Briefing with Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Reeker

Special Briefing
Via Teleconference
June 21, 2021

MR PRICE:  Thanks very much, and thanks, everyone, for joining the call.  We will be previewing Secretary Blinken’s trip to Germany, France, and Italy.  We officially announced that last Friday.  We’ll be departing for the trip tomorrow afternoon.  Just a reminder, this call is on the record, but it is embargoed until the call’s completed, and we’ll focus on answering questions related to this trip.  As always, we’ll have a transcript available after the fact posted on

It’s our pleasure to have with us today Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Reeker.  We also have Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Cherrie Daniels, as well as Special Envoy for Libya Richard Norland.  All of them will brief you today.  Our briefers will give an overview of the trip, and then we’ll take some of your questions.

And so with that, I will hand it off to Ambassador Reeker to get us started.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Hey, thanks, Ned.  And good evening, everyone.  I think obviously, as you know, President Biden recently took part in both the NATO and the U.S.-EU summits just last week.  And his participation obviously underscored the U.S. commitment to a strong transatlantic partnership.  And it’s a partnership based on shared interests and values, and as the Secretary travels, as Ned just mentioned, in addition to participating in the second Berlin conference on Libya, which Special Envoy Norland will address in a few minutes, I just wanted to highlight some of the bilateral engagements that Secretary Blinken will have in Germany.  We’ll start there, and then can go on with the other stops.

I think you’ve heard the Secretary say many times that we consider Germany a key ally, partner, and friend.  And our ties are certainly built on mutual commitments to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, security, and prosperity.  And following the heels of the President’s visit to Europe over the past weeks to revitalize the transatlantic relationship, Secretary Blinken will meet in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel and with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and assess how we can further strengthen the U.S.-Germany relationship to address some of these common challenges, including recovery from COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, as well as China and Russia.

Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Maas will underscore our shared commitment to combating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and distortion, and to finding innovative ways – new ways to enhance Holocaust education.

And on that note, I want to hand it over to our Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues – also from the Bureau of European Affairs – Cherrie Daniels, who can go into a bit more depth on this important aspect of our bilateral engagement with Germany on this trip.  So Cherrie, over to you.

MS DANIELS:  Thanks, Ambassador Reeker.  So the Secretary and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas will meet during the middle of this week to discuss ways our two countries can deepen our partnership in the area of Holocaust remembrance, research, and education.  As people know, we already work extremely closely with Germany, both bilaterally and multilaterally, through the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which Germany was recently the chair of for a whole year.  However, what’s increasingly clear to us is that we need to do more on combating Holocaust denial and distortion, and on promoting historically accurate Holocaust education.  As knowledge of the Holocaust wanes, nefarious individuals, organizations, and occasionally governments engage in Holocaust denial and distortion for all manner of ends.  Anti-Semitism is rising around the world, and that’s not a coincidence to or related Holocaust ignorance and anti-Semitism.

Hatred and prejudice are inimical to U.S. and transatlantic interests and values, and that makes it more important today than at almost any time since World War II for us to ensure an accurate understanding of the Holocaust and to ensure that forces that brought it about – that we discuss those issues so that we understand the tragic consequences the Holocaust had and the complacency, what the ends were of that complacency.

Doing so will help prepare our public servants, our civil servants, and the general public to recognize modern manifestations of anti-Semitism and even other forms of hatred among – the warning signs also for those phenomenon, and to push back when we see those reappear.  The U.S. and Germany have long been leaders in this area, and we look forward together to enhancing our cooperation.

I’ll leave it at that for now, and we’ll give the floor back to Acting Assistant Secretary Reeker.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Okay, thanks a lot, Cherrie.  As you heard and know from the schedule, after Berlin Secretary Blinken will travel on to Paris where he will meet with President Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.  You will recall too that President Biden met with President Macron last Saturday on the margins of the G7.  So this is really an opportunity for Secretary Blinken to reiterate the President’s message and speak with our oldest ally about areas of cooperation, including global security, again, the pandemic’s – recovery from the pandemic, and repairing and modernizing our alliances.

