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European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations
News article23 November 2021Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations

Speech by President von der Leyen at the EP Plenary on the conclusions of the October European Council and the situation in Belarus and at its border with the EU

VDL Belarus

"Check against delivery"

Dear President Sassoli,

President Michel,

Honourable Members,

As at any European Council in recent months, our first point of discussion was COVID. And yes, the pandemic is not yet over. Many Member States are facing a further wave, because of the Delta variant. Nevertheless, we are now better placed to break the wave than ever before because our vaccines protect us. Vaccinated people are much less likely to become severely ill from COVID-19, to have to go 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: 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 two weeks of November was 30 times lower than in the countries with the lowest vaccination rates.

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 press ahead with vaccination. We still have huge differences in the EU. In some Member States only 29% of adults are fully vaccinated, and in others more than 92%. We have to better understand why some people are not vaccinated. And we must maintain 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 others. In addition, we need boosters for those who are already vaccinated. We are fortunate that, in Europe, we have enough vaccines.

You will remember that, back in the summer, the Commission secured a third contract with BioNTech-Pfizer, which now forms the basis for all booster jabs throughout Europe, as well as for vaccinations for children and teenagers. All Member States are involved. Let us continue to follow the science! Booster jabs help us to keep immunity against the virus high. Vaccination is our best protection against the pandemic. Nevertheless, other measures are still necessary to curb the spread of the virus. Keeping a distance, wearing a mask, hygiene rules – these remain as important as ever.

I understand that many of us are getting fed up with COVID-19. But we should not forget one thing: last week an average of 1,600 people died of COVID-19 every day in the EU. 1,600 people, day after day. That is why vaccination and 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 the state-sponsored instrumentalisation of people for political ends. This is not a bilateral issue of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania with Belarus. It is the EU 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 two weeks ago, I was visiting the United States. Of course, the outrageous behaviour of the Belarusian regime was at the focus of our 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 and violently represses its own people. A regime which 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 on four tracks: humanitarian support; diplomatic outreach to countries of origin; sanctions against people and entities in Belarus and sanctions against transport operators facilitating human trafficking and smuggling; 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 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 UN agencies. 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 our American friends aligning our efforts. We agreed that to counter this behaviour, it is important to coordinate our sanctions and to work with countries of origin and the airlines that are transporting migrants to Minsk. And this is what we have done and what we are doing. We are in the process of coordinating our sanctions with the United States, Canada and the UK. I tasked Vice-President Schinas to immediately engage with key countries. He has been to Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Turkey and 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 them for their successful work. We already see the impact. Several airlines and civil aviation authorities have stopped unwarranted travel to Belarus. Furthermore, Iraq has begun repatriating nationals stranded in Belarus. We 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.

The 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 clear: these migrants are being vilely misled by false promises. We have to combat this. 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. Honourable Members, I am counting on your efforts to adopt it as soon as possible.

The 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.

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.

Honourable Members,

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.

Honourable Members,

What happened 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 EU does not recognise this regime, which violently represses its own people. Their 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 this test.

And this is why today, more than ever: Long live Europe!

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