This Thursday 27 May, at the invitation of the Portuguese Presidency, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sophie Wilmès, joined her European colleagues at the informal half-yearly Council (Gymnich) in Lisbon. The ministers had the opportunity – in the presence of their Jordanian counterpart – to discuss topical issues such as the Middle East peace process and the situation in Belarus. Other issues discussed included relations between the European Union and Africa, unresolved conflicts in eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific region.


The Foreign Ministers discussed developments following the forced landing of a civilian aircraft in Minsk and the arrest of Roman Protassevich, a freelance journalist, and his companion Sofia Sapega, by local authorities. Like the European Council in its conclusions, Deputy Prime Minister Wilmès strongly condemned the events, which explained the summoning of the Belarusian ambassador to Belgium. Within the Council itself, there is a strong desire to make progress on different types of sanctions. The ministers therefore took stock of the technical advances made for their entry into force. Sophie Wilmès said, “This is, unfortunately, another sign that the repression by the Lukashenko regime is continuing. This confirms the need to intensify our efforts to punish any human rights violations and support the Belarusian people in their fight for their rights. There is an urgent need for a new package of sanctions with significant impact, such as sectoral economic measures.”

Middle East Peace Process

At the initiative of Belgium, a group of Member States asked to revisit the latest developments in the Middle East following the end of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians; this subject had already been addressed – at Belgium’s request – at the extraordinary Council of Foreign Ministers on 18 May.

Belgium welcomed the end of the hostilities but insisted that it must be for the long term. “Ending the violence is not enough. Security does not yet mean peace. Today, we are a long way from a political solution. A new political horizon must be negotiated and the EU has a role to play in this. Not to offer a ready-made solution on a platter, but to support the parties in this process and thus promote the peace process. We need to assess our relationship with both parties to see how we can support the resumption of negotiations towards this goal. I hope that we will continue to work on this.”

Discussions with the Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs

The Ministers continued the conversation on the idea of lasting peace in the Middle East and the means of achieving this with their Jordanian counterpart, Mr Ayman Safadi. “We welcome Jordan’s efforts, alongside Egypt, to create the conditions for restoring dialogue and trust between the parties. It is time to work with the United States and revive the Quartet at the ministerial level, with a view to restarting a negotiation process. “

The presence of the Jordanian Minister also provided an opportunity to discuss many other topical regional issues, including the situation in Syria and the fight against ISIS. As a partner in the Coalition against ISIS, the Deputy Prime Minister thanked her counterpart and his country for the support given to the Belgian troops stationed there as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. She also expressed her wish that the joint commitment of Belgium and Jordan would contribute to the eradication of ISIS.

The Ministers discussed the situation in Syria, where presidential elections were held yesterday (26 May). For Belgium, these elections do not meet any of the criteria to be qualified as truly democratic and do not therefore help to resolve the conflict.

EU-Africa relations

The Ministers also took stock of EU-Africa relations in view of the sixth EU-AU (African Union) Summit scheduled for early next year. Africa is and will remain one of the main priorities for Belgian foreign policy, not least because of our historical ties with the continent. For Belgium, there is momentum for resetting our relationship with the African continent to a true partnership of equals, based among other things on shared responsibility and interests. “Our African partners have made it very clear that they want to fight the pandemic and ensure that their economies can recover from the shock of COVID-19. We now have the opportunity to show that Europe is the right partner to do this. We must also effectively promote our core values and principles – human rights, democracy, good governance, respect for the rule of law – and demonstrate what these values can do for people. In this way, we will also dispel certain myths that try to make people believe that the models offered by other major players are more beneficial”, says Sophie Wilmès.

What can and will help us to do this is strategic communication. “We are Africa’s largest partner, whether in terms of investment or development aid. But it’s not enough to invest and do well, you have to communicate well and be willing to invest in that communication.

Unresolved conflicts

The Ministers also discussed the EU’s involvement in the unresolved conflicts in eastern Europe. These are the conflicts in Transnistria (Moldova), Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia and Azerbaijan) and eastern Ukraine. These conflicts seem to be “frozen” at the moment, but may resume, as was the case for the last two mentioned. One of the common denominators in these conflicts is the involvement of Russia. “This explains why interactions with Russia are essential, both bilaterally and in multilateral fora”, Sophie Wilmès explained. “During our visit to Ukraine with my Dutch and Luxembourg colleagues, we noted that progress can only be made if there is dialogue within the existing structures (Normandy Format and Trilateral Contact Group). The EU must also continue to insist on both Russia and Ukraine meeting their commitments. Belgium also calls on the other Member States and the members of the European Commission to get out there and deliver our messages directly to the people. We must reclaim the political field.”


Lastly, the Foreign Ministers discussed cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. The Ministers defined their priorities with a view to drawing up a European strategy for the region (September 2021).

Belgium supports the European vision of a region of growing strategic importance, including for our country, especially in terms of trade, economy, connectivity and the fight against climate change. As an open economy, Belgium attaches great importance to free trade, freedom of navigation and maritime safety. Cooperation through existing partnerships (Japan, ASEAN, India) and with other countries is essential if we are to better promote the EU’s strategic interests in this region.