Foreign Affairs Council: Remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the press conference


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Good afternoon,

Today, it is 5 years from the tragic events that took place in Brussels. We pay tribute to the victims of these events stressing that terrorism and extremism have no place in our societies.

We have had a long and intense Foreign Affairs Council, in which we took an important decision to promote and protect human rights around the world. 

Two weeks after we adopted sanctions linked to the Navalny case, we have taken decisive actions against those responsible for serious human rights violations and abuses in six countries.  

The sanctions that the Council adopted today concern eleven individuals and four entities from China, North Korea, Libya, South Sudan, Eritrea and Russia.  

It is appropriate that we took the decision on a day when we also had an important exchange with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and set up a strategic dialogue with her office.

The package targets very serious human rights violations and abuses, independently of the place where they are being committed. All European [Union] restrictive measures comply with international law and are subject to highest standards of the rule of law.

As I said, this package includes four individuals and one entity from China, who have had an active role in the design and implementation of Chinese policies in Xinjiang. 

We were made aware during the meeting that China has retaliated to those sanctions. Rather than change its policies and address our legitimate concerns, China has again turned a blind eye. These measures are regrettable and unacceptable.

There will be no change in the European Union’s determination to defend human rights and to respond to serious violations and abuses – as I said - irrespective of where they are committed.

China’s retaliatory sanctions affect, among others, Members of the European Parliament, scholars and entities of the [European Union] Political and Security Committee, the [European Parliament] Subcommittee on Human Rights, as well as two national foundations and this is something that we consider unacceptable. It does not answer our legitimate concerns. We want China to engage in a dialogue with the European Union on human rights, not to continue being confrontational.

This is about the sanctions and the answer from China, but the [Foreign Affairs] Council today had other important issues. Maybe the most important one, because it is going to be considered by the Leaders at the next European Union Council is Turkey.

With the Ministers, we assessed the European Union-Turkey relations in view of the joint report we prepared with the Commission for the members of the European Council next Thursday. This was broadly considered as a good basis for the debate of the Heads of State and Government, although Ministers provided also additional assessment.

As the report recognises, since last December we have seen some signals in the right direction from the Turkish leadership and steps towards de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean. Drilling and exploratory vessels were withdrawn from the Cypriot exclusive economic zone, rhetoric has toned down and Turkish authorities have expressed their interest in a strong relationship with the European Union.

Still, the process of de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean remains fragile and de-escalation efforts need to be sustained.

At the same time, the domestic situation in Turkey remains of serious concern, including the threats to close one of the major opposition parties, the HDP, and the withdrawal of Turkey of “the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence”- better known as the Istanbul Convention. You will have seen the statements I issued on these matters expressing our strong concern and condemnation and also the fear that these kind of measures are taking Turkey out of the European path.

We agreed with the Ministers that it is important to continue encouraging positive developments. At the same time, there was a broad agreement that it is important to keep all options on the table in case required.

In order to continue preparing the European Union Council, this evening, I will also meet with the Foreign Minister of Turkey, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, with whom I will comment the report in order to inform the Leaders during the [European Council] meeting. The [Foreign Affairs] Council has not taken conclusions about the report on Turkey because, certainly, it is up to the European Union Council to adopt them.

I updated Ministers on the recent and upcoming activities on the Western Balkans, such as the Stabilisation and Association Councils and the recent visit of European Union Special Representative Miroslav [Lajčák] to the region.

We are going to have a full discussion on the Western Balkans at the upcoming Foreign Affairs Council. Let me stress that the Western Balkans have been and will continue to be a priority for the European Union.

Another main point on the agenda was the Southern Neighbourhood. A region that the pandemic has hit very hard and we need to strengthen our relationship, because business as usual is not an option. Young people are leaving and we need to do better and more.

We need a stronger, closer and more effective partnership. The Ministers welcomed the Communication on the Southern Neighbourhood and from now on, we will focus on investing and engaging more with our Southern partners.

We had a brief discussion on Russia. Ministers reconfirmed that the five guiding principles remain relevant - they are the principles that have to drive our relationship with Russia - and that within those principles, we will be pushing back, containing or constraining, and engaging with Russia as the situation merits it.

It is clear that Russia has taken a confrontational stance towards the European Union.

The authorities’ violations of human rights and international law both on Russian territory, in Chechnya for example - as we have sanctioned today - as well as beyond its borders, are increasing.

