17 Apr 2015

EU External Action Service Deputy Secretary General Helga Schmid: EU understands Russia‘s decision to lift S-300 embargo on Iran doesn‘t contradict UN SC resolution but fears it may destabilize regional situation

EU External Action Service Deputy Secretary General Helga Schmid has given an interview to Interfax ahead of her visit to Russia in which she speaks about the Ukrainian crisis, EU-Russia relations, S-300 shipments to Iran and the situation in Syria.

Question: Ms. Schmid, you are the first high-ranking official of the European External Action Service to visit Russia for some time. In light of the present challenges in EU-Russia relations what issues are you going to discuss with Russian officials? Can your visit be considered as preparation for a visit of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini?

Answer: Actually this is in fact my second visit since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine. My first visit was exactly one year ago after the illegal annexation of Crimea when we were looking into the preparation of the Geneva talks involving the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the US and EU that aimed to prevent further extension of the conflict. This opportunity was unfortunately missed and the destabilization continued with so much human suffering and widespread destruction.
It is indeed a difficult time for our relations with Russia, which have not been on a normal footing since the crisis in Ukraine began. If I cast my mind back to the pre-crisis period, EU-Russia relations were on a positive trajectory and we were preparing the ground for a wide-ranging partnership. But my visit today will unfortunately again have to deal with the resolution of the Ukraine crisis.
Regarding a visit of the High Representative to Moscow, it‘s a possibility.
Having said that, there are frequent contacts between the High Representative and Minister Lavrov on Ukraine and also on a whole range of international issues, on which the EU cooperates usefully with Russia, on Iran and on the Middle East for example. And today I will also look with my Russian counterparts into some of the international issues where we believe it is important that the EU and Russia are working closely together. Take the Iran negotiations – we have worked hand in hand with Russia and our other negotiating partners to reach the agreement in Switzerland early this month.

Q.: Can your visit be perceived as a step towards the normalization of relations with Russia and a retreat from tough sanctions rhetoric? How do you treat the statements by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on a possibility to ease food embargos imposed on Russia?

A.: EU-Russia relations are certainly not in business-as-usual mode at the moment in light of the Ukraine conflict. On March 19, the heads of state or government of the European Union made clear that the duration of sanctions were linked to the complete implementation of the Minsk package which set out clearly the steps to be taken toward a resolution of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. This was the unanimous decision of the 28.
There is no food embargo imposed on Russia. However, there is a Russian embargo on European food and agricultural products. Economic analyses show that the Russian market and consumers have been hit hard by these measures, which have triggered inflation, particularly felt in remote regions and among less wealthy population.

Q.: Do you share the stance that Kyiv is responsible for the non-implementation of the Minsk accords and is making laws, in particulate that recognize Donbass as occupied territories, that contradict the Minsk accords? What is your attitude towards Russia‘s appeals to the EU to more actively exert pressure on Kyiv in order to make it adhere to its obligations?

A.: Our view is different: For us, it is essential that there is progress of the political track of the conflict settlement. It is in this framework that dialogue on the modalities of early local elections and details of special status should be undertaken. For this to take place, firstly the ceasefire and weapons withdrawal agreed in Minsk on February 12, must be fully respected and the OSCE allowed to fully monitor and verify them. At the same time, it is also urgent that the working groups bringing together representatives of Ukraine, Russia and of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, together with the OSCE are set up and start their work without delay, as the ministers of the Normandy format called for in Berlin on April 13. This preparatory work is needed to allow elections in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions to take place. These elections should correspond with internationally agreed standards.

Q.: It was reported earlier that in Moscow you plan to discuss the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue in which you actively take part. What is your assessment of the progress achieved at the talks? What are the main difficulties? What is the probability of achieving a comprehensive agreement by the set date, the end of June?

A.: The political understanding reached in Lausanne on the key parameters is a major step forward that will allow us to work now on finalising a comprehensive deal. EU remains strongly committed to reaching an agreement which will ensure that the Iranian nuclear programme has an exclusively peaceful nature. The EU will continue playing its role of facilitator to ensure that we can reach a final agreement by the end of June. All efforts are currently being put into following up on the decisive step taken on April 2 in Lausanne to help finalise the final deal. Experts and political directors will meet in the coming days to resume work.

Q.: Is the EU planning immediate or phased sanctions relief for Iran after a final deal on the Iranian nuclear program is reached? Does Brussels agree with the idea of lifting the embargo on arms exports to Iran, including deliveries of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Tehran, after a comprehensive agreement on Iran is secured?

A.: As expressed in the joint statement by High Representative Mogherini and Foreign Minister Zarif of April 2, the EU will terminate the implementation of all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions simultaneously with the IAEA verified implementation by Iran of its key nuclear commitments.
The EU took note of Russia‘s decision to allow Russia to ship S-300 air defence systems to Iran. This is not a new issue, it has come up before, and we have expressed our concerns in the past. To the EU’s understanding, the decision does not go against the UN sanctions resolution but we continue to be concerned, also in view of the heightened tensions in the region and the destabilising impact the delivery could have.

Q.: Has the EU changed its approach in interaction with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad given the activation of terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in the Middle East? Or does Brussels still insist that the Syrian president should leave as a precondition for cooperation with Damascus?

A.: The Assad regime is conducting a brutal war against its own people, massive human rights violations and systematic obstruction of democratic reforms. This reality has not changed.
When it comes to the solution to the Syria crisis, the EU position is clear: a lasting solution to the conflict can only be achieved through a Syrian-led political process leading to a transition. Which means obviously that you also talk to the representatives of the Assad regime, which is exactly under the terms laid down in the Geneva Communique.

Q.: Moscow considers the EU and the United States, who previously assisted the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, responsible for the ongoing chaos and the activation of terrorist groups in the country. What is your position? Does the EU consider it necessary to hold an international military operation in order to normalize the situation in Libya?

A.: The military intervention in Libya in 2011 took place following the adoption of UNSCR 1973 (2011) authorizing the use of force for the protection of civilians. Its adoption represented the reaction from the international community to the gross and systematic violations of human rights, violence and brutal repression perpetrated by the Gaddafi regime against the Libyan people.
The Gaddafi regime also left behind an almost non-existent civil administration which prevented consistent policy-making and implementation in almost all sectors, and severely limited the absorption of foreign support. This created a most unstable environment which was abused by various interest groups.
The continued deterioration of the political and security situation in Libya led to the derailment of the transition process last summer.
The EU strongly supports the UN-led dialogue process. The EU has reiterated several times that it doesn’t believe in a military solution; only through dialogue will Libya be able to find a sustainable peaceful solution.
Jihadism thrives in chaos and violence. The escalation of violence in Libya this past year, and the failure to reach an agreement on an inclusive political settlement that puts an end to the current crisis, have created fertile ground for extremist groups to spread throughout the country.
The presence of terrorist groups in Libya certainly forms a vital part of on-going discussions on the response by the EU to the Libya crisis. The EU is ready to step up its engagement on counter-terrorism. It will offer support to neighbouring countries in order to enhance counter-terrorism capacity in full compliance with human rights and rule of law, strengthen border security, disrupt the smuggling of weapons and the flow of foreign fighters. The formation of a National Unity Government would enable the EU to offer its full support to Libya in all fields, including to enhance counter-terrorism capacity. Cooperation with Russia in meeting these challenges will be important. Our 28 Foreign Ministers will discuss on April 20 the situation in Libya and options for enhanced EU engagement.