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Implications of Covid-19 for the external action of the EU: remarks by HR/VP Josep Borrell at the AFET-SEDE-DROI Committee


Brussels, 20/04/2020

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Thank you for this opportunity to discuss the implications of this pandemic in EU foreign affairs and for your strong support to a joint EU response to this global crisis. Because it is really a global crisis which is affecting all geopolitical aspects.

Last week in the Plenary, the European Parliament delivered on what citizens want to see from their representatives in Europe. That is to say, a strong capacity to build consensus and to take swift and bold decisions to respond to the COVID-crisis. You supported, virtually by unanimity, the Commission proposals for financial measures in support to Member States in this crisis.

Your report recommending a coordinated response to this crisis is a strong call for Europe to play a leading role, something we need because today there is quite an important lack of leadership in the world.

Despite initial criticism, the truth is that the EU has been extremely active and productive in providing a response to the pandemic which can be illustrated in many tracks.

I think we have shown an unprecedented capacity to coordinate, for example, the repatriation of already 500,000 European citizens stranded in third countries. I never could imagine that there were so many European tourists travelling abroad. They have seen their travel plans being disrupted by what has happened with the air traffic and the closing of the borders.

I think we can be proud that, together with Member States, we have organised repatriation of almost 500,000 people. There are still 90,000 missing, but I hope that we will be able to finish the repatriation by the end of next week.

We have also been working in a global, multilateral response and we have developed what we call Team Europe. It is a package, together with the Commission and the Members States, to help other countries, especially the most vulnerable ones, and especially in Africa.

I am not going to mislead anyone, this is not fresh money. We do not have fresh money, unhappily. We have to restructure and to reorient our resources and our programmes in order to give priority to the fight against the pandemic and where it is most needed. It will focus on strengthening health systems and responding to the initial socio-economic crisis.

I think that even if we are badly affected by the coronavirus crisis, we have to show solidarity with other countries who are in a much worse situation than we are, in order to face this problem. Because we need them to also succeed, because if they do not, we will never be safe. Africa has to succeed the fight as much as we have to, because we are engaged on the same problem and we will not be safe until everyone is.

Finally, we have been working a lot on disinformation, countering fake news and promoting a positive narrative of European Union solidarity and engagement. As I said, we are engaged in a battle of narratives about who is the best one and which is the best political system in order to be able to face this global problem. And this will affect the geopolitical landscape after the crisis.

I can talk about many other things, but since the chair, you David, have asked me two very concrete questions on the Western Balkans and Turkey, I think it could be good if I can answer to you directly and immediately.

Let me start by the Western Balkans. The EU has a particularly close relation with our partners in the Western Balkans and, as they are also suffering with increasing numbers of people affected by the coronavirus, we have been trying to support them in addressing both immediate needs in the health sector and the wider socio-economic impact that the confinement measures are producing. They have reported about 10,000 coronavirus cases and 250 deaths. Even if the numbers are not as high compared with Italy and Spain, I am afraid this is likely to increase further.

A package of over €410 million has been reallocated in order to support the region: €38 million for immediate needs and the other €373 million for the latest socio-economic recovery. This support is being put into [action on] the ground working together with United Nations agencies.

We also include the Western Balkans in EU initiatives when it is possible. For example, in the EU Solidarity Fund or in the procurement of protective or medical equipment. The Western Balkan countries are part of this joint procurement that intends to give a quicker and cheaper answer to the needs of medical tools and medical protection capacities.

On the export authorisation scheme for protective equipment, the Commission put forward a new proposal last week and I am happy to confirm that this now foresees an exemption for the Western Balkans. It was badly needed and many people have been asking for it, you among them, and I am very happy to be able to announce that this exception has already been agreed in the Commission.

On Turkey, following the meeting with President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan on 9 March 2020, almost two months ago, the Presidents of the European Council [Charles Michel] and the Commission [Ursula von der Leyen] mandated me to take stock of the implementation of the Joint Statement of March 2016.

