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Perspectives on the Eastern Partnership in the context of the Vilnius Summit

Anförande i Stockholm, Sverige

It is a great pleasure to be here today.

The British parliament is a fabulous arena for debate, for politics in action and for the display of rhetorical skills.

Inspired by them, and having listened to Miroslav, I'm tempted to limit my intervention to just "hear hear". Because Sweden and Slovakia have a similar outlook on the Eastern Partnership, and on Europe.

We both want a continent without artificial dividing lines.

A continent where people, ideas, trade and investment can move more freely across increasingly irrelevant borders.

A continent where we share basic values such as democracy and human rights, and where people are prosperous, innovative and secure.

This is also the vision behind the Eastern Partnership: we in Europe are better off together.

And that was why, in 2008, together with my Polish colleague Radek Sikorski - and with strong support from Slovakia - I proposed to launch a new partnership between the EU and the countries of Eastern Europe.

The partnership was intended for the new neighbours of an enlarged EU: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Six countries in the eastern part of the European continent that gained independence with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

They did all - with varying degrees of determination and ambition - take up the offer, and the Eastern Partnership was finally launched at a summit in Prague in May 2009.

And together, we agreed that the partnership should promote a process of ever closer relations, based on a community of values.

Over the years, this vision has been repeatedly challenged.

Inside the EU, there is strong backing for the Eastern Partnership, but we sometimes differ in our level of ambition.

In the partner countries, public support for coming closer to EU norms and standards is strong, but vested interests often block or slow down necessary reforms.

We also face growing outside pressure directed against closer cooperation between the EU and the countries of Eastern Europe.

The Russian Federation seems intent on using all instruments at its disposal - both carrots and sticks - to persuade our partners to abandon their European path.

Moldovans, highly dependent on Russian gas, have been told that they might have to freeze this winter.

All over the region, new export barriers have suddenly been raised for sweets, meat, milk and wine intended for the Russian market.

And last week Armenia, after having successfully negotiated an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the EU for three years, suddenly announced its intention to join the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

This campaign is based on a zero-sum logic, quite alien to the win-win approach of both the EU and the Eastern Partnership.

Actually, Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas are fully compatible with Free Trade Agreements with other countries, and the EU supports the development of deeper trade ties among the CIS countries. Membership of a Customs Union, however, is a different matter.

As the EU, we must continue to be clear that it is the sovereign right of every country to choose its own path and which agreements to conclude.

Undue pressure from third parties is unacceptable.

Nevertheless, in November this year, almost five years after the launch of the Eastern Partnership, the third summit will take place in Vilnius.

Our intention is that it should herald the start of a new era in the EU's relations with Eastern Europe.

By then, we expect to have finalised Association Agreements, including Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas, with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

In principle, the same is true of the agreement with Armenia, but there we now have serious doubts. These agreements are of unprecedented scope and breadth.

They are the most ambitious agreements ever negotiated between the EU and non-candidate countries. They will serve to progressively integrate the partner countries into the EU internal market.

And they will intensify cooperation in agriculture, energy, research, education, tourism and the fight against crime, to name but a few areas.

The EU has also intensified its support to the reform processes in these countries (financial support in 2013 alone of almost EUR 600 million).

The benefits of the Eastern Partnership are obvious, although sometimes difficult to quantify.

The positive effects of travelling, of people-to-people contacts and of educational exchanges might be not be all that easy to transform into kronor, or euros or lei.

For trade and investment, it is clearer.

The new free trade areas will have a massive impact on the economic development of the partner countries, especially in the longer run.

The potential is huge.

The AAs/DCFTAs will increase the attractiveness of the Eastern Partnership countries as economic partners. Studies indicate that exports from Ukraine to the EU, for example, could double over time, through greater market access, as well as harmonised standards and regulations.

Ukrainian exporters, especially in the agricultural field, will save some EUR 500 million annually thanks to reduced EU import duties.

Also Georgia and Moldova stand to gain from increased trade opportunities.

Future investments are harder to forecast, but let me give you one or two examples to demonstrate the potential.

Swedish companies have to date invested more in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland separately than they have in all of the Eastern Partnership countries put together.