This year, of course, we commemorated the 77th anniversary of D-Day and the sacrifices made on the beaches of Normandy.  And while we won’t have a chance to go to Normandy, as NATO Allies, France and the United States have certainly built and sustained the post-war global order, which is very much about promoting freedom and prosperity and the rule of law.  And throughout his engagements, the Secretary will highlight our common values.  That includes, of course, respect for democracy, human rights, and the – and rule of law, as I said.  Those unite us.  They drive our cooperation on shared goals.

Also in Paris, the Secretary will have a chance to meet with OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann to discuss key economic priorities.  And then following Paris, Secretary Blinken will travel to Rome, where he and Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio will co-chair a meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.  On the margins of the Defeat ISIS meeting, the Secretary will participate in a ministerial meeting about Syria, discussing the crisis in Syria and underscore the importance of meeting humanitarian needs there.

And I expect you’ll hear more from other officials on those particular meetings, those multilateral meetings, as they draw closer.  But I did want to highlight the strong and enduring partnership we enjoy with Italy, and we will have a bilateral part of the visit there.  Of course, we’re NATO Allies and as well as our continued and strong cooperation on transatlantic security issues, our partnerships with the Italians is also based on common values and shared historical and familial bonds.  I am always reminded that more than 20 million Americans proudly claim Italian heritage, and these kinds of people-to-people ties further serve and strengthen our relationship.

While we’re in Rome, Secretary Blinken will underscore those ties and also discuss policy priorities during bilateral meetings.  He’ll meet with President Sergio Mattarella and Foreign Minister Di Maio.  And he will also visit the Vatican City, where he’ll meet with senior Holy See officials and discuss our shared commitment to tackling the climate crisis as well as the importance of promoting freedom of religion or belief globally.

And then finally, Secretary Blinken will travel from Rome to Bari and Matera in Italy, a little further to the south, to participate in the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.  And again, I expect we’ll have a separate briefing on this multilateral meeting in more detail sometime later.  But I’d note for this engagement, it’ll be very much a platform – that is the G20 – for the Secretary to reinforce the U.S. commitment to multilateralism and echo President Biden’s message at the G7, and also discuss continued cooperation in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing the climate crisis, and building back better with our global partners.

So let me hand it over now to Special Envoy for Libya Richard Norland, who can discuss the Libya conference, which will be one of the first parts of the trip from Berlin.  Over to you.

AMBASSADOR NORLAND:  Hey, thanks, Phil.  I’m in Berlin, in fact, and just to confirm, can you hear me?

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  I can hear you.

AMBASSADOR NORLAND:  Yeah, okay.  Good afternoon or good evening, everyone.  It’s a pleasure to speak with you today in my capacity both as special envoy and as ambassador to Libya.  As Assistant Secretary Reeker just noted, Secretary Blinken will participate in the second Berlin conference on Libya on June 23rd, on Wednesday.

The conference we see is an opportunity for the international community to support the progress made by the Libyan people.  The participation of the Libyan interim Government of National Unity will mark the first time that Libya will be included in the Berlin process as a participant.  It underscores the significant achievements in Libya since the first Berlin conference on Libya in January of 2020.  It was a summit held on January 19th, 2020.

We thank Germany for hosting this vital conversation.  In Berlin, the United States and our partners will reaffirm support for the interim Government of National Unity as it continues its most important task, namely of preparing for national elections on December 24th of this year as outlined by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum Roadmap approved through the UN-facilitated political process.  This is a key step towards ending a decade of conflict through an inclusive negotiated political solution.

The U.S. goal is a sovereign, stable, unified Libya with no foreign interference and a state that is capable of combating terrorism within its borders.  We strongly oppose all military escalation and all foreign military intervention, which only deepen and prolong the conflict.  To this end, the conference will also underscore support for the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 2570 and 2571 adopted earlier this year, along with the October 2020 Libyan nationwide ceasefire agreement, which addressed the withdrawal of foreign military forces, foreign fighters, and mercenaries.

