Foreign Affairs Council: Remarks by High Representative Josep Borrell at the press conference
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This has been a long day. This has been one of the longest Foreign Affairs Council [meetings]. Well, it was Foreign Affairs Council but, first, the Joint Ministerial Committee with Canada. We started at 8:00 and it is 19:00, so it was quite a long day. But it was wide, it was a very interesting discussion, very important, successful.
We start with a few words about the Joint Ministerial Committee that we held with Canada in the morning, and I chaired this Ministerial Committee together with Minister [of Foreign Affairs of Canada, Mélanie] Joly.
As you know, Canada is one of the closest and most reliable partners of the European Union. We have a Strategic Partnership Agreement, a very comprehensive and advanced cooperation framework. We reviewed our relations – all goes well. But we want to work even more closely together. On what? On food security, on energy, on civil protection, on tackling disinformation, and obviously on the key foreign policy issues, starting with the war in Ukraine, where our unity is our strongest asset.
Certainly, we discussed about the ratification process of the CETA and everything. But the important thing is the will to continue working together on the new challenges that we will be facing as a consequence of the war. This is going to be for many countries around the world, a difficult situation, because the energy prices and the food prices will increase. And the sanctions are going to be sold by Russian disinformation [actors] as the causes of those prices increases.
Then, we started the Foreign Affairs Council itself.
We started with our political engagement with the Western Balkans. This is a commitment that we made at the last EU – Western Balkans Summit, and it is more important than ever in the current circumstances because the Russian propaganda and disinformation is very much widespread in the Western Balkans.
This is why, we invited for the first time, the six Foreign Affairs Ministers of the six Western Balkans countries to join us today for a discussion that took place during the lunch, where we discussed the future of the Western Balkans countries on their path to the European Union.
We welcomed and appreciated the strategic and courageous choices of those partners who aligned fully with our foreign policy and sanctions. Not all of them, but many of them.
And the Ministers expressed their clear expectation towards the partners as future Member States, to commit to European values and to the European foreign policy. Those who have not yet done so – and Serbia is one of them – should, as soon as they can, step up their alignment and implement sanctions. We understand the difficulties and we value a lot the fact that all voted against Russia in the United Nations General Assembly. But we expect from the candidates, from our partners, to align fully with our foreign policy.
For me, it is clear - as High Representative and for many of my colleagues in the Foreign Affairs Council - that to maintain close ties with [Vladimir] Putin’s regime is no longer compatible with building a common future with the European Union. Both things at the same time are not compatible. Being neutral today, with respect to the Ukrainian war, is a false concept. One country has invaded another and putting them on the same footing fails to differentiate between the attacker and the attacked, and this is not possible. You cannot look to the other side. I said that in the European Parliament, at the beginning of the war, and I repeated it today. Certainly, we can understand that there are constraints, there are difficulties, there are links, there are public opinions – whatever you want. But it is clear that there are things that are incompatible.
Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia fully align with our foreign and security policy decisions and, because of that, they may be exposed to more threats from Russia. Standing up with us in defence of international law may have a cost. And in fact, Albania and North Macedonia are being considered as unfriendly countries by Russia. Also, Bosnia Herzegovina has aligned with our measures against Russia, and so did Kosovo despite not having to do so - because Kosovo is not even recognised by several Member States – it is important to make this difference.
All our partners consider and feel the direct impact Russia’s war is causing around the world. I said before - on energy prices, on food shortages and inflation. Unhappily, all these things together will bring the world to the edge of another recession, depending on the decision that the Central Banks will adopt. But whatever they do, we will have to adapt our financial support in line with these new needs. And on these actions, we will include our partners in order to mitigate the effects of this upcoming crisis.
We sent to the Western Balkans partners a strong message asking them to act more strategically when it comes to their domestic problems, when it comes to reforms and when it comes to solving open bilateral issues. There is a need for reconciliation in the Western Balkans. And there was a clear understanding that we need to launch the negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania immediately. I want to stress that - and I want to make clear my personal commitment as High Representative for Foreign policy - that we need to start the negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. And I hope, more than hope, more than wish, that this will happen during the French Presidency [of the Council of the EU], which is by the way reaching its end. We all see that this delay is unsustainable. We cannot call Albania and North Macedonia, that fulfill all conditions, to remain seated and link to each other if we do not offer them a clear perspective. This situation is not only harming them, it is harming us. It is costing us and the region too much in terms of credibility and political perspective. It is a present to Russia. It is a present to Russia and an occasion to further drag this on.
There were also many calls for visa liberalisation with Kosovo. The [European] Commission and its members – I am also Vice-President of the Commission - have presented several times to the Council a proposal, an opinion, arguing that Kosovo fulfills all criteria for visa liberalisation. There has been visa liberalisation for Ukraine a long time ago, we continue supporting visa liberalisation for Kosovo.
