Discours du ministre des Affaires étrangères et européennes, Jean Asselborn, au Polish institute of international affairs (PISM), à Varsovie


The European Union and its neighbourhood: where do we go after Crimea?

Director Zaborowski,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The European neighbourhood, East and South, is in turmoil and, to the outside world, Europe seems unable to do anything but try and pick up the pieces of our neighbours’ shattered dreams for democracy and prosperity. Has the European Neighbourhood Policy failed? Are we failing our neighbours who aspire to embrace our values? The annexation of Crimea by Russia and the ongoing paramilitary activity in Eastern Ukraine has stupefied us all. Are we looking at a new Cold War and the end of the international order as we know it? Only time will tell, but my plea today will be for Europe to do its utmost to contribute to reversing the very dangerous trends we are currently witnessing.

Let me elaborate a little on the situation in our neighbourhood as I see it.

In the East, Ukraine is struggling with profound reforms while trying to keep its territory together. Belarus is further isolating itself and Armenia has fundamentally redirected its foreign policy priorities towards the East. Azerbaijan seems utterly uninterested in Europe and its neighbourhood policy. Only Moldova and Georgia are making progress that we need to encourage, in particular in Moldova, as it is going ahead with painful reforms despite a very difficult geopolitical and economic situation.

In the South, the murderous war in Syria rages on in its fourth year with no end in sight, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved and peace seems more elusive than ever, Libya is at serious risk of becoming the world’s next failed state and Egypt is stumbling ahead on its way to a new democratic order. On the positive side, it is Tunisia – where the Arab spring began in 2011 — that shows the way with a new constitution that reconciles Islam and modern Democracy.

Moldova and Tunisia should not be exceptions! We have to take a hard look at our policies towards our immediate neighborhood and rethink, I believe, not so much the policies themselves, but our way to implement them and to try and promote our core values.

In the East, the elephant in the room of our European neighbourhood efforts is of course Russia. I would therefore like to start with a few reflections on our relationship with Russia. Within weeks only, the fundamentals of the EU-Russia partnership were turned upside down. The partnership had been designed as a constructive and mutually beneficial dialogue between equals. Where we wanted to establish and foster mutual trust, fear and mistrust are taking root again. Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia seems to have fallen back into a zero-sum cold-war logic. Has history not taught us how disastrous this logic is for the development of the continent that we share?

It is true that since the Georgia war in 2008, relations had been uneasy. But Crimea has been a real game-changer, leaving us no choice but to redefine the main parameters of our relation with Russia. Economic and financial cooperation that benefitted Russia as much as it benefitted us has now been replaced by sanctions against Russia. Visa liberalisation talks have been frozen, while we had to impose visa bans against those responsible for the annexation of Crimea. Negotiations that were supposed to lead to a new EU-Russia agreement have been differed sine die. At this point in time, we are all paying a heavy price for Russia’s deep mistrust vis-à-vis the Eastern Partnership.

Our citizens should not pay the price of zero-sum geopolitical games. They should not be affected by the sanctions we had to take. In the context of Crimea’s annexation, the EU put in place a visa ban and asset freeze regime for those individuals in Crimea and in Russia who were instrumental in the annexation process and who threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Very recently, we had to further expand the list of individuals under sanctions, in response to further provocations on the ground in Eastern Ukraine.

I have been a Foreign Minister for ten years now. I am very cautious about sanctions in general, as I have seen little concrete impact from sanctions over this past decade. It is a fact however that through their actions, the Russian authorities themselves imposed sanctions on their economy and on their people. While the Russian economy grew 1.3% in 2013, the IMF now forecasts a growth of only 0.2% for Russia in 2014. Investments have slowed sharply and Russia is facing a substantial slowdown in growth potential. Will these hard economic facts bring politicians in Moscow back to reason? I very sincerely hope so.

It will be indeed difficult for president Putin to achieve his Eurasian Union as countries like Belarus or Kazakhstan are not even prepared to go further than a customs union or free trade zone. These countries don’t want to loose sovereignty.

We all have to collectively work harder to de-escalate this impossible situation, so as to avoid financial and economic sanctions. Contrary to cold war times, we now have far reaching financial and economic relations with Russia. Our political partnership might be on hold, but our citizens continue to travel and our business communities continue to work across the continent. We must not punish the people in order to reach the leaders.