The United States is committed to increasing our diplomatic focus on supporting the progress made by the Libyan people.  Working with our international partners and the UN, we will continue to support the interim Government of National Unity in the months ahead as it prepares for the December elections and works to end the conflict.

Thanks.  And let me turn it back now over to either Phil or Ned.

MR PRICE:  Thanks very much to all of our speakers.  And now we are prepared to take your questions.  Operator, if you wouldn’t mind repeating the instructions for asking a question.

OPERATOR:  Absolutely.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad.  You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1, 0 command.  If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers.  Once again, if you have a question, you may press 1 and then 0 at this time.  And one moment for our first question.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to the line of Humeyra Pamuk.

OPERATOR:  Your line is now open.

QUESTION:  Hello.  Thanks, Ned.  Thanks, everyone.  I just have two questions.  One is about Libya.  The other one is about Vatican.  Ambassador Norland, I’m just wondering what United States wants to see achieved until the planned elections in December.  I know that the withdrawal of the foreign mercenaries and foreign troops is something Washington has pushed for for a while, but that hasn’t materialized until now.  I’m wondering if you or other administration officials in their various meetings with officials from interested parties – say, like, Russia, Turkey – have gotten any assurances even remotely that these fighters will be pulled out anytime soon.

And then on Secretary’s meetings in the Vatican, the last administration had a rather rocky relationship with the Vatican, and former Secretary Pompeo criticized the Vatican over the renewal last year of 2018 agreement with China.  On what issues does the State Department see any convergence?  Where do you see divergence, and do you think the recent stand by the American Catholic bishops and the communion issue will come up in the Vatican talks?  Thank you.


AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Do you want to go ahead and take —

AMBASSADOR NORLAND:  Yeah, sure.  Dick Norland here.  So you asked about the Berlin conference and elections and foreign forces.  In terms of the elections, we see this conference as providing key momentum for some things that need to happen basically in July if the elections are going to take place as scheduled in December.  There needs to be a constitutional basis and a legal framework established, approved by either the parliament or by the LPDF, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, basically in July, according to the election commission, in order for the elections to take place in December.  And this process has been delayed.  We think it needs urgent attention, and this conference is an opportunity to reinforce that message.

On the foreign forces, you’re quite right that forces have not departed yet, and our basic position is we should not wait until after the elections to try to make some progress on this goal.  The elections – one of the reasons elections are so important is so that a fully empowered, credible, legitimate Libyan government can turn to foreign actors and say, “It’s time to take your troops out.”  And that will be a very important development and we think a very impactful one, but we’re not suggesting that we have to wait until next year to try to make some progress.

So, to your point, there are negotiations underway with some of the key actors aimed at trying to remove some of the mercenaries, the foreign fighters.  I don’t want to predict in this particular call where that might lead, but certainly that’s on the agenda in Berlin here, along with other confidence-building measures like reopening the coastal road in Libya, something that has been talked about.  Some progress is being made even this week, but it’s not a done deal yet, and we’d like to see progress on that as well as on forming a joint military command in Libya so that these various Libyan armed elements come under one hat, and that’s directly related to the issue of trying to achieve the withdrawal of foreign forces, because when foreign forces leave, they’re going to need to be replaced by a viable united Libyan national military and police structure.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  And I can take over.  Thanks for your question about the visit to the Holy See.  Obviously, the United States and the Holy See enjoy a very close partnership, particularly in areas like promoting human rights, combating human trafficking; climate change is an important one to underscore.  And together we seek peaceful solutions to a number of crises around the world.

I think it’s worth remembering that the influence of the Holy See, of course, extends to more than 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide and millions of non-Catholics as well.  The Holy See itself maintains a formal diplomatic network, diplomatic relations with 183 countries, so along with the United States one of the largest diplomatic networks.  And they have a grassroots presence in almost every country in the world.  And so we see the Holy See very much as a critical partner, and through a number of Catholic religious orders and lay communities, their various faith-based organizations, the Holy See is also among the greatest humanitarian forces in the world.

