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Foreign Affairs Council: Press remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell


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Good afternoon,

Before I start, let me make a short point on the sad news that reached us during the [Foreign Affairs] Council: the attack on the World Food Programme convoy in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I extend, once again, my heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims, one of which has been the Italian ambassador [to the DRC]. We express our sympathy with Minister [for Foreign Affairs of Italy, Luigi] Di Maio and Italy. This is yet again a cowardly attack in a region that requires real attention and where civilians continue to pay a heavy price for deeply rooted insecurity.

Going back to our Council meeting. This has been a very dense Council. One of the most dense Councils we had and very interesting. We have been talking about Russia, Iran and Hong Kong. These have been the key topics. In addition, we had a first meeting through videoconference with Secretary of State [of the United States, Antony] Blinken.

Other issues were on the agenda, but we could not cover all of them. For example, the Strategic Compass debate has been postponed to the next Foreign [Affairs] Council.

On Russia, there is a shared assessment in the Council that Russia is drifting towards an authoritarian state and driving away from Europe.

The Ministers unanimously interpreted Russia’s recent actions and responses as a clear signal of not being interested in cooperation with the European Union. On the contrary, it looks interested in confrontation and disengagement from the European Union.

With Ministers – I am happy to say it - we confirmed our unity as our greatest asset. We have considered during our discussion that we need to work along three main lines when it comes to Russia, within the framework of the five guiding principles, that can be resumed in three verbs: to push back when Russia infringes international law and human rights; to contain when it seeks to increase its pressure on us, including through disinformation and cyber-attacks; and third, to engage when and on issues where we have an interest in doing so. To push back, to contain and to engage.

In response to events around the situation of Mr [Alexei] Navalny, we reached a political agreement to impose restrictive measures against those responsible for his arrest, sentencing and persecution.

In doing that, for the first time ever, we will make use of the European Union Global Human Rights [Sanctions] Regime to this end. These sanctions will be put in the pipeline of our administrative process today under a proposal of the High Representative. I hope they will be decided soon. Maybe it will take one week, but I hope not more than that, and will be approved by written procedure by the Council.

As I said, in agreement with Member States, I will now submit concrete proposals and they will be transmitted to the administrative procedure - which is quite cumbersome - today, and I hope it will not be more than one week.

We also agreed to give more support to all those engaged in the country – in Russia - in defending the political and civil freedoms.

At the same time, we must define a modus vivendi to avoid permanent confrontation with a neighbour who, unfortunately, seems to have decided to act as an adversary. Unfortunately. But this looks [like] the reality.

We also discussed the situation with Iran, and the worrying recent developments in the nuclear field. We need to bring back full implementation of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), both as regards nuclear commitments and when it comes to sanctions lifting. This is the only way forward, and is in the interest of global and regional security.

I can tell you that intense diplomatic contacts are ongoing these days, including with the United States. As JCPOA Coordinator, it is my job to help create space for diplomacy and to find solutions. And the work on this is ongoing. I informed the Ministers and I hope that in the next days there will be news.

We also discussed the situation in Myanmar. As you know, the democratic transition was reversed by the military coup on 1st February, which deposed the still legitimate leader of the country, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

These latest events are extremely worrying. People are being killed in the demonstrations. We strongly condemn this military coup and unacceptable violence against peaceful demonstrators.

Today, we have decided a set of targeted measures with Ministers in response to these events. We took the political agreement to apply sanctions targeting the military responsible for the coup and their economic interests.

All direct financial support from our development assistance to the government’s reform programmes is withheld. But at the same time, the measures taken should not impact the population. We will continue to support civil society and provide basic services to the people of Myanmar.

On Hong Kong, the situation keeps deteriorating. We agreed on a two-step process with a set of short and longer-term actions, in addition to the initial response package that was adopted last July.

As the first step, immediate measures include increased support to civil society, stepping up coordination with like-minded partners, and outreach to relevant authorities.

We also agreed on steps to be taken in case of further deterioration of the situation, such as aggressive ‘reform’ of the electoral process in Hong Kong or further erosion of the independence of the judiciary.

The Council also addressed the impact of the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong on our broader relations with China. And the discussions will continue on this point.

And then came the important video conference with the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, which was for sure a major highlight of today’s Council.

This was the first [high]-level interaction between the EU and the new US administration. 

I am glad to say that we have had a very positive discussion that shows that the focus now is not only on deepening our partnership, but also on joint global leadership: in fighting the pandemic, dealing with recovery, mitigating climate change, and ensuring the promotion of democratic values.

