Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me start by thanking Azerbaijan for hosting this very important meeting, and President Aliyev and the participating countries for attending.
The value which we in the EU attach to this initiative of the Southern Gas Corridor is evident: both Maroš and I are here to take part in this meeting. The Southern Gas Corridor is an essential element in the EU's Energy Security Strategy, and energy diplomacy is a fundamental part of our work on Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
For the first time last July I chaired a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers where we adopted a set of conclusions and an Action Plan on energy diplomacy, in cooperation with Maroš, a result of a more coordinated work on external action. We agreed that the EU's foreign policy should give particular priority to those partners and initiatives which are crucial to further diversify our energy sources. The Southern Gas Corridor and the Caspian region are clearly part of our key priorities. So I come here with a well-defined mandate: we strongly support the Southern Gas Corridor, and we are determined - and me personally - to do our part to ensure that it is completed on time.
The Southern Gas Corridor is more than energy diversification and EU energy security for us. It is also about enlarging and deepening political, economic and social ties with a number of partners in a wider region that can contribute to its implementation: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Albania, of course the EU Members States linked directly with it – Greece, Italy and Bulgaria – and hopefully others from your Region and ours, namely in the Western Balkans. On behalf of the EU, I thank Azerbaijan for its driving role in taking this major regional project forward.
With my interlocutors here in Baku, I look forward to discussing how to take forward our relationship, not only in the field of energy. It is time for a new chapter in the relations between the EU and Azerbaijan. We need an all-round strategic partnership between us, and I am glad this is Azerbaijan’s vision, too. We both have much to gain from a closer relationship.
We have not always seen eye to eye in all matters, and we know that differences will remain between us in some areas. This is normal in international relations and often in European and even national politics. Our new Neighbourhood Policy takes into account that our priorities might differ: we listen to your expectations about our relationship, talk to you about our own expectations, and find the right balance between the two. This is the meaning of partnership among equals. Our differences must also be on the table: only if we speak frankly to one another, can we move our partnership to the next stage. The agreement on strategic partnership is our path to better communication and cooperation on our shared priorities. Because if differences are normal, we must keep in mind that our shared interests exceed by far our differences.
Developing further our trade in energy is certainly one of these shared priorities – and yet it is not the only one. Neither of us would benefit from a one dimensional partnership. I'm sure that our new agreement will be broad and comprehensive, covering a wide range of issues of shared interest. Many of these will be economic. While energy issues will remain at the heart of our economic relations for the foreseeable future, we are all well aware of the need to build on them – and aim higher. The fluctuations in the price of oil affect us all and remind us of the need to strengthen our economies to withstand these shocks.
Stronger ties between the EU and Azerbaijan will help the delivery of President Aliyev's "Vision 2020" – our shared priorities for cooperation include investing in human capital and unlocking its potential in all sectors of the economy, from agriculture to high-tech.
Along with our prosperity agenda, we also share a common interest in promoting security and stability. There is no real development in other fields without security. This is of course essential for the successful delivery of the Southern Gas Corridor and the smooth functioning of our trade in energy. We live in uncertain and difficult times, and in an uncertain and difficult region - even if with some important signs of hope - we cannot clearly take security or stability for granted.
Last November the EU published its revised European Neighbourhood Policy, following a long period of consultation with our partners and other stakeholders, including of course Azerbaijan. One outcome of that review was the decision to give greater emphasis to cooperation with our partners on security issues. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of security-related issues on our common agenda. They include the fight against terrorism and radicalisation. Azerbaijan is a secular state with a majority Muslim population and a tradition of diversity. It is an important example in the immediate region and a strong partner for the EU in this respect.
Of course, the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict poses a serious risk for the stability of the region. The EU will keep working towards a fair and sustainable peaceful solution, which would enable the South Caucasus region to realise its full potential as a gateway between Europe and Asia. A role that both Europe and Asia would welcome and in fact need, I'm times of crises that can be solved only through dialogue and multilateralism, and in times of global economic opportunities and commercial activities.
We all live in difficult times: in the world, in our shared region and at home. We all work for our own societies to manage political tensions through peaceful means. I have always believed that a healthy democratic debate can only help the stability and the security of a country. Participation, empowerment of economic and social actors, all this can contribute immensely to the resilience and wellbeing of our societies, of our countries and also our partnership.
Today we discuss energy. We need political will, financial consistency, to concretely move forward together. Starting from today, we can broaden the scope of our cooperation and move forward. I look forward to engaging with the energy community: together we can make sure this is a win-win relationship, a relation that delivers, based on shared interests as much as on friendship.