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Video conference of Foreign Affairs Ministers: Remarks by the High Representative Josep Borrell at the press conference


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Good afternoon,

We met today in a virtual format for the Foreign Affairs Council, but the agenda was again very packed.

We had on the agenda a discussion about the results of the United States presidential elections. It was just a first discussion; it will be again on the agenda [of the Foreign Affairs Council] on the 7th of December. [We have also discussed] Afghanistan, Belarus, Nagorno Karabakh, Libya, Ethiopia, Turkey, multilateralism and we have had an exchange with the Foreign Minister of Palestine. As you can see, many topics and really difficult issues.

Now, let me brief you about some points:

On the United States, as I said, this was the first opportunity for us to exchange views on the overall direction of transatlantic relations after the elections. Several Member States have been publishing articles in the press; today the 3 members of Benelux expressed their point of view, that’s good. I suppose that all Member States will make public their analysis. But at the end, we have to go for a common approach and see how to engage in a stronger friendship and a better partnership with the Unites States, which is, at the end, our most important strategic ally.

In the meantime, the Commission and I, as High Representative, are also working on how to approach a new era in the relationship with the United States. But I hope that on the 7th of December, the Council will be able to agree on a common approach, which is at the end the purpose of these meetings. I do not expect to speak with a single voice, but to say the same thing. Some Member States were expecting that this discussion could take longer and that maybe we will not have a complete agreement at the December Council, but let us start working at the working group levels [of the Council] and we [Ministers] will have another look at this very important issue in December.

My understanding is that a capable and strategically aware European Union is the best partner for the United States – and it is also what we need ourselves. Every time one talks about strategic autonomy - a subject which is very much in the media, the expression “strategic autonomy” is controversial. But it does not mean that we are not going to continue being the best partner of the United States. It is a matter of being a better partner. We will have a more substantial discussion, as I said, on the strategic orientation of our relations with the United States at the next Foreign Affairs Council. And, once the new Secretary of State will be in office, I will invite him to join us at the Foreign Affairs Council.

Going now to the specific issues. On Afghanistan, we raised next week’s Pledging Conference, which comes at a crucial time of the peace process in Afghanistan.

Through this conference, we want to give positive impetus to our support to the Afghan people and to the peace process, and to send a clear messages of solidarity through our financial pledge.

But, at the same time, Ministers stressed the importance of sending also the message that this support should be accompanied by very clear political and governance conditions.

On Belarus: the situation continues to deteriorate. The repression by [Aleksandr] Lukashenko’s regime against people has not stopped. We have already sanctioned more than 50 individuals in two rounds of sanctions.

Today, we have agreed to proceed with the preparations of the next round of sanctions as a response to the brutality of the authorities and in support of the democratic rights of the Belarusian people. But these sanctions should be imposed not only on individuals, but also on [entities such as] institutions, enterprises and firms.

I also updated Ministers on the review of European Union-Belarus relations. The Foreign Affairs Council tasked me as High Representative to present a broad approach on and a complete review of our relations with Belarus, going further than sanctions, and that is what I did in agreement with the Commission services. This report has been finalised and it has been submitted to Member States. They will study it and will take decisions about it at the next Foreign Affairs Council.

As you can imagine, it is related to downgrading all contacts and cooperation at bilateral level and maintaining them where it can be beneficial for the Belarusian people or for our interest; to downgrade the participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership to non-political level; and several other measures that I will inform you about after the next Foreign Affairs Council, once the Ministers decide what do to with my proposals.

On Nagorno Karabakh, we have recently issued a Declaration recalling the importance we attach to the settlement of this conflict and to express our full support to further efforts in this regard under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs. We remain ready to play our part in order to bring lasting peace to a crucial region in our neighbourhood and to cooperate on the definitive settlement of Nagorno Karabakh status.

On Libya, overall, we are seeing encouraging steps, which can mark a turning point in the Libyan conflict. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate remaining difficulties.

That is why the United Nations-led Berlin process and those working constructively towards a political solution – by the Libyans, for the Libyans, without outside interference – deserve our full and continued support.