So in terms of delivering humanitarian aid successfully and efficiently all around the world, we very much value the cooperation we have with the Holy See and a variety of Catholic organizations.  And I think we’ve found that maintaining and strengthening the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the United States benefits the United States but really is unparalleled in terms of a global presence and engagement we have.

And His Holiness the Pope, Pope Francis, has shown longstanding leadership on the imperative to tackle the climate crisis as well, so I’d like to underscore that.  He’s called on political leaders and civil society to take care of the environment, and we see working together with the United States and the Holy See as an opportunity to raise countries’ collective ambition and to address the climate crisis by raising and implementing national emissions reduction targets, for instance.

I already mentioned the protection of human rights as a key priority, and certainly the Holy See has long been a champion of human dignity.  Also a long history at the Holy See of promoting freedom of religion or belief, including through advocacy and interfaith dialogue.

And I guess the last area I would point to that will certainly be a part of the discussions is in human trafficking, which is a threat to international peace and security.  And I think we’ve shown through our own monitoring of human trafficking around the world in our annual reports on trafficking in persons, how much traffickers undermine rule of law, violate human dignity, robbing women and children and men of their own freedoms.  And so with the Holy See, the United States shares a common commitment to the fight against human trafficking and is very much a valued partner in the global effort against the heinous crime of human trafficking.

So I think that gives a pretty good sum-up of the issues and types of things we’ll be doing and discussions with Holy See officials next week — later this week.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to the line of Shaun Tandon.

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) straightforward question about the Secretary’s meetings.  The G20, of course, in Matera – some countries there don’t always have the most positive relationship with the United States.  Is there any plans to meet any counterparts, say, from Russia and China when he is there?

And then the Vatican – will there be an audience with Pope Francis?

And can I ask you – Phil, could I ask you a follow-up on the Vatican issue?  Does this administration have a view on the bishop agreement that was reached between the Holy See and – between the Vatican and China?  The previous secretary, of course, was quite outspoken on that.

And Cuba as well – do you think Cuba will be a factor, will be an issue that will be discussed with the Holy See, considering their past involvement in initiatives there?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Let me start with the G20 and just punt on that a little bit.  There’ll be a separate briefing as we look at that in its multilateral context and any sidebar meetings at that, so if you could be patient and hold on as we get into next week and do that.

Further on the Vatican, I mean, I don’t know if Cuba would come up or not.  We certainly, as I said, discuss issues with the Holy See diplomats, issues all over the world, and have often found great ability between our two networks and our shared goals to help solve or work on peaceful solutions to a number of crises and challenges around the world.

In terms of the specific schedule of meetings, I’ll have to leave that till we get closer.  I’m sure we’ll be able to give you a readout prior to that day or the day of.  So I’ll just leave it at that.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to the line of Kylie Atwood.

QUESTION:  Thanks for doing this call.  I have two questions.  First, can we expect the Secretary to read out details of the Biden-Putin summit when he meets allies specifically in Berlin and Paris?  And second, with regard to Germany, will the Secretary press the Germans to take any actions to prevent Nord Stream 2 from becoming operational in the near term?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Thanks, Kylie.  Certainly, I would imagine any discussions the Secretary will have with leaders in Germany and in Paris – Berlin and Paris, he’ll have an opportunity to discuss the bilat further than what’s already been done.  Of course, we had briefings at NATO with allies and at – opportunities for some conversations, but I can see that very much coming up in their conversations.  Again, this trip gives us an opportunity in a bilateral format with each of those countries and with Italy too to go into a little more detail on that.

And then you asked about Nord Stream 2.  I think you know that the administration’s position remains very clear in terms of the steps taken so far on sanctions.  We will certainly underscore our belief that the pipeline is a Russian geopolitical project that threatens Europe’s energy security and then certainly undermines security of Ukraine and other Eastern countries, including Eastern flank NATO Allies and partners.

