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Source: European Union External Action

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Today we met with the Ministers for an extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council that finished sooner than expected. I would like to start by expressing my appreciation to the Croatian Presidency for its swift response in organising on the spot this extraordinary meeting of the Council. The urgency was understood by all and the Croatian presidency provided the logistic means.

We expressed our solidarity with our Member States who are facing a very difficult situation in their borders: Greece, of course, but also Cyprus and Bulgaria. 

For sure we have other disagreements with Turkey, for example the ones related with the drilling activities in the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus. But today, apart from remembering that there are not only migration issues but other ones too, we concentrated on the situation created at the external borders of the EU, that we consider, and we want to repeat and stress, unacceptable. 

I made clear to the Turkish leadership during my visit to Ankara a couple of days ago that we strongly reject a situation in which migrants are flowing towards the borders of Europe believing, because someone told them, that these borders are going to be open. 

Encouraging refugees and migrants to attempt illegal crossings into the EU is not an acceptable way for Turkey to push for further support from the European Union. The Ministers of Interior in their extraordinary meeting on Wednesday also confirmed this. The European Union, as we say in our statement, will take all measures, in accordance with EU rules and International law, to make full respect of the integrity of its borders.

We have also been discussing the very complex and difficult situation in Idlib. We need to take urgent actions to address the grave humanitarian crisis. Yesterday, I showed to ministers satellite images of the situation at the Turkish border with a sea of tents where the refugees are trying to find shelter in the middle of the winter.  

I want also to announce you that we agreed to convene a Brussels Conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” on 29-30 June in Brussels. This conference will bring a large part of the international community around one table to back UN-efforts in favour of a political solution to the Syrian crisis. It will also be an opportunity for donors to pledge further humanitarian and development funding for Syria and the region. This fourth conference in Brussels will be an occasion for a dialogue with Syrian civil society and actors who represent neither regime nor opposition.

Today we agreed on a statement. (The Council reiterated the urgent need for de-escalation of the conflict and we took note of the outcome of the Russia-Turkey meeting yesterday in Moscow. All parties need to put in place an immediate and sustainable ceasefire, to guarantee the protection of civilians on the land and form the air and to enable the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid by the international community. 

We announced earlier this week additional 60 million euro in support for the refugees in the North-West of Syria. But today the binding constraint is not the lack of financial resources but the logistic capability of addressing the situation by bringing health, food, medicine and shelter to the places where these people are concentrated and that are difficulties to reach them due to the war situation that was prevailing there. Let’s hope that the ceasefire will give a better opportunity for humanitarian help to be delivered.

Yesterday we also talked about Russia, but this was part of our informal meeting. No conclusions [were adopted], the only conclusion is to reiterate that the five principles continue to be the basis of any engagement with Russia. These principles are related to the Minsk agreement fulfilment -people to people contacts, resilience, partnership with the Eastern countries-, but also that we have to look to address areas of mutual interests. For this purpose and under the framework of these principles, I will visit Russia as soon as possible.

Let me in this regard also welcome the start of the criminal trial on 9 March against four suspects for their role in the downing of Flight MH17. This is a significant milestone towards finding the truth and establishing justice for the victims and their next of kin, and to hold those responsible to account. 

It has been an intense very timely meeting of the Council, both on the informal and on the formal side. I appreciate a lot the cooperation of all members and especially of the Croatian Presidency, in order to contribute to look for the capacity of the EU to join the efforts of the international community to in help people in Idlib and to protect European borders in accordance with International law and our own regulations. 

Q&A

Q. Besides security guarantees, what exactly does the EU expect of Russia and Turkey to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian access to people in Idlib? Does Turkey need to open more border posts? 

The European Union is working through United Nations agencies, we are funding them but we do not have a strong team on the ground. I do not know exactly if the solution is to open more gates in the closed border or facilitate the traffic through the gates that already exist. 

But one thing is clear: 1 million people need to drink, to eat, to sleep, every day. There is nothing there unless things that can be brought by humanitarian people. Everyday 100 heavy trucks are crossing the border from the Turkish side to provide and facilitate all these resources. You can imagine the logistic difficulties of bringing food, medicine, and shelters to 1 million people in the middle of the mountains, in the middle of winter, in the middle of the war. I would like to show you these satellite pictures and you could see what it means, the logistics it requires. 

And there are a lot of people on the ground and I want to thank them, their efforts and their work, because one thing is to pay, the other thing is to go there implementing, facing the risk of being bombed, and  bringing and distributing food, medicine and shelter to a moving population who is displacing closer and closer to the border which is closed. You can imagine the situation. 