On Ethiopia, the situation in the Tigray region, the ethnic-targeted violence, the allegations of atrocities and the human rights abuses are of deep concern. There is a real danger of an imminent and major humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia and in the close region. We are very much concerned about these prospects and we have reiterated our calls for dialogue and to stop violence and return to dialogue.

I briefed Ministers about my calls with Ethiopian and regional partners, to whom I expressed my concerns and the European Union’s readiness to support a peaceful solution and an inclusive dialogue. There has been an intensive diplomatic outreach at different levels to stakeholders that could influence the two parties. The Commission has informed the Council about the mobilisation of financial resources to try to help the Ethiopian refugees that have fled the region, the conflict, to the neighbouring countries – mainly Sudan.

On the Eastern Mediterranean, the Ministers discussed the further deterioration of the situation. We recalled the European Union’s solidarity with Cyprus and Greece. 

We consider the recent actions and statements by Turkey related to Cyprus as contrary to the United Nations resolutions and further igniting tensions. We also consider that it is important that Turkey understands that its behaviour is widening its separation from the European Union. [I am] sorry to say that, but this is what the Foreign Affairs Ministers considered.

In order to return to a positive agenda, as we wish, we will require a fundamental change of attitude on the Turkish side. The European Council will provide crucial direction on this next month. Time is running, and we are approaching a watershed moment in our relationship with Turkey.

On multilateralism, we have had an interesting and long discussion on how the European Union can help defend and modernise the multilateral system, which is at the same time a process and an outcome. [We have also discussed] how we can enhance cooperation on global challenges and support reforms in order to address those challenges effectively.

Ministers gave their guidance on how the European Union can best use our collective engagement to promote our values and advance our interests in multilateral fora.

This discussion will provide useful input to the Joint strategy on strengthening the European Union’s contribution to multilateralism, which I will present early next year together with the Commission.

Then, we discussed with the Palestinian Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Maliki, the situation in Palestine, the Middle Eastern Peace Process and our bilateral relations.

First, we welcomed the recent decision of the Palestinian Authority to resume cooperation and dialogue with Israel.

Second, we [reiterated] the need to relaunch Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in order to find a lasting solution to the conflict.

Deep concern was expressed regarding Israeli settlement activities, which threaten the viability of the two-state solution.

We reiterated European Union’s support to a negotiated two-state solution and discussed how we can contribute to create better conditions for the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

We stressed that the intra-Palestinian reconciliation is urgently needed. Also, free, fair, inclusive, genuine and democratic elections are important for Palestinian state-building and unity. And we are ready to support this electoral process if and when a presidential decree is issued with a date of the vote.

Finally, the Council adopted the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for the next 5 years, which contains the main priorities on how to advance and defend human rights and democracy through our external actions.

[Back in March] I asked the Member States to make proposals to take decisions faster and in a more effective way by using qualified majority voting when implementing the Action Plan. Not for everything, but for the implementation actions of this Action Plan.

Member States did not agree to this initial proposal, but I will pursue this discussion with them to promote greater use of qualified majority voting in the area of external relations to have more efficient decision-making processes in defense of our interests and values.

This is the best résumé I could do about this long and intense Foreign Affairs Council and I remain at your disposal.

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Q. You mentioned Turkey. What measures are you taking in order to avoid a meltdown with Turkey in December? And apart from the positive agenda and the sanctions options, is there maybe a third option for the Summit to give more time to Turkey in view of, some kind of negotiations that will start with the United Nations for the resolution of the Cyprus issue or anything else? Or do we just get those two options when we arrive at the Council in December?

I cannot anticipate the decision of the leaders at the European Union Council. My task is not to anticipate what they are going to decide, but to prepare their decision. The Council tasked the President of the Council [Charles Michel] and the President of the Commission [Ursula von der Leyen], the two highest authorities, to prepare and present to the Council a palette of options in order to increase positive engagement and to take measures in case that this positive engagement would not be possible – depending on the attitude that Turkey was going to show since the last European Union Council until the next European Union Council.

