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Good afternoon everybody.
It has been a long and intense Foreign Affairs Council. Let me focus on the two main issues, which reflect our strategic priorities: the Western Balkans on one side and the relations with the United States on the other.
There were a number of other current issues, let me cite among them Palestine, let me start with it. Our initial focus was on the situation with regard to the postponed Palestinian elections, but we also discussed about the serious situation on the ground.
Today – which is, by the way, Jerusalem Day – is a very sensitive moment. We are deeply concerned over the recent clashes and violence, including again this morning in and around the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.
It is clear that all sides must uphold and fully respect the status quo of the holy sites. And all leaders have a responsibility to act against extremists. But I have to recall what we have been saying during the weekend. The situation with regard to the evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and other areas of East Jerusalem is a matter of serious concern. I want to repeat what we have already been saying: Such actions are illegal under international humanitarian law and only serve to fuel tensions on the ground. It is important that everything possible will be done to avoid fuelling tensions. And we note that the decision to stop Jewish worshippers from accessing the esplanade is a positive one that can calm the situation.
On Western Balkans, it has been a long discussion. The region has a special role in Europe and for Europe. We agreed that the Western Balkans is a region of key geostrategic role for the European Union. Our commitment to the Western Balkans needs to be very visible and we should leave no doubt in this respect.
And the message that the Ministers [of Foreign Affairs of the European Union] sent today was very clear. They reaffirmed the European perspective of the whole region. But this is not only about the enlargement process. We want to ensure that we have a political engagement with our partners. From addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines, economic cooperation, connectivity, how to tackle external influence, reduce disinformation, just to name a few issues.
During our discussions there was a wide agreement on the need for the Western Balkans to accelerate European Union-related reforms and reinforce positive and constructive narratives. We need to advance on the accession process of Albania and North Macedonia. And by the way, there has never been any intention of decoupling both countries in the accession process.
EU integration with Serbia and Montenegro needs to be taken forward. We need progress on visa liberalisation for Kosovo, we ask it to the Member States. There was also a clear expectation for the swift resumption of the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue that, as you know, will re-start before the end of June, as we agreed with the Prime Minister of Kosovo [Albin Kurti] recently.
We recalled continued and strong support for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, I have to repeat it once again. The Ministers agreed on the need for Bosnia and Herzegovina to use this year to advance constitutional and electoral reform. We need to continue supporting these efforts through a daily engagement of our Special Representative in Sarajevo [Johann Sattler].
We also agreed to look at ways to enhance our already intense cooperation on security and global issues. Let me stress that our help to fight against the coronavirus pandemic comes with no strings attached. We talk about donations, we are not selling, we are donating, and these donations come on top of our global substantial contribution to COVAX and we do not put conditions to the States that receive this help.
The second big item in our agenda was transatlantic relations. I will repeat once again that with the new administration we have excellent and operational relations.
We have already made progress together on some important issues, such as reengaging the US on the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal], relaunching the Dialogue on China, suspending temporarily tariffs under the Airbus/Boeing dispute, or liaising on responses to developments in Russia and Myanmar.
This renewed partnership between the European Union and the United States is based on more engagement, more coordination and cooperation. And it is already happening, as has been demonstrated today in the exchange of views with the US Special Presidential Envoy on Climate, John Kerry.
All Member States participated in the exchange of views, together with the [Executive] Vice-President [of the European Commission] Frans Timmermans, about how to increase global climate ambition, especially among the world’s biggest economies; how to keep our promises; how to lead by example; and how to motivate others to do more.
We agreed to work systematically together to set new borders, new frontiers in climate ambition and scale-up efforts to prompt partners to deliver the best possible commitments under the Paris Agreement. We will do that bilaterally and multilaterally – in the G7 and the G20 meetings, with the hope that we can push [for] progress with all big emitters.
Turning to the current issues that kept us busy today, we once again expressed our solidarity with the Czech Republic and Bulgaria in light of the recent events related to Russia.
I have to repeat again that the pattern of negative actions by the Russian Government continues and it feeds the dynamic of escalation. Today’s exchange will feed into the European Council discussion on European Union-Russia relations on the next 25th May.
Allow me some words about the JCPOA. I have been briefing my colleagues about the [ongoing] negotiations – you know that the High Representative is also the Coordinator of the JCPOA - this remains an extremely delicate and intense diplomatic process. I dare to say that I am optimistic, there is a window of opportunity that will stay open for a couple of weeks until the end of the month but a lot of work is needed, time is limited and I hope that the negotiations will enter in a phase of non-stop negotiation in Vienna.
