Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
I appreciate the opportunity extended by President Zeman together with the organisers of the event, to address today’s International Expert Conference on the Eastern Partnership.
Firstly, allow me to briefly touch upon an issue that has been at the centre of our attention for the last few weeks. We are faced with the most serious crisis since 1945 – no question about that. We are witnessing a serious and dangerous attempt to dissuade the Ukrainian people from taking up new opportunities and the international community from helping to defend their freedom of choice. The belief that military force, economic coercion and destabilising antics will force or even convince us to drop our policies, values and principles, and accept the logic of the spheres of influence, expose ones fear for democratic development. Now is the time to show an even stronger, more determined, and resolute commitment to the Eastern Partnership.
The people of Ukraine, its independence and sovereignty should not become victims of geopolitical zero-sum games. This is not how politics is conducted in the 21st century. This is not why the Eastern Partnership was established. We will always support and stand by those who are subject to undue pressures.
And we have. We have risen to the challenge in Ukraine and reacted rapidly. From the start we have insisted that any solution on Ukraine must be peaceful, must involve Ukraine, must be based on full respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including the right of Ukraine to decide on its own constitution and political future. We therefore, together with Ukraine, Russia and the US, took part in quadrilateral talks on 17th April in Geneva. We have strongly supported the establishment of an OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. We have and will continue providing actual substantial assistance to ensure that the mission can carry out its mandate in the best possible way.
At the same time, we have taken a firm and united stance following the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, including sanctions against individuals responsible for undermining the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Furthermore, at the last Foreign Affairs Council in April, an important step was taken towards a possible CSDP mission
No one can doubt the EU’s firm commitment to providing strong political and financial backing to Ukraine. On 21 March we signed the political chapters of the Association Agreement and we have just adopted a set of unilateral trade measures that will open the European Union’s door to exports from Ukraine. We remain committed to conclude the signature procedure of the remaining chapters of the Association Agreement as soon as possible after the May 25 Presidential elections.
Following the visit to Kyiv of an EU delegation headed by Commissioner Lewandowski and myself, to agree on a joint plan, the European Commission created at the beginning of April, a Support Group to help Ukraine to implement the “European agenda for reform”, encompassing political and economic reforms agreed with Ukraine based on their needs. Clear progress has been made already on the financial front: the decision on the EUR 1 billion macro financial assistance programme was adopted at the last Foreign Affairs Council.
Energy security is another issue of critical importance. Allow me to stress that our relations with Russia in the energy field are those of mutual interdependence. The EU is the largest market for Russian gas and oil. President Putin’s letter to eighteen member states and five partner countries highlights the significance of this. The EU has responded jointly to the letter. Moreover, as requested by the European Council, the European Commission will conduct an in-depth study of EU energy security and will present a comprehensive plan for the reduction of EU energy dependence.
Darwin once said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” 5 years after its inaugural Summit here in Prague and despite the hurdles and challenges it was and still is forced to overcome, the EaP has survived and in many cases, flourished. The reason is quite simple: EaP is an evolving policy. It is flexible enough to adapt to different circumstances on the ground yet it remains faithful to the values and principles upon which it is based. It is a policy that requires commitment and efforts from all sides.
The aim of our joint endeavor was simple: bring our eastern European neighbours closer to the EU. We created the EaP with the objective of accelerating political association and advancing economic integration between the EU and our eastern European neighbours. The three Summits that were held since then mark the progression of the policy. Prague enshrined our partnership. Warsaw gave us a roadmap towards achieving our political objectives. Vilnius witnessed the first concrete deliverables.
So, what have we achieved? Significant progress has been made over past 5 years: our exchanges have greatly intensified; a multilateral track has been established; sector cooperation has been developed; stakeholders are playing a key part in our work. Moreover, together with our partners we jointly agreed on an ambitious agenda for the way ahead until the EaP Summit in Riga.
With regards to our bilateral relations, this year we will be making an important, innovative leap. Signature of the political provisions of the AA/DCFTA with Ukraine on 21st March has set the ball in motion. By June we expect signature of the AA/DCFTAs with Georgia and Moldova, rendering the process of political association and economic integration irreversible. These agreements constitute our response to the aspirations of citizens to live in a democracy, be governed by the rule of law and enjoy their inherent rights. It is our response to the demand for a prosperous, common future.
With signature and implementation of the Agreements comes greater responsibility and tougher requirements. All sectors of society must be mobilised in this effort. Cooperation and joint ownership of the process will create confidence and loyalty, providing stronger foundations for democracy to flourish.
