EU Talks Eastern Partnerships

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EU Talks Eastern Partnerships

10 years ago, the EU launched The Eastern Partnership program to deepen and strengthen relations with its six Eastern neighbors: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The Head of EU Delegation in Azerbaijan, Kestutis Jankauskas, tells Azeri Observer about the main achievements OF the initiative over this period, AND THE benefits it brings to Azerbaijan and EU member states; and prospects of development of this program in THE future.

BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA

AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER

Question: This year the Eastern Partnership program marks its 10-year anniversary. Could you tell our readers about the history of this initiative? How did the idea of this initiative appear? What were the EU’s aims from the start? How has the program transformed over the years?

Answer: In 2004-2007, borders of the European Union have significantly moved east and the number of its members has almost doubled. This enlarged union needed to consolidate and deal with different challenges. It also needed to define relations with its new eastern neighbourhood. While the Union for the Mediterranean was proposed for the neighbours in the south, Poland and Sweden came up with an idea of a partnership which would unite the EU and six partner countries in the East, with an aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. The Eastern partnership was inaugurated in Prague in 2009, and in May 2019, high-level events took place in Brussels to mark its 10th anniversary and to launch the consultation process on its future.

Over the past ten years, Eastern Partnership has successfully provided a framework to enhance political association and deepen economic integration among 34 countries. It has developed both bilateral and multilateral tracks. It provided a venue for six partner countries to develop the relationship with the EU in accordance with their own ambitions, and to work together to build a more prosperous, resilient, stable and democratic region. This strategic and ambitious partnership was always meant to respond to the needs of the citizens. In 2015, key objectives were defined in the priority areas of building stronger economies, stronger governance, stronger connectivity and stronger societies. It has adapted to new challenges, including those of stability and resilience, and ultimately to strengthen our mutually beneficial relationship.

Q.: What are the main achievements within the Eastern Partnership Initiative these past 10 years?
A.: Over ten years, the Eastern Partnership has proved to be an efficient, resilient, tailored and dynamic framework. Most importantly, it has proven to be a success for our citizens. It is governed by principles of shared ownership, joint responsibility, inclusivity, differentiation and conditionality, and based on our joint priorities.

In these ten years, we have shown what a partnership with the European Union is all about: positive change in the lives of our people, particularly the young ones,” said High Representative and Vice-President of the Union, Federica Mogherini in Brussels in May 2019, at the event marking the 10th anniversary. “We made it easier to travel to the EU, increased trading opportunities for businesses, and increased mobility for academics and students. Our friendship today is much more mature than it used to be. We are much more focused on what truly matters to our citizens.

This Partnership opened more trade and investment opportunities. Countries who chose to sign Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) have increased their number of companies exporting to the EU by 35%, 40% and 26% respectively. Azerbaijan has increased its volume of trade with the EU by 28%. The six Eastern Partner countries together, are now the EU’s 10th trading partner. Decision was taken this year to extend EU’s infrastructure and The Trans-European Transport Network to cover 4,800 km of new and rehabilitated roads and railways by 2030. It will enhance connectivity and open additional economic possibilities. EU has already provided 125,000 loans to small and medium size enterprises. EU supported over 70,000 enterprises with over €2 billion and created 28,000 jobs in partner countries.

The Covenant of Mayors – the EU’s trademark initiative for energy efficiency – has grown into a network of over 400 municipalities allowing thousands of families to reduce their energy bills. With the signature of visa free and visa facilitation agreements, travel to the EU became easier and cheaper. More than 80,000 youth exchanges took place, 30,000 of them under the ERASMUS+ program. It not only helps education, employability and skills development, but also allows our people to better know and understand each other. On top of many programs and numbers, the Eastern Partnership program helped to focus and structure the attention of the European Union on its Eastern European neighbourhood and to make it more secure, stable and prosperous.

In ten years, people in the EU have learned more about the regional conflicts and the importance of territorial integrity. Eastern Partnership offered six partner countries the platform to build and advance their bilateral relationships with the EU while enabling multilateral cooperation. Without Eastern Partnership there would have been far less contacts between our governments and our citizens, less cooperation and less assistance. While we are very proud of the achievements, we have to acknowledge that there are still challenges ahead of us. More work is needed in the area of judicial reforms, human rights, rule of law and the fight against corruption. We need to better involve civil society and to ensure free and independent media. This is crucial for creation of modern society. We need to strengthen societal resilience against hybrid threats and disinformation. We need to step-up EU engagement to help improve the lives of citizens, affected by the conflicts in the region.

Q.: How can ordinary Azerbaijani citizens benefit from the Eastern Partnership Initiative? Could you tell us about the main projects implemented in Azerbaijan within this initiative?
A.: Eastern Partnership means more cooperation, shared knowledge, better relations, more contacts and mutual understanding, as well as enhanced opportunity for everyone. Azerbaijan can benefit from the best examples of reforms and modernisation in the EU member states, especially since 2016, when Baku embarked on economic diversification reforms.