The Russian authorities have shown unwillingness to engage on addressing these issues. Russia is drifting towards an authoritarian state and away from Europe and Europe must draw the consequences of that.

The European Union leaders will continue the discussion on this important, but difficult relationship, later this week at the [European] Council.

A specific point was related to Georgia. We discussed Georgia following the intense mediation efforts by the European Union over the past weeks to overcome the political crisis in the country. I briefed the Ministers about the European Union-Georgia Association Council that I chaired last Tuesday and about the European Union’s mediation efforts through the personal envoy [Christian Danielsson] designated by the European Union Council President, Charles Michel. This work continues.

I want to reiterate the need for all leaders of Georgia’s political parties to put the interests of the Georgian people first, to make the necessary compromises, and to turn their attention to other urgent issues like the coronavirus pandemic, economic recovery and national security.

On Myanmar, we took stock of the situation in the country, which sadly continues to deteriorate dramatically following the military coup. There are more than 250 killed. 250 people killed by the army using armed war against the demonstrators.

We have imposed sanctions against 11 individuals responsible for the ongoing repression. Under the updated sanctions regime, we can also now sanction economic entities owned or controlled by the military, as well as those that generate revenues to them. This will be done soon.

On Venezuela, we analysed the situation after the [Head of the] European Union Delegation to Venezuela [Isabel Brilhante Pedrosa] was declared persona non grata.

The stabilisation and re-democratisation of the country is possible but it requires consistent efforts. We will engage on that and will discuss this also with United States Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, here in Brussels on Wednesday. A good news if the final agreement that we have been pushing for, for long, between the government and the opposition in order to de-block the financial resources currently blocked in accounts abroad in order to finance buying vaccines for the Venezuelan people. This is something very important and positive. We welcome this agreement.

Finally, on Ethiopia. Five months have passed since the beginning of the so-called “law and order operation” against the Tigray region. Since then, we have been receiving daily reports of human rights violations of massive scale including massive rape, torture, a complete blackout, lack of communication, lack of access to humanitarian help for the people of Tigray.

This is an unacceptable situation that pushes us to continue to put pressure for humanitarian access to be allowed, for independent investigations on human rights abuses to be launched and for Eritrean troops to be withdrawn from Tigray.

We are ready to activate all our foreign policy tools against those responsible for human rights violations. This applies to all parties to the conflict. I have mandated the Finnish Foreign Minister, Pekka Haavisto, to go back to the region on a second mission and express clearly our readiness to act if this situation continues. We want to have humanitarian access to the region and we want an independent investigation on human rights abuses and we want Eritrean troops to be withdrawn.

There were other issues, not minor issues, because there are a lot of issues, from Lebanon to other parts of the world that have been taken into consideration by the [Foreign] Ministers today, but these are the most important ones.

Thank you.



Q. On Turkey, you mentioned that the Ministers had some additional assessments on your report, could you elaborate more on that? And the second question you said that you discussed about the recent developments on the Istanbul Convention and the HDP party, and you said that these decisions put Turkey out of the European path. Could such decisions freeze the positive agenda toward Turkey, and what was the mood in the Council of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs?

No, my reference to these decisions on the Istanbul Convention as well as the decision taken against the political party [the HDP] are issues that have to be taken into consideration. When we say there has been a positive development, [on] drillings, water delimitation, the rhetoric – that is clear there has been improvement on these sides. But at the same time, there are other issues like those ones which we cannot consider as positive. And the mix will have to be taken into consideration by the [European] Council which will have to provide guidance about the positive and negative approaches.

We want to have to have a relationship with Turkey as a candidate country, as a neighbour, as an important country with whom we want to have the best relation - defending the interests of the Member States and the values of the Union.

The Ministers have been considering the report. I have to say that I am very happy and grateful to them because they have had quite an unanimous positive evaluation considering the report, a balanced one. But since this report is being addressed to the European Union Council who is going to meet in couple of days from now, the Council has not taken conclusions and there has been several considerations about some specific issues that I will transmit also to the European Union Council for their considerations. I cannot go into the details now.


Q. You mentioned that the leaders are going to adopt conclusions but how they are going to do it because it is going to be a teleconference as they told us – is there another legal way to adopt the conclusions on Turkey ? Secondly, from what you reported, I understand that we all need more time to assess what is going on and if the EU-turn from Turkey is viable - how much time ? Could you say after June, after the negotiations for the Cyprus issue and finally, on that point, because you are going to meet with Minister for Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tonight, are you going to discuss the Cyprus issue and the upcoming negotiations  and how you are going to persuade him to allow the EU at the negotiating table since Turkey clearly opposes that you sit at the same table even as an observer from what we heard.

