President of the European Parliament, President of the Commission, dear Members of the European Parliament.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Hijacking a plane is piracy. With 171 passengers on board, it is kidnapping. When these acts are carried out by the state, it’s hostage-taking and state piracy. For what? To get hold of a young journalist and his partner, whose free speech is intolerable for Mr Lukashenko. We had to react quickly. And strongly. And we did. We quickly agreed to adopt sanctions against the Belarusian regime commensurate with the gravity of the event. These include additional individual sanctions, targeted economic measures and a ban on Belarusian airlines. We also called on European airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace, a recommendation that was immediately followed. In the wake of this decision, the UK and the US took similar measures.
I would like to emphasise three clear messages.
The first is for Roman Protasevich and all political prisoners - the EU will not rest until you are released.
The second is for Mr Lukashenko - Mr Protasevich must be released immediately. We hold you responsible for his physical and mental health.
And our third message is to the Belarusian people and especially to those fighting for democracy, freedom of expression and media freedom - the EU stands by you and will continue our direct support for your struggle to choose your destiny.
Dear colleagues, as we did last year on China, we had a strategic debate on our relationship with Russia and we were unanimous in condemning Russia's illegal, provocative and disruptive activities. But above all, we have given ourselves time for a high-quality debate. And I would like to explain the method, the objectives and the first resolutions.
First, the method. The relationship between the EU and Russia is complex, and every complex and strategic choice must begin with building our collective intelligence. This takes time, but in the long run, it saves time. Once we share a common analysis, it's easier to take a collective decision. We are then stronger because we are more united. During our strategic discussion, the leaders shared their views and experience with Russia without reservation. Russia has created a string of conflicts in its neighbourhood and beyond, and faced with that, we have often reacted rather than acted proactively. Rather than reacting to what we do not want, we must first decide what we do want from Russia. We need to better define our strategic objectives and how best to achieve them. And this must be done in line with the five guiding principles that we have already agreed on. They remain as valid as ever:
-implementation of the Minsk agreements,
-strengthen relations with the Eastern partners,
-strengthening the union's resilience,
-selective cooperation with Russia on issues of interest to the union, and
-the need for people to people contacts and support for Russian civil society.
We will continue this work at our next meeting based on the report we have requested from the Commission and High Representative. And this report will contain concrete options or scenarios.
President of the European Parliament, President of the Commission, dear Members of the European Parliament, we also had the opportunity to address the public health crisis again. I would summarise the feeling around the European Council table as one of cautious optimism. On the one hand, we can see that we have succeeded in increasing vaccine production and delivery capacity. This is a step in the right direction. But on the other hand, we understand that we must remain vigilant and monitor the situation, particularly in relation to the risk of mutations and variants.
Progress has also been made on the COVID Certificate. We welcomed the agreements that have been reached on this issue, notably with the European Parliament. We will continue to work to ensure that the free movement of people can gradually be restored, paying particular attention to the economic impact, especially in countries where the tourism sector plays an important role. Cautious optimism was obviously the feeling widely shared around the table.
Another issue that was discussed at length during this European Council was the European Union’s international commitment. It’s a matter of common sense. We know that we will not be safe until the whole world is safe from this crisis. That is why we are fully convinced that the European Union should not shy away from the choices it made from the outset. At international level, it was the European Union that first decided to mobilise resources for research on a massive and unprecedented scale in order to be able to produce vaccines in less than a year. It was the European Union that chose to continue with vaccine exports, and on average 50 % of the vaccines produced on European soil have been exported. You will remember that we have sometimes been criticised by certain observers and by citizens who felt that we were not progressing fast enough with administering vaccines... It was the European Union that launched the COVAX Facility to provide the capacity for financial solidarity in ordering vaccines.
But there is now a key challenge that we want to work on, with a very strong commitment from the European Commission: increasing production capacity and resilience capacity, including through concrete partnerships. Especially with Africa, and in particular a number of countries that are committed to this path. And I am not overlooking the importance of Latin America, where work also needs to be done on building stronger pharmaceutical capacities in the medium and long term. This of course entails discussions relating to intellectual property, as well as discussions on know-how transfers and technology transfers. We remain committed to this important issue.
