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Thank you, Helga [Schmid, Secretary-General of the European External Action Service].
Thank you for this introduction and also let me thank you for the work we have done together. I think this has been remarkable and it has always been a teamwork. What is good about these meetings – the Ambassadors’ Conferences we have every year – is that it allows us to come together. First of all, it is good see so many familiar faces – I would say friends – in the room. I have met many of you during my visits, but also many of you are working here in the headquarters, not only in the EEAS [European External Action Service], but also in the Commission, in our European services and institutions across the streets and the squares. It is good to come together from time to time and see where we stand. If we have managed to develop and make European way of working so recognisable, this has been thanks to the good and dedicated teams we have had and that we have deployed and we will deploy in these coming years.
It is true, this is my last conference, but this is for many of you the first. For many of you work just starts in the new capacity, or some of you change location – and with the change of location, a lot changes. What I know is that I leave the European Union foreign policy in very good hands; that is in your hands; that is in the hands of great professionals who work at the EEAS and in the Delegations and also all the teams that you have led, will continue to lead or will lead on the ground.
Let me use this opportunity also to thank them, because I know that just as behind the work of the High Representative there is always the work of Heads of Delegation, I know that behind the work of myself and the Heads of Delegation there is also a lot of dedicated work from the teams that you work with on the ground. Let me thank them for the work they are doing, sometimes in very difficult circumstances.
I know that I leave the EU foreign and security policy in good hands with Josep Borell [Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain, nominated as the next High Representative of the European Union] who I consider an excellent Minister and hopefully – obviously the Parliament has the last word – an excellent future High Representative. In his hands, I think the European Union foreign and security policy will be not only safe but also will be able to grow and develop as much if not even more than we have managed to develop it so far.
In these five years we have seen the European Union presence in the world growing and evolving. This summer I have inaugurated two new Delegations, in Central Asia and in the Gulf. This is just one sign among many others of a growing presence in the world and the growing demand for the European Union’s presence in the world. It is not just about planting the European Union flag in your places – it is also about that. I invite you with this to make us visible. Sometimes there are moments where we need to go a little bit “submarine” especially to survive difficult tensions. But it is good to be visible and to be recognisable as the European Union everywhere we are.
But it is not just about that. It is about our new role in the world of today and the expectations that our partners and friends and interlocutors have about us. I think we see this very clear now: the world expects the European Union to play a leading role. And the questions you are often asked and I am often asked is “Are you aware of that? Are you ready for that? Are you willing to play that role?”. But the expectation on the other side is always clear: it is for us to play a major and leading role. The world expects us to be a point of reference, a peace builder, a security provider and a voice of rationality – I would say sometimes even common sense – in a very difficult world.
In the very last months I have heard this call at all the corners of the world. Just a couple of examples: in Mozambique, where I was for the signing of an historic peace deal just a couple of weeks ago, because we have followed the negotiations all through these five years and they are now asking us to be close to them to help them implement this final agreement and win the peace that sometimes is more difficult than making the agreement itself. In South East Asia or in Ukraine, in Africa or in the Gulf – what I have heard in these recent months, is that all our partners are asking us to keep engaging with them as we have done in these years, to keep supporting mediation, free and fair trade or the fight against climate change. These are just examples of why people and our partners see in us a vital point of reference. The world needs us today and it is in our interest to keep a consistent and very strong engagement in world affairs in every single region of the world.
I know we often have the feeling – at least I do and I guess you might have that feeling as well – that the world is going in the wrong direction and that everything becomes more difficult every single day that goes by. I guess this is not just an impression. Sometimes, the developments we are seeing on the ground or in world geopolitics are not the ones we wish to see and sometimes are not the ones we work for. Sometimes you manage to achieve results, sometimes you do not. My natural reaction in this situation – because I am an optimist, otherwise you do not manage to make this this work, I think it is in the job description – is imagine “If we did not work for achieving a better result, it could have been even worse”. I think that this is what can guide us in our daily work. We always try to give a positive contribution, even when we have the feeling that the world is going in the wrong direction.
Because our actions do make a difference. Sometimes they do not make the headlines and sometimes it is even good that they do not make the headlines because you have to exercise quiet diplomacy. Sometimes it will only bear fruit after several years, perseverance and patience is what we need in many occasions. But what we do has always an impact on thousands of people. I think you and the teams you work with in the Delegations, or you will work within the Delegations, are the first ones to see this – the impact that our work has on daily lives of the people we meet on a daily basis.
