Foreign Affairs Council: Remarks by the High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the press conference
Good afternoon, today the Council met again and I am happy that we could meet again in person. It makes things easier.
We had, as always, a dense agenda. Let me start with the good news.
The good news is that today we adopted the European Union Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime. It is exactly one year after we had agreed to do so. One year later, we deliver. This is a landmark agreement, the first of its kind and it will allow the European Union to target serious human rights abuses and violations worldwide and not going country by country with endless discussions for every specific case. We are sending a clear signal to those responsible about the strong commitment for human rights of the European Union.
The EU [Global Human Rights] Sanctions Regime gives us the opportunity ahead of the International Human Rights Day, on 10 December. 3 days from now. It is a good thing that this agreement coincides with the Human Rights Day. We will focus on a specific area, as I said, rather than on a geographical approach, country by country.
Perpetrators can be banned from entering the European Union, their assets in the European Union frozen and European Union persons prohibited from making any funds available to them.
We have been working the whole year round trying to set up the specific competences of the Commission and the Council, the Member States, and finally we got an agreement that will allow us to implement this sanctions regime. I am very happy about that and I want to thank all the colleagues at the Foreign Affairs Council and especially the ones who launched this initiative at the beginning. I am thinking of the Netherlands.
Secondly, on Venezuela. We have just issued a statement about the legislative elections that took place yesterday. As expected, we have already said it, evaluating the way these elections were planned not to be able to consider them free, fair nor democratic and that the results do not represent the will of the Venezuelan people. It has gone before national agreements on electoral conditions. They failed to comply with the minimum international standards and failed also to mobilise the Venezuelan people to participate.
We want to use this opportunity to stress that Venezuela needs a political solution to end the current impasse and to allow for the delivery of the urgently required humanitarian assistance to its people. The European Union calls on the Venezuelan authorities and leaders to prioritise the interest of Venezuelan people and to urgently come together to start a Venezuelan-led transition process. And we are ready to support such a process as we have tried to do in the past.
We also discussed the situation in Georgia. It is time for Georgian political forces to show leadership and enable Parliamentary representation. I hope that the latest proposal by Georgian Dream will open the door for a compromise, which would enable Parliament to advance on the much-needed electoral and judicial reforms and address the socio-economic challenges.
On Turkey, as you can imagine, we have been talking a lot about Turkey on the eve of the European Council that will deal with the issue of our relationship with Turkey. All Ministers considered that we have not seen a fundamental change of direction on Turkey’s behaviour. On the contrary, on several aspects, the situation has worsened. Seismic survey activities in the region are still going on. So, the evaluation by the Foreign Affairs Ministers of the situation is not a positive one and each Minister will brief his/her Head of state or government for this crucial European Council that will take place end of this week.
We also touched on the situation in Belarus, where continued repression by authorities against the population has to stop. We are finalising the third package of sanctions. I hope it will be adopted quickly. I am sure this time there will not be other issues that will delay the adoption of this third package of sanctions.
We also raised the situation in Ethiopia and the destabilisation in the region. I informed colleagues of the visit of Commissioner [for Crisis Management, Janez] Lenarčič to Sudan and the refugees camp in the border with Ethiopia. He also went to Addis Ababa. Our message is very clear: hostilities and ethnic-targeted violence must stop. Civilians and refugees must be protected. International law has to be respected. We strongly request Ethiopian government [to guarantee] full access for humanitarian actors to the Tigray region. This access has to be granted to all United Nations institutions and NGOs. We are very much concerned about the reported atrocities that should be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators held accountable. There is a crossroad blaming from different parts, there is quite a big blackout about what is happening in Ethiopia. But there are 40,000 refugees massing in Sudan and the only solution is to go back to a peaceful and sustainable settlement of the conflict with the strong support given to the African Union initiative.
We also reviewed the implementation of the draconian national security law (NSL) imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing. Ministers agreed on their assessment of the situation, which has been strongly deteriorating, with severe blows to political pluralism and freedom of opinion, which we repeatedly condemned. The European Union will, as a minimum, continue to implement the Council Conclusions, expressing political support for Hong Kong's autonomy under the "One Country, Two Systems" principle. As you know, it has been reaffirmed today that several European Union Member States have suspended their extradition agreements or their negotiations with Hong Kong.
