Extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council: Remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the press conference
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Today’s extraordinary session of the Foreign Affairs Council has indeed been extraordinary. It has been extraordinary because we have been joined by the United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, by NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, by the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, and by the Canadian Foreign Minister, Mélanie Joly, around the table.
Also, Ukrainian Foreign Minister [Dmytro] Kuleba connected with the [Foreign Affairs] Council remotely, because he is Ukraine obviously, to give an overview of the latest developments on the ground, and the urgent needs of Ukrainians and the atrocities committed by the Russian forces who continue bombing indiscriminately several Ukrainian cities.
First, the humanitarian situation. The humanitarian situation on the ground is becoming more and more difficult due to this continuous bombing of the Russian army.
They are shelling residential housing, schools, hospitals, and other civilian infrastructure. It looks like they want to destroy Ukraine.
The UN Human Rights Council, as you are aware, has voted today on the urgent establishment of a commission of inquiry to address these violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.
Taking into account that right now the figure of the number of people who are escaping Ukraine and crossing the borders of the European Union and also other countries like Moldova, is today more than one million people and it is increasing very quickly. More will come. We are above one million in less than a week.
But we strongly call for a humanitarian corridor. The International Red Cross is not able to enter the country and we need green corridors for the Red Cross to be able to help the Ukrainian people.
People – children, mothers, fathers - need food, need basic items. I saw it yesterday myself in my visit to Moldova, where I visited a refugee reception centre. I have seen many of them around the world, but it is heart-breaking. You never get used to these kind of things.
[The President of Russia, Vladimir] Putin must allow humanitarian aid to go into Ukraine.
Secondly, the European Union is committed to providing access to everyone fleeing the war in Ukraine and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have already arrived in the European Union and are going to several Member States, from the borders into the European Union.
Member States highlighted the need to further support front-line Member States and asked the Commission to look into this and to mobilise resources from the budget of the European Union and the Commission services.
More dangerous than this, overnight, we saw the Russian attacks in the direct vicinity of Ukraine’s nuclear power plant – the biggest Ukrainian power plant has been attacked. And this is unacceptable because it can produce catastrophic consequences that can provoke an ecological and humanitarian catastrophe for the entirety of Europe. The Russia army has to respect emergency safe zones around nuclear sites, and we need to ensure the safety of these zones because the safety of the entire European continent can be affected.
But the most important and pressing question, the most important and pressing request is that Russia ceases its military operations and withdraw from the territory of Ukraine. The same goes for Belarus, who is a full accomplice to Moscow.
We have been discussing with Secretary Blinken, and as Antony Blinken said that we are seeing a historic moment of the cooperation between the European Union and the United States, and the reinforcement of the Euro-Atlantic partnership. Together, we led the way of imposing the most far-reaching sanctions packages ever adopted. We must now ensure that they are fully implemented – because it is not enough to announce, to agree and to announce. But they have to be implemented, loopholes have to be closed and I hope that they will undermine the Russian war machine.
President Putin intended to divide us, but he achieved just the contrary: we are more united and more determined then ever, much more than before the Russian aggression. And Russia is completely isolated by the international community, as the vote at the [United Nations] General Assembly clearly showed yesterday.
This vote left no room for doubt: the world stands with Ukraine; the world stands on the right side of history. And this vote sent a clear signal.
And today, the [UN] Human Rights Council voted again and established an independent commission of inquiry into the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. And also the result was very clear – 32 votes in favour, 2 against, 3 abstentions.
I want to stress the fact that our sanctions are targeted. They are already producing results. And the aim is not to harm the Russian people, but to pull the rock out from under the Kremlin’s war machine. It is, however, unfortunately as a fact, that they will also affect people who are not in the inner circle of the Kremlin. And, until a certain point, ordinary people will also suffer the consequences of Putin’s war – because let us call it the way it has to be called - Putin’s war. And only Putin can end it.
We have to avoid the Russian oligarchs to escape from the effects of the sanctions and to clamp down on tax evasion. This is a good occasion to fight against the oligarchy and to fight against tax evasion, because both things go together.
We have to locate them and seize their assets, because the Russian regime gets its wealth from corruption and tax evasion. We need to combat this and turn off the tap of money flows financing this senseless war.
In order to stop the flows of money that finance the Russian army and the Russian war, today we have also discussed the need to accelerate the green energy transition to further reduce our energy dependency on Russia.
