Dear Mr. Kasemets,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
When Estonia set out to prepare for the incoming Presidency of the Council of the European Union, we had a clear timeline ahead of us. The first half of the 2018 had a set agenda, and as you all know, for Eastern Partnership, it was supposed to be post-Summit presidency.
Dwight D. Eisenhower has famously said “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”
In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum in the UK, Estonian presidency was pushed forward by six months. This also meant that during our Presidency we will have both the challenge and opportunity to put EaP high on EU agenda and strengthen it, which has been a priority for the Estonian foreign policy.
The pragmatic Estonian mind took this challenge and opportunity with can-do attitude. First – we decided that the Eastern Partnership needed more all-European attention. This is why we are meeting for the Summit in Brussels this year, not in Tallinn or Tartu.
On the substance, we looked where we could add value as Presidency, at our strengths and the things that have been most useful for Estonia in our transformation process. Without a doubt, the red thread in the Estonian progress is that we have relied heavily in building up our competence in the digital sphere.
So logically, vast majority that we undertake as Presidency will be in one way or another connected to digital. Be it in the economy, governance, management of resources or the environment, even in higher education and mobility of people.
We are very proud of our close relationship with the partners and of the work that we are doing together. So naturally, we have been eager to hear what our partners’ expectations are. This is why I have undertaken to visit all the Eastern Partnership capitals before the Summit. So far, I have managed four countries out of six, just recently returning from Baku and Yerevan.
Eastern Partnership has proven to be a flexible format. It has changed since its inception eight years ago. Circumstances change.
What counts is what we make of the circumstances.
In closely cooperating with the Partners, we certainly have had our own experiences in mind. In the early 1990ies our countries had very similar starting position – challenges and problems as far as the eye could reach: run-down infrastructure, ineffective governance, environmental problems, out-dated educational system. The civil society was very active, but not overly effective.
We, much like you decided not to be defined by these problems, but looked at ways to change. It was impossible to know, if the reform path we chose would yield results or would turn out to be a fool’s errand.
Europe at that time was for us a distant dream, but also a model. We devised plans that would improve life for ordinary people – schoolchildren, working people, businesses, the academia. Though the reforms were difficult at times, today – through trial and error – we can count some successes.
What have we achieved
But let’s look at some of the successes in the countries represented here. After all, there is much to be proud of and making these achievements known to the wider public is good for the Eastern Partnership in general. There is a lot going on – the Commission and External Action Service just published a week ago a list of 20 deliverables to be achieved for 2020 and the document is 50 pages long!
The Republic of Moldova was the first country to make significant progress under the Partnership. Moldovans were the first to be able to travel to the European Union and Schengen Area without a visa. This reform progress now needs to be sustained for the stability of the country and for the benefit of the people.
Along with Georgia, the Republic of Moldova was the first to sign and implement a new form of an Association Agreement with the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area attached to it. This Agreement gives the basis for the further approximation of laws and standards to the European Union, which in turn will help to create a more attractive environment for businesses. It has already provided for new trade opportunities, but more can be done to improve the capacity of businesses to reap further benefits.
Georgia – since its Rose Revolution has made a clear choice of European principles and values. Most notably, there is significant progress in the area of good governance, justice and fundamental rights, internationalisation of the higher education.
This year, the reform efforts of the Georgian Government and people materialised in the visa free travel for Georgian citizens. Georgia is also important partner on security and defence for the EU, participating in EU operations and missions.
For Ukraine, the circumstances have been perhaps most demanding. We will soon have a EU-Ukraine summit, a good timing to mark the end of two long processes – ratification of the Association Agreement and realisation of visa freedom. Steering a large and diverse country towards unified goal and through difficult reforms is not an easy task, at any time. It is especially difficult when a portion of the country is occupied and illegally annexed, and fighting is ongoing.
I have stressed Visa-free travel on three occasions here. It might sound like a victory of the technocrats, but that could not be further from the truth. We here, in Estonia can vividly remember standing in line for the Finnish visa. Those fortunate enough to be able to travel further, remember endless passport controls at various borders, each with a different visa.
Mobility of people is the mobility of ideas and dreams. It allows us to understand each other better, and teaches us to be more informed, more responsible and also more demanding citizens.
The Association Agreements provide a blueprint for European reform. They are a firm statement – this country aspires to look beyond its current circumstances and to transform its society, economy, its legal system to become increasingly European. Estonia has been and will be a firm supporter of our partners European aspirations and efforts on the path of European integration. Through constant and tireless work, window of opportunity may open again to realise the ultimate goals.
Eastern Partnership is not a “one size fits all” solution. As the different partners have different goals and level of ambition, there is a tailor-made approach to each of them.
But the partners have much to offer each other, too. The associated partners can share best practices on the implementation of the Association Agreements. Trade relations between Belarus and Ukraine, for example or infrastructure projects between Azerbaijan and Georgia have their natural “home” in the Eastern Partnership agenda.
What are we doing together
We know here, in Estonia how difficult and unpopular certain reforms can be. This is why we have committed ourselves to sharing with you our own experiences. Not so that we would tell you what to do, but so that you might learn from our successes, but also from our mistakes.
The majority of means in our cooperation budget is dedicated to projects and programs in your countries. Here are just a few examples of what we are doing together.
In Moldova we worked with the government to set up an electronic monitoring system for the implementation of national strategies and actions plans, and helped with the digitalisation of court archives; on improving chances to participate in the higher education; better access to quality health care
In Georgia we have contributed to e-governance know-how transfer from Estonia to Georgia; encouraged start-ups through the Garage48; and improving education system.
In Ukraine we have worked on communication; e-governance; start-ups; vocational training; and various projects connected to IDPs.
The list goes on Ladies, and Gentlemen, but you see a pattern. Our aim is to help you to use our experience as a short-cut to your success.
Way ahead to the Summit
As a final point, a few words on the Presidency plans before the Summit. We will organise three ministerial meetings in Tallinn – in the area of Justice and Home Affairs, on Transportation and on Digital Economy.
However, as the partnership is not only about government-to-government cooperation, we will also host two Summit side events – the EaP Civil Society Conference and the EaP Business Forum. As a special Presidency event, we will also hold a conference on e-services, cyber security and e-democracy, called the e-Partnership Conference.
We have also encouraged Estonian Ministries to invite participants from Partner countries to relevant expert meetings, which originally were conceived for the EU28 only.
So we are committed to making the Summit a success. We want it to highlight the hard work we have done together, and to give focus for the work ahead. Your active involvement in setting this agenda has been most helpful.
Planning is everything, if we keep our focus – all we do under this partnership is aimed at bringing practical benefits for the people. It is also about stability in Europe and resilience of our partner countries against pressures – both external and internal. At the time when conflicts on our partners’ territories are far from resolved, we need to keep EU’s focus on the region, keep Eastern Partnerhsip up to date to the challenges and support the sovereign choice and territorial integrity of each and every partner.