Revising EU’s Eastern relations

I am very pleased to address you today on behalf of the Euronest parliamentary assembly. Unfortunately Mr Dolidze, my co-chair in Euronest cannot be here with us today and I am glad to convey his best regards to you. I would also like to thank the Committee of the regions for hosting today’s event which is the third joint seminar of CORLEAP and Euronest, in the framework of the open days. Our two institutional structures – CORLEAP and Euronest – share the same commitment to build up political association and closer economic integration between the EU and partner countries. I am thus very happy that we can closely cooperate on common areas of interest, within the parliamentary and territorial dimension of the Eastern Partnership.

It is useful to refresh our memory of the partnership’s founding principles and commitments. On 7 May 2009 in Prague, the founding members declared that the Eastern partnership “will be based on commitments to the principles of international law and to fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law and the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as to market economy, sustainable development and good governance”.

Today we could not highlight enough the importance of those words. Economic prosperity and social progress are linked to the consolidation of the fundamental values in functioning institutions. The perspective of economic cooperation between the EU and the Eastern partners is parallel to that.

Let me now share some of our thinking on the two topics of this seminar “Revising the relations, implementing association agreements”.

The first issue sounds in a negative tonality for me because, one week ago, the Milli Mejlis – the Azerbaijani parliament – started the procedure of withdrawing from the Euronest parliamentary assembly. This decision came after fierce reactions from the executive and legislative powers against a critical resolution that the European parliament adopted in September on the situation of human rights in Azerbaijan. I can only express frustration for this step, in spite of the constant effort from our side to maintain frank and open dialogue with our colleagues of Azerbaijan. I remain committed to convince them to reverse this decision after the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

With the lack of democratic reforms and grave human rights violations in Azerbaijan as well as in Belarus, we are touching upon the issue of diverging political directions among the six partner countries. I think however that we were right in associating the EU and them under the same roof of the Eastern partnership. The multilateral dimension has brought much added value to the simple bilateral ties. It has fostered a diversity of regional interactions and projects in many fields. However, it is becoming more and more evident that partner countries have different level of ambitions and follow various dynamics in their relations to the EU as well as between them.

A group of three ‘front-runners’ namely, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have made historical steps in deepening European integration, by signing association agreements with the EU. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus do not consider a similar path, but they still have an interest in forging closer or at least improved relations with the EU. We should not resign ourselves to a status quo in our cooperation with this second group of countries. I wish the discussions between them and the EU would focus on a set of priority issues, instead of vainly addressing all the terms of an association. In a pragmatic approach, the EU should make new offers of support to Azerbaijan and Belarus in exchange of steps forward on democratisation and respect for fundamental values. The release of six political prisoners by Belarusian authorities in August can be seen as encouraging. It met a long-standing requirement of the EU. If further steps are made in the same and positive direction, a window of new opportunities for new engagement of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership could open up.

I also welcome that Armenia and the EU have engaged discussions on the scope of a new agreement for bilateral relations. I believe that the past negotiations for an association agreement gave a momentum which should not be lost, although Armenia decided to join the Eurasian Economic Union. In the economic field, establishing deep and comprehensive free trade areas should not be the only option for the EU trade policy towards its partners. We should thus offer alternative political ways of trade development with Armenia, as well as with Azerbaijan and Belarus.

Let me now turn to achievements and prospects for the three associated countries and the way to implement association agreements. In spite of a very difficult economic environment, a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine and the Russian embargo which hit the agri-food sector of our economies, we can already observe some benefits and increases in trade between the EU and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. At this point, I want to emphasise that the populations will harvest the fruits of European economic integration only if governments implement a comprehensive agenda of political reforms and deliver on better governance. As a matter of priority, the functioning of institutions has to become more transparent, the judiciary has to get rid of politically-motivated rulings. Achievements in the fight against corruption and shadow economy are key to attract further investment from the EU and the rest of the world.

Of course, we are all well aware that our partners cannot do a massive transformation in a short period of time under heavy constraints and that they need our assistance. That is why, as a MEP, I encourage and stand aside my colleagues of partner parliaments to continue working steadily on all the necessary reforms along the roadmap provided by the Association Agreements. Furthermore, within the Euronest’s and the parliamentary association committees’ frameworks, members of the European parliament have engaged in assisting their Georgian, Moldovan and Ukrainian fellows to transpose the EU acquis into national legislations, wherever the provisions of the association agreements foresee it. Moldova and Ukraine are also benefiting from the European parliament’s comprehensive democracy support approach, which consists of support activities for the promotion of democracy and parliamentary capacity-building. The European parliament and the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine made the first step by signing this year in July a memorandum of understanding, in order to implement a pilot programme. The aim is to improve the quality of parliamentarism and, by consequence, its legislation and legislative work, for the sake of democracy and economy in the country.

I think that parliaments cannot do an efficient job without associating civil society organisations in this process. We need to get an independent assessment of the state of democratic reforms progress made by our partners and to come up with new proposals and policy recommendations for implementing association commitments. For this reason, I have taken the initiative together with the Open Society Foundations to organise a conference on the 10th of December 2015, at the European parliament in Brussels for discussing these issues. I would be delighted if you could join the conference for debating with us in December.

I would like to conclude by saying that I do believe in the transformative power of the European integration and the Eastern partnership in societies and mentalities. After the on-going review of the EU European neighbourhood policy, we should prepare ourselves to adapt it to the reality on the ground and to the expectations of the populations. The refugee crisis, the very difficult situation of the Southern European neighbourhood, the regional conflict in Syria and Iraq should not divert us from keeping high our ambitions to the East and reaffirming our firmness towards Russia when it attempts to destabilise our partners.

As Euronest co-president, I will do my utmost to live up to those ambitions and turn the commitments of the Eastern partnership and its parliamentary dimension into concrete deeds and achievements.

Speech at the open days workshop: “Eastern partnership territorial and parliamentary cooperation: revising the relations, implementing association agreements, 13 October 2015, Committee of the Regions, Brussels