The work is ongoing. I am in touch on a regular basis with the Foreign Affairs Minister of Turkey [Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu], I am going to call him tomorrow again. We are exchanging views on various issues that still need to be discussed. The work is not finalized yet and I think that we have to increase and continue our efforts in this regard, bearing in mind that for Turkey migration alone is not the issue. They do not want to be considered as a road for migration and being rewarded financially for that.

There are many other issues that were part of the 2016 agreement, regarding visa liberalization, customs union modernization or the way out for the talks for enlargement. It was not just about stopping the migrants and getting money for it. And even if they had been doing a lot of work for that, they want to talk about everything, and I think we have to understand them and this is what we are trying to do. I hope that after the peak of the coronavirus crisis, we will be able to offer more information about it.

On consular coordination and CSDP [Common Security and Defence Policy] missions -as I said-, our immediate action has focused on the repatriation of 600,000 European tourists and travelers. 500,000 have already returned home and this has required a tremendous coordination effort with the European External Action Service, the Commission and the Member States.

I think there is no precedent being carried with such a big success and we have to be proud of it. And, maybe, we should explain more to the people what the European Union has done it, because I wonder how many of these several hundreds of thousands of people are aware that the European Union has given a hand in order for them to come back home.

Then, let us talk about our CSDP missions. This is becoming something complex and difficult to manage because some staff of these missions has been affected and some Member States are proceeding to the repatriation of their staff.

But in spite of all difficulties, our deployment has continued working and all civilian and military missions and operations maintain presence on the ground with a reduced number of staff. They continue the activities as much as possible taking into account for sure the security of our staff.

We have put in place temporary measures in order to preserve the safety and health of our staff and we also remain committed to continue supporting our partners. In some countries it had to be stopped because there was no way of continuing providing this kind of assistance. But we are still on the ground, we have not withdrawn from any country. We stayed there. Let me give some concrete examples of how our CSDP missions are helping those countries in their fight against the pandemic.

For example, in the Sahel, in Mali, our civilian European Union Capacity Building Mission continues supporting local authorities. We have donated several thousand of masks and other medical equipment.

Most importantly, in Somalia our military EU Training Mission continues supporting with mentoring activities the medical team of the Somali National Army dealing with emergencies of the pandemic.

I want to especially stress the importance of what we are doing working together with the Palestinian border authorities in the West Bank, using a mobile clinic and screening system donated by the civilian European Union Border Assistance Mission for the Rafah Crossing Point.

Dear members, apart from these specific cases, we are going through a global crisis of an unprecedented magnitude. Never in the human history several thousand million people have been confined to their houses. This crisis can only be solved by a global multilateral response through coordination, solidarity and partnership. We have to pay attention to our needs at home. The virus can create devastation in countries without enough doctors. We have to remember that in Europe, for example, we have 40 more doctors per head than in Africa.

So, we have to provide them with help with testing and protective medical equipment, especially to the refugee camps where people live with no access to clean water or proper sanitation. To tell these people that they have to be practicing social distance, stay two meters away from each other and wash their hands with gels when there is no water and they are stockpiled in tens or camps, shows how different their situation is.

We have been working in providing a multilateral response in touch with the Foreign Affairs Ministers from the G7 and G20 and also with the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the World Food Programme. I have been talking with all of them every two days. For example, the World Food Programme put on the table the need to give assistance to more than 50 million people in risk of hunger. And as the Chair of this Programme [David Beasley] told me, the breakdown of the logistic chains and all difficulties in reaching these people will produce more people dying from hunger than from the disease itself.

We, the European Union, have been one of the first and loudest voices to back UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, calling for the maximum use of humanitarian exception in sanction regimes.

We have to go back to that because many people do not believe that they can engage in humanitarian assistance to Iran or Venezuela without falling under the American sanctions. And we have to clarify this, because the situation in these countries is completely out of any human consideration and we are going to call again for the relief of the sanctions.