We discussed European Union-United States relations, after having presented [on Wednesday 2 December, together] with the Commission, the plan for a new EU-US agenda for global change. The ministers welcomed this Joint Communication from the Commission and the High Representative and emphasised that a strong, reciprocal and far-sighted partnership should become the backbone of a renewed global alliance between the EU and the US.
For this EU-US agenda to be implemented, we need a united and self-reliant European Union. This is good for Europe and this is going to be good for the transatlantic partnership and for the multilateral system.
This discussion brought us naturally to the last point on our agenda, which was a discussion on strategic autonomy. Ministers got involved in a deep discussion about the meaning of these two words, which have been highly polemical recently, but there are no news. They have been used by the European Union Council conclusions since 2013 and you can find them in the Global Strategy of 2016 and almost everywhere. But it is clear that this is not about protectionism –some people want to call it ‘open strategic autonomy’ to stress the fact that this is not to go back to any kind of autarchy or protectionism. It is not directed against anyone. It is about choosing our interdependence instead of having it imposed on us, be it with masks when the pandemic arrived, be it with technologies now and in the future. We must be able to act multilaterally when we can –this is our preference-, but also to be able to act autonomously when we must in order to promote and defend more effectively our interests and values.
This approach goes beyond defence and security issues. Strategic autonomy was born on the field of defence and security, but now it reaches almost everything. It reaches broader priorities on internal and external dimensions: digital, the [European Democracy Action Plan] package approved by the Commission last week. This has to be done in close coordination with the Commission and the Member States.
This discussion will continue in order to increase the European Union’s resilience and strengthen our multilateral engagement.
Transatlantic relations and strategic autonomy go hand in hand; they are two sides of the same coin. Both are indispensable and complementary dimensions of a more strategic approach to the challenging geopolitical environment that we are facing today.
The Communication from the Commission that Ministers welcomed is a first approach about how to build these new transatlantic relations and we will continue working in order to make people understand clearly what are we talking about when we say strategic autonomy, which has nothing to do with protectionism, nothing to do with [diverging] from NATO efforts. There is no alternative for NATO from the point of view of the territorial defence of Europe; but it does not prevent us from developing capacities in order to defend better our interests and values.
This has been the intense meeting today with my colleagues.
Q. After the discussions you had, what should we expect now from the European Council on Turkey? Do we have to expect some kind of additional listing or existing means of sanction or stepping up of the Gymnich catalogue presented in august? What did Greece and Cyprus specifically request from Council during today’s discussions on this issue?
The Council will do what they said they were going to do; to assess the situation, to assess the evolutions since the last European Council, and according to that, take the decision that they consider pertinent.
I cannot anticipate what is going to be the debate and the conclusions of the Council. But it is not only Greece and Cyprus, all Member States were very much aware of the need to assess carefully the situation with Turkey. As I have said, unhappily, we have not seen much progress or improvement since the last European Council. But do not ask me to anticipate the debate and the decisions of the European leaders.
Q. I have two questions on Venezuela. If I understand well, you want the Member States to support the transition in Venezuela, that means that the consensus will be to keep Juan Guaidó as Interim President. The Council has just approved a new instrument for sanctions on human rights violations. On Venezuela, [Spanish] former president [José Luis Rodríguez] Zapatero told the EU to rethink the sanctions for Venezuela. Is that in coherence? How can we understand that?
I am not here to comment the opinion of Mr [José Luis Rodríguez] Zapatero, who I fully respect, but it is not my job as High Representative of the European Union to comment the declarations of every person involved in the Venezuelan issue. No one has worked more than me to try to make these elections inclusive and to build the conditions for the opposition to participate, in order for the EU to recognise the results. I think that I did a lot. I did not get a lot, but I worked a lot for that.
That is why I am very sorry for a situation where the European Union and the [Foreign Affairs] Ministers unanimously agreed on a statement – I am reading the [Joint] communiqué- that says that these elections failed to comply with the minimum international standards for a credible process. They failed to mobilise the Venezuelan people to participate, they are not being considered inclusive, transparent, and the result cannot be recognised by the European Union. This is the unanimous decision of the Member States gathered in this Foreign Affairs Council.