Obviously, you’re familiar with the steps we took in May when the United States imposed sanctions on four Russian entities that engaged in sanctionable activities under the PEESA law, as amended, and listed four Russian vessels as blocked property.  I think there were an additional nine vessels that were blocked that belonged to the Russian Government’s Marine Rescue Service that are part of the Nord Stream 2 construction fleet.  And so this was the largest sanctions action taken to date to stop Nord Stream 2.

The pipeline, of course, was over 90 percent complete when the administration took office in January, and we believe there’s a very low likelihood of being able to prevent the pipeline’s construction using sanctions, but that’s why we then waived certain sanctions.  The administration waived certain sanctions in an effort to make something positive out of the difficult situation; rather than risk damaging relations with European allies through further sanctions, we’re going to use this space provided by these waivers to engage Germany diplomatically and take steps to reduce the risks that Nord Stream 2 poses to Ukraine and to European energy security more broadly.

So we’ll be able to continue that discussion in Berlin, and also we’re continuing our diplomatic conversations with Ukraine and frontline Central and Eastern European countries about the pipeline and about the broader issue of energy security.

I think it’s worth underscoring that part of this trip is a continuation of the priority that President Biden has made of rebuilding our relationships with allies, including Germany, and that the strength of these relationships will lay in the foundation for many of the foreign policy priorities, including economic recovery as we emerge from the COVID pandemic and pushing back on the People’s Republic of China and authoritarianism generally around the world.  So that will continue to form the basis of many of our conversations, and I think the May 19th actions demonstrate a commitment to follow the law and uphold the commitment to build and rebuild relations with European allies and partners.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to the line of Nick Wadhams, please.

OPERATOR:  Your line is still open.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Phil, could you give us a little more detail on the steps you’re referring to that the U.S. might want from Germany to reduce the risks that Nord Stream 2 poses to Ukraine?  What’s it looking for to mitigate the damage caused by Nord Stream 2?  And is there a scenario under which the U.S. would remove that waiver and sanction Germany if – or German entities if, for example, it doesn’t get the progress it wants on those mitigation efforts?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Nick, thanks for the question, but I’m just not going to go into details about ongoing diplomatic discussions.  I don’t think that’s a wise way to approach diplomacy and those discussions.  Our goal obviously remains to ensure that Russia cannot use energy as a coercive tool against Ukraine or, frankly, anyone else in the region, and that will remain the basis on which we pursue these conversations.

MR PRICE:  We’ll take a final question from Cindy Saine.

OPERATOR:  Your line is now open.

QUESTION:  Yes, thank you.  In conversations with allies, do you expect Secretary Blinken to also focus on the increasing Islamic State threat in Africa?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Well, I guess I can take that one noting that, obviously, in the – in Rome, we will have the D-ISIS ministerial, which Secretary Blinken will co-host with Foreign Minister Di Maio of Italy.  But as I mentioned at the top, we’ll have a more detailed readout and focus on that multilateral forum.  I would think that’s the sort of obvious question of discussion in terms of a D-ISIS conference, but let me leave it for the briefing that we’ll have as we get closer to the date and see what kind of details they can go in on the agenda of that multilat forum on the D-ISIS.

AMBASSADOR NORLAND:  If I could just inject a footnote, Phil – Dick Norland here – it is true that on the Berlin agenda – Libya – there is concern stemming from the recent events in Chad where rebel groups trained by armed elements in Libya, assisted by Wagner mercenaries, carried out destabilizing actions.  And there are signs that the – there is increasing evidence of this kind of activity.  And so in addition, there have been a couple of ISIS-claimed attacks in Libya over the last month.  So I think the agenda of destabilizing actions by armed groups and terrorism is also on the agenda in Berlin at the Libya conference.

MR PRICE:  Well, thanks very much.  We’ll have more details on the multilateral engagements in coming days, so please be on the lookout for that.  Thanks very much to our speakers today: Ambassador Reeker, Special Envoy Cherrie Daniels, Special Envoy Richard Norland as well.  And we’ll be talking to you very soon.  Thanks.