On Monday January 25, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sophie Wilmès, participated with her counterparts to the Foreign Affairs Council held in Brussels. It began with exchanges on topical issues during which the European ministers discussed the political situation in several regions of the world, but also the future of transatlantic relations or the European strategy to facilitate access by third countries to vaccines against COVID-19. An exchange of views was also held with the Japanese Foreign Minister, H.E. Toshimitsu Motegi.
The repression of demonstrations in support of Alexei Navalny, imprisoned since his return to Russia on January 17, is a matter of serious concern for the EU Member States, who note a progressive reduction of democratic space and human rights violations in Russia. The EU already applies several significant sanctions against Russia. Others are under consideration. Through its Deputy Prime Minister, Belgium has shown that it is open to any option that favors a strong and coordinated European response. “High Representative Borrell has indicated his willingness to travel to Moscow to establish direct contact with the Russian authorities. We will support him in his efforts and hope that he will be able to convey a strong message. We have always advocated maintaining a channel of dialogue with Russia, which remains a major player at the gateway to Europe. We will have the opportunity to come back to this point and to hear the High Representative’s report during our strategic discussion at the February Council. Nevertheless, the situation can evolve very quickly and, faced with unacceptable actions with regard to our democratic values and respect for the most basic human rights, we must be ready, if necessary, to take any useful measures, including additional sanctions,” commented Sophie Wilmès.
Last Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès met with her Turkish counterpart Mr. Çavuşoğlu on the occasion of his visit to Brussels to meet with various representatives of the European institutions. In a frank atmosphere, she had the opportunity to address a number of issues but also to express some legitimate concerns regarding Turkey’s attitude in the Eastern Mediterranean and the human rights situation. If no direct follow-up could be given to the decision of the European Council of December 2020 concerning additional sanctions against Turkey, one nevertheless observes a welcome change of attitude on the part of Ankara, which seems ready to engage in a positive agenda with the EU. “It is obvious that Turkey has sent positive signals in recent days and shows the desire to renew dialogue and cooperation with the European Union. We therefore plead to test the realism of Turkey’s promises, which must be given a chance. But I want to be very clear: if they do not materialize in an obvious and lasting change of behavior, Belgium will support the rapid application of additional European sanctions”, says Sophie Wilmès.
At the meeting of European Foreign Ministers, Deputy Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès spoke on behalf of the Benelux on the current situation in Hong Kong. Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg share a growing concern about the infringements of fundamental freedoms and human rights of the population. This concern has been further reinforced by the mass arrests that took place on January 6. The three countries agree on the need to accentuate the efforts of the European Union and the member states to move the lines in this matter. Sophie Wilmès said: “It is undeniable that the National Security Law is being used to muzzle all political opposition and undermine democracy. Little by little, China is undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. Every opportunity must be seized to denounce these abuses: in bilateral contacts with Beijing, at the European level, but also in multilateral forums. We also call to continue coordinating efforts with our non-European partners such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia to increase pressure on Beijing and to quickly see real changes in its policy towards Hong Kong. It is also a question of respecting its international commitments and its reliability as a partner. “The judiciary, which is still resisting pressure from the Beijing regime for the moment, deserves special attention according to the Benelux. Belgium also supports the possibility for students from Hong Kong to participate in the Erasmus Mundus programme.”
By adopting ambitious climate targets, the European Union has confirmed its status as a world leader in this area. It is with this in mind and in view of the COP26 that the Member States wish to use all the diplomatic tools at their disposal to convince the world’s major economies to follow their lead by making binding commitments in this area. This will also make it possible to avoid any unfair competition for European companies. In line with its action in the UN Security Council, Belgium has also advocated for additional initiatives aimed at taking better account of the security risks linked to climate change. In the Sahel region, for example, global warming is leading to increased desertification, food shortages and migration. Combined with the existing political and security problems, they reinforce the region’s instability.
Relations with the United Kingdom
To close the meeting, the ministers exchanged views on the relations between the European Union and the United Kingdom concerning the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) of the European Union following the departure of the UK. This policy area is not included in the agreement signed with the United Kingdom at the end of 2020 and the possibilities for cooperation have therefore yet to be defined.
Sophie Wilmès commented: “Belgium will always advocate a European approach, even if some bilateral agreements are not to be excluded as long as they are done in full transparency. The EU’s door for structured cooperation with London must remain open, as the UK is an important player in the field of foreign affairs and with whom we share many values and commitments. We can therefore look forward to cooperating in the future in external theaters as well. Reflections are underway across the Channel to determine the UK’s place in the world, and we will see whether there is a willingness to cooperate in these areas in London as well. Unfortunately, the latest echoes from the Johnson government on the appointment of the European ambassador are not very encouraging“. Indeed, another subject that has been in the headlines on both sides of the Channel in recent days is the UK’s willingness not to grant full diplomatic status to the EU Representative in London. Sophie Wilmès replied: “The point has been addressed and discussions are underway with our British partners. In view of its competences and its field of action, as well as its institutions, there is no doubt that the European Union cannot be seen as a lambda international organization. I would be surprised if the United Kingdom did not understand this after having been an artisan of this project for almost half a century.”