Informal meeting of EU Defence Ministers: Press remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell

(Source: EEAS)

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Thank you, Minister. We share this press conference. And this is another good opportunity to thank you warmly and the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union for your welcome and for the organisation of this first informal conference. I am delighted to be in Brest and to see the evolution of this city, which is a city so linked to the military and naval history of France.

Let me continue in English, briefly, to highlight the main points of today’s discussion.

First of all, about Ukraine. Ukraine is very high on the agenda today. I debriefed the colleagues [Defence] Ministers about my visit to Ukraine last week. It was the first visit of a High Representative to the line of contact in Donbass, since the conflict started in 2014. It was a way to express the support of the European Union to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Now, the dialogue with Russia has started. This is a must. Our position remains the same: that any further aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs for Russia. But it is more than Ukraine. Now we are engaged in discussing the European security architecture and on that, the European Union will express its concerns and its proposals. There is a need to discuss mechanisms of consultation, incidents prevention, hotlines for emergency contacts, and other measures that may help to de-escalate tensions. We are keen to support and contribute to the discussions and negotiations on security on the continent.

In spite of what has been said in the last days, we have been in constant contact with the United States. There are more than 100 contacts between the Europeans and the United States, at all levels. From the President of the United States himself, I myself am in constant touch with Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken and our Political [and Security] Committee in Brussels on Tuesday was debriefed by the “Number Two” of the Secretary of State, [Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy] Sherman, who came to Brussels to explain to us how was the first conversation with the Russians. And yesterday, we had here NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, to do the same.

There is continuous and permanent communication and coordination with the United States. Nothing about the “EU is being taken apart”, on the contrary, we are continuing our participation through our relation to the United States and this will continue to happen in the future because we have the assurance that nothing will be agreed about European security without strong coordination and participation of the Europeans.

At the same time, we continue supporting Ukraine. We have an Advisory Mission in Ukraine, which is already contributing to strengthen the resilience in front of hybrid attacks. And we will continue doing more. We have just facilitated 30€ million to the Ukrainian Army in order to increase its logistics capacities. And we are preparing to send a mission to support Ukrainians to face cyber-attacks, which is one of the risks they will be facing.

I will continue discussing that with Foreign Ministers today.

The second point: Mali. You know the situation: Wagner’s troops are arriving to Mali. It is already something clearly proven. Since this is Mali, something that touches a lot and is close to France, I continue to speak in French. To say that the risk of the situation worsening in this country is obvious. We will closely monitor the situation and take appropriate action. According to the measures taken by ECOWAS’ African neighbours, we will be in the same line. Because despite all the warnings we have given to the Malian authorities, we see no sign of progress on the part of these authorities.

For the time being, our training and advisory missions to the Malian armed forces and internal security forces will continue, but budgetary support has already been suspended. Aid to the Malian people has not been suspended through the Development Assistance Programme. But budgetary aid to the Malian authorities was not disbursed following the coup. Therefore, these are concrete measures that have already been taken. And we will be monitoring the situation closely to find out what needs to be done. The foreign ministers will discuss that as well. But today the message from the point of view of the defense ministers is clear: we want to stay engaged in Mali, we want to stay engaged in the Sahel, we are there. But this does not have to be or be done at any price.

And then the third subject, and here I think that the French contribution will be very important, is security in space. As you know, last November Russia destroyed one of these satellites with an anti-satellite rocket. There are 30,000 of them, – at the moment there are 30,0000 satellites – that revolve around the earth. And obviously, when you destroy something it produces debris that continues to circulate and that represents a real danger to the 30,000 satellites that we sent into space. This was absolutely irresponsible conduct that has been widely criticized, but which demonstrates the vulnerability of space. That is why we are going to launch a European strategy for security and defence, which should be completed next year. And today’s discussion is the first one that has started the work to prepare this strategy. For that, I thank the French Presidency for taking important initiatives that the Minister will explain to you.

Last point, the strategic compass continues its advance. At the request of the Member States, we have made some adjustments which do not affect the substance of the proposal. Some areas have been deepened, more force has been introduced in the field of the fight against terrorism and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and we continue to have the objective that the European Council will be able to approve a document that is both ambitious and realistic in the course of March. I hope that today it will be a decisive step because the improved and enriched document can be adopted by the defence ministers.
Thank you.

Q&A Q.
You said that for the time being, the mission in Mali would continue. I wanted to know what the difference is between the situation in Mali and the CAR, where currently the CAR is a little remodified because of the presence of Wagner. And at the level of Ukraine, on the EUTM. I would like to know whether any progress has been made on the idea of setting up an EUTM mission in Ukraine to help the Ukrainians.
On the question about Ukraine: yes. On the ministers’ table there is a proposal to establish a mission that will not be a military training mission, as you have seen in Mali or the CAR, but high-level training for Ukrainian officers. It would not be basic training for soldiers. Ukrainians don’t need that. It will be for the high-level education of the cadres of the Ukrainian army. The proposal is on the table. We have sent a mission to Ukraine to analyse the purpose and feasibility on the ground, and I hope that we will soon be able to make a decision on that.