We also had the opportunity to discuss climate. You will recall that, after the bold decision taken 18 months ago - on climate neutrality by 2050 - and the climate diplomacy that we actively engage in on a daily basis to convince other partners to take ambitious action on climate, we took the decision a few months ago to step up our targets for 2030. We recognise that, beyond the shared goal, it is important to determine how this ambitious target is to be achieved. That is why the European Council wanted to have an in-depth discussion in order to bring to the European Commission’s attention the different concerns, the different points of view and the different starting points relating to this goal within the European Union. We trust the Commission to come forward in the near future with proposals that will be dealt with within the legislative framework. And we agreed that, at the appropriate time, the European Council will return to the political debate on our ambition to reverse the climate threat.
We were also able to briefly discuss the relationship between the EU and the UK, for the first time since Brexit. I would like to say a few words about the European Council’s views and position on this. We firmly believe in the rule of law and in the ‘pacta sunt servanda’ principle, which tells us that once agreements are made, they must be implemented in good faith. Our message here is an affirmation of Europe's quiet strength. We want to be a loyal partner, one committed to a positive, fruitful and constructive relationship with the UK. That has always been our ambition throughout these negotiations, during the course of which we have been able to show how firmly united we are. But we are also ready to use the different means at our disposal to protect our interests, safeguard the integrity of the internal market, ensure that the agreements are respected and, of course, protect the Good Friday Agreement, too. And we have reaffirmed our solidarity with regard to Ireland.
Lastly - and I don’t wish to exceed the speaking time, President Sassoli, I know that you are about to have a debate on the G7 and the international summits - but if I may have a few more moments of your time, I would like to touch on the prospects for the meetings taking place in the coming days.
There is, in my view, a paradox with which we have been confronted in recent months. On the one hand, the world was practically brought to a halt in terms of the economy and our freedom of movement. But at the same time, the pandemic has shown with remarkable clarity just how important international cooperation is. And we have seen the dynamics of international cooperation strengthen in recent months. That cooperation, that multilateral engagement, is the very DNA of the European project, and it will prove so again in the coming days and weeks, in this context of intense activity.
For me, there are three key issues when it comes to the G7 meeting, the summit with Canada and the summit with the US next week. First of all, our fundamental values. Our liberal models of society are under pressure - it is plain to see, we’re discussing it here today, you discuss it regularly in this parliament. There have been constant and increasingly frequent attempts in recent years to show that the liberal democracy model is fragile, weak, inefficient, yet history has proven this model’s capacity to offer freedom, innovation and prosperity. And, as I said in relation to Russia, we must not simply passively accept the confrontation, the attacks and the aggression from those who do not like this model of democracy founded on freedom, empowerment and non-discrimination. We must act with more commitment, in a more strategic, more proactive manner, in promoting the values of freedom and democracy. These points will of course be at the heart of the international meetings.
The second matter which is important, in my view, is prosperity. How can we improve living conditions? The debate here is about the climate and digital transitions. It is about international taxation. And the EU has been at the forefront on these issues. It was the EU, and indeed often the European Parliament, which put the issue of fairness in trade and in international taxation on the agenda, first at a European level, then at an international level. Progress can be seen, with the G7 ministerial meeting on international corporate taxation constituting a first step.
And the third matter, of course, is security, stability. What can we do to prevent conflicts? To reduce the risk of conflict? To anticipate the risk of escalation? When there is a conflict, how can we cooperate to try to resolve problems and find lasting solutions? We know the different arenas around the world where we, the European Union, have an interest in bringing stability and cooperating with our partners in order to deliver results.
President Sassoli, Honourable Members, those are the few thoughts I wished to share with you. I am of course eager to hear your reactions, comments and observations, and am ready to respond.
Thank you for your attention.