Foreign Affairs Council and Eastern Partnership Ministerial: Press remarks by the High Representative Josep Borrell
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Good afternoon, we had a long meeting for the Foreign Affairs Council, followed by the Eastern Partnership Ministerial Meeting and before the Jumbo Meeting of Defence Ministers and Foreign Affairs Ministers.
Today, we have started with an issue that is certainly currently on all our minds, and that is Belarus. In Belarus, we continue to standing in front of the ongoing hybrid aggression against the European Union’s borders. We are looking at all possible solutions to stop the Lukashenko regime from targeting us and from targeting its own population, and we agreed to expand the scope of the sanctions regime on Belarus. From now on, we will be able to sanction more people according to their activities, on the organisation of these flights of people from several countries going to Belarus, and from there to the European Union’s Member States borders.
At the same time, we agreed on the adoption of a new package - it will be the fifth one - a new package of sanctions, which will be finalised in the coming days. It will affect a quite important number [of people and entities] – I cannot precise the number, and certainly not the persons and entities. But the package has been politically adopted. As I said, by expanding the scope of the sanctions, we will be able to target those responsible for exploiting vulnerable migrants and facilitating illegal border crossings into the European Union.
To prepare the meeting, yesterday I had a number of phone calls with the Lithuanian [Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsberghis] and Polish Minister [of Foreign Affairs, Zbigniew Rau], my colleagues, also with the Secretary General of the United Nations [António Guterres], and also with the Foreign Minister of Belarus, Mr [Uladzimir] Makei. I repeated the appeal on Minsk to stop bringing people to our borders, keeping them in the border areas, putting their lives at risk and pushing them to try to enter into the European Union.
The European Union’s borders are not open in an unlimited way. The entry in the European Union is only possible through legitimate border crossings, fulfilling the European Union requirements –be it visas or asylum procedures-. Any information claiming otherwise is wrong and it is pure disinformation.
The road to the European Union does not lead via Belarus. Our Delegations around the world, especially in the most affected countries, are providing information in order to avoid people being instrumentalised, in order [to avoid] people being weaponised, in order [to avoid] people being cheated and converted in a kind of instrument with political objectives. This is illegal and inhuman. People trapped in this deplorable scheme need to be provided the necessary assistance. And this [is] one of the reasons of the call with [Belarussian] Minister [Uladzimir] Makei and also to the Secretary General of the United Nations [António Guterres].
The responsibility of what is happening is on Belarus, one hundred percent. We can start solving this problem by stopping the flow of people to Belarus, and those who are already in Belarus must be given humanitarian assistance. Those who do not qualify to be considered refugees must be returned back to their countries of origin. We have seen that Iraqis authorities are organising emergency repatriation flights, for their citizens who want to return and we welcome this decision.
This is a crisis that has been artificially created and it should not distract from the internal situation in Belarus with the ongoing large-scale violation of human rights. Let me underline that the dialogue will be re-established, not by importing people to our borders, but by the [Lukashenko] regime stopping the violations and starting to respect the human rights of their own people at home and from other people abroad.
Then, we had a long discussion on the situation on Western Balkans. The strategic situation in Western Balkans goes beyond enlargement. It is about concrete actions to enhance our engagement and involve our partners more in our Foreign Policy discussions. We will do that, starting by associating them more closely to our Foreign Affairs Council process. Also, enhancing our cooperation on cybersecurity and hybrid threats. For example, to by using our space data for the benefit of agriculture or crisis management when natural disasters occur. Last week, we adopted a new action under the European Peace Facility to support demining in Bosnia and Herzegovina, this is a concrete example of actions that we can take in this domain.
I want to say clearly, although we have not discuss about it today, that we want to see the first Inter-Governmental Conferences with both Albania and North Macedonia happening as soon as possible, hopefully during this [Slovenian] Presidency, before the end of the year. Because, not doing so is negatively impacting the credibility of the [European] Union and the entire region.