The work we do is always key and sometimes vital to so many of our partners around the world. Because the more our world becomes difficult, the more our partners need us to be at their side on the path of cooperation and the difficult search for win-win solutions. I imagine it has happened to many of you who have been Heads of Delegations already for some time, to hear this sentence that I have heard so often especially in the last few years “We stand on this position, but obviously if you have the same position it is easier for us to keep it.” This is a request that we hear from many corners of the world and this is why I believe we need to be aware of the power we have as European Union. This is, again, never sufficient alone, but vital for many others who see us as a point of reference simply because we are bigger than most of our partners and are stronger than most of our partners in the world.
Today I will try to focus on a few success stories but also on a few lessons learned of these last years.
The first one is on security and defence. The lesson I have learned here is that as Nelson Mandela [former President of South Africa] said “It always seems impossible until it is done”. Five years ago, everyone told me that greater integration on defence would be simply impossible in the current political environment or in any future one. People were even taking it as a joke. Yet, we managed to put in place the European Union defence – the fundamental building blocks of it – precisely in one of our Union’s most difficult moments.
This is because in the world of today, I believe, finally at the end of the day, our Member States understood that investing in our Union, especially in the field of security and defence, is the smartest thing we can do. We do not always do the smartest thing but sometimes it works, sometimes we do. I would like also to thank all our militaries who have helped us building this work on the European Union defence that I believe is vital, also for further political perspectives of integration in the European Union.
Today, we are investing in the European defence industry, in European capabilities and European technologies. We have also upgraded our ability to act together with the Unified Command Centre for our training missions, with common trainings, with the Civilian Compact and by showing that it is possible to deploy a major military operation in just two months, as we did with [EUNAVFOR MED] Operation Sophia(link is external), that remains one of the things I am the most proud of, regardless of the current difficulties.
Our defence cooperation has advanced more than anyone would have imagined in the past but our collective potential on defence issues is even greater and is still to be fulfilled. I am sure that the new President of the Commission [Ursula van der Leyen] with her background will be the first one to push in that direction.
Last week at the Informal Meeting of Defence Ministers in Finland, we discussed for instance the idea of a Coordinated Maritime Presence in areas of strategic interest to the European Union. Exploring our European potential is only a matter of political will and I know for sure that, again not only Ursula [van der Leyen], but also Josep Borell and Charles Michel [current interim Prime Minister of Belgium and President-elect of the European Council] will have the determination and the courage to consolidate our work on the defence of the European Union.
The world is asking us to be a global security provider – as I mentioned, a cooperative one at the service of peace – but also – here I come to the second point I would like to highlight – and even more so probably to be a champion of multilateralism. Europe is a cooperative and multilateral power by definition. At a time when the idea of a cooperative global order has come under increasing pressure, we have invested in multilateralism like never before – and we have always invested in multilateralism.
This is first and foremost about the work we have done with the United Nations and in the UN framework. We support UN mediations from Syria to Libya and elsewhere. We work to achieve and implement the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals. We have saved the UN Agency for Palestinian refugees [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA] from collapsing and some work still needs to be done. We are working to preserve the [nuclear] deal with Iran [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] that is, as you all know, a UN Security Council Resolution, and we are exploring innovative forms of collaboration with the United Nations. Think of our trilateral cooperation with the UN and the African Union, it covers many different aspects but a key vital test for it is the work we do together with them to empty detention centers in Libya.
But multilateralism is not just about the UN system. A UN system is at its core but it is a global approach to preventing and solving conflicts in every context on every single issue – global challenges, crises, but also opportunities. We always try to invest in multilateral and co-operative approaches. Because this is the only way to find just and sustainable solutions to the problems of our times. We always put our convening power to the service of multilateralism trying to bring the relevant regional and global powers to the negotiating table or setting up a contact group. We always try to build the space for dialogue, to create the conditions for a mediated solution, with an inclusive approach and building processes that are based on full ownership of all those involved – the people, not just the governments or institutions.
This is how we achieved the nuclear deal with Iran back then; this is also how we are trying to save it today. It was the original idea when we, back then, set up the International Syria Support Group and later with the Brussels Conferences on [the future of] Syria [and the region] where we bring together different players to try and achieve a political but also humanitarian objective. This is why we invested so much in the Middle East Quartet and we continue to do so in difficult circumstances – again, imagine if we did not do it.
It is the idea behind the International Contact Group on Venezuela, the Quartet with the UN, the League of Arab States and the African Union for Libya, the regional meetings we organised on Afghanistan, and the list could continue. In all cases, we always made clear that our efforts were aimed at contributing to the United Nations work, being the United Nations for us the ultimate framework, the centre of gravity for all multilateral work. Some of our initiatives have been successful, some other have been less successful but this has been a truly systemic contribution. We have always invested in building a framework for cooperation where it did not exist or where it was challenged.