We have not said anything more. We have not entered in other issues. In fact, the important day is on 5 January, when new [National] Assembly will take office. We do not recognize it, we do not recognize the democratic character of this process, but we have not gone into any other questions as the one you were asking for. There will be time for it.
By the time being, I am planning to call for a meeting of the [International] Contact Group (ICG) [and] afterwards another together with the Group of Lima, who already issued a statement yesterday. We will see how do we deal with this new situation.
Q. Did you discuss the Greek request to Member States regarding an arms embargo against Turkey? Do you still see room for diplomacy to solve the differences with Ankara?
Diplomacy has been invented to solve differences peacefully through dialogue and that is what we are trying to do.
Q. Last year when you were presenting the Sakharov Prize you told the daughter of the recipient [Ilham Tohti] from the [Muslim] Uyghur community in Xinjiang that you would push for the [Human Rights Sanctions] regime. Now that you have the regime, is the Uyghur [issue] going to be on the table as a next step? On Hong Kong, we have seen no updates on the EU’s response package today. Does it mean that it is in the EU’s opinion that the situation in Hong Kong today is not getting any worse than it was half a year ago?
I think that I already said that [Foreign Affairs] Ministers considered that the situation [in Hong Kong] has been deteriorating and continues to deteriorate. The European Union Member [States] expressed a clear message about the situation in Hong Kong. It is true that no new measures were taken today; but we are very much aware of how the situation in Hong Kong is evolving. No further measures were taken today, which does not exclude that they could be considered later.
Q. Now that the European Union has its Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, who will be on the top of your list? Should and would Chinese officials involved in the repression of the Uyghurs be considered for human right sanctions?
Sanctions are triggered when a Member State puts forward a proposal. For the time being, no one has done it. Once again, it does not prevent that from happening in the future; but for the time being, on your specific question, no Member State has put on the table a proposal for sanctions. Let us see in the future; for the time being my concrete answer is clear.
Q: On strategic autonomy, you wrote a very long, very detailed blog on your views on strategic autonomy a few days ago and you really focused on the fact that the EU needs to stop arguing about the concept and make it real, make it concrete. What came out of today’s discussions? Beyond defining it, what is going to be started, what is going to be launched concretely to improve the EU strategic autonomy?
Thank you for reading my text, I try to develop longer in writing then what we can do in oral communications. You know these two words ‘strategic autonomy’ have a lot of ideological weight. We should get rid of this ideological dimension and be practical. It comes from the field of defence, and now some people look at it from the field of trade. For some it creates worries and suspicions: ‘Oh you want to be more autonomous it means that you want to be less depending on imports and exports so you want to be more autarkic, it is a threat against free trade.” And others continue to look at that from the point of view of defence: ‘You want to be autonomous it means that you do not want to participate in partnerships.’ Well both approaches are wrong.
Autonomy has nothing to do with autarky; it has nothing to do with jeopardizing our military partnerships and our transatlantic relations. But what is the contrary of autonomy? Dependency. Who wants to be dependent? Nobody wants to be dependent. And when you face dependencies, as we faced when the pandemic came and we realized suddenly that we were depending on such a simple thing as a textile mask, then we wanted to recover autonomy by producing at home what the global markets were unable to supply suddenly.
This has created a stronger awareness of our dependencies, our weaknesses and I think there is a strong feeling that we have to be fighting against any kind of dependency situations. And we are doing that, the Commission is doing a lot. So our autonomy – or lack of dependency.
And we are also working on a communication on European Economic sovereignty. Which is a stronger word? Sovereignty or autonomy? There is a debate about it. Some people prefer to talk about sovereignty, other prefer autonomy. This is a semantic discussion but words matter. What I am going to put on the table and I think we have to continue working on that is how to ensure that we will not go on dangerous dependencies, and how do we ensure our capacity to face things that we do not agree with.
For example extra territorial sanctions imposed by some states that affect negatively our firms. We do not accept these kind of extra territorial activities but in practical terms they have an effect. Well if we do not accept it we should be able to resist it. This is part of the autonomy. Let us talk about autonomy as lack of dependency.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-199860
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