I am supporting the work of the two Presidents and at the same time, I am working on a task that was specifically addressed to the High Representative, which is the organisation of an international conference on Eastern Mediterranean issues, and this is what I am fully devoted to. I cannot anticipate which are the measures the two presidents will present to the European Union Council. They will depend on the options that the Turkish behaviour will prompt [us] to follow.

For the time being, unfortunately, there are no positive signals sent by Turkey and the last events in Cyprus, in Varosha, in Famagusta, have also been considered as very negative [as stressed] in my statement immediately after and also by the Foreign Affairs Ministers today. On the preparation of the Eastern Mediterranean conference, we already have a position paper that has been consulted with the ambassadors of the countries that should be invited to participate in this conference.


Q. High Representative, on Belarus, you said that now you will be preparing sanctions against companies and enterprises. What will it mean concretely? Will it mean that EU companies will not be able to trade or to make financial deals with Belarusian companies? Secondly, you said that the situation in Belarus is only deteriorating despite everything that the EU has done. Does it mean that this mild approach taken by the EU from the very beginning, trying to have a dialogue with the Lukashenko regime was a wrong approach? What are the other options except from additional sanctions and review of the relations that you are thinking of?

About Belarus, things are clear. Member states considered that there is no positive sign at all from the Lukashenko regime, which continues to refuse to engage in any kind of discussion with the European Union, to receive any mission from the OSCE, and continues the repression against the people. In these conditions, the European Union has to react using the tools that we have. Sanctions are one of these tools and many Member States today asked to prepare a new package of sanctions.

These sanctions, as I said, should not only be addressed to individuals, because there are already more than 50 individuals sanctioned - one day we will exhaust the number of people that could be sanctioned. Now, we have to go maybe to more sensitive issues, which is sanctioning firms, that will affect development and normal economic activity. But it is up to Member states to make proposals. As you know, the way we work is that Member States are in charge of preparing proposals and providing evidence in order to justify these proposals. They have been invited to do as much as they want, need and consider adequate. My services will quickly implement the procedures in order to adopt these sanctions. This will be another strong signal that the European Union will not give up in front of the repression of the Belarusian people and the violation of their fundamental rights.

The review [of EU-Belarus relations] is a comprehensive approach about what we can do from any point of view, on our bilateral cooperation; on the way in which we have dialogue with the Belarusian government; on the way in which Belarus is part of the Eastern Partnership; and on the way in which we can support or keep the Human Rights Dialogue. These [elements] are contained in this document. Member States have to study it and decide at the next Foreign Affairs Council which of these measures they want to take. But from what I saw from the atmosphere today, I am sure that they will agree on adopting all of them.


Q. On Belarus, as you said, the sanctions so far did not have any effect in changing the behaviour of the Lukashenko regime. Can you tell us whether they had any effect on individuals? Out of these more than 50 people, have any financial assets been frozen so far or did they simply not have any assets in the European Union? Secondly, think it is part of your mandate to also find ways to enhance the work with the Belarusian civil society and it remains a big question how to channel funds - this €50 million that has been mobilised in the context of COVID-19 plus the additional €3 million, how to channel this money into the country without benefiting the regime? Do you see any way on how to do this now?

Yes, it is not an easy task, because it is clear for us that none of our European resources will be channeled to the Lukashenko government. All of our resources devoted to Belarus will be addressed to help civil society. I cannot go into detail of how this will flow to civil society, because it will go through NGOs and international organisations. I can provide more information in detail, but now I cannot give you a precise answer on which channels are we going to use. But be sure that not a single euro of European money will go to the Belarusian government.

The implementation of the financial sanctions is under the control of Vice-President [Valdis] Dombrovskis, who is in charge of managing the financial sanctions, once they have been decided by the Foreign Affairs Council. I cannot give you specific information about the amount of assets that have been frozen belonging to these [more than] 50 persons. Sanctions are not only about the freezing of financial assets, they are also about travel bans. And believe me, this kind of things are very much taken into consideration by the people who are under these sanctions. In any case, this is what we, the European Union, can do: sanctioning from the financial and travelling point of view.


