During their videoconference meeting on Monday 19 April, the EU Foreign Ministers discussed in detail the situation in Ethiopia and that in Ukraine, with an informal exchange of views with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba. During the review of current European foreign policy issues, the ministers focused on China, Iran and Russia. Additional sanctions have been adopted against two companies and ten individuals in Myanmar.


EU Foreign Ministers noted that, seven years after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the conflict in Donbass, Russia’s military build-up on its border with Ukraine – including the expansion of its military fleet in the Black Sea and the use of war rhetoric – is creating a very tense situation. Violence has also resumed along the front line in eastern Ukraine. As President of Benelux, Deputy Prime Minister Wilmès spoke on behalf of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. “We deeply regret the lives lost since the multiple ceasefire violations along the front line,” said Minister Wilmès. She pledged to her Ukrainian counterpart Kuleba to “continue to reaffirm the commitment of the Benelux countries to the sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and to strongly denounce Russia’s blatant disregard for international law.” She also expressed a determination to continue to exert the necessary pressure on the Russian Federation, including through the EU’s sanctions policy.


The EU Foreign Ministers discussed two ongoing issues concerning Russia. First of all, they expressed concern about the health of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which has seriously deteriorated lately. In a joint statement, the EU ministers called on the Russian authorities to give Mr Navalny immediate access to trusted doctors and held them responsible for his safety and health. This statement is supported by Belgium. The EU ministers also discussed the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats by the Czech Republic, following accusations of the involvement of Russian GRU (military intelligence) agents in the explosion of a Czech ammunition depot in 2014. Our country supports these decisions.


Following on from the Foreign Affairs Council discussions on 22 March, ministers again discussed the situation in Ethiopia, where fighting has been taking place in the Tigray region since November. The Council took note of the report by Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, who has returned from a second mission to the region on behalf of the EU. The situation in Tigray remains very worrying, with allegations of serious human rights violations, the presence of Eritrean troops and a catastrophic humanitarian situation. The improvement in humanitarian access is a positive development, although it is still insufficient. Sophie Wilmès said, “We are deeply concerned by the testimonies coming from the ground. Rape as a weapon of war, among other things, is cruel and unacceptable and causes irreparable damage not only to the victims but also to the entire community. Victims must be protected. The Ethiopian government has a primary responsibility to protect its own citizens in Tigray from the violation of their fundamental rights, including ensuring the withdrawal of Eritrean troops. It therefore seems appropriate that the EU and its Member States focus on this ‘responsibility to protect’.” As a reminder, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), unanimously adopted in 2005 at the UN World Summit, underlines the responsibility of each State to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.  It involves a commitment not only from the countries concerned, but also from the international community and the UN Security Council should the countries in question fail to respond adequately.


The EU Foreign Ministers also took stock together of the first technical discussions aimed at reviving the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA). A meeting of the Joint Commission was held in Vienna on 9 April. According to the participants, the discussions took place in a positive and constructive atmosphere. They created positive momentum, although this was overshadowed by several incidents, including the attack on the Iranian nuclear site in Natanz (11 April). Sophie Wilmès said, “Belgium welcomes the diplomatic efforts of recent weeks. For our country, the importance of maintaining the JCPOA in the fight against nuclear proliferation is indisputable. Our country is therefore very concerned that Iran is now indicating that it will enrich uranium to 60 per cent. This is a step in the wrong direction. We hope that the discussions can reverse the trend.”


The EU Ministers also discussed the sanctions taken at the previous Foreign Affairs Council (22 March) against four Chinese individuals and one Chinese entity, under the EU’s new human rights sanctions mechanism, for serious human rights violations in Xinjiang and the subsequent Chinese retaliation. “We condemn the Chinese retaliatory measures, which are targeting freedom of expression. By attacking members of parliament, they strike at the heart of our democracy. This is unacceptable and we must say so very clearly. However, we must avoid escalation and keep in mind the main objective of making the Chinese authorities more accountable, so that basic human rights are better protected,” said Deputy Prime Minister Wilmès.


The situation in Myanmar was on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council for the third consecutive time, due to the deteriorating situation on the ground. The post-coup repression by the military is ongoing and the number of deaths and arrests is increasing. At the last Council meeting (22 March), the EU imposed sanctions on 11 people, including the army’s commander-in-chief. It has now added two economic entities owned or controlled by the military, and ten other people. Sophie Wilmès said that “Belgium supports the introduction of the new sanctions and stresses the importance of ensuring that they do not affect the population. Our country also attaches importance to the role of ASEAN and other international partners in finding a solution to this crisis.”