What we expect is that the ceasefire be effective on the ground and in the air, because it is from the air that the bigger risks come, in order to facilitate the work of the humanitarians. But we do not have an army there, not even an army of humanitarian people. We are funding organisations from the United Nations, from NGOs who are doing this difficult job. I suppose that it would be possible to open more gates in the border – you know, you need to facilitate the passage of 100 trucks, it is not a matter of making  a hole in the border, you need a road, a paved road, there are not many. 

I hope this will facilitate an urgent action which we are funding and we are ready to fund more but once again the problem is not exactly to have money but to have the physical, logistical capacity of acting. 

Q. You said this morning at the doorstep that you will talk to the Ministers about providing more money to Turkey to manage the refugee crisis, did you talk about that? What will happen to the refugees now at the Greek border? 

Le Conseil a décidé ce qu’il a décidé. Comme vous pouvez le voir il n’y a pas de décision additionnelle de financement. La Présidente de la Commission [européenne, Ursula von der Leyen] pendant sa visite à la frontière grecque a engagé des sommes considérables pour aider la Grèce à faire face à cette situation. 

Il faudra voir dans les jours qui viennent ce que l’on peut faire de plus. Mais la première chose à faire c’est d’ arrêter le flux de migrants qui croient que la frontière a été ouverte et qui en conséquence essaient de la traverser. C’est la première chose à faire. Ce n’est pas une question de soutien financier, c’est une question de communication. 

I want to use this opportunity to communicate that the news about the alleged openness of the European borders in Greece, Bulgaria or Cyprus are false. People should not try to move there. If we want to avoid a critical situation, people have to know the truth. They cannot tell the people ‘Go to Europe because the border is open’ and hundreds of people have already passed. Let us stop this game. 

Q. What is the EU’s assessment of the current situation at the Greece/Turkey border? We have heard reports that the Turkish authorities are sending people back to Turkish cities, that the flow of people at the border has stopped and that President of Turkey Erdogan is now back in compliance with the terms of the EU-Turkey statement. If that is the case when are you going to have that conversation about upholding the agreement given that perhaps this period of blackmail or manipulation seems to have subsided? 

Je préfère ne pas utiliser de gros mots. La tâche de diplomate ce n’est pas de mettre de l’huile sur le feu. Je préfère ne pas utiliser les mots que vous avez employé, tout au contraire faire un appel positif et constructif à la coopération, pour éviter la confrontation dont un innocent paiera toujours les conséquences.

Je suis ravi de savoir que le flux de personnes [poussées] vers la frontière c’est arrêté, peut-être parce qu’ils ont pris conscience que l’idée selon laquelle la frontière serait ouverte ne correspond pas à la réalité.  « Allez-y, c’est ouvert. » Non ce n’est pas le cas, n’y allez pas, ce n’est pas ouvert. 

C’est cela le message responsable, constructif qu’aujourd’hui les ministres ont voulu adresser à travers vous à l’opinion publique et en particulier aux personnes concernées. 

Vous savez je viens d’avoir avec le Président [du Conseil européen, Charles Michel] une très longue conversation avec le Président [de la Turquie, Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, donc nous avons eu déjà les contacts que vous demandez, et après le cessez-le-feu il devra y en avoir d’autres, pour l’instant le Conseil n’en est pas là. La première chose à faire c’est normaliser la situation à la frontière. 

Q. We understand that the EU will not negotiate under migration pression. We understand that there is an emergency for the humanitarian aid to reach the civilians in the north of Syria. On EU-Turkey relations, you met your Turkish counterpart the Minister of Foreign Affairs, you have met President Erdogan with President Michel. What is Turkey looking for in its relations with the European Union? What can you offer Turkey? 

Je suis ici pour rendre compte de la discussion du Conseil, pas pour passer en revue toutes les dimensions du rapport entre la Turquie et l’Union européenne, il y en a beaucoup. Il y a le problème par exemple que j’ai cité de l’exploitation des ressources énergétiques et du forage dans les eaux cypriotes. Cela n’a pas été à l’ordre du jour mais le problème est là. 

Et il y a tous les problèmes par rapport aux visas, à la modernisation de l’accord sur l’union douanière, the pace of enlargement, there are so many issues which in the last years have been growing and creating a set of complex and difficult relations between the European Union and Turkey. For sure we will have to talk about all of them.

We understand the big pressure that Turkey is under. 4 million people, 4 million refugees, it is the biggest number of refugees that any country in the world is hosting. We have to understand very well the pressure that Turkey is receiving, that could even increase if there is a big number of people that try to cross into Turkey from the Syrian border. But one thing is to recognise this problem and be willing to contribute to help them face it, and another thing is to react under pressure. 

We have to normalise the situation and then there is a lot of work to do to try to find solutions to these many issues that today have become difficult to deal with. 