Q. On the discussion on the United States, you said that you hope to have an agreement on a common approach, and we saw also the German and the French publicly discussing on their differences looking at what strategic autonomy means. How deep are these divisions? What is the most relevant point of division that you have seen in the discussions. On qualified majority voting, where specifically is the European Union thinking to push for more use of qualified majority voting instead of unanimity?

My proposal to use qualified majority voting was not addressed to the whole set of decision that the Foreign Affairs Council is taking. It is just about the implementation of the [Action] plan to support democracy and human rights. It is a quite modest proposal because the plan has been adopted, we know what to do, it is just a matter of deciding the specific implementation of decisions by qualified majority voting. But even being a modest proposal it has not been accepted yet. I think things are moving in this direction. I will insist. I think it is going to be possible in the near future for this specific issue: to take decisions on the implementation of the issues covered by the [Action] Plan on democracy and human rights by qualified majority voting.

The other [issues] I am not discussing them now because I know that it is much more difficult. Let us start by this. How can I obtain positive results? By discussing, by persuasion, making Member States aware that it will have a positive impact because we will be ready to do things quicker, to react quicker. When you have to take a decision to defend human rights and democracy you cannot expect six months or one year to take a decision. And you cannot accept that the decision can be blocked by one Member State deciding not to support them. If they are in accordance with the [Action] Plan, the Plan has been approved so the implementation of this Plan should not be a big issue because it is something that is taken in accordance with a plan that has been approved by unanimity. So I think that we will get there. For the time being it has not been proposed to take other, more important decisions, by qualified majority.

On the discussions about transatlantic relations and strategic autonomy. You know, strategic autonomy is not a concept related only to transatlantic relations. Every time that we use the word “autonomy” a lot of people think “autonomy with respect to the United States in the framework of NATO”. Well this is a very narrow approach. It is much wider. Autonomy is not in respect to one specific partner and one specific issue. Autonomy means the capacity to act on many different fronts and with respect to many different agents. This is something that has to be discussed, and this was not the question on the table today. We will have to discuss a lot about strategic autonomy. For me it is one of the most important concepts in building a Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It will be on the agenda of the next Foreign Affairs Council. I will insist on discussing it in order to desacralise it and not talk about it as a theological concept, but as a practical thing that can be implemented on different fronts, in different aspects with respect to different actors.

When we talk about transatlantic relations, it is another thing. It is the way in which we and the United States can coordinate our action to be better partners than we have been in the last years. Do not mix things, do not confuse things. Transatlantic relations is one thing, strategic autonomy is another. They are related, yes, but not only with the United States. We need strategic autonomy with respect to technology, value chains, providing medicine, a lot of issues that are not related specifically to defence and not limited with respect to the United States. And I think we have to make a clear difference between the two debates.


Q. Regarding the European Union support to the UN-led process in Libya, will Member States agree on the principle to participate in a United Nations ceasefire monitoring operation? When? Once the United Nations agree on the monitoring mission? And will you discuss this issue tomorrow with the Defence Ministers?

Well, it is not specifically on the agenda, as a full item on the agenda, but if some Ministers raise the question, we will discuss it. For the time being, it has not been in the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Ministers today and it is not in the agenda of the Defence Ministers tomorrow. But we are ready to support the United Nations to keep the ceasefire working as a precondition for any kind of political advancement. Nothing concrete, but complete readiness to cooperate as much as we can. Good news about that today is that France has offered the civilian port of Marseille as a point for disembarkation of the material that could be seized on the hailings of the boats shipped by Operation Irini. With that, we have solved the problem of what to do when we seize a boat and it has to disembark. Now we have a clear harbour in order to do that and Operation Irini will continue working. And we are ready to increase our support under the United Nations auspices to contribute to keep the ceasefire working and to develop the political dialogue. But I cannot say that this has been mentioned today, because it has not.

Link to the video:

Peter Stano
Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
+32 (0)460 75 45 53