Democracy is being challenged today in the world. There is a battle of narratives about which system delivers better for the population, for the people, and we have to demonstrate that democracy delivers better than any other system.

We discussed international opportunities and challenges, including relations with China and Russia, which are the two poles with respect [to which] we have to face the most important challenges.

Believe me, the conversation with the Secretary of State has been very positive and heart touching. It was a human touch that goes further than just the political considerations. We appreciate that each other considers the other as the best partner, and the last words of the Secretary of State were really very encouraging for us. 

We are looking forward to re-engaging with the US, in particular addressing current tensions and conflicts in our immediate and wider neighbourhood. We acknowledged the need to work together on Iran at this critical juncture. As I said, I hope that in the next days or weeks we could prove that working together delivers results in this field.

We touched also upon strengthening our partnership in Ukraine, countries of the Eastern Partnership, and the Western Balkans. [On the] Middle East, Africa and Latin America, there is also a joint understanding that we should work more together.

Finally, we discussed our security and defence cooperation and how a stronger Europe can participate globally with the US in order to provide security.

Let me stress and focus on Ethiopia: the Finnish Minister [Pekka] Haavisto went to the region, as my representative, representing the High Representative, he went to the region on my behalf and debriefed us today about his mission.

Almost four months into the conflict, 80% of the Tigray population of 6 million people remain unreachable. It is a complete black out. Today, four months after the start of the war – because we can call it a war – 80% of the people are still unreachable. And there are areas where fighting is still ongoing and there is no humanitarian access.

On behalf of the Council, I want to do this oral conclusion of our discussion today, that urgent need remains for a full and immediate humanitarian access to Tigray, the need to investigate allegations of severe human rights violations; of ending violence and discrimination; and ask for the respect of international humanitarian law. The [European] External Action Service will produce a project of conclusions which will be approved by written procedure, but I think that I am representing the debate today in the Council if I insist on that the fighting has to stop; full humanitarian access has to be provided; investigations about the allegations of human rights violations and of ending violence and discrimination, and respect of humanitarian law [must be ensured].

Finally, on Belarus, the repression and increased harassment of the people and civil society by the authorities continue.  

We will consider the adoption of further sanctions and, in the meantime, we will support the Belarusian people in its legitimate request for democracy, by supporting the civil society, and by punishing, sanctioning those who deny them the fundamental political rights.

As you can see it has been a dense and very much interesting Council.


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Q. Vous avez dit que la Russie aujourd’hui ne considère plus du tout l’Union européenne comme un partenaire, comme un interlocuteur dans son ensemble, qu’elle préfère discuter avec ses États membres plutôt qu’avec l’entité qu’est l’Union européenne. Sans cesse vous insistez sur la nécessité pour l’Union européenne d’apprendre à parler le langage du pouvoir. Est-ce que vous considérez que lorsque les États membres de l’Union européenne critiquent votre déplacement à Moscou, critiquent les résultats, critiquent l’humiliation qui vous a été faite, laissent leurs élus au Parlement européen demander votre démission, est-ce que c’est une manière pour l’Union européenne de parler le langage du pouvoir ou est-ce que c’est plutôt une manière de s’affaiblir et de se discréditer au regard du monde entier?

Today there has not been any criticism about my travel to Moscow. On the contrary, all Member States have been supportive, and considering that after all, the travel provided good information about which is the stance of Russia and the way we have to deal with it.

I did not go to Russia because I like to go; I had a mandate of the Foreign Affairs Council. A big majority of supportive. Your point, I am sorry, is not true. Secondly, when you say the Members of the European Parliament – how many? 70 out of 750. It is less than 10%. So let us put things in their right dimension.


Q. I wonder if you can tell us what do you think about the representatives of Mr Navalny who urged the EU to see the situation in the context of the upcoming National Duma elections and even suggested that the cases, the verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights provide a database of names to sanction going forward those who have already been proven to violate rights (judges, prosecutors, investigators). On the conversation with Mr Blinken, I wonder if the Cuba embargo came up in any way during these talks?

No, no hemos hablado de Cuba. No sé por qué, pero ahora a todas las partes donde voy me preguntan por Cuba.

No, we have not talked about Cuba. It must be a very interesting issue because on these last days everywhere I go, they ask me about Cuba. But today we have not talked about Cuba.

I cannot give you more details about the people who will be on the listing. It is a legal act and the debates at the Council are confidential. You will have to wait until the administrative procedure is finished. But, as I said, it refers to people involved on the detention and persecution of [Alexei] Navalny.