We also talked about global health, vaccination, we had a look at the situation, how the European Union is delivering. It is important to notice that the European Union has exported almost 200 million doses – precisely 192 million doses, and at the same time is vaccinating its own population. This export effort is considerably bigger than China with 147 million and Russia with only 10 million, and the US and United Kingdom almost zero.
We will continue to play our role in leading the multilateral response through COVAX.
Two more issues that have been in the agenda and are things that worry us: Lebanon and Belarus.
In Lebanon the situation continues deteriorating, the country is collapsing, its people are suffering. But the political leaders are not taking responsibility while the country is literally falling apart. I had a conversation to prepare this meeting yesterday with the Foreign Affairs Minister of Lebanon [Charbel Wehbe], I expressed my concern, and we are working on an approach that combines let‘s say ‘carrots and sticks’.
All options are being examined, and the purpose is to pressure the Lebanese leaders individually that are preventing the country from overcoming the dramatic impasse it is facing. The [Lebanese] Minister explained to me the difficulties they are facing, inviting me to visit Lebanon and to have a conversation about these difficulties and the ways to overcome them. The work will continue, because we believe that much more can be done, and quickly.
And in Belarus the regime continues its repression and intimidation against their own citizens. Now, they are targeting the Polish community. We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks. This will be another sanctions package, taking into account everything that is happening in the country, including the way the regime is targeting the Polish community.
Well I think this is a brief outline of the main points of a Council that started at 9 o’clock and lasted until almost 16:30. But I think it was interesting and fruitful and I remain at your disposal.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-205389
Q. You mentioned in your introduction that the EU integration accession talks with Serbia and also with Montenegro should be moved forward. What could be expected in this respect, in June is it realistic to expect the intergovernmental conferences which will after a long period of time – almost a year and a half – bring opening of new chapters? On the Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina: is there anything more specific on the possibilities of the first meeting that should happen before the end of June? Is there anything more specific on when to expect that.
No, there are no new news [on the Dialogue] since the last time that we talked about it. Since the last time that we talked about it with the new Prime Minister of Kosovo [Albin Kurti]. They need time to prepare, they claim that the outgoing government did not inform them about the situation of the previous talks, that they have just arrived, that they need to study carefully the dossier. I understand, but at the same time we cannot go on holidays without having restarted the talks. Finally, we agreed that before the June General Affairs Council, which is by the 20 June more or less, at the end of June, before the General Affairs Council in June, we will have to have this meeting again. And I hope that they have all information required, we can provide if they don’t have it, in order to come to Brussels well prepared.
Next week, as my predecessor was doing, I invited the leaders of the Western Balkan countries to come to Brussels and to have a meeting – a dinner - to discuss the whole political situation of the Western Balkans as we did today. I want to mention one thing: it is the first time in the last two years that the Foreign Affairs Council took stock of the Western Balkans. For the first time in two years, the Western Balkans is on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council. Quite strange, no? And some Ministers were - not blaming but - complaining that it is the case, and they are right.
The Western Balkans is a big geopolitical problem. It is not just about the adhesion. Adhesion is part of the situation, part of the problem, part of the solution. But there are many other problems related to the Western Balkans which are on and above, out and in. But different from the adhesion process. Everything is in their range. But we have to look at the Western Balkans from a geopolitical perspective, and that is what we did today. That is what we will do next week, with the leaders of the Western Balkan countries, I hope all of them will come. And I told the Ministers: ‘look today we agreed on the principles, we agreed on the basis. Now, I hope you make concrete proposals in order to continue advancing.’ And we are not going to stay two more years without putting on the agenda the Western Balkans. Not even two months.
Before the summer, the Western Balkans will be again on our agenda. And we will consider the proposals that the Member States will be able to do - if there are proposals we will go again to study, if they are not, then we wait for the autumn. But it is a momentum, we have to continue pushing for this momentum, because all Member States, all Ministers agreed that we have to engage more with the Western Balkans.
I cannot say about the opening chapters or closing chapters, which are advanced. The only thing that worries us is the situation in North Macedonia, and there has been some news about decoupling – I mean taking separately North Macedonia and Albania on the adhesion process. From this point of view, everything remains the way it was.
Q. I want to come back on North Macedonia and the EU’s engagement with the region. High Representative you said that you want genuine engagement and not just declarative engagement in the region. You have a momentum with North Macedonia in the sense that the country is ready, it is the only country that has made important bilateral regional agreements with its neighbours, it is kind of leading in the region and yet, you allow one Member State to block the entire process. So how do you plan on being credible on this issue if you allow one Member State to block because of identity and language issues? Did you discuss this and what do you think of what is happening with North Macedonia in particular?