With regard to Mali, I said that the disbursement of budget aid has been stopped. But that for the moment we will continue with the training and consulting activities and our military missions. In the CAR, this mission of training soldiers has been suspended, but not the ongoing military advisory mission. What’s the difference? In car there was not one coup, in Mali there were two. In the CAR the presence of Wagner troops is very widespread, they have been there for some time, gradually, and it can be said that at the moment they control in a very extensive way all the springs of security in the country, the protection of the authorities, they participate in military actions, there are very clear cases of human rights abuses. We cannot continue to train soldiers who will ultimately be the collaborators in this situation. In Mali, there have been two coups, and that is why ECOWAS has imposed sanctions, but the presence of Wagner units from afar is not as large and widespread as that in the CAR.

Q. I would like to know whether you draw a first balance of the dialogues with Russia, which have taken place in the last days. Is there a reason to be more optimistic now or do you see any progress? And second question, with regard to the Strategic Compass, what is the state of play with regard to the EU Rapid Deployment Force? Is there an agreement among Ministers? When do you think will these Rapid Deployment Force be effective and can work?

About the Strategic Compass – as I said before – things are going well. The consensus is being built. There are changes, but none of these changes affect the idea of a Rapid Deployment Capacity. This continues being a part of the proposal and I am fully confident that they will be, at the end, an important part of the proposal. I think that the events that we are witnessing are a big incentive to develop this kind of capacities.

When? Well, let us first wait for it to be approved politically, by the European Council in March. And, if it happens – and I hope it will happen –then we will start immediately working on the practical procedures to make it operational. From this point of view, I would be very much surprised if there are some inconveniences on at the last moment. For the time being, things are going much better than expected. From the point of view of agreement among Member States, on the need of launching this Strategic Compass, and all their proposals, including the one you made reference to.

About the negotiations – which I think should be called conversations between the Russians and the United States. As I told you before, we were fully aware of the American position before this meeting. I, personally, a few hours before I had the opportunity to talk to [U.S. Secretary of State Antony] Blinken and we were absolutely informed through the person who represented the United States in Geneva, Under Secretary of State Mrs. [Wendy] Sherman.

What is the situation? The situation is easy to describe. On the one hand, there is a Russian demand that in a legal, binding, formal way we accept that a certain number of countries, such as Ukraine, could never be members of NATO. Ukraine also means Finland. And, on the other hand, we are asking that NATO withdraw its military personnel from the countries that have become members of the European Union since the collapse of the Soviet Union. These are very concrete demands that are also rejected very concretely. There is no question. It is not that we want Ukraine to become a member of NATO, it is that we do not want us to say that a sovereign state cannot make certain decisions. It goes for Ukraine, it goes for Finland, it goes for Sweden, it goes for all sovereign states. So they will continue to discuss, but I think there is a very clearly established position on both sides. These requests cannot be accepted and, in this, europeans share this point of view, this attitude. I can’t tell you more, but it’s already a lot.

Q. The German Defence Minister said this morning in an interview that Nord Stream 2 should not be dragged into the issue by Russia, that we should not link projects that, in the Minister’s words are not linked to the tensions with Russia. Do you both share this view? What is your view on Nord Stream’s role at the moment?
What do you want to know about Nord Stream 2?

Q. There is a lot of discussion in the United States about putting sanctions on Nord Stream. So, it is a big issue for the Americans, and it is a big issue for some countries in Europe. Do you think it should be on the table?
About Nord Stream II we have already said everything that can be said. This is a private investment done by a consortium of firms. Some of them – most of them – are German, but there are other firms from other Member States of the European Union. The infrastructure is finished and it is pending of the qualification of the regulator. First, the German regulator and, after, of the European Union regulator, who will determine if this infrastructure may or may not function inside the system of a gas supply to Europe. We have many times said from the Commission side, that this is not an infrastructure that we consider a priority, because it was not contributing to the energy autonomy of Europe. But the Commission, the European institutions cannot forbid that someone builds an infrastructure according to the rules. If it is according to the rules, we are in a free market economy. If there is nothing that is against it, people can invest their money – as someone did – in order to get a reward. If there is a positive qualification from the side of the two regulators, the infrastructure is there and it will function. If it is not, not. And, certainly, the functioning of this infrastructure will also depend on the development of events in Ukraine and the attitude of Russia. You cannot imagine that the we are thinking on one side on imposing sanctions, just in case, and on the other hand, to open an infrastructure. It is certainly linked to the military situation in Ukraine, it is obvious. But if everything goes well and we de-escalate and nothing happens, then it is in the hands of the regulator to decide if this infrastructure can be at work or not. And one may have different opinions about the interest for the European economy, the European strategic autonomy, the European energy supplies about this infrastructure. But we are in a political space submitted to the rule of law, and we will do what the regulators decide to do. That is why they are there.

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