Yes for sure we are going to talk about Cyprus, how [could we] not? And in the following days and weeks, maybe until the summer, we will have to continue following closely the behaviour of Turkey, using some landmarks, some references, and the development of the talks about the Cyprus settlement will be one of them. The negotiations or the preliminary talks between Greece and Turkey will be another one.  The development of the situation in Libya will be another one. And the development of the internal political situation in Turkey will be another one. We have to follow several indicators about the behaviour of Turkey. As I said, until now, there have been good and positive ones and others which are not good nor positive, and we have to continue following closely the situation in order to be sure that Turkey also is in a positive mood and wants to engage seriously in the negotiations that we have to do for many different reasons among them, for example, the support for the Syrian refugees.


Q. On the five guiding principles towards Russia, which have been in place since 2016, is there any one of these five principles you will perhaps put an extra accent on now? On Georgia, do you think it makes sense for Mr Danielsson to travel back to Georgia any time soon? And if he does, do you think he should speak to other actors in Georgia such as Bidzina Ivanishvili or perhaps even Mikheil Saakashvili.

Yes, the five guiding principles continue being the five guiding principles - the framework for our relation with Russia, and all of them are equally important. And on that there is a strong agreement among all Member States and certainly from my side. This is the framework to deal with Russia and inside this framework, as I said, there are three types of action depending on the Russian behaviour: to push back, to constrain, and to engage. And all of these three verbs are contained inside the five guiding principles. But nothing has changed. Yes, the five guiding principles are from quite a lot of years ago, but the Minsk agreements continues without being implemented and the need to increase our resilience, to reach out to Eastern countries, to continue reaching out to Russia’s civil society and engaging where needed, continue to be perfectly valid.

I have not said that Mr [Christian] Danielsson [personal Envoy of President of the European Council Charles Michel] is going to go back to Georgia. I said that the mediation efforts continue, but I have not said specifically how. Maybe [he goes back to Georgia], maybe not. He is a personal representative of the President of the European Union Council. We will see how we can be more effective, but I mean this mediation effort is not finished, it will continue. Because we need to continue supporting the process, we need to continue mediating, because Georgia cannot be stalled in a bipolarisation that prevents the government from working and the country to have the needed stability to face the important reforms that they have to do.

So we continue supporting this mediation and we call for all political parties in Georgia to take their responsibilities, to think in the interest of the Georgian people, and have the political agreements needed in order to face the important challenges they have in front of them.


Q. Is this diplomatic crisis with Venezuela affecting the cooperation and the humanitarian aid with the country? Do you think this crisis; this situation will be normalised before the elections at the end of this year? Do you know the points for your conversation with Mr Antony Blinken [United States Secretary of State]?

About Venezuela, for sure we are going to talk. With the previous American administration, there was no coordination on our approach toward Venezuela. We were in a completely different approach and there was not a way of working together. With this new administration, I think – I am  sure – it is going to be possible to coordinate our actions in Venezuela. And to think about how can we deal with the situation in the country.

Humanitarian help is independent of the political considerations. By nature – by definition – humanitarian help will be provided whatever political relationship we are going to have with Venezuela. It does not matter if they expulse our ambassador [Isabel Brilhante Pedrosa], or it does not matter if we declare persona non grata each ambassador [Claudia Salerno Caldera]. Humanitarian help is above everything. And certainly there is need for humanitarian help in Venezuela.

Frankly speaking, I do not know how the situation will evolve before the next regional and local elections. But these elections can bring a new opportunity to look for an agreement between the government and opposition. It has not been possible in the legislative elections. Maybe it could be for the next ones. We will do our best, in order to help.


Q. Do you have a sense that there was Chinese pressure on Member States to avoid these sanctions. Was there a coordination with partners like the US and the United Kingdom? How strong was this coordination? On the European Council, China is not on the agenda but in your blog you wrote that together with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen you will submit a report on the state of implementation of the EU-China policy at the March European Council. Could you help us to clarify this? Will you have a report on China for the leaders?