Azerbaijan can choose and apply best EU practices, experience and technologies, and it is doing very well! There are 46 on-going and completed Twinning projects with 26 various institutions in Azerbaijan. The EU assisted in setting up popular ASAN and ABAD services. We are currently working to refurbish education, including vocational education and training. Our experts are helping to bring best practices in social security, the labour market and provide sustainable basis for pension reform, as well as modern taxation, establish a mandatory health insurance system, and provide transparent and easy e-services.  We are also looking at mediation system in justice, European standards in food-safety and environment, helping small family businesses, agriculture and rural development. Projects and dialogue in support of good governance, transparency, accountability and human rights are aimed at building a modern and inclusive civil society. Azerbaijani people are already benefitting from visa facilitation agreement while traveling to Europe. Almost a thousand has benefitted from the ERASMUS+ program. It is difficult to list everything. I think Eastern Partnership provided the framework for more mutual understanding and trust in EU-Azerbaijan relations laying foundation for future modern partnership. EU has already assisted the transfer of best practices with €76 million. To sum it up – Eastern Partnership is bringing European Union and Azerbaijan closer together.

Q.: What are the benefits for the EU from this program?
A.:
In this mutually interdependent world, we can only build our security and prosperity in cooperation with our neighbours. The more stable, secure and prosperous our neighbours are, the more secure, stable and prosperous the European Union and the whole of Europe will be. Eastern Partnership is a joint endeavor; a joint effort to build a more prosperous, resilient, stable and democratic region, based on shared values, mutual interests and commitments, bringing Eastern European Partner countries closer to the European Union and developing stronger ties among the partner countries themselves, for the benefit of our citizens. EU is interested in the stability in the South Caucasus, in developing mutually beneficial relations in the field of energy, enhancement of our trade relations, development of connectivity and the possibilities offered by Azerbaijan in that respect. We are interested in as many supporters as possible to advance multilateralism and work jointly on key global policy goals set by UN Agenda for Sustainable Development, Paris Agreement on Climate Change and EU Global Strategy.

Q.: Different Eastern Partnership nations have opted for different levels of cooperation with the EU. So, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova have concluded Association Agreements. Azerbaijan, in turn, is not interested in joining the EU. Is it still possible to develop a single action plan for all 6 countries of the program? Are there any plans to revise the initiative and develop a separate plan for every country?

A.: Eastern Partnership was launched as a specific dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy to be developed in complementarity with bilateral cooperation. It is a flexible format that enables both inclusivity and differentiation. It allows each Partner to develop its relations with the European Union and cooperation with other partner countries in accordance with its own level of ambition. Since 2009, the Eastern Partnership has provided a solid foundation to further deepen cooperation, both at bilateral and multilateral levels, through a broad range of agreements and other instruments such as Partnership Priorities, and has allowed us to achieve important accomplishments. Three partners – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have decided to sign Association Agreements. Azerbaijan is negotiating with the EU its own new bilateral partnership agreement which will be the basis for our relations, for  decades to come. We have signed ambitious Partnership Priorities in 2018. We have also launched new Security and Transportation dialogues corresponding to the bilateral realities and mutual interests of Azerbaijan and the EU. On the other hand, there are areas such as transport, logistics, connectivity and trade, where best results can only be achieved by all of us working together. In many other areas related to global challenges, best results can also be achieved by sharing best practices and cooperation.

Q.: How can the new aviation agreements (which the EU has already signed with some Eastern Partnership countries and is negotiating with Azerbaijan) contribute to the development of this cooperation?

A.: Connectivity is one of the cornerstones of our cooperation. Air travel is an indispensable part of modern life, work, leisure, building relations, learning and various exchanges. There is no better way of promoting your country, than bringing as many tourists as possible. They gain first-hand experience, make new friends and enhance their understanding of the country. They also substantially contribute to the national economy. Our developing relations also offer more and more reasons for Azerbaijani people to travel to the EU. I hope many would agree that prices of air travel from Baku to the European Union are too high today. There could be more direct flights and better connections. The aviation agreement is exactly meant to achieve that. There is a consistently proven positive record in other countries, which have signed similar agreements with the EU. Aviation Agreement is also important for our trade relations. The aspiration of Azerbaijan is to build a regional transportation hub and would not be complete without a well-functioning air component. Every day of hesitation is a missed opportunity in the regional competition for international trade, cargoes and tourism.

Q.: What is the EU strategy within the Eastern Partnership Initiative for future?

A.: We marked the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership with a High Level Conference in Brussels on 14 May, 2019. The conference not only celebrated the achievements of the Eastern Partnership, but also started discussions on its future strategic direction. At this conference, President Junker launched a consultation process on the future of the Eastern Partnership, which will include a wide range of stakeholders, such as EU Member States, Partners countries, youth, civil society and private sector, think-tanks and academia. Everybody is welcome to contribute thoughts and ideas until the end of October, on how to respond to current challenges and how to develop our policy framework in the future. A dedicated website has been launched for that purpose. We want to do it in the most comprehensive and inclusive way, enabling everybody to contribute. These inputs will help our decision maker to set the strategic course and agree new deliverables at the next Eastern Partnership Summit foreseen in Zagreb, in May 2020.