Certainly, the crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina was very high on our agenda. Because the situation there is very serious. We are very much concerned, because instead of using the non-election year to advance important reforms, some political leaders have been opting for obstruction, for divisive and secessionist rhetoric. On reiterating our commitment to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s European perspective, I want to insist on Bosnia and Herzegovina as being a single, united, and sovereign country. Leaders need to resume dialogue, return to State institutions in full capacity and restart work on key reforms.
On Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, we expect Kosovo and Serbia to fully respect and implement all previous agreements and constructively engage to make rapid progress on comprehensive normalisation of their relations. And we hope to have another High-Level meeting of the Dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade before the end of the year. At least, this is my purpose and my invitation to both leaders.
On Varosha, we raised Turkey’s unilateral moves to change the status quo, which runs contrary to the United Nations Security Council resolutions and are putting United Nations efforts’ at risk. Member States, once again, have expressed their strong solidarity with Cyprus. Now we have to convert this solidarity into concrete proposals on how to address the situation. For doing that, we have agreed to initiate a process by which an option paper will soon be presented to COREPER Ambassadors, as soon as the Chair of the COREPER could decide to put that on the agenda, so that they prepare the ground ahead of December’s Foreign Affairs Council, where this option paper, I can assure you, will be presented. The work will start immediately through the COREPER Ambassadors meeting.
Another part of the world the Ministers discussed about is the Sahel. Yesterday, once again, 20 soldiers were killed in Burkina Faso. This instability affects them there and us here: in terms of migration flows, security threats, economic and political interests. We are engaged there using all [our] instruments: financially, economically, politically and military. We must keep delivering on the implementation of the Sahel Strategy and the Sahel Coalition roadmap to face the deteriorating situation in Mali. The elections scheduled in February  according to the Transition process have been postponed by the leaders of the Transition. As a consequence, we agreed to establish a dedicated framework for restrictive measures in Mali, supporting the decision taken by ECOWAS. Work will continue, and I hope, finalise quickly. This will allow us to adopt sanctions against those obstructing the transition.
We also touched upon the possible involvement of the Wagner Group. There was consensus to move forward, in order to also take restrictive measures against this Group, that will be decided as soon as the technical bodies will finish their work. Specific proposals to designate individuals and entities under existing European Union sanctions regimes will be assessed in the relevant working groups, and will be considered for adoption in view of the next Foreign Affairs Council. This is an important news that I want to stress.
On Ethiopia, one year already into the conflict in Tigray, the situation has further deteriorated, creating a devastating humanitarian crisis. This is undermining the territorial integrity and stability of Ethiopia, that can collapse as a country, impacting the whole region. We will do everything we can in order to spare the Ethiopian citizens from the chaos of a full fledged civil war. We stand fully behind the efforts of the region and the African Union, especially [AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa region Olusegun] Obasanjo, offering them a table to talk.
This was about the Foreign Affairs Council, there were many other issues like the elections in Nicaragua where we condemn these fake elections, which is a caricature [of] what we can call the typical, and topical, Caribbean dictatorship.
After the meeting, we were joined by Ministers from the Eastern Partnership countries. Belarus was not invited, but we kept an empty seat as a symbolic place for the Belarusian people. The result of the discussion was the strong commitment to the region and our will to cooperate in addressing common challenges with these countries. Let me underline that we are following the security situation at the Eastern border of Ukraine very closely. There are worrisome facts of troops movement on the Russian border with Ukraine, which is very much important for us, worrisome, and we are following them closely. The information is rather worrying. I discussed yesterday by phone with Minister [Dmytro] Kuleba. Our support to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering. In our meeting with all Ministers today, we touched upon the issue of practical implementation of our new ambitious agenda, in light of the upcoming Summit in December this year.
This is, more or less, what I can explain to you. It has been a long debate and now we are going to have another one. The dinner with the Defence and Foreign Affairs Ministers where, for the first time, they are going to discuss the Strategic Compass. This will be another story. I do not know if I will have time to come and brief you. It will be too late. We will do it tomorrow. Let us hope it will not be too too late. But, in any case, too late for making you wait tonight.
