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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Opening address to the Plenary Session
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Eastern Partnership Informal Foreign Ministers Meeting
Sopot (Poland), 24 May 2010
Thank you for inviting me to this informal Foreign Ministers meeting here in Sopot. I am sure that the beauty of this seaside resort will inspire us. I would like to thank in particular Minister Sikorski and Minister Moratinos for their unwavering support for the Eastern Partnership.
I am glad that we have this opportunity - one year on from the Prague summit - informally to discuss what we have achieved and where we want to go with the Eastern Partnership. I am convinced the ambitious agenda we agreed in Prague remains the right one: by seeking the political association and economic integration of our six partner countries with the EU, we will strengthen the capacity of our partner countries to make their own sovereign choices about the political and economic challenges that confront them. The development of vibrant democracies and economies able to compete in a globalised marketplace is in all our interests. Let me underline the staunch commitment of the Commission to support our partners in this process.
Let me briefly make a few comments on what we have achieved over the past year and outline a few pointers for the future.
I believe we have got off to a flying start over the past year. I know that some of you have wanted us to go faster and further. But, if I can be frank, I know that others have been surprised at what we have achieved in such a short time.
We have made good on our offer of new contractual relations. Negotiations with Ukraine are well advanced. The negotiations of an Association Agreement with Moldova have been launched. And negotiations with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia will start soon. We are engaging with Belarus on the path of an open and constructive dialogue on all fronts but, if we are to go as far as we would wish, we will need to see further progress in the field of democracy and respect for human rights. The ball is now in Minsk’s court.
We have also established the multilateral dimension of the Eastern Partnership. The four Platforms and the panels they have created are now starting to implement their 2 year work programmes. More than 70 activities are already planned for the next twelve months. Their importance should not be underestimated: they allow for sharing experiences and best practices in order to accelerate progress towards the overall objectives of political association and economic integration. The flagship initiatives which have now been launched have the same goal and are focusing on such crucial fields as border management, development of small and medium sized enterprises, and energy market integration.
Now, with the Lisbon Treaty in force and the External Action Service in sight, offering us the prospect of more joined-up EU foreign policy-making, the Eastern Partnership can give us the possibility to discuss issues of security and stability.
So what are the challenges for the future as we move towards the second Eastern Partnership Summit in the first half of next year during the Hungarian Presidency of the EU?
First, we must redouble our efforts to advance towards two of our most ambitious objectives – visa liberalisation and free trade areas. This is not easy and requires considerable homework on all sides. Let us intensify our dialogue so that we are absolutely clear about the steps that each of us needs to take to move forward. Let us also look for short term steps which can bring immediate, tangible benefits. One such could be the swift and effective implementation of the new EU visa code in all six partner countries in order to ensure uniform and decent treatment.
Let me stress in this context the importance of the Comprehensive Institution Building Programmes in the Eastern Partnership. Once in place – which should be the case next year - these programmes will provide tangible support to partner countries towards achieving the goals of new contractual relations, deep and comprehensive free trade agreements and visa liberalisation.
My second point is to ensure we make the best use of our scarce financial resources. We welcome the considerable interest shown in the Eastern Partnership from the numerous project proposals that have been presented. However, all of us must bear in mind that the bulk of EU financial support to the partner countries is devoted to bilateral programmes. This is, after all, as it should be given the bilateral focus of our policy objectives under the European Neighbourhood Policy and Eastern Partnership. And not all of the additional EaP funding has come on stream yet in 2010. Nevertheless from 2011, the annual EU resources designed to support reform in the 6 Eastern Partnership countries and regional co-operation will increase on average by more than half compared with the period 2007-10 . I will therefore redouble my efforts to ensure that our resources are targeted on achieving our key policy objectives and to look for new ways to improve donor coordination.
In this regard, I believe we should seek to enhance cooperation with the International Financial Institutions, notably the EIB and EBRD, to support more visible investment projects. Already we are doing a lot in this respect. The projects which have been developed under the Neighbourhood Investment Facility amount to €4 billion and are in such crucial areas as electricity networks, energy efficiency, SME financing, airport modernisation or road rehabilitation.
Increased funding, effectively used, as well as progress in the fields of mobility and trade will certainly improve the visibility of the Eastern Partnership. But I believe there is more we can do. I hope that we can start holding Eastern Partnership events in partner countries. I will make sure that the recently increased EU delegations take a leading role in projecting the Partnership in our partner countries. I believe the work of the Civil Society Forum can also play a role here.
Finally I believe third countries outside our circle of 33 can also make valuable contributions to the implementation of Eastern Partnership objectives. We should therefore consider carefully the idea of setting up a “Group of Friends” – something originally proposed by Minister Sikorski in Madrid.
I believe we have made a good start but that we now must keep up the momentum as the Eastern Partnership moves into its second year. For this, I believe we will need robust administrative structures within the External Action Service - something I am discussing with the High Representative.
Let us ensure we all now play our part in moving forward our ambitious agenda – we will be judged by our record on implementing our commitments. Let us give greater visibility to what we have already achieved and to our ongoing activities. And let us work to make the best possible use of the financial resources we are dedicating to this enterprise.
As Commissioner for the whole of the EU’s Neighbourhood, I will continue to strive to advance our relations with all our neighbours East and South. Based on the stock-taking in the Commission’s recent Communication, I hope all of us in the coming months can reflect on how to develop our policy further.
Beyond our immediate priorities for the year ahead, we must also keep in mind the longer term horizon. Making political association and economic integration a reality, will bring our partner countries into an ever closer relationship with the EU: a community of shared values; a network of free trade areas which could in the long run lead to a Neighbourhood Economic Community; a liberalized visa area. I believe it is not too early to start reflecting on what such a relationship will mean for all of us and how we could, in due course, cement it further.
You can rest assured that, working in close coordination with Cathy Ashton and my fellow Commissioners, I will remain firmly committed to advancing the Partnership.