At the same time, we should not ignore what has been achieved with our other partners. Differentiation is what makes the EaP unique. Negotiations on a Strategic Modernisation Partnership and on the Association Agreement are advancing with Azerbaijan. On Belarus we remain committed to our stated position. Advancement in the bilateral track cannot be made at the expense of political prisoners. A reflection is underway on the scope for future EU-Armenia relations.
Our mobility agenda is advancing. I am pleased to announce that as of 28th April, Moldovan citizens will be able to proceed to short term travel to the EU without the need for visas, something unthinkable a few years ago. Progress has been achieved in negotiations on the Visa Liberalisation Action Plans with Georgia and Ukraine. At Vilnius we signed the Visa Facilitation Agreement with Azerbaijan and the same agreement was made with Armenia some time earlier. Recently, we have even launched Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements negotiations with Belarus. Yet we still need to do more, to progress even further. The next period will witness a dynamic advancement in this field.
A multilateral dimension has been established to complement our bilateral relations. We have established a dense network of contacts; flagship initiatives have helped bring home the benefits of cooperation with the EU; and we have taken the Eastern Partnership beyond governments, to parliaments, local authorities, civil society and businesses. We have intensified multilateral cooperation in a wide array of sectors. With regards to funding, nearly €2.5 billion was available for cooperation programmes with partners in 2010-2013.
A further € 4.1 billion were leveraged from European Financial Institutions through the Neighbourhood Investment Facility. These funds have been used to improve infrastructure related to transport, energy and environment, and to provide financial support for SMEs.
We have further consolidated the inclusive nature of the partnership by increasing our multilateral contacts at political level. Biennal Summits and annual Foreign Ministers’ meetings have become a permanent fixture. These are preceded by preparatory meetings with senior officials. Bi-annual Informal Partnership Dialogues are held in partner countries with a sector component.
We have remained true to our commitment to step up our engagement with, and support for broader society. Strengthening engagement with civil society in partner countries is crucial in contributing to democratic accountability, to policy dialogue and to fostering common values – I welcome the very active role of the Civil Society Forum both here today and at national level via the National Platforms. Not less important is the engagement with parliaments, the elected representatives of the people. The same can be said of the role played by regional and local authorities. The EU has always emphasized their importance in shaping policies and establishing relationship between central administration and citizens.
If you permit me, I will provide 6 considerations that I feel could help us navigate the future for the EaP:
Firstly, greater differentiation in bilateral relations will remain a core element in our future cooperation. It will be necessary to reflect on how to tailor our policy portfolio to correspond to realities on the ground, ranging from full political association and economic integration, to forms of relationship compatible with CU membership commitments. Differentiation will also be mirrored in the level of our financial assistance and in line with the principle more for more.
Secondly, it is important that we remind ourselves that the goal of this partnership is to help our partners deliver on their own ambitions. Ownership of reforms matters. Only when a country, its people and its leadership make the difficult, necessary changes in their political system, their rules and their mind sets, can true democracy take root. The EU offers tools and expertise. We do not export democracy — we offer a helping hand. We offer a comprehensive and genuine partnership. A partnership that is based on respect for common values, of democracy, the rule of law, respect of fundamental rights and freedoms. These constitute the basic elements necessary for any reforms to be fully implemented and must remain a central element of our partnership. Ultimately, however, each sovereign country must determine its own future, both economically and politically.
Thirdly, we need to be better equipped to react to crises, to emerging needs, or rapidly evolving situations. We need to work faster and with more flexibility where needed. This may require some creativity in adjusting some parts of the policy, in finding new instruments or making the ones we have work better.
Fourthly, it goes without saying that engagement should also be maintained at the multilateral level to secure the inclusive nature of the partnership. We should be ready to explore how enhanced partner to partner cooperation can strengthen our common agenda. This is essential in creating new synergies that will allow the partnership to advance.
Fifthly, a lesson from the Arab Spring that we are re-learning in Eastern Europe is that increasing engagement with broader society is essential in helping to build constituencies for reform, able to influence national decision making. We will need to intensify efforts in this direction.
Finally, this is by no means the end of the road. As the European Council has stated, the AA/DCFTA does not constitute the final goal in EU – Ukraine cooperation. The greater the commitment and implementation of joint agreements, the more ambitious the destination. Our partners, especially those with European ambitions, need to see the light at the end of the tunnel and I hope the EU and its Member States will rise to that challenge.