Q. On the situation in the Eastern border of Ukraine, you said it is worrying. Could you please elaborate a little more on that. What really worries you? There are some Foreign Ministers who today hinted at the possibility that this is maybe interconnected with the migration crisis. So that maybe Russia uses this situation to do something else because our attention is deflected by this crisis. Do you share this concern?
Well more than an idea, it is an hypothesis. Maybe. I am not in the secret of the talks between [Russian and Belarusian Presidents, Vladimir] Putin and [Alexandr] Lukashenko. It is clear that Lukashenko is doing what he is doing because he has a strong support from Russia. Even if Russia says that they have nothing to do with it, it is clear that the way [Russian] Minister [of Foreign Affairs, Sergei] Lavrov explained what is happening in Belarus and blaming the Europeans for what is happening there, frankly speaking, I do not believe that Lukashenko could be doing what he is doing without the strong support from Russia. If it is linked or not with the troops movements in the border with Ukraine, frankly speaking, I do not know. And I do not want to make a judgment of intentions. But it is true that the [US] Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken was in Kiev and he launched a strong warning. If Secretary Blinken says that, he must have good reasons for it. It seems that after the last military exercises at the border, the Russian troops withdrew, but they let stock of a logistic warfare, an important amount of material, so that they can deploy quickly, because the heavy material is already in place. The Ukrainian Minister [of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba] told me that they could deploy an important amount of troops in a few days, because they are just moving people, not moving heavy material. And certainly, during the last exercises we said that this kind of concentration of troops was very worrisome and what is happening today creates us the same preoccupation.
Q. On the Western Balkans, you said that you want to associate the countries to the Foreign Policy processes. What does that mean? How do you think that will change anything? Does that mean replacing the enlargement process? How do you think that will contribute to bringing the region closer to the European Union? Also today, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kosovo [Donika Gervalla] and of Bosnia and Herzegovina [Bisera Turkovic] warned in Bruges of a possible new war in the region. Do you share that sentiment? Do you think the region is going towards a new conflict?
No llamemos a maltiempo. Do not call for bad weather. The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is unstable. As I said before, some leaders are using separatist and nationalistic rhetoric. We have to insist on the fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina has to remain united. That for us is a single country. That any attempt to divide it and to create new State entities is going to be a source of problems, a source of troubles, and has to be avoided. Without reaching a situation like the one you described, it has to be cut off right now in order to prevent future troubles.
About the alignment of the Western Balkans policy with the Foreign Policy, we are doing that. There is nothing new. It is a way of measuring the alignment of the Western [Balkans] countries with the European role in the world. If these countries want to be members of the European Union, it is natural, it is logical, that we try to see if they are really aligning with our view of the world. If they become members, they should share [with the EU] a certain understanding of the world. And we are doing that, we are measuring that. There are different degrees of alignment. Some of them are 100% aligned, others are only 60% aligned. But, in order to push this alignment, we want to look for the space where we can benefit of a mutual understanding and sharing our analysis and discussions. They do not have to align with us blindly. The partners should have more information about our discussion on Foreign Policy and that is what we are trying to do more to make them work closely with us and to participate more in the deliberations of the Foreign Affairs Council. It would be easier for them to understand what is our view of the world and to align with it.
Q. Vous posez aujourd’hui, vous l’avez dit tout à l'heure, le texte sur la Boussole Stratégique tout à l’heure sur la table des ministres des Affaires étrangères et de la défense. Vous avez écrit un projet. Vous êtes satisfait de ce projet ? Vous vous êtes contents de son aboutissement ? Vous avez plutôt hâte d'en discuter avec les ministres pour qu'ils puissent l’amender, le travailler ou le compléter ? Je voulais un peu avoir votre sentiment là-dessus.
Je voulais aussi sur la Biélorussie mais en lien avec cet aspect-là, parce que la Biélorussie est l'exemple même type de crise hybride. Je pense que vous même vous la qualifier d’attaque hybride sur lequel les européens n’ont pas automatiquement tous les instruments pour réagir. Est-ce que vous estimez qu'il faut qu'on se dote d'instruments plus raffinés que ne rien dire ou des sanctions ? Parce que, entre les deux, on n'a pas l'impression que Minsk se laisse amadouer.
