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Address by President Charles Michel to the annual EU Ambassadors’ conference

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Raad, gepubliceerd op woensdag 8 december 2021.

It is a pleasure to speak with all of you, even if virtually.

One year ago, I spoke to you about our European strategic autonomy, how it fits into our debates and decisions in the European Council, and the many tools at our disposal to assert this autonomy.

Today I would also like to say a few words about strategic autonomy, or sovereignty. But this time from a different angle, going beyond the ambition and the concept, to focus on the concrete. All that we have achieved over the past two years through our common ambition to have an impact in the world commensurate with our economic power.

I believe our strategic autonomy is grounded in three areas: our values, our prosperity and our security and defence.

So what have we achieved over the past two years? I will not build up the suspense like a Netflix drama. I will tell you right up front. We have achieved a lot, especially in three areas.

First, we have bolstered our strategic influence in the world.

Second, we have used our influence to moderate conflicts in our neighbourhood.

And third, we have countered provocations at our borders.

I chaired my first European Council meeting two years ago, in December 2019.

We took the decision to commit to climate neutrality by 2050. That decision was a milestone for two reasons.

First, it created the political space and prepared the ground for the Green Deal, the climate law, and our ‘Fit for 55’ package. Second, it paved the way for global action on climate, climate diplomacy, and our leadership inspired many others in the world to follow suit.

And our collective decision to become the first carbon neutral continent on the planet marked a symbolic global shift and produced a political ripple effect.

During COVID-19, we have taken major steps to strengthen our position in the world. From the very start of the pandemic, the EU was a driving force in investing in research that allowed vaccines to be produced at record speed. We were also the driving force behind establishing COVAX to help guarantee fair and equitable access to vaccines.

We took courageous decisions. Even before vaccines were developed, we took the crucial decision to pool our vaccine purchases. This ensured that solidarity would be at the heart of our strategy. Solidarity and equal access for all Member States and all citizens.

You may remember that we were initially criticised for the supposed slowness of this operation compared to others. Not many people defended the decision at the time. But I did. I was a firm believer in this approach because we were running a marathon, not a sprint. And today, we see this is the case.

Finally, our common decision on our European budget and our recovery plan. We took this decision only three months after the first European Council on COVID-19. It clearly reaffirmed the strength and unity of our Union, our stability and our confidence in our common future. And interestingly, this was immediately perceived by the international community and the financial markets. A true geopolitical act of sovereignty.

Ten days ago, the World Health Organization voted to open negotiations on an international treaty on pandemics. This will strengthen our global health resilience and will be anchored both in international solidarity and transparent and inclusive principles.

I first publicly raised this idea in front of you, in November last year. I then developed this argument for a treaty at the Paris Peace Forum, where Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and António Guterres supported the idea. Then Boris Johnson, a few days later, at the G20 Summit.

In the following months, with Dr Tedros’ teams, and with your active diplomatic support, we developed a global campaign that led to the consensus decision in Geneva last week. Just one year after we first planted the seed. This is a major success for multilateralism and for our Union.

I would like to warmly thank all of you for all your efforts. Especially our diplomats in Geneva, who were our eyes, ears and voices on the ground. Your skills and knowledge of the UN system made all the difference.

International taxation is a question of fairness. Last July, we reached a global agreement to reform international tax rules. This will ensure that multinational firms pay their fair share of tax. We all know how hard it is to reach an agreement on taxation. Unanimity is required on tax matters in the EU. Despite this, we have played a pivotal role in this global agreement.

Some of our Member States were at the forefront. And let me remind you that we, the European Council, already decided in July 2020 to introduce a digital levy, in the context of our European budget.

International taxation is another example of our positive geopolitical influence.

Being a committed and influential geopolitical actor means stepping forward when events demand it. The EU-led Belgrade-Pristina dialogue is a good example. We showed the effectiveness of our diplomacy, a success for the EEAS. This helped the two sides reach agreement on highly sensitive political issues.

That makes it possible to calm things down when we see a resurgence of tensions, like in September. Our thanks to Special Envoy Lajcak, and to High Representative Borrell. Together, we used our direct contacts with the leaders and our relationship with NATO.

The stabilisation and prosperity of the Western Balkans is a natural geopolitical interest for Europe. That’s why an investment plan of historic proportions for these countries, adopted at the Brdo summit, represents a major step towards strengthening our ties with them.

The Eastern Partnership countries are also a major strategic challenge. I will point out three specific areas of action.

Our alliance with Ukraine remains a major axis of our foreign policy. We support the reforms and their rapprochement with the EU, along with our political defence of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

I have paid special attention to this region, especially during several trips and in my various phone calls. Russian military activities on the border are very concerning.

I have been clear that there will be a very high price to pay, both politically and economically, if the sovereignty of Ukraine is threatened again by Russian troops. And I continue to believe in the need for frank dialogue with Russia, including at the highest levels.

The Caucasus may be less visible, but it is a strategically important region. We have played an important role in recent months, even if we were not previously known to greatly influence events in the region.

In Georgia, we were able to relaunch the dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition. Yet the polarisation continues, and there has even been some backtracking. But our efforts were an important investment in recreating political pluralism. And the pragmatism we were able to show, combined with the attractiveness and the potential of EU support for Georgia, has proven that we can play a more important role.

Through my engagement with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, we were able to help broker a ‘prisoners of war for mine maps’ swap. More recently, with my team, we were able to help establish a direct line of communication between both ministers for defence. I will be hosting a dinner with the two presidents next week in Brussels. These initiatives did not go unnoticed in the region.

The situation continues to be fragile and complex. But our efforts reflect our approach: engaging proactively and constructively, instead of just reacting.

The EU has been directly confronted with hybrid attacks on our borders. A sign of the times. Last summer, Belarus engaged in a hybrid attack by weaponising migrants at the borders of the Baltic States and Poland. We have managed to improve the situation through a wide range of legal, political, diplomatic and informal actions.

The result has been that airlines have stopped carrying migrants to Belarus and third countries have renounced their support for these activities. And ultimately, the Belarus authorities are taking more positive measures, such as sheltering migrants in more humane conditions and allowing repatriation back to their countries. We must remain vigilant. But we certainly reacted with resolve, unity and efficiency.

Just one word on Africa. You know my personal conviction for this continent. I was in Senegal a few days ago. We are working very hard on the next EU-Africa Summit next year. I am confident it will be a great occasion for the renewal of our partnership with Africa.

All these examples show that we are on the right track, even if there is still a lot to do.

I’d like to conclude with two final thoughts.

First, we must break down the barriers between our ways of working. That means tearing down the silos and avoiding overly complicated theoretical or institutional debates. It means thinking and acting together, pragmatically, and with common sense.

You, dear ambassadors, are the main actors on the ground, ensuring the coherent approach of our external action. Your interlocutors should not only see you as representatives of DG Trade or DG Fisheries. You are major geopolitical players. Our different policies should be the instruments of a single European strategy, based on our values, shared prosperity and security.

Finally, diplomacy is also about personal relationships. This is not news to you.

In my different capacities, I have experienced the power of personal diplomacy at leader level. That is why I have invested so much time and energy in personal contacts with foreign leaders. I have been on nearly 70 missions to meet fellow leaders, and I have had over 100 meetings with non-EU heads of state or government.

This is why I like to have one-on-one meetings, whenever possible, to build relationships of trust and confidentiality, which encourage information sharing, action and influence. But this personal diplomacy would be impossible without you and your teams. During each of my missions, and at my meetings in Brussels, I call on you a lot.

So allow me to end on a simple, personal note. Thank you. Thank you to each and every one of you. I am sincerely grateful for your work.


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