We discussed about the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and we reiterated, the [Foreign Affairs] Council reiterated the commitment to a single, united and sovereign country. Rolling back reforms and dismantling the state institutions is incompatible with the European perspective and unacceptable. We need the political leaders of the country to resume dialogue, to fully return to State institutions, continue working on reforms and perform elections as scheduled.
We certainly talked about the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue. Ministers expect [from both sides] the full respect and implementation of all previous agreements – which is not the case – and to continue the European-led dialogue.
We need constructive engagement and rapid progress on normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Each one agrees on that on their side, but when they sit together it is difficult to advance. We need to create trust. It is essential to improve the atmosphere in the Dialogue, to engage in positive actions, to create trust and avoid unilateral steps. And I hope that before the summer, we will be able to hold another meeting at the highest political level with the Prime Minister of Kosovo [Albin Kurti] and the President of Serbia [Aleksandar Vučić]. But work is still in progress.
Then we went, with the EU [Foreign Affairs] Ministers, to the issue of Ukraine. We were joined by the Ukrainian Foreign [Affairs] Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, who debriefed us on the state of play. We reassured him of the continued support in fighting the Russian aggression.
In this part of the meeting, the Canadian Foreign Minister, Mélanie Joly, also joined our deliberations. And we went through an analysis of every way to provide financial support in front of the worsening humanitarian situation, in front of the financial needs during the war, for the post-war reconstruction of the country and mainly to defend themselves.
We agreed to provide an additional €500 million from the European Peace Facility for weapon deliveries. What started with €500 million, now reaches €2 billion. And this is just the point of the iceberg, because apart from this €2 billion, the Member States do a lot from their side without asking for refunding. This is money to refund the expenditure of the Member States but many Member States do much more than that. I cannot give you a precise figure, but believe me, it is more than the €2 billion coming from the European budget. Well, not exactly the European budget, as I explained to you, the European Peace Facility is an intergovernmental instrument, not part of the European budget in strict terms. But it is the Member States of the European Union who fund and manage this fund.
We also considered to support Ukraine’s economy through trade liberalisation and transport facilitation measures. There is an EU action plan for EU-Ukraine Solidarity Lanes. We have to help Ukraine keep producing and exporting grains and wheat. The storage capacity of Ukraine is full, because they cannot export this grain and they need to empty this storage capacity in order to be able to receive the next crop. So, we are working on how to help them to take this grain out by train, via these Solidarity Lanes. There are other ideas on the table about the possibility of de-blocking Odessa, but, for the time being, nothing concrete has come out from Ukraine and Russia, each one from their side. Remember that these waters are completely mined. It is not just a matter of opening the port, because the ships cannot go unless a strong work on demining of these waters can be performed.
We will continue imposing sanctions on Russia to make the cost of invasion unbearable for the Kremlin. We continue discussing. Unhappily today, it has not been possible to reach an agreement to finalise the 6th sanctions package. The issue will go back to the COREPER and [EU] Ambassadors will continue discussing. We are with the same difficulties about unanimity on the oil ban.
Then there is the narrative battle. Russia is trying to shift the blame for the growing worldwide impact [of the war], not only towards its victims – Ukraine - but also to the European Union and to the West. It claims that the crisis is a consequence of the sanctions when the crisis – the price increases – are consequences of the war. When Russia is bombing Ukrainian fields, destroying, burning, and looting food storages; when Russian warships are blocking the Black Sea trade routes and the Ukrainian ports; when Russia prevents Ukrainian wheat from being exported, it has certainly a negative impact on the daily life of people in Africa and Asia.
And I want to answer to all leaders of the world, some of them from Latin America, and others from Africa, who have been considering “well these sanctions affect us also,” to tell them that there are no sanctions that can affect them, because we have never forbidden exports to third countries. It is the war that Russia launched against Ukraine who is affecting them and their people. But we have to take care of these effects.
This weekend, we were at the G7 Ministerial meeting. We considered actions to be taken, together with the World Food [and Agriculture] Organisation (FAO). And we are working towards mitigating the effects of Russia’s [aggression] and [guaranteeing] a secure food supply to all countries. But this will be a big endeavor, a big challenge for the world community and will require a strong engagement from the G20 Members.
I hope that in the next weeks, at the meeting called by the United States in Washington, at the meeting of the G20 and at the meetings of the African Union, the issue of food security and energy prices will be very much on the agenda, because the world needs it.
We also talked about other issues, but these are the most important concrete subjects of the discussion.
