Opening remarks by President von der Leyen at the joint press conference with President Michel following the Special meeting of the European Council of 24 May 2021

(Source: European Commission)

Thank you.

Indeed, the first topic was the hijacking of the Ryanair flight by Belarus authorities. And in the European Council, the judgment was unanimous: This is an attack on democracy. This is an attack on freedom of expression. And this is an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behaviour needs a strong answer. Therefore, the European Council decided that there will be additional sanctions on individuals that are involved in the hijacking, but this time also on businesses and economic entities that are financing this regime.

And the hijacking of the plane is also a deliberate and unnecessary triggering of a safety emergency. It has involved an unjustified intervention of a military aircraft. The air navigation service was misused to aid the state in taking control of an EU aircraft. And Belarus used its control over its airspace in order to perpetrate a state hijacking. Therefore, the safety and security of flights through Belarus airspace can no longer be trusted and the Council will adopt measures to ban overflights of the EU airspace and deny access to EU airports to Belarus airplanes.

Roman Protasevich must be released immediately. Belarus authorities are entirely responsible for his health and the health of his companion Sofia Sapega. And there was a very clear and unanimous stance of the European Council concerning that topic.

Indeed, on Russia: The EU’s approach towards Russian authorities is based on our commonly agreed five principles, that is: the full implementation of the Minsk Agreement, the engagement with Eastern Partnership countries, the strengthening of EU internal resilience, a selective engagement with Russia, and the people-to-people exchanges. And we will continue to stay on this course.

We took stock of our relations. Leaders all agreed that Russia is consistently challenging both our interests and our values by its actions in the past, but also in the present. We all know the interfering and destabilisation in neighbouring countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, or Georgia. We have seen the attempt to weaken the European Union and undermine Member States through hybrid threats, sabotage, assassinations, divide and rule tactics, cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns. We have seen these patterns for years. It is not changing, it is getting worse.

At the same time, the EU and Russia are bound to a joint future. Russia is our largest neighbour and remains source of trade and investment to the Union. Along our common borders, the lives of Europeans and Russians are intertwined. And Russia is an important player to meet global challenges and address regional matters.

In this context, there was the tasking of the High Representative and the Commission to present a report at the June European Council. And we will look at the state of our relations with Russia in light of this report in the next Council.

Finally, the EU-UK relations: We held our first discussion on the EU-UK relations since the entry into force of the TCA. The beginnings are not easy. Tensions are being felt around the access for example of EU fishing boats or tensions are – without any doubt – there around the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Vice-President Šefčovič is working hard with our UK counterparts how to resolve the underlying issues. It was very good to see that Leaders reiterated their unity and their support to the fact that issues must be solved based on the provisions we have now – that is the Trade and Cooperation Agreement; that is the Withdrawal Agreement, and this includes the Protocol.

Just one focus on the Protocol: There should be no doubt that there is no alternative to the full and correct  implementation of the Protocol. And I think it is important to reiterate that the Protocol is the only possible solution to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland, while protecting the integrity of the European Union Single Market. If we see problems today, we should not forget that they do not come from the Protocol, but they result from Brexit – that is the reason why the problems are there.

Now, it is our common duty with the United Kingdom to do whatever we can to reduce tensions in Northern Ireland. And that is why we are exploring practical solutions to help to minimise the disruptions to the everyday life in Northern Ireland. And beyond these current difficulties, we will continue to work on a productive and balanced relationship with the United Kingdom.

Thanks a lot.

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