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Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy
The European Union and Belarus: moving closer together?
Official visit to Belarus, Europe Hotel
Minsk, 22 June 2009
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk to you – and ho w appropriate that this speech should be held in the “Europe” hotel! Appropriate because I hope relations between Belarus this country in the heart of Europe and the European Union can become warmer and closer in the future.
Indeed, that is why I have come to Minsk, because I and my colleagues in the EU want to assure you of our desire to set relations between us on a new and better path. If Belarus resumes the previous positive momentum by taking meaningful steps towards key freedoms for its people (like freedom of assembly and freedom of expression), many new opportunities will emerge.
Heraclitus once said, “You cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are continually flowing in”. Opportunities are there to be grasped, and we hope Belarus will decide to do so.
Following the positive news last summer about the release of political prisoners, we were able to suspend the visa ban on some of your political leaders who had previously been restricted from travelling to the EU. Earlier this year we prolonged this suspension until the end of December - a clear and positive gesture of support.
But progress appears to have stalled. Whilst the earlier steps Belarus took laid the foundations for a better relationship, they still need to be built on. We are hoping to see new momentum, and a fresh reform effort, that would give us unequivocally clear signals as to Belarus' intentions. Only this can pave the way for a progressive warming of relations.
I should explain our position. The European Union is a Union of states based on the respect for certain fundamental values: political freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. We believe that these are the values that give people the best quality of life, wherever they live in the world. And it is respect for these universal values which holds the key to economic success.
So we seek to promote them around the world. And we act on those principles in our relations with other countries; not seeking to coerce or impose, but trying to build a network of friends pursuing common objectives.
We want to welcome Belarus into our web of close partnerships; and we hope Belarus will take the decisions that will now allow that to happen.
We have always made clear our desire for closer relations. In 2004 we invited Belarus to join the European Neighbourhood Policy for regional stability, security and prosperity. Unfortunately the political context in your country did not make it possible for you to join at that time.
We did not give up though: in November 2006 we sent a special message to the Belarusian people explaining what the EU had to offer as soon as the government made progress on respecting its people’s fundamental rights.
Responding to the positive signals you sent us last year, we recently welcomed Belarus to the multilateral part of our Eastern Partnership, which offers the EU’s eastern neighbours (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and of course Belarus) a close economic and political bond with the EU.
The Eastern Partnership is designed to accelerate political and economic reforms in eastern European countries, bringing them closer to the EU. It’s also about helping countries consolidate their sovereignty and avoid new dividing lines in Europe. There will be joint projects and exchange of know-how in areas as diverse as good governance, the economy and energy.
As part of the Eastern Partnership the Belarusian people now have a real opportunity to benefit from our offer, if there is more progress on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
To be specific, we would like to see changes to the electoral process to make it transparent and fair translated into changes in the legislation. All media should have equal and fair access to information, printing presses and distribution networks. And civil society groups need sustainable and fair conditions for carrying out their work – including reasonable requirements for registration.
More generally, the people of Belarus should be able to express their views in meetings or at peaceful demonstrations in the street. And civil society and opposition activists should be free to carry out their work without intimidation or fear of arrest.
These steps would first and foremost benefit the people of Belarus. But they would also enable the EU to offer Belarus the full range of benefits available to its closest partners in the ENP and Eastern Partnership.
More in-depth cooperation with the EU would include Belarus joining the bilateral part of the Eastern Partnership and the European Neighbourhood Policy, like its neighbours. The bilateral part is open to those countries which work closely with us, and embrace democratic values.
More cooperation could mean lighter visa requirements and so easier travel to the EU, and more opportunities for cultural and educational exchange.
It could also mean closer trade relations – other partners are currently negotiating Free Trade Agreements with us, and Belarus would have the same opportunity as them. This would give Belarusian producers increased access to the EU market of 500 million consumers and enable them to exploit this access in a predictable and clearly-defined manner. The EU is by its very nature a rules-based body and sets great store by objectivity and certainty.
We would also offer economic support from the EU. All our partners in the region face a dire economic crisis, and unfortunately Belarus too is suffering. The EU has the tools to help and we are planning macrofinancial assistance to help others, like Ukraine for example. When times are tough, the EU is a useful friend to have.
Belarus could also benefit from an in-depth debate about how to overcome the economic crisis, including ways of modernizing and diversifying the economy. An exchange of ideas between Belarusian and EU economists might be helpful as you map out your future economic development.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Belarus is a sovereign country with a dignified history. Your contribution to European arts and culture is impressive, from Marc Chagall to Ossip Zadkine. At the crossroads of Europe you have the potential to connect East and West and North and South. You have much more to offer for the future, and I hope you seize the opportunity to do so.
But the European Union will not tell Belarus what to do. The choice for democracy is for the Belarusian people alone. You must make your own decisions about which direction to take and when.
Rest assured that we can and will be a good neighbour by being open and spelling out the benefits we can offer you as the situation evolves.
That is why I am here: to tell you honestly and openly about the EU’s motivation and commitment – If Belarus makes a European choice, your European friends will welcome you with open arms.