Firstly, I wish to extend our sincere condolences to the victims of the tragic bus accident in Bulgaria, and also to send our thoughts to North Macedonia, where many of the victims were from.
Our last European Council meeting was a very intensive one, where we tackled many of the current pressing challenges.
First, we addressed the current spike in energy prices, and its impacts on families and businesses, in particular on vulnerable citizens and SMEs that are striving to recover from the pandemic. The European Council welcomed the toolbox presented by the Commission on short-term relief measures. Member states and the Commission are invited to make the best possible use of this toolbox. We also invited the Commission to study the functioning of the gas and electricity market, and of the EU ETS market, with the help of the European Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators, and the European Securities and Markets Authority. Both agencies have in the meantime given preliminary analysis ahead of the European Council of December. In any case, this price hike shows that we need an energy market that contributes to affordable prices, that is resilient and provides predictability and security of supply, and that supports the transition to climate neutrality. In this regard we are also looking forward to the Commission’s upcoming proposals on the strengthening of the gas market. We also invited the European Investment Bank to speed up investment in energy transition. One point was made clear by many leaders: the current price problem is not a reason to relax our climate ambitions, on the contrary, it shows how much this transition is urgent, existential, and necessary. The European Council will come back to this important issue in December.
On COVID-19, we see cases rising, so we must remain extremely vigilant. Our internal coordination is once again needed and crucial to ensure that measures are as up to date as possible. Vaccination campaigns are moving in the right direction, but we must make a final push by overcoming vaccinate hesitancy and tackling disinformation. We must remain committed to international solidarity because the only way to ensure our safety is to ensure that everyone else in the world is safe, through the global rollout of vaccines.
We also had a strategic debate on trade. The European Council agrees that trade is a powerful instrument that brings job creation and growth. We must use trade to support our prosperity and to promote our social and environmental priorities, as well as our fundamental values. I know this is a concern that your assembly shares. Together, we need to clarify our goals and set clear priorities: we want to build a level playing field, we want greater reciprocity, we want to protect our planet and promote our values. And we need to improve the process. This means greater transparency from mandates to ratification. This would help to ensure public and parliamentary support. Our Brexit negotiations, for instance, could serve as an inspiring model.
We also discussed the digital revolution and our ambitions in that area, because we believe that it can be a driver of prosperity, innovation, jobs and competitiveness. In that context, we noted the importance of moving forward with the legislative work, in particular on the digital services act and the digital markets act. We are pleased that the Council is now ready to launch and engage in negotiations with the Parliament on this. We also expressed support for the extensive work being done by the Commission in this area, in particular in relation to the important matter of semiconductors. In addition, we noted how important it is to be ready to strengthen our capacities when faced with cybersecurity threats. We believe that we must strengthen our European response capacity, for example by developing crisis and incident management capacities.
We also consider that the subject of digital connectivity calls for action on our part, based on the values that unite us: values of trust, transparency and accountability, which are values we share with other countries outside the EU. We believe that dialogue must be stepped up, to enable us to develop similar standards together on this important subject, as far as that is possible.
We also had a debate on the rule of law. It was the occasion to identify the exact difficulties and to better understand different points of view. Our debate took place in a respectful atmosphere. The rule of law, including the independence of the judiciary, is fundamental. On the existing disputes, legal and institutional instruments have already been activated, and others could still be triggered. But leaders also agreed that political dialogue needs to continue to find common solutions. Dialogue and respect are also necessary, and we know that sometimes rhetoric can make things more difficult. I hope our debate within the European Council facilitated a common understanding, and was a positive step that would help lead to solutions.
We also had a wide-ranging discussion on migration. This is always a difficult issue, but it is imperative to tackle this important challenge. We are determined to fully control our external borders to prevent illegal migration, to prevent the loss of life, to prevent the exploitation of migrants by smugglers. We will not accept that the distress of human beings, of migrants, be used for political purposes. We condemn such hybrid attacks at the EU borders, and we had the opportunity to discuss the implementation and follow-up of the conclusions of our June meeting. The aim is to strengthen the external dimension of migration, and this includes intensifying mutually beneficial partnerships and cooperation with third countries. The Commission has prepared action plans for key countries. It is important to implement them as soon as possible. We also discussed the internal dimension of migration. The migration pact has been on the table for many months, and we know there are different positions and that this issue remains very sensitive. But we had a renewed sense that work on this must be taken forward.
A few words on the situation at the Belarus border. I visited Poland on 10 November, and I expressed the Union’s full solidarity with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. This is not only an attack on their borders, it is a hybrid attacks on our common European borders and we condemn it. We will not allow the Belarus regime to intimidate us and to undermine our values and our unity. Since our European Council meeting, events have continued to unfold. What have we done to address this crisis, that is also a humanitarian crisis? First, the Foreign Affairs Council adopted an extended legal basis for sanctions to include additional sectors. One example: the majority of the fleet of Belavia are aircraft leased from European companies. This will be stopped when the decision is taken, which is imminent. We have also taken concrete action to stop airline companies from carrying migrants to Minsk. My own diplomatic team had productive talks with the Turkish authorities, but also with others countries like the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and others. As a result of these joint efforts with the Commission, Turkish Airlines has decided to stop allowing Belavia to funnel migrants to Minsk, and to stop issuing one-way tickets to Minsk from Istanbul to the key nationalities concerned. Other companies have taken similar decisions. Commission Vice‑President Schinas has travelled to a number of countries in the region: Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Lebanon. He has successfully obtained their cooperation and I commend his work. I also met during my visit to Poland with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to assess the situation and to discuss how Poland and the EU can best cooperate. We also had many contacts with the other EU leaders in the region. The German Chancellor has also called President Putin and President Lukashenka twice, to help address the humanitarian crisis. The Belarusian authorities have, since then, adopted a few measures that seem to be more positive, but it’s too early to assess whether this will mark a real change in their position. That’s why we must remain cautious. Yet some of the most vulnerable migrants have been accommodated in a warehouse, and Belarus has cooperated with Iraq to organise a repatriation flight of several hundred Iraqis. We welcome the cooperation with the International Organization for Migration, and the UNHCR. We call on Belarus to provide both organisations with full access in order to provide humanitarian assistance and to help organise voluntary returns to countries of origin.
My assessment of the situation is twofold: firstly, our unity and the joint actions carried out together have yielded results. We have more or less stopped migrant arrivals into Belarus, the flows have been significantly reduced, we haven’t been destabilised by the attack, but we must continue to be vigilant and continue to act. Secondly, there is the humanitarian situation. We cannot close our eyes to the humanitarian situation. We must be determined to work to ensure that assistance is given to the people on the ground who are suffering as a result of this situation.
That, in a nutshell, sums up the European Council meeting. Of course, we were also able to discuss some matters relating to external relations planning - in particular COP26, which concluded some time ago, and also the upcoming summits which we will be holding, in particular in the framework of the Eastern Partnership, but also with ASEAN. I await your comments and questions. Thank you for your attention.