Q. So far, countries in the Balkans, have been waiting a long time for accession, but still there are some problems with accession to the EU and still the EU is not able to start the accession negotiations. How does this relate to the aspirations of Ukraine to join the EU if there are some ties between that? The second question, the EU often says that it demands to Russia to unconditionally stop the war in Ukraine and to withdraw all the forces out of Ukraine, but right now Russian invaders they just declared some part of occupied territories as Russian territories, rising flags, and trying to form the local administration. How could that impact a potential ceasefire?
Well, there is no link, there is no relationship between the accession process of the Western Balkans that has been lasting for quite a number of years and the request for membership, or for candidacy, for candidacy, of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The Commission is studying these three requests and will present soon, very quickly - by our standards, very quickly - will soon present to the Council an Opinion. I am saying very quickly because this kind of procedures take years. And the first two steps, to present the questionnaire, to answer the questionnaire and to study [it and] produce the Opinion of the Commission, in the case of Ukraine has been performed at the speed of light compared with other processes. But [procedures for] both the Western Balkans and others are based on rules, meritocratic, there are conditions to be fulfilled, we want to do it as quick as possible and we have to wait for the Commission to present an Opinion, which I cannot advance. And there is no link between the Western Balkans accession and the Ukrainian request.
Secondly, we will not recognise a single square kilometre of Ukrainian land taken by the Russians, just as we did not recognise Crimea. We will not recognise any part of Ukraine being claimed as part of the Russian Federation. We defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine and when we say that we hope Ukraine will win this war, it means that they will be able to reject the invader out of their borders.
Q. I would like to know if you discussed any compensation measure, financial, economic for the Western Balkans. I believe that there is a request by North Macedonia for Micro Financial Assistance to cope with the consequences of the war, of the sanctions, knowing that North Macedonia is one of the few which is 100% aligned with the sanctions. Do you consider integrating those countries which are 100% aligned with the sanctions to the EU programmes of compensation and do you consider giving North Macedonia Macro Financial Assistance and how big would it be? And also on Bulgaria I believe the Macedonian Minister had the opportunity to talk to his Bulgarian colleague, is there any change of position on the Bulgarian side?
I understand the question. On the first issue, to tell the truth, we have not gone deep on the subject. We have not gone deep on the subject of “sanctions are going to cause me so, please, compensate me for the cost of implementing sanctions”. We know that North Macedonia, and other countries in the Balkans, will need Macro Financial Assistance. We are going to incorporate all of them in any recovery plan, in any decision that we could take in order to face the increase in electricity, energy, food. We will incorporate the Western Balkans in our answer to the crisis. But to tell the truth, we have not gone into any specific issue on compensation, or Micro Financial Assistance, due to the sanctions. On the contrary yes, we have gone, as you can imagine, very deeply on the issue of the relationship between Bulgaria and North Macedonia that is blocking the process. We went [on this] during the lunch in our dialogue between the Western Balkans and the Member States, and we went [deeply on this] during our debate among the Member States alone. And certainly, this is something that has to be overcome. And there is a strong will and a strong political commitment from the Council to push in order to avoid a crisis that could come if, before the end of the French Presidency [of the Council], this is not being solved. I am putting a limit of time. If it does not happen during the French Presidency, I have to recognise that we will be in a strong crisis in our relationship with the Western Balkans countries. So, we will do our best, we will continue to put all the pressure in order for both parts to reach an agreement.
Q. Prime Minister Orban said in a public interview that he is against the inclusion of Patriarch Kirill in the sanctions list. Since the listings have been prepared by the European External Action Service, I was wondering whether you would be in favour of taking him out in case this could speed up an agreement with Hungary over the oil sanctions. Secondly, you said it will now go back to COREPER, do you have a sense after today’s discussions whether the agreement will be reached in days or weeks. The other EU Ministers have been saying that in the end Hungary will agree. Do you have a sense of the timing?
About the Patriarch and the oil. We are not talking about Holy oil, right? We are talking about oil. Then, there is no link. I do not see the link, frankly speaking, and I even cannot imagine that anyone has been thinking of this link. And about how long can it take, today the discussion has clarified some issues, about the difficulties that Hungary is facing. These difficulties can be measured related to the time to adapt [to the ban] or in cost, in terms of how costly is the adaptation.
The adaptation has two dimensions, the Hungarian [Foreign] Minister has explained to us. One, is the refinery structure and the oil capacity of the pipeline. This is a cost once and for all, a single shot. To change the structure of the refinery and to prolong the pipeline coming from the Mediterranean through Croatia. And then, there is the permanent structural cost related to the different prices of the Russian oil and other oils which are more expensive. Certainly, this is an issue to be taken into consideration, but it is not just a matter of time, it is a matter of cost. We have been discussing that, objectively, in a very positive manner, to try to understand the dimension of the cost, to try to understand if it is a matter of time, if it is a matter of cost. But, at the end, we decided to send it back to COREPER because it was technically too complicated and it was not possible to reach a political decision today. I hope that it is not going to last more, but I cannot say if it's going to take one week or two.