De-escalation has to be our main aim. It is my strong hope that all parties to the Geneva communiqué of 17 April will in all honesty, start implementing their commitments. Only open and direct dialogue will take us forward. Closing down the channels of communications will further separate us.

To make a contribution to that necessary dialogue and to offer a platform to Ukraine to express its grievances, the Luxembourg Presidency of the United Nations Security Council in March organized no fewer than 8 meetings on the Ukrainian crisis. Unfortunately, these meetings could only illustrate the deep disagreement between Russian on one side and the rest of the Council on the other, as the vote on a draft resolution to prevent the mock referendum in Crimea showed. Russia vetoed the text that the 14 other Members of the Council supported.

To reinvigorate the Geneva process and to engage the parties in a meaningful dialogue, the OSCE, and in particular its Chairman-in-Office, my Swiss colleague Didier Burkhalter, have a critical and a leading role to play. In this regard, I do very much welcome the outcome of Mr. Burkhalter’s visit of yesterday to Moscow followed by the announcement of president Putin to withdraw his troops further away from the Ukrainian boarders and the fact that he qualifies the 25th of May the presidential elections as “a step in the right direction”.  Those elections are very important as they will give the possibility to all Ukrainians to express their views and to reinforce the political legitimacy at the highest level. The calling off of a series of independence referendums planned for this weekend is also a positive signal.

We furthermore also have to encourage the Ukrainians to engage in a true intra-Ukrainian dialogue between Kiev and peaceful representatives of South-Eastern regions of the country, under the auspices of the OSCE, to create the necessary trust for the drafting of the Constitution of a new Ukraine.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I don’t have to tell you, here in this country that languished for decades behind the Iron curtain, that we have to make every effort to avoid a return to Cold War Europe, to old divisions, to a black and white vision of the world. Have we forgotten what the 20th century has taught us? The trenches, the walls and the barbed wire of the last century must be banned from European soil forever! This is the essence of the European peace project as our fathers have designed it. In the 21st century, trying to resolve a conflict in Europe through military or paramilitary means is simply unacceptable. The recent dramatic events in Odessa and Sloviansk have brutally demonstrated how quickly events can spiral out of control. We have to draw the line here and impress upon the parties and all stakeholders that there cannot be a military solution to this crisis. Military intervention from outside would be a recipe for disaster. Europe should never again be the starting point of a world war.

In this context, Luxembourg fully supports NATO coordination and the reassuring measures taken by the Alliance, being convinced that NATO member countries are in total security.

It is international law, those same rules that Russia used to defend in international fora, that is our best and our only defence. The EU is a community of values that we have to protect against all threats. Politicians come and go but values and principles endure. The children born today will take these values and principles into the 22ndcentury, when nationalism and war will hopefully be spectres of a very distant past.

In the current situation, it is in our common interest to avoid further violence and bloodshed. It is in our common interest to jointly work towards establishing a common area of prosperity, stability and democracy on the European continent. The OSCE’s Helsinki principles, the UN Charter and international law more broadly are the only path towards this goal. It cannot be in Russia’s interest to divide Europe between East and West again.

Our messages have to remain very clear. We have to keep encouraging Ukraine to engage in deep reforms. In particular, after the Presidential elections of May 25th, they have to engage in a Constitutional reform process that will protect the rights of all the citizens of Ukraine. In this regard, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe should have an important role to play. Parliamentary elections have to take place later this year. The Ukrainian government needs to be able to build on the democratic legitimacy that only free and fair elections can offer.

We must also continue to remind Russia of its obligations under international law. Russia must use its influence with paramilitary groups in Eastern Ukraine, be they green or black or any other colour, to convince them to lay down their arms and agree to a return to law and order under the control of the Ukrainian authorities. We have to do our outmost to prevent a “transnistrization” of Eastern Ukraine! I acknowledge the fact that yesterday it was the first time that president Putin addressed directly the pro-Russian activists.