Allow me to say something about my visit to Moldova together with Commissioner [for Enlargement and Neighbourhood, Olivér] Várhelyi. Both of us, we underscored the solidarity of the European Union with Moldova and conveyed our gratitude and appreciation to the people of Moldova for their efforts and solidarity in welcoming refugees in a large number. Moldova is not the richest country in Europe and it has been receiving such a big number of refugees that, in proportion to its population, is like if Spain would have received more than 1 million refugees.
The situation in Moldova is fragile and they need urgent support. We will provide it.
Finally, allow me to underline a very clear political assessment: this is not the East against the West. This is not a remake of the Cold war. We are defending the sovereignty of the nations, all nations. We are defending the territorial integrity of a state, all states. In the East, in the West, in the North and in the South. It is not again the battle of two hemispheres. We are defending international law, the sovereignty of states, their territorial integrity and the no violation of the borders. This is something that is valid for anyone in the world.
We are not enemies of the Russian people. We are friends of Ukraine; we are supporting them on their fight, but we are not against the Russian people. This is Putin’s war, and only Putin can end it.
Q. While you were talking, a G7 declaration has been issued, announcing further severe sanctions against Russia and potentially also against Belarus. Since we have not had sanctions package for two days now, could you walk us through the reasoning behind it, the aims of this package, size and scope?
I understand that for the news, the important thing is the new package of sanctions. For me, in this moment, the important thing is to implement yesterday’s package.
The will of continuing advancing on the sanctions has been announced and we too have been considering here which new package of sanctions can be decided in the coming days. For example, we can enlarge the number of Russian banks to be switched off from the SWIFT. But we have not taken any specific decision about a specific bank or another one. We have sent to the technical bodies the proposal to study more banks and let us see. We can increase the amount of banks, we can go deeper in the financial sanctions. But, please, stop one moment and think about the consequences of what we have already decided.
Today, the best news is that Russia has make default on a certain amount of debt nominated in rubles and is not paying the coupons, the interest of this debt to the foreign investors, by an amount of $29 billion. This is an important consequence. Immediately, in less than 3 or 4 days, this decision of blocking the reserves of the Russian Central bank which are in countries of the G7. Will be full of consequences.
So, yes, there will be more sanctions and they are being studied. Today we have not taken any decision, but the important thing is to implement what we have decided. I understand that, once we announce something, people forget about it. No, I am not forgetting about it. When I say that I will look for the wealth of the oligarchs, it is something that has to be done, has to be followed and has to be implemented country by country, city by city, and it has to be converted into practical consequences of our decisions. Otherwise they are wet words. And believe me, they will not be wet words.
Q. The sanctions that are now in place, is the goal to end the war or is the goal of the sanctions to provoke a change of regime in Russia and will they remain in place as long as President Putin remains in the Kremlin? My second question: everyone is saying we are very close to a deal on the Iranian nuclear agreement, so who or what is standing in the way of finishing it?
We are not working on a regime change. The sanctions are not imposed in order to provoke a regime change in Russia. On the contrary, these sanctions have been triggered by the war and the purpose is to weaken the Russian economy and to make the Russian economy feel the consequences and to strengthen the position of Ukrainians vis-a-vis the negotiations. But nothing to do with a regime change. This is not the issue. I am saying this is Putin’s war because it is not the war of the Russian people. It is a war of Putin’s regime, but we are not entering on this issue.
Secondly, half of my time is devoted to try to revive the Iranian deal. Things are ongoing. I hope that during this weekend we can deliver. I strongly hope. I haven’t said that we will get results during the weekend, I said, we hope.
Q. A lot of Ukrainians are feeling quite disappointed right now by the decision not to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine. What is your message to the Ukrainian population, to those people underground that may be feeling abandoned right now by this decision?
It is not for the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union to take this kind of decisions. It is a matter for NATO. When you decide that there is a no-fly zone, it means that you are ready to make this a reality. Using force, sending flights to shut down everyone that violates this no-fly zone. This is something that the EU Foreign Affairs Council could not decide, certainly.
Q. La Commission avait parlé d’un mécanisme de compensation pour les États qui seraient les plus touchés par les sanctions. Est-ce quelque chose qui a été abordée, discutée ? Où en est-on de sa potentielle mise en œuvre?
