It’s a pleasure to address this Eastern Partnership Civil Society Assembly today.
Your meeting takes place two weeks ahead of our Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels - an opportunity for political leaders and governments to boost reform efforts and drive forward the recovery and resilience of our societies.
When I say ‘society’, I mean all of you working in ‘civil society’.
You - representing hundreds of civil society organisations - will devote the coming days to scrutinising the proposals for the post-2020 agenda of our Eastern Partnership. And your commitment is crucial to delivering on the necessary and expected progress in many critical areas. Political cooperation, economic recovery, and, of course, democratic reforms. This must generate concrete benefits for all citizens in all our countries and in our Partnership as a whole.
Neighbours are always important. If we want peace, stability and prosperity, we must work with our neighbours. History has taught us this lesson. And our Eastern Partnership has been a testament to this simple truth for over 12 years. We have advanced our partnership in spite of challenges ranging from economic crises to armed conflicts and the COVID pandemic. And important progress has been made - improving electoral frameworks, reforming administrations, fostering the independence of the judiciary, and prosecuting corruption.
But we all know, challenges remain. In tackling those, we insist and we persist. Strengthening democracy, fighting corruption, defending the rule of law, guaranteeing a free media, and countering disinformation - this is an uphill battle, but an essential and a worthy battle.
It’s all our responsibility. And you - civil society - have played, and are playing, a crucial role. You must continue to step forward and make your voices heard.
Today, Belarus is of particular concern, where so many people suffer from oppression and where civil society is under enormous pressure. The EU has stood steadfast, united in our support for the Belarusian population and their desire for democratic change. We have provided substantial financial support to civil society, journalists, independent media and we are imposing sanctions on those responsible for falsifying elections, spreading violence and repression.
Most recently, the Belarus regime has also taken steps to instrumentalise the most vulnerable in every society - migrants - under horrific conditions. We are responding firmly. The EU’s fifth package of sanctions is about to be agreed and we are considering further action. Our message to the Belarusian people is clear: we will not let you down. Our comprehensive economic support for a democratic Belarus - up to three billion euro - is our strong European commitment to support a better future and the democratic choice of the Belarusian people.
Prolonged conflicts in the region remain a fundamental challenge. They require renewed efforts in line with the principles and norms of international law. The EU stands ready to play its role to help prevent and resolve conflict. This includes building confidence and contributing to lasting and comprehensive settlements - including support for post-conflict rehabilitation measures.
The relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan show the fragility of the situation. I am totally convinced that only political dialogue can lead to a sustainable settlement. It will also require civil society in Armenia and Azerbaijan to come together, to build bridges and to help in reconciliation efforts.
In Georgia, we need to follow through with the identified reforms with coherence and credibility and in respect of fundamental values and in support of credible institutions. If we lose ground in these key areas, we risk losing it elsewhere, too.
Our Eastern Partnership must live up to the unique challenges of our time - most of all climate change. And we need to tackle these challenges together - including through deeper sectoral and regional cooperation. The EU will support all initiatives to create more synergies and cooperation between partners - including the three associated partners; Georgia, the Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine.
This will help address the common challenges and pave the way for sustainable growth and political stability, using all existing instruments to support their societies, as they pursue their European aspirations, and foster coordination between the partners and Brussels. This also includes the respective association agendas with the European Union, and this should lead to the sharing of best practices on reforms and on a broader agenda for the future.
Civil society has a critical role in holding governments accountable and clearing the way towards this European future. The new proposed agenda for our post-2020 Eastern Partnership focuses on recovery, resilience and reform. It is underpinned by an ambitious economic and investment plan, mobilising over two billion euro to support the post-pandemic recovery.
Our fundamental values, human rights, rule of law and democratic accountability, gender equality, and support to youth will remain cornerstones of our future partnership. EU support will remain conditional on these fundamental principles. And of course I would like to thank you, the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and all of you for your valuable contributions to this renewed agenda.
Civil society is a crucial link between governments and citizens. Civil society - all of you in this room - promotes with deep commitment citizens’ rights and aspirations for our societies, respecting human rights and the rule of law, fighting corruption, overcoming discrimination, and celebrating the freedom of expression and assembly. These values define who we are. They are the best investment for a prosperous, just, and sustainable future.
The Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum will continue to be a vital partner on this path and I count on your commitment, in the interests of our citizens and in the interests of our societies. And I look forward to your recommendations from this Assembly in the run-up to our Summit. Thank you.