Speech by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the conclusions of the special European Council meeting of 30-31 May 2022

(Source: European Commission)

“Check against delivery”

Madam President,

Mr President,

Minister,

Honourable Members,

In the early weeks of this war, we gathered in Versailles, and Europe found a common sense of purpose. The European Commission took responsibility for translating purpose into action. And at the European Council last week, we presented practical proposals on four main areas. First, on breaking free from our dependency on Russian fossil fuels. Second, on defence. Third on relief and reconstruction of Ukraine. Fourth, on food security. This is what I would like to focus on today.

Honourable Members,

The Russian invasion of Ukraine reverberates around the world. This is not just about what its impact on economics, geopolitics or security architectures is. It is about the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world who fear they will not be able to afford to heat their homes or feed their children. The numbers are stark. This year alone, some 275 million people are likely to be at least at high risk of food insecurity across the world. And in an inflationary world, that risk and those numbers can quickly spiral further out of control. As it is, many families in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa already spend close to half their income on food. So it is no surprise that the World Bank has estimated that ten million people are pushed into extreme poverty for every percentage point increase in food prices. You just have to look at the volatility of commodity markets to see how much of a ticking time bomb this is. So we should be under no illusions about the challenge ahead. We are facing up to a collision of crises, which will exacerbate food insecurity and debt distress around the world. Some of these are a legacy of the pandemic and wider issues linked to the cost of living. For instance, rising energy prices have driven up the costs of fertilisers or of transporting exports. Others are more long-term and structural, such as the effects of extreme weather linked to climate change or the over-dependency of some regions on food imports.

But whether cyclical or structural, all of these impacts have one thing in common: They are massively – and deliberately – compounded by Putin’s actions. This is a cold, callous and calculated siege by Putin on some of the most vulnerable countries and people in the world. Food has become part of the Kremlin’s arsenal of terror. This is the only way to describe Russia’s bombarding of grain storage facilities and its blockade of the Ukrainian ports, – and in some cases the theft – of some 20 million tonnes of grain currently trapped in Ukraine. And it is the world’s duty to work together to disarm that threat and the disinformation that goes with it.

Let us be very clear: Whereas Russia actively weaponises hunger, the EU’s sanctions are carefully crafted to avoid a negative impact and they foresee a clear exemption for food products. Our sanctions do not touch basic food commodities. They do not affect the trading of grain, or other food, between Russia and third countries. And the port embargo specifically includes full exemptions of agricultural goods. So let us stick to the truth: This food crisis is fuelled by Putin’s war of aggression.

Honourable Members,

While the cause is without doubt, our response must be just as clear. And there are four areas of action, which I believe we must now focus on together. The first is keeping markets open so that trade can continue to flow. This means stepping up our work on the solidarity lanes. We are working hard to provide an alternative way to make sure that the grain blocked in Ukraine gets on the market as quickly as possible. This will help. But the world needs the Black Sea ports of Ukraine up and running again. And it means working with our partners to ensure there are no export restrictions or controls that will hamper the market. The European Union keeps its food exports going, and so should everyone else.

The second area is solidarity and support to partners. This is about short-term support to the countries most at risk. For example, we are now investing an additional EUR 225 million to address short- and medium-term needs of the Southern Neighbourhood partners. And I will be in Egypt next week to discuss with President El-Sisi how best we can target our support to the region.

The third area of response is investing in making local production more sustainable and resilient. Only 50 years ago, Africa produced all the food it needed. Then climate change made water scarce, and the desert swallowed hundreds of kilometres of fertile land, year after year. Africa is now heavily dependent on imports for critical food products and this makes it vulnerable. Therefore, an initiative to boost the region’s own production capacity will be critical to strengthen the region’s resilience. For this, the EU budget has already earmarked EUR 3 billion to invest in agriculture and nutrition, water and sanitation programmes. But it is clear that we will need to do more. And we will need to move faster. This is why the Commission has raised with Member States the possibility to mobilise EUR 600 million of decommitted funds from the European Development Fund. I would want to move swiftly on this.

Finally, let me emphasise that we are not doing this alone. We are working closely with Member States through a Team Europe approach. And we are bringing our collective clout to the international level, anchoring it in the global response. We are working closely with the UN and the G7 Presidency that has made this a key theme of the upcoming leader’s summit. This is the strongest message of unity and support we can send in the face of Russian action and Russian disinformation.

Honourable Members,

It is only natural that many of our partners around the world see this conflict partly through the prism of food or energy prices. And they expect the EU – and the world’s other major economies – to show the same resolve and solidarity as we have shown towards Ukraine, when it comes to addressing the food security crisis. And this is exactly what we will do through our own response and through our work within the G7 and other partners.

Long live Europe.

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