We must be similarly clear on our vision for relations between Ukraine and Europe. Ukraine is our neighbour as much as it is Russia’s neighbour. It has an existential need to foster its relations with both sides. The intention of the Eastern Partnership was never to direct Ukraine and others against Russia. There would never be a stable Russian Ukraine as there would not be a stable Western Ukraine. We might have paid too little attention to the rich diversity of Ukraine in terms of religions, culture, traditions and mentalities when we designed the Eastern Partnership, and we have to take this diversity into account. Russia on its part has to understand that the European Union is a community of values that respects and defends the rights and freedoms of each individual and the right of every nation to make its own choices.  Human rights, democracy and the rule of law lie at the very heart of our shared values, and while we do not want to impose them, we reach out to those who want to embrace them, be they in Ukraine, in Belarus, in Egypt or in Syria.

Your Foreign Minister, my friend Radosław Sikorski, together with our German and French colleagues, invested a lot of energy and time to end the violence. Since the start of the crisis, the EU’s policy towards Ukraine has been consistent. The EU has been firm in insisting that there can only be a peaceful solution to this conflict and that it must be based on full respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. At this point, we must remain firm and true to the principles of the Eastern Partnership policy that we designed.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me now turn to Syria.

The Assad regime has announced presidential elections to take place on the 3rd of June. This is unhelpful, to say the least. Elections organised by the regime outside of the framework of the Geneva communiqué, conducted in the midst of conflict, would have no credibility whatsoever and would undermine efforts to reach a political solution.

The humanitarian crisis has reached catastrophic proportions. There must be an urgent immediate, full and unimpeded access to all Syrian territory and to all people who need help. That is also the request of the Security Council, in resolution 2139 of 22 February, which my country Luxembourg, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, co-authored. Within the Security Council, Luxembourg also works towards referring the catastrophic situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court: all those who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity must be held accountable.

In the Middle East Peace Process Luxembourg remains fully supportive of the US-brokered direct negotiations between the parties, which are now on hold, and I firmly believe that these negotiations should continue. Yes, the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas is an important and positive step toward a two-state solution and the unity of a future Palestinian State. The EU must work together with a new unity government, as long as this government is committed to non-violence and recognition of Israel.

I really hope that Israel will stop the settlement activities. This is the main reason of the failure of John Kerry’s initiative.

The EU is ready to contribute substantially to post-conflict arrangements to ensure the viability of a peace agreement, through political, economic and security support to both parties if there is a final status agreement. Israel and Palestine would have increased access to the European markets, closer cultural and scientific links with the EU, facilitation of trade and investments, as well as more political dialogue and security cooperation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Where do we go after Crimea? Does the European Neighbourhood Policy have to change its course? Not fundamentally, in my view. In this regard, I do share the proposals for creating a new momentum for the European Neighbourhood Policy contained in the Statement by the Foreign Ministers of the Weimar Triangle, Germany, France and Poland, on April 1st. We should put people first and improve the visibility of the European Neighbourhood Policy, through a stronger focus on the mobility of young people and representatives of civil society. We should also further tailor the offers of the European Neighbourhood Policy to each of our partner countries, in order to able to offer more to those willing to engage more deeply in political association and economic integration. Finally, we should grant special attention, in our relations with partners, to the issues of rule of law and good governance, to be better able to accompany structural reforms of the kind that Ukraine is now working on.

As I mentioned, I have been a Foreign Minister for ten years. I have been observing the ups and downs of European Foreign policy for a decade. I firmly believe that we must not let ourselves be forced into new, old divisions. To achieve that, we must remain true to ourselves. We must continue to offer our assistance to those willing to engage with us.

Be it in the eastern neighbourhood or in the southern neighbourhood, our policies should bring stability and prosperity to those in need. Our policies should be based on principles and not on prescriptions. Those principles are enshrined in the UN Charter and in the CSCE Helsinki Final Act.

In the 21st century, conflicts have to be resolved through political dialogue on the basis of these principles that Russia has freely subscribed to.

In the 21st century, we cannot base our actions on the law of the strongest. This simply does not work! An eye for an eye will leave everybody blind.

The words which should guide us in our endeavour for a peaceful, stable and prosperous neighbourhood are those spoken by the laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize, Willy Brandt, a man who fought for freedom and who, in 1970 here in Warsaw, knelt before the Memorial to the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Willy Brandt reminded us that – I quote — “Peace is not everything, but without peace everything is nothing.” “Frieden ist nicht alles, aber ohne Frieden ist alles nichts”.

Thank you for your kind attention!