On va commencer à faire ce que vous dites. On va commencer à discuter avec les ministres aujourd’hui et demain. Jusqu'à maintenant il y a eu beaucoup de discussions à des différents niveaux.
On a fait des séminaires avec des ministres. Chaque présidence a fait cses réunions ad-hoc. Moi, je me suis entretenu avec beaucoup de ministres, pas avec tous. Les papiers ne tombent pas du ciel. Le document ne tombe pas du ciel. On a beaucoup travaillé sur ces textes, mais je ne peux pas dire que ces textes soit le résultat d'un consensus. Non, vraiment il ne l'est pas. On n’a pas voulu construire un consensus avant de commencer la discussion formelle. On a essayé d'approcher des positions pour ne pas présenter un document qui ne pouvait pas voler. Mais ce n'est pas un document qui sera approuvé dans une seule réunion du Conseil. Et c'est bien que ça soit comme ça. C'est bien qu'on discute, c’est bien qu’on décide après une discussion pour savoir exactement de quoi il s'agit. Et quels sont les choix et les positions des différents pays. C'est évident que pas tous les pays sont dans la même approche. Donc j'espère une discussion intéressante ce soir et demain. Et à partir de là, il faudra peaufiner, il faudra préciser un certain nombre d'éléments. S'il y a un accord de principe, on développera plus certaines questions qui ne sont peut-être pas assez bien définies. La modularité, la façon dont on peut déployer des capacités. Tout ça, il faut le travailler beaucoup plus, mais d'abord il faut savoir s'il y a un accord de principe pour le faire.
Oui, ce qu’il se passe sur la frontière biélorusse c'est un exemple typique d’une situation de la nouvelle façon de gérer les conflits . Mon introduction a été publiée par certains médias et si vous le voyez, là il y a beaucoup de références à des choses qui sont en train de se passer qui n'étaient pas encore dans les journaux quand je l'ai l'écrit, mais que c'était déjà d’une certaine prévoyance sur ce qui peut se passer. Il faudra s'habituer à cette sorte de situation hybride. Car la différence entre la guerre et la paix, elle n’est pas comme le blanc et le noir. Il y a des situations conflictuelles dans toutes les différentes tonalités du gris.
Q. Could you tell us more about your phone call with the Belarusian Foreign Minister? What was his view? How did he defend himself? You told us what you said, but what did he say? And, can you tell us a bit more, you have been talking about this crisis for few months, why it has been taking so long to change the sanctions criteria?
The purpose of my phone call was to be sure that I had all the information required to discuss with my colleagues today. And, previously, before talking with the Secretary General of the United Nations [António Guterres], I wanted to know exactly which was the attitude of the Belarusian authorities with respect to the humanitarian aid and about the repatriation of the people who are stuck in the border. I asked frankly what was the situation and are you going to provide humanitarian help, allow humanitarian help to reach these people, which is your responsibility of these people being there, what do you plan to do with them. And I asked for cooperation to repatriate these people. I asked for these people to get humanitarian assistance. They will not be able to go to Europe, but they should not be dying frozen at the border. We have to do something. We have to help them. Who? The humanitarian organisations, the United Nations organizations and the Belarusian State. Poland has been offering humanitarian support. And he assured me that they were going to provide humanitarian support, that they have mobilised the army, they are accepting the access of the United Nations organisations that help refugees. And from this point of view, it was good news, but he declined any responsibility on these people being there.
Q. On the option paper on Turkey, would you elaborate a little more on the measures or options that would be included in the paper? What was the mood in the room today? And you said that the paper will be ready in December, hopefully, what is next then?
The Member States will be presented with an option paper that will be produced according to all the information that we have about the events in Varosha. We have been gathering intelligence information. We will produce an option paper and the Member States will have to discuss and take decisions about it. An option paper, as it clearly means, is a paper presenting options.
Q. Which would be the options?
I am sorry, you will have to wait.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-213791