Non, cette question n’a pas été abordée. La question n’a même pas été posée.
Q. You said that the aim of the sanctions is to weaken Russia, but this takes time. If Putin does not stop, what is the Plan B to avoid war? He attacked a nuclear power plant with terrible risks for everybody. Is there a plan B for negotiations or for asking President Zelensky to leave Kyiv? Not as a sign of surrender, but just to avoid war and to wait for Russia to collapse, because this will take time, years.
No, we are not going to ask [the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr] Zelensky to surrender. On ne va pas demander à Zelensky de quitter Kyiv. On ne va pas demander à Zelensky de ne pas se battre. Nous faisons ce que nous pouvons et nous pouvons faire beaucoup, mais évidemment si quelqu’un attend que les sanctions financières arrêtent la guerre demain, il ne sait pas de quoi il parle.
Malheureusement, nous n’avons pas la capacité d’arrêter la guerre demain. Mais nous avons la capacité d’affaiblir l’économie russe, et beaucoup. Evidemment, ça prendra du temps. Evidemment, le Conseil des Droits de l’Homme ne peut pas non plus arrêter la guerre, mais il peut envoyer des missions d’enquête pour déterminer les violations des droits humains qu’il y a eu. Et sans doute que quand cette mission aura fait son rapport, ça affaiblira encore plus la Russie du point de vue politique face à la communauté internationale.
Est-ce que les votes aux Nations Unies vont arrêter la guerre ? Non, malheureusement non. Nous n’avons pas de mécanisme de vote pour dire ”la guerre s’arrête demain parce qu’il y a la majorité aux Nations Unies”. J’aimerais bien que la communauté internationale soit aussi puissante, elle ne l’est pas. Mais, sans doute cela affaiblit la Russie, ça l’isole. L’isolement international et l’affaiblissement économique, ça a des conséquences, des conséquences que, malheureusement, ne seront pas immédiates. Mais c’est ça qu’il faut faire, et c’est ça que nous pouvons faire.
Q. Puisqu'il s’agit d’affaiblir la Russie et d’augmenter les chances pour l’Ukraine, peut-être dans une future négociation, d’avoir davantage de pouvoir, vous évoquez la question qui a été discutée au Conseil d’accélérer la transition verte. C'est évidemment un but louable mais qui serait peut-être encore plus lent que l’efficacité des sanctions. Est-ce que la question de réduire l'achat de ressources en hydrocarbures de la Russie est évoquée à la table du Conseil ? Est-ce que la question de la fermeture des ports à la navigation de navires russes a été évoquée ou sera évoquée bientôt?
Il y a eu, si vous voulez, un “brainstorming” sur ce que pourraient être les possibilités d’agir avec plus de force. Certaines des idées que vous avez mentionnées ont été aussi mises sur la table par un certain nombre de pays. Mais il n’y a eu de décisions. Je ne vais pas entrer dans le détail des discussions qui ne mènent pas à des résultats.
La transition énergétique, il faut l’accélérer, pas seulement pour des raisons climatiques mais pour des raisons géopolitiques. Hier, l’Agence internationale de l’Energie a publié un rapport qui dit, qu’avec un certain nombre de mesures qui sont tout à fait faisables, on peut réduire d’un tiers dans un an, la dépendance européenne au gaz russe.
On ne peut pas l’annuler du jour au lendemain, mais il faut la diminuer dès maintenant, en mettant en œuvre tous les moyens que nous avons pour le faire. Et c’est ça, le “political engagement” que le Conseil a discuté, et c’est ce qu’on va faire. Mais, n’attendez pas que le gaz – le gaz russe représente 40% des importations de gaz de l’Union européenne. On ne peut pas attendre que ce soit annuler du jour au lendemain. Mais il faut le diminuer et on peut le faire. On peut le faire très vite et c’est ce qu’on va essayer de faire.
Bon, ce n’est pas ce qu’on va essayer de faire, c’est ce qu’on va faire.
Q. You mentioned at the start that you discussed the shelling on the nuclear power plant and that it could cause a catastrophe for the whole of Europe. On that scenario, would you consider that to be an attack on the EU and, therefore, an attack on NATO by association? What do you expect the response to that kind of scenario could be?
C'était une attaque contre l’Ukraine dont les conséquences peuvent affecter l’ensemble de l’Union européenne. Mais l’attaque c’était contre l’Ukraine.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-219778