Video conference with the European Council

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: Ladies and gentlemen, we have today held a European Council meeting by video conference. I would like to thank Council President Charles Michel sincerely for convening this European Council.

The focus of our discussions was the situation in Belarus. It goes without saying that the pictures of demonstrators and of peaceful demonstrations in that country have moved us all greatly over the past few days. We have been impressed by the courage of those participating in the peaceful protests.

Today in the European Council we have jointly stated that we stand by the peaceful demonstrators – a sentiment I echo on behalf of the German Government.

Over the past days we – and I personally – have already been in very close contact with many member states. I would particularly like to thank Lithuania, which has taken in opposition leader Ms Tikhanovskaya, and also does a great deal to support civil society. I would likewise like to thank Poland.

For us as members of the European Council, there is no doubt that the elections were marred by gross irregularities. The elections were neither fair nor free. Therefore the results cannot be recognised.

Today we stated very clearly in a joint message from the member states that we condemn the brutal violence meted out as well as the imprisonment and use of violence against thousands of Belarusians. We call on the regime or the Government of Mr Lukashenko to cease all violence. Freedom of opinion must be guaranteed, as must the right to demonstrate. Our demands are also directed at the independent media, through which the people must be able to inform themselves.

All prisoners must be released, unconditionally. We call for a national dialogue, as has also been proposed by the opposition in Belarus. This must be an inclusive dialogue in which everyone can participate. The stakeholders participating in such a dialogue must be able to act freely. We, as the European Union, believe that the OSCE could play an important role in this process, as could the ODIHR in an investigation of the elections.

Like the foreign ministers, we sought to buttress the decision already taken by the foreign ministers, namely to impose targeted sanctions that do not affect the people of Belarus, but are directed against those who bear responsibility for violence, detentions and the falsification of election results.

The European Union wants to support civil society in Belarus through the programme Expanding Cooperation with Civil Society in the Eastern Partnership Countries. But we are completely clear on the fact that Belarus has to find its way forward for itself. That has to be done by means of a dialogue within the country. There must be no external intervention. The people of Belarus know what they want and what is good for them. Therefore we want an independent route for Belarus – as I said, a peaceful route by means of dialogue – through which it will be decided in the country itself what the political framework is.

That was the key issue we discussed.

We then went on to talk about two other issues. Firstly, the situation in Mali. The French President in particular reported on this, since he is of course particularly affected given the significant presence of French troops in the country and France’s very close relations with the Sahel and Mali.

We condemn the military coup. We are working for stability and peace in Mali. The focus must be on the fight against terrorism in the country. We support the efforts of the regional organisation ECOWAS to find a political solution. I believe it is now of utmost importance for the ECOWAS member states to use all their political influence to ensure that the best possible solution can be achieved, which will be conducive to a peaceful situation.

The third issue we discussed was the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. We expressed our shared concern about the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. All efforts must be taken to de‑escalate. The situation is very dangerous. We expressed our solidarity with Greece and Cyprus insofar as their rights are at stake. We noted again that we will address our relations with Turkey in greater depth at the Special European Council in September. This discussion will of course have many facets.

As you know, Germany is in favour of a renewed dialogue on the contentious maritime border issues. This dialogue was ended in 2016. In our opinion, it must be resumed, in particular by Greece and Turkey. But one must in any case be extremely concerned in view of the tensions. We will return to this issue in greater depth in September.

That was my report of what we discussed today. I am now happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Ms Merkel, a quick question on a topic that should actually also be at the heart of the Council Presidency – the climate. Greta Thunberg is one of the people invited to the Chancellery tomorrow. Ms Thunberg has previously said that too little is still being done. What can you take into those talks? What can you offer the four dedicated young women who are visiting you tomorrow, for example regarding progress on raising the EU climate target to 55%?

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: We have been told that Ms Neubauer would like to discuss this matter tomorrow. I have no wish to refuse to talk about it. I am glad she wants to talk to me.

Her request is certainly related to that fact that Germany now holds the Presidency of the EU Council. You know that we can only respond to proposals made by the Commission. I will therefore explain where the work on the Commission proposals now stands. Mr Timmermans, the Vice-President of the European Commission and responsible for climate issues, is awaiting the results of an impact assessment before the Commission presents its proposals. In other words, the impact the measure would have in various fields – business, agriculture and similar areas – is being evaluated.

It is perhaps a lucky coincidence that the Environment Minister today presented our climate report for 2019, and that we are perhaps closer to reaching our goals for 2020, even if this is due to circumstances we would not have wished for. But it does show that these targets can of course be reached. We must say – and I will do so tomorrow – that we have in fact made good progress on emissions trading in the past months and years. That’s because we finally have a meaningful certificate price, which has resulted in a reduction in exports from German lignite‑burning power stations to other European countries, not only because of the coronavirus but because of CO2 pricing levels. This has led to a reduction in COemissions in Germany.

QUESTION: Madam Chancellor, a question on Belarus. Yesterday, and again today, Russia warned about intervention from abroad. I would like to ask more specifically what the EU and Germany can do, in concrete terms, to help the opposition, by whose side the EU stands, as you said. Are there any ways of helping without provoking Russian intervention?

Do you think you could assume the role of mediator in this conflict?

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: I personally wanted to speak to President Lukashenko on the telephone. Unfortunately, the call did not happen. I also requested a telephone call with President Putin. As you know, that call did take place. Of course we discussed these questions in detail.

It wasn’t without reason that I said Belarus must find its own way. In other words, we can do what we always do, which is to help, in this case through Eastern Partnership programmes and by providing fair opportunities for those members of civil society who speak their minds, for example by providing support through programmes.

But we will be very careful not to explain what needs to be done in Belarus on its behalf, but to ensure that the opposition there itself explains what it wants. I do not think mediation is an option at present, since President Lukashenko refuses all telephone calls, much to my regret. It is only possible to mediate when you are in touch with all parties. However, we will do everything we can on our part to advocate a national dialogue.

QUESTION: Madam Chancellor, opposition leader Ms Tikhanovskaya called on the EU not to recognise the result of the election. And you just said that the result could not be recognised. Does that mean that from your point of view, and that of the EU, President Lukashenko is no longer the legitimate president of Belarus?

And to follow up on Mr Rinke’s question, how great do you consider the risk of Russian intervention in Belarus to be? How would the EU respond to that?

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: I am not answering hypothetical questions. We are talking to Russia to prevent precisely that. Foreign Minister Lavrov also stated his position on this today. Russia and Belarus are tied together by very close treaties. Nevertheless, we have made it clear that military intervention by Russia would of course make the situation markedly more complicated. That is another reason why I am pushing for Belarus to find its own course.

By the way, large parts of the opposition are not against Russia – we simply have to recognise that – but against the practices of President Lukashenko.

The elections were not fair, they were not free; that has to be said. And still Mr Lukashenko is there. When I call for a national dialogue, it must of course also include those who are in power today. In other words, it is a complicated situation, from which a way out must be found with as little violence as possible.

QUESTION: Madam Chancellor, what consequences will the coup in Mali have for the military presence of the EU states in the region?

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: At the moment the coup has no immediate impact. Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has said that the soldiers are in their barracks. Very few soldiers are there at present anyway because of the coronavirus. The MINUSMA mission operates a considerable distance from Bamako. Insofar we are monitoring the situation very carefully and are in close contact with France. But at present the situation has not had any impact on the soldiers’ activities. We will however do everything to ensure that they remain safe. ‑ Thank you.