The third theme I would like to mention is the partnership approach. I have to say that this is something on which your work on the ground can contribute enormously, and for those of you that have been already Heads of Delegation, you have contributed to it enormously because partnership is built on trust – sometimes on personal relations and contacts – and a sense of being present every single day of the work. I have always believed that Europe is a global power but being a global power does not mean that we alone can solve all the issues of our times. No global power can do that, we all need partners, we need to join forces with those who share our same interests and values. I will make one example on our new partnership with Africa which is something I am really proud of.
In these years we have realised that the old donor-recipient mentality or even a partnership based purely on management of migration flows simply does not work. It is not what response to the ambitions, the aspirations and the needs of our interlocutors and so would not work. We moved from simply working for Africa to working with Africa. I can say that, today, our partnership with Africa, starting with the African Union but also the sub-regional organisations and individual countries, is one of the strongest one we have. It is even a friendship, it is not just a partnership.
Our African friends are coming up with African solutions to African problems. We are putting our strength, also our resources, behind their solutions. This is what we have done for instance with the G5 Sahel and its joint military force – I was there just a couple of months ago. This is the logic that also underpins our External Investment Plan – the largest ever investment programme for Africa. This is also the spirit of the Abidjan Summit [5th Africa Union – EU Summit] we had a few years ago, and the one that I already mentioned, the trilateral cooperation with the African Union and the United Nations.
This partnership approach makes us more credible and makes us different from most of other great powers. It is so powerful to meet your partner and say “I have no hidden agenda, this is what we share, this is what we disagree upon, we can start our work in partnership on a fair basis where everything is transparent and you can trust us.” Sometimes it is difficult and you see what is difficult, and you see it a lot but you do not get hidden surprises on the way. I think this is very much appreciated in these times of unpredictable shifts. Preserving the partnership approach based on shared interests, mutual respect, transparency, I believe, will be essential to our credibility and to the effectiveness of our external action.
Fourth issue I would like to touch upon. When I took office our focus was mainly, and probably rightly so, on responding to crises and emergencies. In these years, we have shifted the focus on preventing crises, tackling the long terms effects, and also on investing in the positive stories around the world. We have put resilience at the core of our action, to make states and societies more capable of absorbing external and even internal shocks.
I could make many examples but I will only name one right here on our continent. The crisis in Ukraine is still not over, but in these five years, Ukraine has come a very long way and it is today a much more resilient country than it was five years ago. Our work with Ukraine has very strong security component – rightly so but – we have also immensely invested in the country’s human development. We have helped create jobs, build and rebuild infrastructure, we have liberalised access to the European Union, invested in exchanges between our people, between our universities. In these five years, we have put together for Ukraine the largest support package in the history of the European Union. It is thanks to that if the country has not collapsed and has managed to move on and try to get out of this crisis today on a new basis. Despite immense challenges Ukraine today is a much stronger country than it used to be. I remember in 2014, a dramatic year when I started, we were definitely not in the same place.
In general terms, investing in the good stories we see in the world, acknowledging the positive developments – because sometimes we are perceived, rightly so, as the ones pointing out at the difficulties, at the work that still needs to be done – more needs to be done, more reforms on human rights – recognising and acknowledging the positive steps that countries, governments, authorities and civil society have made or are making in different parts of the world, I think is an integral part of our work.
Going and putting our flag, not only on managing or solving crises, acute hotspots, but also in places where there might be no need to be on the headlines, but you can make a lot of positive impact, in sometimes faraway places in the world, but where there are good friends that simply need you to be there and say “We do not have problems among us, we are friends we are partners and it works.” I think this helps building a network of partnerships based on same values and same interests around the world.
Another lesson I have learned in these years is to dedicate time and energy, not only to problems, but also to acknowledging the positive stories and friendships we have developed around the world. Because it is like in life, if you do not nourish friendship, it risks to die, you need to invest a little bit in that as well.
When we Europeans decide to mobilise all our tools, the power of our engagement is immense. Sometimes I have the feeling, as Helga [Schmid, Secretary General of the European External Action Service] was saying, that we underestimate it and that we do not fully realise how powerful we can be. This is true at the other side of the world – I am sure that some of you that have served already, have good stories to share – but even more so on our continent.
Think of the Balkans. We have a clear interest in bringing the entire Balkans inside the European Union and we all know that this is a long process, a complicated one, always interesting and lively, that will take time. It will take a lot of problem solving, a lot of political commitment on all sides, and education. It took 25 years to solve the name issue between Greece and North Macedonia. Now it is done thanks to courage, leadership, perseverance and thanks to the European Union constant support and encouragement. In these years, this has been achieved.