Q. The statement today from the Ministers made it clear that Turkey’s decision to break the 2016 deal is unacceptable. How do you respond to Turkey’s point of view that they say that the EU under that deal has not actually met its promises either? I am referring to lifting visa requirements on Turkish citizens by the end of 2016. The upgrading of the Customs Union, new accession chapters being opened, and also the large-scale resettlement of refugees in Turkey to the EU. 

I spent a long time talking with my Turkish colleagues, Defence Minister, Interior Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, Vice-President in charge of migration even with President Erdogan. 

We have different points of view about the amount of resources that we have been funding in comparison with the amount that we agreed to fund. Also on several issues of visa liberalisation, customs union modernization and many other things which were in the agreement, which have not been brought to a final conclusion and the Turkish side claims that they should. That is for another discussion. That is a matter of reviewing the engagement from one side and the other. 

The exact figures that we have been providing in cash terms are about €3.4 billion, in cash terms so already paid. But in terms of commitments, money that has been engaged but not yet disbursed is closer to €4.5 billion and the rest is under way. The European Union has some specific ways of working through programs, contracts through NGOs and all the money will be disbursed by the end of the year. For the time being, it is committed, but still not disbursed.

It depends which definition you take of expenditure. Expenditure meaning when the final cash is paid or expenditure, meaning when you commit, engage money. These are budgetary terminology that you can you can bring to a different position, depending of which valuable you take into account. 

There are parts of the agreement that have not been implemented yet. Some of them are blocked, others can be reviewed when there is a disagreement between the two parties. Each part claims that it is the other part’s fault, but it is clear that today there has been a call for migrants to go to the border, alleging that the border was open. 

I want to use this opportunity and I thank the Croatian host for giving this opportunity to send a clear message. Do not go to the border. The border is not open. If someone tells you that you can go because the border is open, that you can go freely to Europe through Greece or through Cyprus, that is not true. Avoid a situation in which you could be in danger. Avoid the escalation of the crisis. Avoid moving towards a closed door. Please do not tell people that they can go because it is not true. I think that if everybody listens to this message then we can avoid critical situations. We can avoid events that unhappily can produce losses of human lives. Let us see the situation the way it is and normalising it is the prerequisite to talk about everything else.

Q: The European Commission has recently recommended again to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. One of these countries, specifically North Macedonia, is in the Balkan migrant route. Do you think that in this context it would be a good idea to encourage these countries by offering them something more, especially North Macedonia? Do you think you can count on their cooperation right now in the migrant crisis, considering that they were pushed away recently? 

I’m here to explain the result of the deliberations and decisions of the Council. We have not dealt with all the problems in the world. But the position of the Commission is the same today and yesterday. We support the opening of the negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The position of the Commission remains unchanged. Now I am talking as the Vice-President of the Commission in charge of external relationsOn this condition I can tell you that the position of the Commission is the same. Now if I put the hat of the High Representative of the Council, I have to say that I do not know. 

Q. When you say that what you expect now is for the ceasefire to be effective on ground and in the air. I understand that this is the compromise of the no fly zone. But it seems there are at least two countries that have a seat in the United Nations Security Council: Germany, France and Estonia at the moment. Have they been asked to actually explore this at the Security Council or not? You say that you are planning to visit Russia as soon as possible. Do you expect to meet only Mr Lavrov or also other top officials in Russia, including President Putin?  

Vous savez, le plus tôt possible. It is not for tomorrow.  My agenda in the next two months is full. First I have to go to Ukraine. I will also send a strong signal about the five guiding principles and the respect of the Minsk agreements, which is the core of these five principles. All of them are important. And when I talk about one principle, it does not mean that I am forgetting about the other four.

I think it is next Monday or the following Monday that I am planning to go to the Donbass region. But later on I think it is quite normal that the High Representative for foreign policy, who tries to work and make Europe stronger in the world, has relationship with one of the most important neighbours. 

It should not be considered as new or as something extraordinary that the High Representative visits Russia. It is normal. And when I have the opportunity to go and the Russian authorities will be ready to have an intense program of meetings I will be very happy to do it, as I did in Turkey a couple of days ago. 

I spent almost two days talking with all Turkish authorities. But this was a moment of crisis, we are not in a moment of crisis with Russia, so we can wait. As soon as possible does not mean in the immediate days. 

About the no fly zone, we are very much aware that the European Union cannot say wishful thinking that cannot be implemented. If we say today ‘We want a no fly zone’ the problem is not what we want, it is what we can do.  

The political life is a good balance between your purposes and your capacities. If you forget your capacities and you only think about your purposes then it is not political, it is magic. We do not want to do magic. We want to act according with our capacities and resources. And we do not have the capacity of establishing a no fly zone in Syria. We can wish it and we can mobilise our resources in the framework of the UN Security Council and, as you said, there are member states who are part of it. I do not exclude it but it was not a decision that was taken by the Council. 

Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-185844 

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