Strasbourg, 23 November 2021
Dear Mr President of the Parliament,
Dear Mr President of the Council,
Dear Honourable Members,
I would also like to express my condolences to the families and relatives of the victims of this dreadful bus accident. Our thoughts are with you.
As at any European Council in recent months, our first point of discussion was COVID-19. The pressure of the pandemic is not yet over. Many Member States are facing a further wave, because of the Delta variant. Nevertheless, we are now in a better place, thanks to the vaccines, to break this wave than ever before. The vaccines do protect. The data shows that vaccinated people are much less likely to become severely ill from COVID-19, to have to be admitted to hospital, or to die from it. And it is also clear that in most countries the intensive care beds are now occupied mainly by patients who are not vaccinated or are only partially vaccinated. The link is obvious. If we look, in countries such as Portugal and Spain for example, where 80% to 90% of adults are vaccinated, the risk of dying from COVID-19 in the first 2 weeks of November was 30 times lower than in the countries with the lowest vaccination rate.
If we look at the hospitalisation and mortality rates, then we are dealing primarily with a pandemic of the unvaccinated. That is why our top priority is and remains to continue pressing ahead with vaccination. We still have huge differences in the European Union. In some Member States only 29% of adults are fully vaccinated, while in others it is more than 92%. We have to better understand why some people are not vaccinated. We must increase our resolve to educate and inform. We have to visit every city, every town and every village to convince people to get vaccinated — to protect themselves and also to protect others. In addition, we need boosters for those who are already vaccinated. And we are fortunate that, in Europe, we have enough vaccines.
You will remember – we have talked about it a lot – that, in summer of this year, the Commission concluded the third contract with BioNTech-Pfizer for 1.8 billion doses of vaccine. That is now the basis, really, for all booster jabs throughout Europe, as well as for the vaccinations for children and teenagers. I would like to remind you that all Member States are involved in that contract – that is good. So let us continue to follow the science! Booster jabs help us to keep immunity against the virus high. The vaccinations are, without doubt, our best protection against the pandemic. Nevertheless, further additional measures are necessary to curb the spread of the virus. Keeping a distance, wearing a mask, hygiene rules – those are the measures and they remain as important as ever.
I understand very well that many of us are getting well and truly fed up. But we should not forget one thing: last week an average of 1 600 people died of COVID-19 every day in the European Union. 1 600 people, day after day. That is why the vaccinations and the hygiene measures are an act of solidarity, and they save lives.
Another topic of the European Council was the evolving situation of our border with Belarus. A particularly cruel form of hybrid threat has emerged with a state-sponsored instrumentalisation of people for political ends. This is not a bilateral issue of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania with Belarus. It is the European Union as a whole that is being challenged. This has been initiated and organised by the Lukashenko regime and its supporters, luring people to the border, with the cooperation of migrant smugglers and criminal networks.
When the crisis escalated round about two weeks ago, I was visiting the United States and the White House. And of course, the outrageous behaviour of the Belarusian regime was at the focus of my discussions with President Biden. We both agreed that this is not a migration crisis. This is the attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilise its democratic neighbours. A regime that held fraudulent elections. A regime that violently represses its own people. A regime that we do not recognise. And this cynical blackmail has had just the opposite effect: The whole of Europe stands united in solidarity with Lithuania, Poland and Latvia on this issue. And Europe is acting at exceptional speed on four tracks: humanitarian support; diplomatic outreach to the countries of origin; sanctions against people and entities in Belarus, and sanctions against transport operators facilitating human trafficking and smuggling; and protection of the border.
First, on humanitarian support. What the Lukashenko regime is doing is exploiting human beings by taking advantage of their suffering and provoking violence and the loss of life for political purposes. These people are trapped on Belarusian territory because of the recklessness of the Lukashenko regime. These people need help. This is why we immediately got in touch with the UN agencies, IOM and UNHCR. We have set up a contact group with them, we are in constant contact and we immediately mobilised funding to support their efforts on the ground.
Second, on our diplomatic outreach: here, too, I discussed with President Biden aligning our efforts. We agreed that to counter this behaviour, it is important to coordinate our sanctions and to work with the countries of origin and to work with the airlines that are transporting migrants to Minsk. That is what we have done and that is what we are doing. We are in the process of coordinating our sanctions with the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. I immediately tasked Vice-President Schinas to engage with the key countries. He has been to Iraq, to the United Arab Emirates, to Lebanon, to Turkey and he will go soon to Uzbekistan. HR/VP Borrell convened the Foreign Affairs Council to expand the sanctions regime. And Commissioner Johansson was in Egypt. And I would like to thank all three of them for their successful work and tireless work. We already see the impact on the ground. We see that several airlines and civil aviation authorities have stopped unwarranted travel to Belarus. Furthermore, Iraq has begun repatriating nationals stranded in Belarus. We very much welcome this very good cooperation with Iraq. But more migrants are trapped and we will work with the UN agencies to facilitate their return home. We will mobilise up to EUR 3.5 million to support voluntary returns from Belarus. And our efforts and this outreach will continue.
My third point concerns sanctions. The strategy employed by Belarus is based very clearly on the complicity of tour operators and their intermediaries. There are specialised travel agents offering all‑inclusive deals: visas, flights, hotels and, somewhat cynically, taxis and buses up to the border. Let us be very clear: these migrants are being vilely misled by false promises. This means we really have to combat this. And that is why we are proposing that a watchlist be drawn up for all means of transport based on international law on the trafficking and smuggling of migrants. Today the Commission is putting forward a legislative proposal to do this. The proposal will have to be adopted by co-decision. So, Honourable Members, I am counting on your efforts to adopt it as soon as possible.
The fourth and last point is about the management of our borders. It has always been our position to support our Member States that are on the front line, whether it be in the East or to the South. Because we must act together to protect our European borders. We are currently deploying substantial efforts. In the new European budget, EUR 6.4 billion is available for managing the borders. For example we are funding electronic surveillance technology, patrol vehicles, equipment for border guards and the construction of border crossing-points, but also satellite imaging and critical infrastructure. All this is to support management of the border.
On top of that, we are spending around EUR 1 billion each year on Frontex. And today, the Commission has decided to go even further. We are proposing to triple the funds currently earmarked for Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. This package of security measures is designed to tackle the current emergency, and to underline our solidarity with the Member States on the front line.
Member States facing such a hybrid attack must be able to respond effectively to the emergency situation they face. At the same time, they need to fully respect fundamental rights and international obligations. Both points are crucial and we need to find a way to reconcile them. We are therefore working on a proposal for provisional emergency measures in the area of asylum and return, based on Article 78(3) of the Treaty. The aim is to support Member States to set up the right processes, to manage irregular arrivals in a swift and orderly way, in line with fundamental rights.
Last but not least, what is happening at the border with Belarus belongs to a broader context. Recent actions by the Lukashenko regime and its supporters are a determined attempt to create a continuing and protracted crisis. Let me repeat: the European Union does not recognise this regime, which violently represses its own people. These actions are part of a concerted effort to destabilise the European Union and our neighbourhood. This includes Ukraine and Moldova in particular. These actions represent a real and present danger to our Union’s security. These actions go beyond Belarus. They are testing our resolve and unity. But the European Union has the will, the unity and the resolve to face this and future crises. And with your support, Honourable Members, we will withstand the test.
And this is why today, more than ever, I say: Long live Europe!