Q. On Iran, you sounded quite optimistic that there would be news in the coming days, which I assume means that you hope that Iran will accept the invitation to attend talks with the US. Have they given you that indication yet? If Iran were not to come, what conclusions should we draw from that? On Hong Kong, you said that the ministers discussed today how the issue of HK affects our relations with China. What conclusions did the Ministers draw? Is this a minor irritant or is it a real threat to strong ties?

About Iran, first as I said, we are strongly concerned about Iran’s intentions to suspend the implementation of the additional protocol and additional transparency provisions under the JCPOA. As [of] tomorrow, tomorrow is going to take this decision, but the good news is that the International Atomic Energy [Agency] have reached a temporary technical understanding and the Agency assesses that this understanding will allow a sufficient level of monitoring and verification in the coming months. Let’s say that it is not going to be a complete blackout. For a certain time the International Atomic Energy Agency will be able to continue producing sufficient monitoring and verification. This gives us a window of opportunity and time, the time needed in order to try to reinvigorate the JCPOA.

I have to say that I appreciate a lot the efforts of Mr [Rafael Mariano] Grossi, [Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency], and we support the technical understanding that the Agency has reached with Iran. I have been in touch with Mr Grossi before he went to Iran to get this agreement and I think this is a very good news because, as I said, we are not going to be in a complete blackout from tomorrow.

This gives diplomacy a chance. This gives the possibility of re-starting the process and being able to make everybody sit again at the table in order to implement the proposal from the United States of coming back to the JCPOA. This is a very important decision; it is much more difficult to go back to the JCPOA than to go back to the climate agreement. To go [back] to the Climate agreement is not controversial. To go to the JCPOA it is and it requires the agreement of everybody. I cannot go into the details because these diplomatic contacts have to be discreet but I am reasonably optimistic.

If it does not work we will see, but do not ask me to start thinking what we are going to do if it does not work. For the time being, all my energy is invested to try to make it work. I cannot ensure you that we are going to get it but I think there is quite an important good will and everybody is perfectly aware of the importance of what we are dealing with.

About China and Hong Kong, evidently China and Hong Kong are related issues. What is happening in Hong Kong affects China and affects our relations with China. This is something evident. And that is why we are working in a two-step approach, doing step by step according with the evolution of the situation. We do not want to anticipate decisions, we want to see what is happening and acting accordingly with that.

For sure, one can say ‘Yes but on one hand you discuss about Hong Kong and on the other hand you sign a comprehensive agreement on investment with China.’ Well I think both things are compatible. We have been very much criticised for signing this agreement because of Hong Kong or because of the human rights.

Look, this agreement has been discussed for seven years and this agreement addresses huge concerns, it will have a positive impact for European Union citizens, the European economy and the European Union and China trade. As part of this agreement China has for the first time agreed to ambitious provisions on sustainable development, commitments on forced labour and the ratification of relevant International Labour Organisation Fundamental Conventions. I think this is very positive.

And to sign this agreement does not prevent us from continuing addressing with China our concerns on human rights and fundamental freedoms, be it in Hong Kong, in Xinjiang, or elsewhere. I think this makes quite an important difference between the approaches or attitudes of China and Russia.


Q. On Myanmar, it has been three weeks since the coup and I wondered today how far did the work advance in terms of pressuring the military junta to give up power. Do you have any sense of how quickly the EU can now move on considering trade preferences or weakening the economic power of the military through sanctions?

I am against the possibility of cancelling the ‘Everything but Arms’ trade agreement or trade frame. This would be very damaging to the Myanmar people, thousands of jobs would be lost, mainly jobs [done] by women in the textile sector. And it will not harm the military. By principle, the European Union does not use these kind of measures. Measures that punish the population and do not affect the military or the dictators, we do not want to use them. And in this specific case, if we abandon the framework of ‘Everything but Arms’, the trade preferences, given the economic structure of Myanmar and the economic structure of its exports, it would be really damaging for the poor people of Myanmar.

So, no. We are not going to do that. We are going to target sanctions to the military and to the economic interests of the military. Because in this country, as in other countries in the world, the military do something more than just taking care of defence, they are also the ones who own or manage an important part of the economy of the country. And we have to target our sanctions in order to affect them, their interests, but not the well-being of the people.


Q. High Representative, I have two questions. The first question is on Russia. I am not asking about any names that could come on the sanctions list, but if the reports are correct –that these [sanctions] will just be for people, officials-, which message do you think this would send to Putin? Because two representatives of the Navalny’s Foundation were yesterday and today in Brussels and they were exactly explaining that those moves are not efficient against Putin, and they were talking about rather sanctioning oligarchs who are financing these human rights violations. The second question is on Belarus. You said that the EU is going to consider additional sanctions. Can you explain a little bit more when can we expect these and will it also be on companies, officials or what can we expect?