Finally, those days we made a clear statement in support of the World Health Organization following the US decision to suspend their funding. In my talks with United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, I have been listening to him saying that this crisis is an opportunity to build back a better, greener, more sustainable and more resilient economy and society. But who knows what is going to happen. In the past, after the pandemic that happened 100 years ago, the so-called Spanish Flu, more than 50 million people died and the world was not better after, on the contrary, the world went to war.

We have to avoid the increase in geopolitical tensions and we have to finance assistance and debt relief in critical areas. We have to support the efforts of the G20 and International Financial Institutions. I have been in touch with the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund [Kristalina Georgieva] asking her for increased help.

I think the help they are providing to the 70 poorest countries in the world is quite timid. It is good, but it is not enough, just for six months and just interest rates, it is too short and too little. And medium-income countries also need assistance. If not, the whole world economy can go into a crisis. But for that, the International Monetary Fund should be able to launch a new round of Special Drawing Rights. For the time being it is not possible due to the opposition of the United States.

We have put forward an ambitious Team Europe package with €16 billion to support our partners, and we can already say that the total contribution amounts to more than €20 billion, adding up the loans of the European Investment Bank. We have given priority to Africa, to the Western Balkans and to the neighbourhood. But we do not forget about Latin America, especially the neighbourhood countries of Venezuela and also groups of population at risk, such as those in refugee camps as I already mentioned.

Let me talk now about countering disinformation and promotion of a positive European Union narrative. We need a positive European Union narrative. It breaks my heart and it almost makes me cry to see the European flag being burned in Italy. In the report that I did last week, I highlighted the importance for the European Union to fight external disinformation, fake news and cyberattacks.

We are engaged in this battle of narratives that has an important geopolitical component. There is a certain instrumentalisation of the help provided by some governments to support their own agendas and cast doubts about the reliability of the European Union, sometimes with a spinning and half-truth, sometimes just with fake [information].

Every help is welcome and I want to use this opportunity to especially thank the help provided by China. Remember that at the beginning of the crisis, when China was severely hit and the epidemic had still not arrived in Europe, we were helping China and now they are helping us. It is very much welcome and we have nothing against that, but maybe we did not promote in the media as much as they have, the help that we provide, as some countries are promoting the help that they are providing us today.

I think that we must get better at showing what the European Union is doing. We do a lot, but we spend less resource and we pay less attention to the explanation of what we are doing. I think that we have to use all tools that we are developing and join forces with other European institutions in communicating our actions strategically.

And you, members of the European Parliament, you have an important role to play in relaying the message to the public in your home countries as Parliamentary ambassadors of the European Union across the world.

Finally, in finding our way out of the crisis, we should remember that none of the other problems that we focused on before the coronavirus crisis started have gone away. In fact, they are getting worse. And if the coronavirus [crisis] deepens, the long running conflicts will also deepen, especially in our neighbourhood. In spite of the call of the Secretary-General of the United Nations [António Guterres] the fighting in Libya has started again, more fiercely than ever. And in other parts of the world, the peace is very fragile.

There are some improvements in Yemen and in Afghanistan with the exchange of prisoners and a very fragile cease-fire. But we cannot say that the coronavirus and the call of the United Nations have been an incentive to stop fighting, unhappily.

After the crisis, we are going to face growing geopolitical tensions, especially between the United States and China. And we Europeans will have our work to do there. There is no way of getting out of this crisis without a strong coordination between China, the United States and Europe. But unhappily, China and the United States have not been decreasing the quarrels between their countries, that means that, for us Europeans, there is an opportunity and a responsibility.

I am grateful for the crucial support of the Parliament. Your support will be equally necessary during the negotiation of the next financial perspective. We talk a lot about that, because maybe through the Multiannual Financial Framework we are going to give a strong answer via new financial tools.

I think that we need to ensure a high level of ambition to make sure that the European Union has the means to face the challenges and opportunities I just shared with you.

The European Union has to touch the hearts and minds of Europeans. They have to perceive, to feel that the European Union is there to protect them. And the answer to the crisis would be much worse without the European Union. Let us try to work together on this endeavour.

Thank you very much for your attention.