Yes, we had a conversation about it. We listened to Bulgaria and we encourage both Bulgaria and North Macedonia to urgently find a mutually acceptable solution for the pending bilateral issues. About North Macedonia: the conditions have been met by North Macedonia, and the Member States already decided to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia. And I hope that the first intergovernmental conference should be convened soon after the adoption of the negotiating framework by the Council. And the Member States, the Foreign Affairs Ministers of the Member States today got the commitment of pushing hard in order to call for this first intergovernmental conference as soon as possible, in order to adopt this negotiating framework.
Q. Ethiopia did refuse all the Sudanese and the Egyptian proposal to achieve an agreement for the Ethiopian [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance] Dam, which could lead as the Egyptian President [Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi] said to a very big instability in the region. Is Europe willing to do something to push Ethiopia for a negotiation to arrive to an agreement before it is too late?
I am sorry to say that today we have not been talking about it. There is nothing new. It was not in the agenda, nobody raised the issue. I can say what I have already said in previous situation, but there is nothing new. For sure, we are participating in the talks and we are putting pressure on all sides to look for a peaceful and agreed solution. And we hope that Ethiopia will not start re-filling or restarting activities that could create bigger tensions with Sudan and Egypt. But today, I am sorry to say there is nothing new about it.
Q. I have a question on Iran: you have your own reason to be optimistic about the ongoing talks in Vienna? Do you think that the deal which will be reached in Vienna hopefully will be the right platform accepted by all sides, mainly the Iranian? This platform could help the region and Iran, the European Union, United States, the international community to deal with the other issues – the Ballistic Missiles Programme of Iran - as well as its own in the region?
Let’s go step by step. I said that I dare to say that I am optimistic, but not about the whole universe. I am optimistic about what is going on in Vienna. What is going on in Vienna is an effort to make the US to go back to the agreement, in order to have a full compliance for Iran. Which is the best way to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iran Nuclear Programme.
The purpose of these negotiations is to go back on track and have Iran and the US back to full implementation. What can I say is that these talks have been constructive and there have been some moderate advances. As you know, at these kind of conversations, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
The efforts of my team, the European Union Team is working very hard and they are in Vienna and they will continue being there. But do not ask me for the following steps, what is going on after. Let’s go step by step. This is a very sensitive process. We have to work quickly, we only have a couple of weeks. Not everything will be solved in these couple of weeks. There will be a lot of other different issues that will be put on the table later on. But by the time being, let’s try to go back on track of the previous agreement.
Q. I have a question on a point that many would like to see in the agenda of this Foreign Affairs Council and also the previous one but unfortunately it was not possible, which was the Hong Kong conclusions. They are still stuck, there was an attempt in COREPER. Did you have a chance today to speak to your Hungarian counterpart or are you are planning any outreach to unblock these conclusions? What do you think is going to be the future of these texts? Will there be a new draft? Do you think that there will be a solution for the next Foreign Affairs Council to have on the table the Hong Kong conclusions?
Some kind of solution will have to be found much before the next Foreign Affairs Council. We decided to give one more week of working at the technical level groups, to look for a solution that the 27 Member States can accept. For the time being it is not the case. But I want to do a last effort to get unanimity. And if unanimity is not reached - it has happened in the past - we will have to take a position which does not reflect unanimity. But I still believe that it should be possible, and we will continue working for one more week, but not at the next Foreign Affairs Council, just one more week.
Q. On Russia you already said that Ministers expressed solidarity with Czechia and with Bulgaria but as far as I understand the Prime Minister of Czechia asked other European Union countries to expel at least one Russian diplomat. Did the Czech Minister raise this question and ask for the expulsion of additional Russian diplomats and what was the reaction to this if he asked? You talked about the European Council that will be on May 25 and its strategic discussion on Russia. Given what happened during the last weeks: military build-up, the conflict with Czechia and Putin’s orders on unfriendly states and so on. Given all of this did you or the Ministers change your minds about what was previously said about how the strategy on Russia should be changed or should not be changed. What is the view now after all these things happened?
Today, before the Council, I had the pleasure to have a coffee with the new Foreign Affairs Minister of Czechia [Jakub Kulhánek]. I was in Porto, attending the [informal] meeting of the European Council [on 7-8 May] where the issue of Russia was on the table. It was deeply discussed. And today, as well as the leaders did during the past weekend, we reassured Czechia of the strong support of the European Union. But at the same time I think everybody agrees on the need of not continuing the escalation. That we need to look for a strong support but at the same time to try not to increase the tensions.
I know that the European Council will discuss about Russia on 25 May, and maybe after this discussion the High Representative and the Commission could be charged with presenting an analysis of the situation of the relationship with Russia as we did with respect to Turkey. Let us wait what the leaders discuss on 25 May. For the time being it is not in the agenda to continue the escalation of the expulsions of diplomats.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-205389?&lg=INT&tin=730&tout=1774