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Region: Russia, Europe
Type: Remarks
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Augusto Santos Silva

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Portugal

Speech at the Tenth Meeting of the EU-Russia Series, Russian International Affairs Council, Moscow, May 31, 2021

Speech at the Tenth Meeting of the EU-Russia Series, Russian International Affairs Council, Moscow, May 31, 2021

Minister Lavrov, dear Sergei Dear Mr. Igor Ivanov Ambassadors

Distinguished guests:

It is an honour to be here today, among you.

I understand that this RIAC conference is a hybrid one, with many still participating online. To all my warmest greetings.

In a month’s time Portugal will be concluding its fourth rotating presidency of the European Union. The first one took place in 1992, the second in 2000 and the third in 2007. In this last one, Portugal proudly hosted a European Union Summit with Russia. Much has changed since then.

At this moment we are still living in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented situation that exposed us all, our societies and economies to huge challenges. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost.

As you know, the European foreign policy is run by the High Representative, Josep Borrell. Nevertheless, the rotating presidency can define its own priorities. For the Portuguese Presidency we have chosen to defend a social Europe, a green and digital recovery, and a global Europe. And this includes the relations between Russia and European Union.

Russia has always played, in its own right, a rich role in European history. And in crucial moments the Russian contribution to European freedom and security has been indispensable. Remember, for instance, the liberation from the Nazi rule or the peaceful transition in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It is also true that in recent years the relations between European Union and Russia have been marked by tense moments. One cannot ignore the serious divergences in key issues, that are undermining bilateral cooperation. These issues range from human rights, the rule of law and the role of civil society, to defence and security, the neighbourhood policy and regional influence, and do include such critical topics as cybersecurity, disinformation and electoral interference. None of these issues can be avoided if we want to rebuild a good relationship, and we have to talk frankly about all of them. This would allow us to nurture a much-needed relationship of trust, openness and mutual cooperation.

Having divergences, even in fundamental issues, and assuming different and even contradictory values and interests do not prevent us of engaging in political dialogue. It is rather the opposite. We need more than ever to keep the diplomatic channels opened. We need to engage in political communication. We need to find grounds on which we can envisage a positive agenda. For that, the work of think tanks like RIAC and seminars like this one are very useful.

We cannot change geography, and geography states that we are neighbours. EU cannot pretend that Russia is not part of Europe. EU cannot pretend that Russia is not a global player and an EU key interlocutor on Europe-Asia relations. On the other hand, Russia cannot close its gates to the West and cannot act as if it were a besieged fortress.

I would not be able to tell you experts what must be done, from each side, to achieve a dynamic of trust towards a positive relationship. However, there are things we can do: small steps, low hanging fruits in the road to mutual comprehension. I will highlight four of them. Small steps we can do.

Firstly, let us do diplomacy. We can actively show restraint. Let us cool down for a moment and think. Let us pause on negative deeds of incidents and cases and let us refrain from only negative words.

Exercising restraints, a conscious diplomatic attitude, choosing not to worsen the drift, would allow us to effectively stop the current sliding pattern that could push our relationship into the abyss.

Secondly, let us cooperate more in areas of mutual interest. Take climate action. Both Russia and the European Union have been sending stable and consistent signs about their will to strongly engage in climatic matters. This is an issue that impacts us all and a global problem that requires global solutions. Climate change is our common emergency. And climate transition, greening of economy is our shared urgent task. To the benefit of our European and Eurasian peoples.

There is plenty of room for joint cooperation on global efforts on climate. But also, on sustainable development and on the green economy. I sincerely wish that, this afternoon, interventions may open doors to concrete joint initiatives that may lead the way and promote mutual trust and understanding.

Thirdly, let us address the difficult topics. In many cases we do not share the same views: think of Belarus, Ukraine, Syria, but think also of human rights, the role of opposition, the role of NGOs. Very often, we would have divergent perspectives on the problems we are faced with. But this does not mean we should stop speaking to each other. Dialogue is never useless. Even if ultimately will not contribute to solving a conflict, it allows for mutual comprehension; it establishes points of contact; it may ease the situation on the ground and have positive effects on the affected populations.

While dialogue is important, action cannot be reduced to dialogue. The way we act vis-à-vis areas of strategic interest for both parties, EU and Russia—such as the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Turkey, Libya and the North of Africa—is of the outmost importance. If nothing else, at least our common interest of avoiding escalation, combatting radicalisation, promoting stability, fostering political and diplomatic instruments to overcome conflict, and guaranteeing our own security, should allow us to launch a minimum of coordination.

Even in the most difficult days of Cold War the coordination has been possible. It is now again possible and necessary. Instead of disinformation, exchange of fact findings and assessments. Instead of interference, full respect for each other’s sovereignty. Instead of blame games, engagement in the relevant political processes and timely implementation of agreements already concluded. In full respect of international law and with a sincere commitment to a rules-based international order.

Fourthly, and finally, people to people contacts. Civil society initiatives can, in the long run, deepen our mutual understanding and build a less tense and more trustworthy future for us all. Perhaps we need more NGO, rather than less, more foundations, not less, more scholars and scientists, not less, more investors crossing our borders, not less. More tourists, not less. The era of closed cities, closed countries, closed societies, has gone. The well-being of nations is firmly linked to open, competitive and innovative economies and societies. In this century, citizens, entrepreneurs, media and NGOs are indispensable agents for change and development.

This means more cultural exchanges, scientific cooperation, support to civil society and enhanced mobility. Both Russia and the EU have vibrant civil societies. We should not condition them. We should indeed foster their cooperation and support their exchanges.

Russia is already—and by far—the country in which more Schengen visas are issued. Erasmus+ has allowed for thousands of students and researchers to cross our borders.

But let me be clear. This proposal should not be understood as a way to exert unduly interference. Civil society cooperation should be developed in full freedom, in total autonomy and not be guided by States. Governments can help, but it is societies that will create the future.

Cooperation on climate issues, on sustainable development and on the development of civil society exchanges are, in fact, tools. Tools that may help us become more conscious about the common space we share. Europe is our common natural space and our common cultural cradle. We share a common history. We are part of something bigger.

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, we can build on the positive past, on positive history, one that is based on culture and people-to-people contact and knowledge.

Acknowledging and owning this reality, in such a way that it helps us overcome our differences, will take time. Perhaps longer than we wish or care to imagine. But it is our common duty to do so. As Europeans, this is the path we must follow.

Meanwhile, let’s take small steps to make this future possible.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
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