Yes, it is foreseen that in this [European] Council the High Representative and the Commission will present a ‘balance’ [evaluation] of what has been the result of the China strategy [EU-China: A Strategic Outlook, March 2019] that was approved and became famous because of the words “systemic rival”. I wonder if this Communication would have been so noticeable without the words “systemic rival”, but everybody knows this communication. So, what we present is a balance [evaluation] of how, under this strategic approach, we have been relating with China. Maybe the recent events will make this approach a little bit – I would not say obsolete but not up to date. Because certainly the retaliation taken by China against the decision of sanctioning some officials for [human rights violations in] Xinjiang has created a new atmosphere. For sure, has created a new situation. And I am sure that when we present this report to the European Union Council, the leaders will discuss about it and will take into consideration the last events.

The sanctions have been adopted, they are already published, there is no way of putting pressure.

And the United States and the United Kingdom have immediately, as agreed, published immediately after [us] their own sanctions which are mirroring our own sanctions. So the coordination: perfect. 


Q. On Lebanon, will the European Union take some tough action against some of the officials in Lebanon? French Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian said this morning “je veux que l’on puisse échanger sur les leviers qui nous permettent de faire pression auprès des autorités libanaises » c’est-à-dire ce sont probablement des sanctions que la France, l’Union européenne devrait prendre selon lui, si jamais les responsables qui bloquent la situation au Liban demeurent sur leurs positions.

Yes, France has been briefing the Council about the situation in Lebanon. We share the concern expressed by France about the situation in Lebanon. Nothing is the way it should be, the political parties continue discussing and continue engaging in a strong confrontation instead of looking for agreements that could provide Lebanon with political stability, much, much needed to face the big problems that Lebanon has. And certainly this is not possible.

Lebanon is falling apart. Economically speaking the crisis is gigantic, the financial situation is deteriorating. This is not the moment to continue quarrelling politically and we will continue putting pressure on the political parties to make their behaviour change. And if it does not change we will have to [see] what to do. The Foreign Affairs Minister of France, [Jean-Yves Le Drian] has been asking us, the External Action Service, to present a new report, explaining what else can be done, apart from putting political pressure. Because certainly the situation in Lebanon is - not bad, worse. And everyday it is becoming worse. The country can fall apart and it is our responsibility to try to prevent it from happening.


Q. About Hong Kong, you announced that you would have taken the next steps or measures already discussed but we do not see anything on that. On Russia, the five principles that are guiding the European Union are five years old but lots has changed after five years, and you are saying that they are still valid, how is it possible? Why do you not change this approach that has not had any results? 

Bueno, son válidos porque son muy generales. Es evidente que el enunciado de los cinco principios sigue siendo válido hoy igual que hace 5 años, porque hoy sigue habiendo la misma necesidad de aumentar la resiliencia de la Unión Europea frente a Rusia que había hace 5 años. Sigue habiendo la misma necesidad de tener contactos con la sociedad civil rusa, de mantener contactos con los países del este, incluyendo Asia central ¿o es que ya hemos acabado con la necesidad de tener contactos con los países del este y, en particular, con Asia Central?

Sigue siendo necesario cumplir con los acuerdos de Minsk, ¿o ya nos olvidamos de ellos?  ¿Y sigue siendo necesario tener relaciones con Rusia en aquellos aspectos en los que es imprescindible tenerlas, en temas energéticos, por ejemplo, o en cambio climático?

Lo que dicen los 5 principios es de una generalidad y una atemporalidad suficientemente grande como para no considerarlos caducados, ni mucho menos. Otra cosa es la implementación, cómo se aplican. Eso sí va a depender de las circunstancias. Pero desde luego, los 5 principios – insisto - son suficientemente generales y atemporales como para que no podamos considerarlos ya superados. El día que se cumpla con los acuerdos de Minsk, el primer principio estará ya superado y no hablaremos más de él. Pero todavía no estamos en eso.

Sobre Hong Kong, China no estaba hoy en el orden del día. Había simplemente la aprobación del paquete de sanciones que ha ido al Consejo como un punto A. Es decir, aprobado ya previamente por los órganos intermedios. No estaba previsto que hubiera una discusión sobre China, simplemente la noticia ha llegado durante el Consejo de las medidas que había aprobado China como respuesta a nuestras sanciones y yo se las he comunicado a los ministros. Pero sobre China, y en particular sobre Hong Kong, hoy no estaba previsto tomar ninguna decisión.


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Nabila Massrali
Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
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