Q. Hungary’s Foreign Minister today said that the cost that would need to be covered is €15 to €18 billion. [Prime Minister of Hungary] Viktor Orban blamed European sanctions for raising inflation and for – what he said - would be years of decline and stagnation. As Jacopo said, there was an assumption that Hungary would eventually come on board. I am wondering if people are beginning to question whether Hungary has any interest in signing up to this oil embargo.
Hungary has not explained its position in political terms but in economic terms. Not about their relationship with Russia and their need to keep the oil embargo as an objective, but on economic terms. These figures that you mention - well, I have heard other figures but maybe there is a misunderstanding, because it was a conversation that required more technical, concrete and with a written procedure process, because you know the figures, yes, the figures are quite high. But the discussion has been on technical terms about the costs and the time required for the adaptation. Nothing about this cataclysm that you are announcing. You know, sanctions cost, yes certainly, sanctions cost. It is not something that you discovered today. Sanctions hurt the one who is being sanctioned and has collateral effects on the one who sanctions. And, certainly, everybody tries to look where is the balance, what is the damage you create to the one you sanction and what is the damage that you suffer as a consequence of the sanctions. We can say the same thing about gas - gas also has consequences. So the discussion will continue but one thing is clear, and it is clear for everybody in the Council - we have to get rid of the energy dependence of the European Union with respect to oil, gas and coal coming from Russia. This is something that has to be done progressively, as quickly as possible, but it has to be done. We have to get rid of this strong dependence that makes us very vulnerable. And the discussion will continue in order to know how, and when and at which cost every Member States has to bear. But today, it was not possible to reach an agreement – by the way, it was not even on the agenda to get an agreement today because we knew it was not possible. But we had a very constructive discussion about the reasons why some Member States are reluctant, not only about the oil ban but other elements of the sanctions package.
Q. Do you still believe that there will be a deal or not?
Q: That does not sound very confident.
This is a psychological interview or what?
Q: It is a very important question. Everyone was saying that it would happen. It still has not happened and today it does not sound any better than the previous discussions.
As I said, it was not even on the agenda today to get an agreement, because everybody knew that the issue was not mature. But we had – and I wanted to have – an exchange of views between all Ministers engaged, in order to better understand, which are the constraints, which are the causes, which are the reluctances, which are the difficulties. And the difficulties that were expressed today were strictly technical and economic.
Allow me to say one thing, I understand that you want to know what is happening, when it is going to happen, at which cost, which are the positions of each one, what is happening with Patriarch, etc. There are some deeper approaches to what is happening.
The European Union is facing three tests: we are facing the test of war, we are facing the test of resilience and we are facing the test of legitimacy. The three of them are important. Because war was absent from our imagination and now we are facing a war. And now we are sending arms to someone who is fighting, someone who is dying, someone who is suffering a barbarian attack and is fighting a lot, with a lot of casualties, I suppose. I do not have figures, but you only have to look at the TV screens and you will see these lines of Russian tanks destroying and trying to cross a river. We are facing a war, an awful war, a full-scale war, and we are mobilising our resources.
We are facing a resilience problem. We have to face a lot of things. We have to face our energy dependence on Russia. We talk about 40% of our gas supply. We are talking about 25% of our oil supply. This is something structurally important, we have to change a lot of things to adapt to this new situation.
And third thing, we are facing the test of legitimacy. Is our approach accepted by the world community? When we say that we are defending International Law, the sovereignty of the nations, when we say that we are defending a country being invaded by an aggressor. Is the world community understanding this message? Are there Member States of the United Nations behind our discourse? This is going to be an intellectual fight. And this is going to last. The war is going to last. And the war of ideas is going to last as well.
So, I understand that you want to know what is going to happen with the Hungarian oil and Patriarch Kirill, but pay attention to the structural changes that we are facing, because the world will be completely different after this war. Completely different. The relationship of forces, the geopolitical balances, the equilibriums, the alliances. The geopolitics of energy will change dramatically with this war. We are going to approve at the [College of the] European Commission on Wednesday a package in order to face that. These things cannot happen overnight, they are structural. So, I understand that you want to know when and who, but please pay attention to the underlying process, one of the most important dynamics that we are facing.
Six months ago, in January, when I went to Ukraine for the first time, to the border line, we could not imagine that we would be in such a situation. Now we are. And we have to win these three tests: the test of war, the test of resilience and the test of international legitimacy.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-225219