The same is true for all the Balkans. We will need courage, leadership and perseverance, and keeping a very strong daily presence there – every single day. But if we continue to engage, we will finally read the immense opportunities that the unification of our continent could create. Reconciliation first and foremost, because as I said several times, this is probably the only place where enlargement goes back to the original value of the European Union build-up, which is making peace where there was war. This was the original idea of the European Union and for the Balkans, that is it. How can countries that were literally killing each other 20 years ago can come together under the same roof? The answer is under the same roof, being together is the only perspective that can make them really live in reconciliation and peace.
For many of us – and for some of us it is even more important than reconciliation in some cases – economic development, trade and social development, security. This would not just benefit the Balkans, but all of us. We, the European Union, need it also because these are countries that are not outside of our geographical boundaries. They are all neighboring EU Member States so it is not even an issue of enlargement, it is an issue of real reunification of our continent.
This time I think to be wise, consistent and take forward the next step of the unification of our European family. Let me say on a personal note, I am really convinced that if we do not do it, I am sure we would regret it in a few years’ time.
One final point. In these five years, our external action has changed. The nature of our work has changed. Diplomacy is not the same as it used to be and we experience it every day. You have to be more flexible, creative, and sometimes consider normal things that were not even thinkable a few years ago. Today, we know that engaging with governments is essential – it has always been – but is not enough. Civil society and private sector are essential interlocutors if we want to have a real impact on the ground, but also local authorities. Think of the work we are doing on climate change and how much relevant is the work with authorities or institutions that are not state institutions.
In these years, we have expanded our action well beyond the domain of traditional diplomacy. I am very proud of the work we have managed to do with limited resources. I am also proud of the good cooperation we have established with the Commission services on this. We have invested in cultural diplomacy, in economic diplomacy, in science diplomacy and the list could continue. These are all fields where it is only natural for us to use the potential we have as European Union, putting together all the different strands of work we already have in place, but to project them at External Action Srvice level.
We have engaged with religious leaders, religious communities. Just days ago in Finland we met again with the members of the Global Tech Panel that we have created to engage with the world of technology. And the list could continue. There is a universe of interlocutors out there, beyond institutions that are very much eager to engage and work with us in many different fields, and I think this is a potential that we cannot waste.
As our interlocutors change and as the world changes, we also evolve in these five years. We have realised that we must mobilise our full potential as a Union, synchronising all our tools, from diplomacy to trade policy, from humanitarian aid to militaries, and of course our internal and external policies.
No one understand this better than those of you who have worked in the delegations before, I believe. For our partners in the world, there is no difference between the EEAS, the Commission’s Directorates General, the Council, the European Parliament – it is the European Union, it is Europe. On that side, they hear one player that speaks and we need to make sure that the message different institutions deliver is coherent. Because for our interlocutors and I believe also for our citizens, there is no difference between the different institutions. This is something we have to own ourselves, first and foremost. You represent the European Union, not one institution or the other. Institutions, at the end of the day, are at the service of each other, of the European citizens and of our purpose in the world.
I believe that it is clear, it has been improved in these years, we are Europe, we are the European Union, we must act in a coherent and consistent manner if we want to be credible and have a real impact in the world. This is what makes a true difference in the way our Union works. More than our rules, more than our institutional structures, it is our political will that moves the Union forward. Let me also thank here the Commissioners that have worked with me in these five years because the group of Commissioners in these years has met regularly every month, and this had an impact also on the coherence of the policies we put in place.
I have said it over and over again, it is the political will that moves the Union forward. The European Union is what we make of it. It needs everyone’s contributions, it needs every nation, every institution, every single citizen, it needs real people to bring life into it, otherwise it risks becoming an empty shell. You are the European Union face in the world, as difficult as it can be, but also as exciting and potentially rewarding as it can be.
As I have had the privilege of being it for these last five years, you can be the point of reference, first of all for all Europeans in the countries you are posted in, and together we can be also a point of reference for our partners all around the world. In these years, the world has looked at us searching for a guide, for a friend, for someone to work with, sometimes just for someone to talk to and I believe this is something we need to fully understand. The more conflictual the world becomes, the more difficult this work becomes, the more important our role becomes for all those around the world that are searching for partnership, co-operative approach, for peace and security, but also for social and economic development in a sustainable manner.
You are and will be the women and men that make this possible every single day, together with your teams, in every part of this world that is our common house. I want to thank those of you that have worked already as Heads of Delegations or in other institutions in these years. I want to thank you for all you have done but also and most importantly I want to thank all of you for what you will do in these years ahead. It has been an honor and a real pleasure for me to work with you in these five years and I can only wish you all the best for the interest of the European Union but also for the interest of the entire world.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-176967