I suppose it would be useful for your information work, but I am sorry I cannot provide this information at this moment. You know that we have already listed 84 individuals and seven entities responsible for violent repression of the Belarusian people and for falsifying elections. We stand ready to go further and we will do it. The technical group of the Council is working on it. But I cannot anticipate.

You know, to sanction someone requires a complex process in order to be sure that there is a clear link between the events that have happened and require action, and the participation of people that we are going to sanction. Because this kind of measures can be controversial and the affected [persons] can go to the Court of Justice. We cannot sanction someone because we do not like him or them. We have to sanction someone for doing something and we have to prove that the things they do are in close relation with the facts that we want to punish.

So, when you say “punish the oligarchs!”, maybe we do not like the oligarchs, but we have to prove that these people that are going to be sanctioned have a direct participation on the facts that we want to sanction. This is also the rule of law, these are also the things that have to be respected. We cannot punish people we do not like. When we deal with sanctions on the case of [Mr Alexei] Navalny, we have to sanction the people who are directly related with his arrest, his sentencing, his prosecution, or his poisoning. If there is not a link that we can prove in front of a court, we cannot use it. I am sorry, this is the rule of law also..


Q. Monsieur le haut représentant, je voulais vous poser deux questions. Sur la Russie, avec leur attitude relativement dure lors de votre voyage à Moscou, les Russes ont finalement aidé les Européens à se mettre d’accord à l’unanimité pour des sanctions, là où avant votre voyage vous n’étiez pas tout à fait d’accord. Donc, finalement la Russie peut être un adversaire de l’Union européenne, mais elle l’aide à réaffirmer son unanimité. Sur la défense, je voulais savoir qu’est-ce que vous retenez précisément du débat entre les ministres sur la boussole stratégique ? Je sais que le débat sur la boussole stratégique a été reporté à plus tard, mais est-ce que ce sujet a pu être abordé notamment avec le ministre américain en matière d’autonomie stratégique?

Yes, we could not discuss today the Strategic compass, it was too late and we were a little bit exhausted after a long and intense meeting. The issue was too much important to deal with it in half an hour at the end of our meeting, so we proposed to study this carefully next time.

Avec le secrétaire d’État américain, on a parlé bien sûr de sécurité et défense. Je pense que nous avons été clairs en disant qu’un partenariat fort demande un partenaire fort. Et nous les européens, nous voulons être un partenaire fort et pour cela, il faut développer nos capacités dans le domaine de la sécurité et de la défense. Cela n’a rien à voir avec affaiblir l’OTAN, comme certains pourraient le penser, ou affaiblir nos rapports avec les États-Unis, tout au contraire. Plus l’Europe sera forte, plus elle sera un bon partenaire.

We have been talking about the possibility of setting up a structured relationship on security and defence, not case by case, between the European Union and the United States, why not? It does not change anything with respect to our partnership and membership to NATO. Yes, security and defence will be, for sure, an important issue in which we will have to engage, because we Europeans, we have to share our part of the burden.

And in the world in which we are going to live, will require more efforts on security and defence. We are going to live in a much more confrontational world. So, the European [Union] should be ready to participate in the efforts to provide security. This will require financial means, organisational means, and it will require a stronger partnership with the United States, in the framework of NATO and also in our bilateral relations.

Par rapport à la Russie, vous dites que la réaction russe a provoqué une unité parmi les États membres. Oui, si vous le voulez, si je dois le dire. Peut-être sans ce qui s’est passé à Moscou il n’y aurait pas eu d’unanimité pour décider des sanctions dans le cas de [Alexei] Navalny. Sans doute, l’attitude russe a montré à tous les États européens - [aussi bien à] ceux qui étaient déjà convaincus à l’avance, [comme] à ceux qui hésitaient - qu’aujourd’hui avec la Russie, nous sommes dans une approche confrontationelle, parce que c’est la Russie qui le veut.

Donc, il fallait utiliser les moyens que nous avons pour montrer que nous ne condamnons pas seulement avec des mots - comme je l’ai fait en Russie ouvertement , mais que nous prenons des mesures - des mesures que nous pouvons prendre - et que nous utilisons pour la première fois le système que nous avons mis en place pour faire face à des violations de droits humains et aussi, pour la première fois, sous la proposition du haut représentant.


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Peter Stano
Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
+32 (0)460 75 45 53
Nabila Massrali
Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
+32 (0) 2 29 88093
+32 (0) 460 79 52 44