21st century. The Indo-Pacific area, starting from India and finishing in California, is going to be the part of the world where history will be written.
Afghanistan is also a place in which history is being written. We shared with our Indian colleague our concerns about the situation there, the way the Taliban are going to behave, the migration possibilities; all that.
Finally, under any other business, we had an important discussion related to the deterioration of the situation in Belarus. We had the opportunity to deplore that Lukashenko’s regime, cynically, has been using during this summer, migrants and refugees to artificially create pressure on our Eastern borders, because the Lithuanian and Polish borders are European borders. We said that when we had some migrant pressure on the Spanish border, we said ‘the Spanish border with Morocco is a European border’. Now it is time to say that the borders of Lithuania and Poland, on the Eastern part of Europe, are also the borders of Europe. The Ministers stand in solidarity with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland and we are ready to take all measures to support them if the situation continues deteriorating.
About Afghanistan, I think that we already explained the conclusions, because there are no decisions, but conclusions from the High Representative about the discussion today.
From now on, the European External Action Service will have to work a lot, because we have been tasked by the Council to coordinate the contacts with the new government in Afghanistan, including with a joint European Union presence in Kabul, coordinated by the European External Action Service if the security conditions allow for it. From there, we should support the departure of European nationals that are still there and Afghans at risk that could be received in European Union Member States as decided by them. There are many. All Member States still have quite an important number of either nationals or Afghans that have been cooperating with them or that have been identified as people at risk.
The European External Action Service will be in charge of the coordination to try to bring these people out of Afghanistan, that - if the security conditions are met, I insist - will have an antenna in Kabul.
And the second task that the Ministers agreed is the engagement with the regional and relevant international partners in order to create a regional political platform of cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbours to face, all together, the challenges created by the new situation.
I think that I already informed [you] about the other aspects of the discussion on Afghanistan in our previous presentation.
Q. Is India now replacing China in the relationships with the European Union? Is India taking the role that China used to have? Is the evacuation from Afghanistan still taking place or not? Is it true that the other co-worker will arrive from Afghanistan to Slovenia tonight?
[Slovenian Foreign Minister replies]
I thank the Slovenian government for doing so. We evacuated almost 500 people working with the European Union Delegation in Kabul and their families to Madrid, without visas, because if we had to wait for the visas in Kabul, they would still be there. We brought them to a hub in Madrid with the commitment of all Member States to be redistributed. And I thank very much Slovenia for taking their part on this effort.
On India taking the place of China, well, no. They are different countries. India is an Indo-Pacific country and China is an Asian country. They play different roles from many different points of view.
India will not take the place of China because China and India are different countries with different economic structures and different trade relations with Europe, but we want to strengthen our relationship with India.
The first thing to do is to try to unblock this long pending agreement on trade and investment. To push politically for this agreement, which is not just a matter of trade. It is trade plus politics.
Secondly, to enhance our cooperation in the field of security. And Afghanistan provides us with a good reason to do it.
Q. On this joint EU presence in Kabul, I understand that you stressed several times that this is not recognition and there are by now these five benchmarks, but will it be fair to describe it as a first step towards recognition? Could you provide us some details whether this means that you will send an ambassador or a chargé d’affaires? On the regional political platform, did you discuss also the idea of having a regional conference with the countries interested as soon as possible?
No. This coordinated presence in Kabul through a European Union team is not a first step towards recognition – at all. It is the first practical thing to do if we want to keep in touch, reach out from an operational point of view, with the new Afghan government, because we need to discuss about important issues. The first one, the most pressing one, is how do we evacuate the several hundreds or thousands of people who we would have liked to have evacuated by plane - it was impossible -, but we know them, we know who they are. They have been working with us or they have been working to build a democratic and free Afghanistan and we are strongly committed to take them out. But this is not possible without talking with the Taliban. And it is much more easy to talk to someone if you stay in the same city than through videoconference. If it is not possible to stay in Kabul for security reasons, then we go to Doha, which is the closest place from the point of view of reaching out to the Afghan government.
It shows our will to coordinate the work of all Member States. Member States are not going to reopen their embassies tomorrow. We are not going to reopen a Delegation with a Head of Delegation as if nothing had happened, but we can have an antenna with people in charge of coordinating the first task, which is the evacuation of these people.
Secondly, about the regional conference. I would not call it conference as an event that takes place once and for all. No. It is a permanent coordination, it is a platform for coordination between the European Union and the neighbours of Afghanistan. Because we will need to coordinate and work together for quite a long time, because some of the phenomena we have been talking about, from migration to terrorism, to crime, it is not going to be a problem for just one week or two. It is going to be [a problem] for quite a long time and a structural issue in which we will have to engage. The task of the Council is, in the name of all Member States, develop this – let us say - way of a permanent coordination and sharing experiences and policies with the neighbours of Afghanistan.
Q. A number of Member states are apparently concerned that the European Union’s response could be seen as a blank invitation for Afghans to leave the country. Are these concerns justified in your view?
Who expressed these concerns?
Follow-up question: there were reports that a number of Central European Member States expressed these concerns.
Well, yes, we have been discussing [this] and this is not just a concern of Member States from the East. It is a concern shared by all Member States, because none of us want to repeat the experience of 2015-2016. So, this concern is something that we have been taking very much into consideration and, as I explained, we clearly say that the repatriation efforts that the European External Action Service has to coordinate is related to the persons at risk that will be received by individual decision of each Member State, on a voluntary basis and in accordance to what the Home Affairs Ministers decided on the last 31st of August Council. The same thing, how do we implement it?
Another thing are the benchmarks in order to calibrate the behaviour of the new Afghan government. And one of these benchmarks is the respect to the United Nations Security Council Resolution and even the commitments of the Taliban to let people to go out if they want. But it does not mean that we have any kind of commitment from the Member States to take care of them.
Q. One of the topics on the agenda was the relations with the Gulf countries, but apparently you did not discuss it. What was the reason for not discussing it?
Believe me, it is just a matter of time. At 13:30 we had to receive our Indian colleague and at 15:00 it was scheduled this meeting. The Gulf situation is something that has to be very much on our agenda, but today it was impossible. It was just a matter of time. The discussion on Afghanistan took very long and it will take long in the next meetings. And this [the relations with the Gulf] was not such a pressing and urgent issue.
Q. At the moment the Taliban cannot pay any salaries in Afghanistan, because more or less all of this money was provided by the international community. Do you think that at some point it will be possible to restart these payments, even to a Taliban government if they comply with the benchmarks? Could you give us some ideas about how far they would have to comply with these benchmarks? Is it a 70-80-90% issue or rather a 40-50% issue?
This is not mathematics. What is going to happen in the next days or weeks or months is not mathematics. We know perfectly that the Taliban are facing a shortage of liquidity, not just to pay salaries, but to pay everything.
First, because the international financial organisations, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have stopped any kind of disbursement to the Afghan new authorities.
Second, because the European Union Member States and the European Union have also stopped their development assistance. Not the humanitarian aid, but the development assistance.
It is clear that there is going to be a shortage of liquidity and a financial problem.
To me this is part of the reality and the new Afghan government will have to deal with it and we are ready to help under conditions.
Our engagement is a conditions-based engagement. Not for the humanitarian help, the humanitarian help is unconditional, but in order to have financial relationships, certainly, there are conditions that have to be met and this is the list of conditions with which we will calibrate the answer of the new government.
Follow-up question: Does this also include direct payments to a Taliban government?
Payment for what?
Follow-up: For salaries.
Why should we pay the salaries of the Taliban government?
Follow-up: That is the way it has been working with the previous government.
Yes, but it was another completely different situation.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-210257