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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
EU – Azerbaijan: How to bring the relations to a higher level
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy/ Baku
3 May 2013
Executive Vice-Rector, Vice Ministers, Excellencies, dear friends,
I appreciate very much the chance to address you today at the Diplomatic Academy, which is a highly appropriate venue for me to share my thoughts and reflections.
To those young people who are students now in this prestigious academy I would wish success not only in serving your country around the world, but in bringing new information and new perspectives back home – this second task is just as important and just as challenging. I come to Azerbaijan as much to hear your messages as I come to pass my own.
In any successful partnership we need to be sensitive to what our partners have to offer as well as sharing what we have to share. And I do believe that the EU has a lot to share. The EU remains one of the world´s centres of gravity, a market with 500 million consumers and an important trade partner for many countries of the world. There is a room for even our strongest trade relationships to develop further. So, it is no surprise that the EU is engaging with the US and also Japan in talks on new trade agreements.
At the same time, we have to remain realistic. It is no secret that Europe´s economy is facing some tough challenges. The impact of the global sovereign debt crisis has hit parts of Europe hard, and this has weakened public confidence in institutions, not least in the European Union itself. But, while the EU did not cause the crisis, it is the key to recovering from it. Restoring stability and reforming economies are top priorities for EU leaders.
Let me add a couple of words on the broader context of our bilateral relationship. As you know, EU-Azerbaijan relations are developed through the Eastern Partnership, that is to say the Eastern dimension of the European neighbourhood policy. This policy framework is of great value both to the EU and also its partners because it will bring our relationships to a new and higher level. If we are serious in implementing our commitments, as we should be, our political and trade relations will become much stronger: through the regulatory convergence of our partners with the EU and the effective sharing of values.
What is more, the Eastern Partnership will also strengthen the links between the people of Azerbaijan and the people of Europe. Ultimately, our partners will be able to join forces with the EU politically and economically. And jointly, the EU and its partners, will be able much better to face the challenges of globalisation, in a world where geographical distance matters less and less.
Now, let me also use this opportunity to dispel a myth: The Eastern Partnership, some say, is using a one-size-fits-all-approach, leading to uniform relationships, in which the specificity and the very nature of each of the partners gets lost. However, exactly the opposite is true: While we do use a common tool box, in which, for example, mobility of people plays a crucial role, together with our partners we are keen to find tailor-made solutions. Differentiation is key, and Azerbaijan in this respect is no exception.
Within the Eastern Partnership as well as bilaterally, the European Union has high ambitions for broadening and deepening its relations with Azerbaijan. Clearly, we consider Azerbaijan an interesting and reliable partner. What does Azerbaijan offer? We believe your location, your resources and above all your people, and here I stress in all their diversity, make you a natural partner for the European Union. A partner in regional and international security, in energy, in anti-terrorism, in enterprise development and investment, in culture and in education.
There is tremendous potential – and this is why I have come to reconfirm the European Union's commitment to deepen relations with Azerbaijan; I am here to help build relations on the basis of mutual respect and common interests, but also on the basis of our common values and principles.
But today I want to stress another dimension of our relationship as well. The European Union has a clear goal of forging deeper relations with all Azerbaijanis, from across the political spectrum, from civil society and among the population. In other words an inclusive partnership.
The most beneficial aspect of opening up and developing our partnership in an inclusive fashion is that new actors will come to the table. That means new, trusting and productive relationships can be established - not just between government officials but also between "real experts" in many areas!
My visit to Baku is specifically focused on how to make these various partnerships work, to the benefit of both parties. So, I am glad that I had the opportunity for a substantial and constructive discussion with President Aliyev on a range of bilateral and regional issues. And clearly, both of us want to bring the EU-Azerbaijan relationship to an even higher level.
I recognize that there are other models of development and integration on offer in the European Union's eastern neighbourhood. The model the EU proposes is certainly not perfect, but I believe we do operate on the basis of "what you see is what you get" – in terms of setting clear goals in the different areas of co-operation: what is expected from Azerbaijan and what the European Union should be offering in return. I believe this makes the progress of our relations and of key reforms easier to visualize and easier to monitor, and the result is an important boost for accountability.
Reforms in Azerbaijan will allow the EU to deliver some very specific benefits in terms of:
We are all looking forward to the Vilnius Summit later this year, and of course I want to see a good range of deliverables, but above all I want to see quality and depth in terms of our achievements.
Since we are in the company of many education professionals and students, I would like to say a specific word about education, which is one of the areas which can deliver specific opportunities and benefits. Naturally I want to encourage Azerbaijanis to take full advantage of opportunities to take part in student and youth exchanges and in academic cooperation. I am glad the European Union has reinforced and increased support to higher education co-operation. At the end of last year we had a Tempus information event in Baku, and I would encourage all those with an interest to attend these events to see what is on offer.
Youth co-operation is another area I want to highlight today, because this is a really important foundation for mutual understanding. I'm proud that since the "Youth in Action" programme was set up, nearly one and half thousand young Azerbaijanis have taken part. We must keep up this momentum.
These are some of the positive and practical benefits of our co-operation, but what about the core values? Earlier, I mentioned human rights and fundamental freedoms as core values of the European Union, but they are more than that. In our conception these values are also guarantees of sustainable and durable development, built upon public support, public trust and accountability. These overarching principles together with rule of law in place create a framework for personal freedom and political pluralism.
This is why we attach great attention to open space for dialogue and exchange of ideas being more – not less – free before elections. It is in this context that we wish to see Azerbaijan´s Presidential elections later this year to be conducted in conformity with the international commitments the country has voluntarily taken, towards the Council of Europe, OSCE and also the EU. If this is the case, these elections will provide, as they should do, for a very useful platform for open exchange of views on the country´s future.
Let me look at the domestic situation also from a different angle. Here in the Southern Caucasus, I cannot neglect the need for peaceful regional co-operation and integration, if the potential of this vibrant region is to be fulfilled. Whatever position one holds on the conflicts in the Eastern Partnership region, one cannot deny their continuing effect in restricting growth and opportunity. This is sadly an objective fact. It is one reason why the European Union has no choice but to do all it can to promote an environment conducive to progress in conflict settlement, and to encourage and support peace-building activities.
Dear friends, I hope it is clear to you now that I am here to further our mutual understanding on how best to upgrade our relations in the framework of Eastern Partnership.
Let me be perfectly frank - I have certainly also used my visit to raise some of our concerns, and of course I am not afraid to listen to concerns about the European Union's performance as well.
Recently we published our progress reports on partner countries in the European Neighbourhood. In Azerbaijan we found some significant areas of progress, but we also said very openly that Azerbaijan needs to continue its efforts in order to meet its commitments on democracy, including
Some of these reform areas are very broad, and so it is right that we should focus our dialogue on a limited number of them where we believe concrete change is possible.
And we should also offer something in return. So for all these challenging reforms we will also be discussing possible European Union support in terms of modernisation, good governance, expertise and practical assistance. Clearly, our cooperation, in the Eastern Partnership, entails also EU commitments. You can rightly expect us to deliver on these, if reforms in Azerbaijan go ahead.
To conclude, the relationship between the EU and Azerbaijan from the EU perspective has enormous potential. I believe we can build a solid foundation for prosperity and development without eroding those special characteristics, traditions and features that make this country and its people unique.
I look forward to your questions and comment.
Thank you for your attention.