Speech by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the preparation of the European Council meeting of 21-22 March 2024

Thank you very much Madam President, dear Roberta,

Minister, dear Hadja,

Honourable Members,

Indeed, we are heading towards a packed European Council, with topics, as you said, ranging from Ukraine to the Middle East, from defence to enlargement. I want to focus on two topics today: one is the Middle East and the other one is enlargement.

As we speak a ship is setting sail from Cyprus to Northern Gaza. It carries the most basic kind of humanitarian aid, which is also the most needed today: food, plain and simply food for a population that faces a humanitarian catastrophe. This maritime corridor is the result of unprecedented international cooperation, under the leadership of President Nikos Christodoulides. We have worked hand in hand not only with Cyprus, but also with the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and the United Kingdom. I was at the port of Larnaca just days ago, to witness the final preparations before the ship’s departure. It is as impressive as it is needed. When fully operational, this maritime corridor could guarantee a sustained, regulated and robust flow of aid to Gaza. This is the first time that a ship is authorised to deliver aid to Gaza since 2005. Finally, it is an additional lifeline for the people of Gaza.

The situation on the ground is more dramatic than ever, and it has reached a tipping point. We have all seen the reports of children dying of starvation. This cannot be. And we must do all in our power to stop it. Everybody knows how difficult it is to move aid into and within Gaza. All routes have to be used to reach people in need. This is where the maritime corridor comes into play. It can crucially help increase the amount of aid effectively reaching people in Northern Gaza. The United States will now work to set up a floating port to unload big ships. Until this is ready, we work with smaller ships. The United Arab Emirates and other partners will co-finance the cargo. Cyprus will manage the departures at the port of Larnaca. And we, the European Union, will step up our logistical support on the ground. An EU coordination team is in Cyprus. And we will finance and coordinate the flow of European goods through this corridor.

In parallel, several countries, including some of our Member States, have started to airdrop humanitarian aid from Jordan into Gaza. And today, I can announce that we have activated the EU Civil Protection Mechanism to strengthen our support. And I encourage all Member States to contribute with their assets, from parachutes to containers to allow for a stable and meaningful supply of aid into Gaza.

This year alone, the European Commission has committed EUR 250 million in aid for Palestinians. But the aid must reach civilians in need. And the delivery on the ground is proving particularly challenging. At the end of February, the World Food Programme was forced to end its operations in the north of the Strip, due to the security situation. The aid is now often self-distributed by the population. And we have all seen the dramatic images. We must ensure the safety of the distribution of aid within Gaza. This makes it even more important to work with those agencies that still have a presence on the ground. And this is the case with UNRWA. We all know about the serious allegations that were made against UNRWA staff in January. This is why we decided to assess our funding decisions in light of the actions taken by the United Nations and UNRWA in response to those allegations. Since then, the United Nation has carried out an internal investigation, and created an independent review group, led by Catherine Colonna. UNRWA has also agreed to an audit by external experts appointed by the European Union. As a result, we will proceed with the payment of EUR 50 million in support of UNRWA. The next tranches will be released as soon as the Agency takes the other steps we have agreed upon together. All of this with one simple goal: that every euro we invest is spent according to our rules and reaches Palestinians in need.

But in the current circumstances, aid alone will not solve the crisis. Of course, Israel has the right to defend itself, and fight off Hamas. But the protection of civilians must be ensured at all times, in line with international law. And right now, there is only one way to restore an adequate flow of humanitarian aid. The people of Gaza need an immediate humanitarian pause that would lead to a sustainable ceasefire. And they need it now.

Honourable Members,

Let us keep in mind that the risk of further escalation is real. The situation at Israel’s border with Lebanon continues to be explosive. Iran – that is, Hamas’ patron – has continued to fuel regional tensions, for instance, with its support to Houthi terrorists in Yemen. Just like we know they keep fuelling Russia’s war against Ukraine. Let me add that we are prepared to respond with additional sanctions, in case Iran provides ballistic missiles to Russia, as recently reported. Without a sustainable ceasefire, the contagion of the Gaza war could spread across the region. This is a time to redouble our efforts, together with Member States. So that the hostages can get home. And the people of Gaza can get not only humanitarian relief, but also a ray of hope, towards a two-state solution.

Honourable Members,

The second topic I would like to address is enlargement, with a focus on the Western Balkans. In these years, we have shifted gear in our approach to the region. We have realised that it is not enough to just wait for the Western Balkans to move closer to us. It is not enough to say that the door is open. We must also take responsibility and support their path towards our Union in any possible way.

This is why we have created our Growth Plan for the Western Balkans. This is why we have opened accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, and this is why we have committed to doing the same with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Today, we, the College, are presenting a report on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s progress. It is a factual analysis of the latest developments. And it draws a very clear picture. Since we granted candidate status, Bosnia and Herzegovina has taken impressive steps forward. More progress has been achieved in just over a year than in over a decade. First, Bosnia and Herzegovina has now fully aligned with our foreign and security policy, which is crucial in these times of geopolitical turmoil. Second, the country is adopting important laws, such as on the prevention of conflict of interest which had stalled for seven years, now it is adopted; and the law on anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing. Third, the management of migration flows continues to improve, with negotiations on a Frontex agreement now ready to begin after the Presidency endorsed the negotiating framework. Fourth, the Ministry of Justice has agreed to include in the domestic criminal records the judgements of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. And fifth, on dialogue and reconciliation, a new peacebuilding steering committee has just become operational.

Of course, more progress is necessary to join our Union. But the country is showing that it can deliver on its membership criteria, and on its citizens’ aspiration to be part of our family. This is the reason why today, we will decide to recommend to the Council to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The message coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina is clear. So our message must be clear too. The future of Bosnia and Herzegovina lies in our Union.

Thank you very much, and long live Europe.