Surely, geographic proximity is one factor here, but common, stable and predictable rules and institutions are part of the picture.

And capitals such as Minsk and Kiev are in fact closer to Stockholm than Brussels.

Another illustration of the untapped potential is the fact that Swedish exports to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland grew by a staggering 74 per cent in the first four years after their accession to the EU in 2004.

If we manage to harness this potential, it will have a major positive effect for the people of Eastern Europe.

But economic growth, increased trade and stability would also create a win-win situation for countries in the larger region, including 'neighbours of the neighbours' such as Russia and Turkey.

So the potential is there.

But there is a need for some hard work for the promises of the Eastern Partnership to fully materialise.

Much remains to be done before the Vilnius summit, as well as in the subsequent implementation of the agreements.

Both the EU and the partner countries need to leave our respective comfort zones.

We in the EU must be ready to more fully embrace these European states and their citizens. We should also enhance our political, practical and financial support along the way.

The partner countries, for their part, must realise that the EU is not only a club for trade and big politics.

It is a civilisational choice.

A choice in favour of competitive politics and fully democratic elections.

And a choice in favour of the rule of law, of protection of minorities and of a vibrant, and sometimes bold, civil society.

Across the region, we need to see a much clearer commitment and more effective actions to strengthen respect for these common European values.

They are part and parcel of the Eastern Partnership. They are not optional.

Real European integration requires much more than nice words and reforms that only exist on paper. And, naturally, the criteria become stricter the closer a partner country moves towards the EU.

In recent years I have become concerned with signs of democratic backsliding in Ukraine, where electoral shortcomings, elective justice and a lack of reforms have led to a slowdown in the EU integration process.

Our aim for the Vilnius summit is to see a clear reversal of this trend, and thus be able to sign the Association Agreement - thereby making Ukraine the first partner to complete that step.

Georgia and Moldova share a high level of ambition in their relations with the EU.

Georgia has enacted impressive reforms over the last few years, in particular in its fight against corruption.

But the country must now improve its democratic credentials by managing the transfer of power, while avoiding the temptation to take excessive political revenge on the opposition.

Moldova is serious about its EU approximation and reforms.

It has made more progress than any other partner towards a future visa-free travel regime with the EU.

But at the same time, the recent political crisis showed that Moldova must work hard to depoliticise important state institutions.

As for Armenia, relations with the EU have been noticeably upgraded since the launch of the Eastern Partnership, but the latest U-turn in favour of Eurasian integration leaves us with a number of questions.

Azerbaijan has made it clear that its main interest in cooperation with the EU is areas such as energy and economic modernisation.

The impressive economic boom has not yet been accompanied with more civil freedom, and the up-coming elections in October this year will be closely monitored.

In Belarus, the longstanding EU demand for the release of all political prisoners has not been addressed. There are few signs of any meaningful reforms.

As a result, the EU has adopted sanctions and a policy of critical engagement.

I am also concerned with tendencies of growing intolerance towards minorities.

Across Eastern Europe, LGBT people face more discrimination, sometimes even enshrined in law.

This is very far from respect for European values and will have consequences if the trend is not reversed.

Sweden is fully committed to staying engaged, both inside the Union and through bilateral and regional support.

By the end of this year, the Government plans to adopt a new long-term strategy for development cooperation with the Eastern Partnership region.

This is in addition to the extensive support - currently under negotiation - that the EU is expected to contribute to the region in the period 2014-2020.

It is also my great pleasure to announce today that Sweden has decided to support the International Visegrad Fund, of which Slovakia is one of the founders, with SEK 1 million for 2013.

This contribution will be earmarked for projects in the Eastern Partnership area.

Looking ahead, the focus of the Eastern Partnership will be on implementing mutual commitments on trade, mobility, democracy and human rights.

At the same time, we need to start looking at what the next steps might be and to ask ourselves what kind of Europe we want to see tomorrow, and the day after that.

It is my deep conviction that we all have something to gain from ever deeper relations in Europe and that the door to the EU must remain open for any European country that wishes to join and that fulfils all the criteria.

In doing so, Sweden and Slovakia continue to be close partners. Thank you.

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