Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union of 21 June: conclusions
On Monday 21 June, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sophie Wilmès, met her European counterparts in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg for a Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) meeting. The Council was preceded by a working meeting with Belarusian opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. During the Council, the ministers had the opportunity to discuss developments in Belarus at length. They also discussed the situation in Iraq in the presence of their Iraqi counterparts. Other topical issues included the situation in Latin America, the Middle East peace process, Turkey and Ethiopia.
As a reminder, on 24 and 25 May, the European Council strongly condemned the hijacking of a Ryanair plane and its forced landing in Minsk, calling for measures in response to this act. These include the establishment on 4 June of a no-fly zone which prohibits Belarusian airlines from flying over EU airspace and denies them access to European airports.
Today, Foreign Ministers adopted a fourth set of sanctions against 78 individuals and eight entities. This decision is a response not only to the forced disembarkation explained above, but also to the increasing human rights violations in Belarus and the widespread use of repression and torture. "Unacceptable violations of fundamental freedoms, the repression of independent voices, the detention of nearly 500 political prisoners and actions that contravene international standards can only have serious consequences. And Europe has responded in unison by taking sanctions against the perpetrators of these human rights violations", said Sophie Wilmès.
At the working meeting with opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya - with whom the Deputy Prime Minister had already held a meeting the previous day - the ministers again discussed the delicate balance between the option of hitting the regime hard with sanctions and the need to spare the population as much as possible from the consequences of these sanctions. "We must be firm enough to initiate a real democratic transition in Belarus. On the other hand, we are on the side of the Belarusian people, to whom we must continue to give the best possible support, and on that of civil society, the media and independent journalists who courageously continue to do their work. We are ready to further strengthen our support if a democratic transition takes place in the country," explained Deputy Prime Minister Wilmès.
Belgium, with the support of several other Member States, has requested that Iraq be included on the agenda of this Council. The stability of the country is crucial for the region as well as for Europe. This is why Belgium would like the EU to play a more pro-active political role on this issue, rather than remaining in a mere donor and assistance role. Supporting early elections in October is a priority for Belgium, for example. "The holding of free and fair elections in Iraq, with the full participation of women, is an important step towards stability. These elections must be credible. It is therefore important that the European Union, in cooperation with the UN, provides technical assistance and also sends an election observation mission." The fight against ISIS also remains a crucial issue for Belgium. Our country is deploying four F-16 fighter jets operating from Jordan for this purpose, as part of the Coalition.
The Iraqi Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Fouad Hussein, joined the discussion at a later stage. The Deputy Prime Minister, Sophie Wilmès, who spoke on behalf of our country and on behalf of Spain, Luxembourg and Ireland, gave her support to Iraq, and in particular to Prime Minister Kadhimi, for the efforts being made to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia closer together. "You have our support because we are convinced of the importance for the Gulf States and Iraq of further developing their relations." Belgium, Spain, Luxembourg and Ireland are also encouraging the Iraqi government to implement a reform programme that aims to "meet the legitimate aspirations of the population, which means continuing to work on the fight against corruption and impunity, increasing efforts to ensure that human rights are respected and ensuring that only the authorities have a monopoly on security."
Latin America and the Caribbean
The third chapter of this Foreign Affairs Council was devoted to Latin America, which has been overwhelmed by the pandemic and paying a heavy price in terms of its economy and social fabric. The EU therefore recently decided to strengthen its ties with the region and this Monday's discussions were in line with this decision. "Latin American and Caribbean countries need to know that they will find the EU to be a reliable partner," said Sophie Wilmès. "We must also provide assistance in the fight against corruption, organised crime and drug trafficking, which seriously disrupt the lives of citizens in these countries, and also have an influence here, by weakening our economies."
Sophie Wilmès then spoke about the situation in Colombia, which for the past two months has been the scene of large-scale demonstrations against the austerity policies of the Duque government and has been subjected to bloody repression in return, "The violence in Colombia must be unequivocally condemned. Europe must call on the authorities to exercise restraint and respect human rights, while continuing to work actively with all stakeholders to encourage dialogue, reduce tensions and find solutions to the current crisis."
Middle East Peace Process
High Representative Borrell also reported on the work of the EU Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process, Sven Koopmans from the Netherlands. He recalls that, during his visit to the region, Mr Koopmans encountered a very fragile situation in which violence could flare up again at any time. He therefore called for more coherence in the action of the various EU institutions and Member States in order to increase Europe's influence and real impact on the ground - an approach that Belgium fully supports. "More coherence in European action also means that the various levers available to the EU must be used more actively," said Sophie Wilmès. She reiterated the need for the EU to review its bilateral relations with both sides, "in order to start them on the road to dialogue through incentives and disincentives - this is a sine qua non for peace." Belgium also supports the Special Envoy's efforts to revitalise the Quartet, in which the region's countries must also be more closely involved.
The Foreign Ministers addressed the EU-Turkey relationship in the light of the debate at the forthcoming European Council. In March, the ministers had identified a number of areas in which Europe was ready to strengthen its cooperation with Turkey, provided that Turkey continues to de-escalate in the eastern Mediterranean. "This change must be sustainable and visible through real commitments on the part of Turkey," said Sophie Wilmès. For Belgium, the resumption of Greek-Turkish dialogue is also encouraging, as is the more positive discourse towards the Union. "We must maintain the momentum of the last six months and continue to work on a positive agenda in areas of common interest. We expect Turkey to maintain its commitments." The human rights situation in Turkey also remains a major concern.
The Council is concerned that the elections announced in Ethiopia for today (if not today, then September) must take place against a background of increasing instability and ethnic tensions. The commitments the government is supposed to make are not being fulfilled, and the situation in Tigray is alarming, especially since access to humanitarian aid is still too limited and there are suspicions that hunger is being used as a weapon of war.
As the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned on several occasions, both to her Ethiopian counterpart at the end of last year and to the Council, Belgium believes that the issue of humanitarian access must be resolved urgently and definitively. "There is also an urgent need to declare a humanitarian ceasefire or risk not being able to sow and therefore not being able to harvest later. We must also continue to remind the Ethiopian authorities of their responsibility to protect their people and end human rights abuses and violations, including the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, as we again reminded them on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict."