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Minister, let me use this opportunity to thank President [of Malta] Vella - an old friend -, Prime Minister Abela, you [Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, Evarist Bartolo] and Minister [for Home Affairs, National Security and Law Enforcement of Malta, Byron] Camilleri for your hospitality and warm welcome today here in Malta.
I get very jealous when I see this wonderful palace full of history – part of this history is also Spanish history - because our offices in Brussels are not exactly the same thing. This is much more beautiful and full of reminders of the rich history of Malta.
This visit is one of the very first visits after the lockdown and it carries a strong message of European Union solidarity with respect to Malta. We are facing major challenges in our Southern neighbourhood.
We discussed all of them today: Libya, Syria, Middle East, the Middle East Peace Process and the migration flows, of course. We have been talking almost every day over the last few months with the Minister because you were worried and asking for the European Union’s intervention in order to deal with migration problems.
On migration, Malta has been facing a huge pressure. We fully share Malta’s determination to address irregular migration in a comprehensive way, starting by addressing the crisis in Libya and supporting the Libyan authorities.
Libya remains the largest beneficiary in North Africa under the European Union [Emergency] Trust Fund [for Africa]. We, Europeans, are contributing a lot for the population in Libya. We will continue supporting them and also the Libyan Coastguard in order to strengthen their capacity of intervention to dismantle trafficking networks and conduct rescue operations in their area of responsibility. This is done through our two CSDP missions and operations: Operation Irini – recently launched - and EUBAM Libya. But the Minister explained me that we really have to increase the capacities of the Libyan Coastguard. But of course we also need a long-term solution in Libya and Malta is at the forefront when it comes to these efforts.
We talked also with Prime Minister Abela about his meeting with Prime Minister [of Libya, Fayez] al-Sarraj. We have a common objective: a united and stable Libya. We need to work together in the framework of the European Union. The Berlin process remains the only international framework to relaunch a political dialogue on Libya.
I am also glad that just yesterday Malta reached a deal with other Member States to relocate an important number of migrants with the coordination and help of the European Commission. We will continue encouraging Member States to show solidarity towards other Member States when rescued persons are disembarked.
Malta is not alone, Malta’s challenges are also the European Union’s challenges and I am here to show that we will continue to work together to address all of them in the short-term and looking also for structural solutions in the middle and long-term.
Q. What is the European Union stand on Malta’s decision to pull out of Operation Irini?
Well, Malta has not pulled out of Operation Irini. Malta has supported Operation Irini, because without the support of Malta the Operation could not have been launched. Another thing is that Malta is not participating with naval or aerial assets, as many other Member States. Big Member States, like my country, Spain, do not participate.
One thing is to support the Operation when it is the time to vote it in the Council and it is time to approve the Chief Commander or it is time to vote for the financial resources to make the Operation possible. Another thing is participating with assets. Malta does not participate with assets, but I think there are only six Member States that have been offering capacities, so I thank the support of Malta although we had to overcome some difficulties, but thanks to our good relations these difficulties have been overcome.
Q. Malta has taken some hard-line positions on migration over the past few months. It vetoed some decisions regarding [Operation] Irini, suspended the disembarkation of migrants, leaving many at sea for a very long time in very poor conditions. Do you think, as the European Union’s most senior diplomat, that this helped Malta’s objective to try to reach out to other Member States or did it isolate Malta?
You know, I could answer with a Spanish expression, which I am afraid I will not be able to translate into English, that is “En todas partes cuecen habas” [“It’s the same the world over”]. I mean, in the political life of the European Union we are continuously facing situations where Member States do not agree in something and then they use this disagreement in order to get agreements on others issues. I personally - and it is my job - try to convince all Member States - not only Malta - to work on silos, to work on specific issues and not translate one problem to the other their agreements and disagreements.
But, in diplomatic life, everybody tries to get the most they can. And, to speak frankly and not to use “la langue de bois”, I have been discussing a lot with my colleague, the Maltese Minister [for Foreign and European Affairs, Evarist Bartolo], about the reluctance to approve some parts of the Operation Irini and their disagreement with the disembarkation. But, at the end, everything has been solved.
I understand the problems that Malta faces with migrants that need to be disembarked somewhere. Malta is not the only country that does not accept everybody that wants to disembark. I understand that, having the highest density of population in Europe, they have to reach agreements with other Member States so that, when the people have been disembarked, the solidarity among Europeans would make a distribution of these migrants in order for Malta not to have the full burden.
This is what we are doing and we have been contributing to reach agreements with other Member States. As I said, a couple of days ago there was an important agreement on this direction and the only thing that we can do in the European Union with the capacities that we have, is to try to coordinate de decisions with Member States in order for the disembarkation to take place as quickly as possible. Because we know that, the situation of the people in the boats is not the best one. But the disembarkation has to be related with the commitment of other Member States to share the burden that it represents.
Looking into the future, we are working in the European Commission to present a new plan for asylum and migration and we have to take care of this specific situation: saving people in the sea requires an automatic mechanism that could immediately allow disembarkation and redistribution. This would avoid days or weeks of discussion among Member States, depending on their good will, depending on the moment. This is something that we need. I have been Minister for Foreign Affairs [of Spain] and I spent two summers discussing about where people are going to disembark, who is going to take care of them. This has to be done in a more automatic way. Solidarity has to be better organised on this point and we are working on that.
Q. With regards to this new policy, the automatic reallocation you just mentioned, do you have any timeframe of when this could be introduced in the European Union?
We need an agreement of the Member States, we do not have the capacity of saying ‘This is the mechanism’. The Commission is working – it is not my portfolio but I am here representing the whole Commission. And my colleague in charge of it, the Commissioner for Home Affairs [Ylva Johannson] with the participation of the Vice-President Margaritis [Schinas], is working on a new procedure for asylum seekers, for migration management.
I am sure that on this package there will be a specific mechanism devoted to this specific situation, when 100-200 people are rescued at sea there has to be a way of giving an answer from the whole European Union, not depending on who saved them and where they were saved. There we have to be able to organise our solidarity in a more efficient way. But I cannot tell when and even I cannot tell if the Member States will agree because the role of the Commission is to propose. The Commission proposes and the Council and the Parliament decide.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-192970