On Monday 10 May, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, Sophie Wilmès, organised a working meeting between the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the Benelux countries and the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) in the context of Belgium’s Presidency of Benelux, and in the margins of the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC), which was held that day. The Benelux and Baltic countries have been engaged in this type of dialogue and consultation since 2007. “We reported our points of view on the various topical issues to see if it is possible to identify points of convergence and areas we can work on. For smaller European States like us, getting in tune with our priorities is also a way to strengthen our voice within the Union,” explained Sophie Wilmès.

This working meeting was first of all an opportunity to take stock of the recent mission of the Benelux ministers to Ukraine. The Baltic countries preceded them in April. “The six ministers reaffirmed their full support for Ukraine and its territorial integrity, and stressed how important it was for the EU to be united and present with regard to the security challenges facing this neighbouring country. The EU should also continue to encourage the process of internal reform, which remains necessary for the country’s resilience, stability and development. Our contact and collaboration will continue in the future.” More broadly, ministers discussed the future of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), which includes the European Union and six countries from Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus, including Ukraine. “Last year, the Europeans identified the main areas of action to ensure the Eastern Partnership remains relevant in the future. This is positive, because the Benelux countries consider it crucial for maintaining the commitment and stability of the region. More specifically, we believe that this partnership provides a necessary framework for in-depth work on human rights, anti-corruption and rule of law issues in the countries concerned. This really is a priority for us. We also want there to be a focus on sustainable development and youth. We will bring these messages to the next EaP summit, which is due to take place in October,” explained Sophie Wilmès.

The six Foreign Ministers took stock of the health situation related to COVID-19 in Europe and worldwide. Benelux has always been a strong advocate of European coordination in this area and stresses the need to defend intra-European freedom of movement, despite the restrictions that are sometimes necessary. Sophie Wilmès recalled how important it was for the EU to remain extremely vigilant with regard to the appearance of variants deemed dangerous and to adopt coordinated measures to deal with them.

China was also at the heart of the discussions. The Baltics are part of the “17+1” format launched by China in 2012 to create rapprochement with several central and Eastern European countries, although these states have recently started to distance themselves from this platform. “European unity is essential if the EU is to be a strong and credible interlocutor with China. The sanctions taken last March demonstrated this. Benelux wants to continue to work on this unity, which allows us to address, together, situations that are unacceptable in terms of our fundamental values and respect for human rights,” said the Deputy Prime Minister.

At the meeting, the Baltic and Benelux countries also discussed respect for the rule of law, particularly within the European Union. “If we are not spearheading such fundamental issues as human rights and the rule of law within the Union, how can we hope to be credible and put these issues on the political agenda in our relations with the outside world?” asked Sophie Wilmès.