Baku, Azerbaijan, 29 February 2016
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Thank you very much, Elmar.
Let me say that my first visit to Azerbaijan comes, as you said, at a very important moment in our relationship. We just had an open and very good discussion, not only with you but also with the President [Ilham Aliyev] today.
We exchanged views on a range of issues and also talked a lot about the future direction of our important relationship that we both consider as key. We didn't only discuss about things, but we also decided a certain number of steps on which our teams are going to follow-up on both sides. I will not mention them one by one, also not to spoil the news once we start to work concretely on them, but the number of fields on which we decided to follow-up our meetings today is relevant and consistent and allows me to say that the visit has been extremely productive. Now we have to make sure that the follow-up is productive as well.
We are looking, as you mentioned, to upgrade our relations and develop them to their full potential through a new bilateral agreement. I can announce that consultations for such an agreement have started with a view to the upcoming discussions with the EU Member States on a mandate for such agreement.
We share a difficult, challenging - sometimes promising, in any case complex - region, where Azerbaijan plays a key role, in particular given its borders with Turkey, Russia, Iran among others. We share an interest in the regional cooperation and we have discussed at length - both with the Foreign Minister and with the President - the current geopolitical challenges we face and the perspectives for cooperation in this respect that we both consider key.
We also spoke of the role that Azerbaijan plays as a bridge between cultures, a contribution that is particularly welcome and recognised in view of the challenges that we are facing in our common region and inside our societies as such.
I'm very pleased that Baku will be hosting the 7th Global Forum of the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations on 25-27 April. I'm also sure that Azerbaijan's contribution to the dialogue of cultures will be reflected in our future agreement because we believe that the experience and the nature of Azerbaijani society in this can be extremely valuable for Europe and for all.
Azerbaijan has also the potential to become one of the EU's major commercial partners in the region. The European Union is already Azerbaijan's main trading partner and one of the most important investors, and we work to expand these commercial ties in the near future.
In particular, Azerbaijan is a strategic partner with regard to European energy security. The Southern Gas Corridor plays a key role in EU's strategy to diversify our energy supply sources and transportation routes; Azerbaijan is crucial for the development of this project. The Southern Gas Corridor was defined as a key priority in the Council Conclusions, so by the European Council of Foreign Ministers, on energy diplomacy adopted last July, which confirmed that the European Union's foreign policy would give particular priority to partners and initiatives that are crucial for better diversification of the EU energy sources. This, as I mentioned this afternoon, is not only something that is relevant for the EU Member States that participate in the project, but for the European Union as such.
Today, I've addressed - together with President Aliyev and Commissioner Šefčovič - the Southern Corridor Advisory Council, an initiative to which - as the European Union - we attach a great value. It's more that energy diversification and EU energy security for us. And I would like to thank Azerbaijan for having arranged and hosted this Second meeting of the Advisory Council. For us, this is also about enlarging and deepening political, economic and social ties with all the partners involved in the project and building on a better regional connection.
Our commitment to implement the Southern Gas Corridor continues to be of utmost importance for the EU-Azerbaijan dialogue. But the European Union and Azerbaijan now also want to move forward in many different other areas of cooperation, working together as partners – as strong partners.
Today, we also discussed the ongoing economic situation, the need to adjust the Azerbaijani economy to the new reality of lower oil prices and slower regional growth, and the work undertaken by the authorities here in this respect. And we agreed on some further elements of cooperation in this respect that we will try to put in place as soon as possible. Moving forward in the WTO negotiations would be beneficial in this process, paving the way for an open and competitive business environment and further economic integration between the European Union and Azerbaijan. We agreed in general terms to strengthen our cooperation on the economic reforms that the authorities of Azerbaijan are putting in place to diversify the economy.
I stressed during our talks the high importance that the European Union attaches to the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression and association. Indeed, dialogue, understanding and peaceful engagement among different points of view is as important in relations between cultures as it is within them, and within our own societies. This is the story of the European Union. The European Union itself is firmly based on the notion that an open society is the best guarantee for long-term stability and prosperity, and we stress this point in our relations with all our close partners. In our discussion today, I invited the authorities to establish a new relationship of trust between the government and civil society at large, and in this context I also referred to a number of individuals presently in jail. Tomorrow I will meet with representatives of civil society.
We agreed that the Eastern Partnership remains the framework, the policy framework for our relationship. As you might know, the European Union has recently reviewed our Neighbourhood Policy, which has a special focus on the principle of differentiation, meaning that we recognise different situations, different agendas, different priorities, and we try to have tailor-made approaches to that. And I believe that the on-going consultations for a new agreement, a new bilateral agreement between Azerbaijan and the European Union are exactly a proof of this new approach.
As stated also by President Tusk during his visit last July, the EU supports the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Azerbaijan. The European Union and its Member States have not recognised Nagorno-Karabakh. The status quo, we believe, is unsustainable and the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains for us a top priority. We continue to support the mediation efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs. The European Union calls for the intensification of high-level talks towards peace. The conflict does not have a military solution and needs a political settlement in accordance with international law.
It is also important for us to create an enabling environment, in particular by refraining from actions on the ground and confrontational rhetoric that heighten tensions and undermine the peace process. The European Union supports the OSCE proposal aimed at creating an incident investigation mechanism, and we talked with the Minister at length about that, also in detailed terms, and I appreciate that very much.
The European Union will continue to bolster the efforts towards peace including through our Special Representative Herbert Salber, who was joining me during the meetings today, and is currently and always working on this for us. The European Union is always and also ready to further support peacebuilding activities and people-to-people contacts across the conflict divide. All that we can do in this respect, we will.
Finally, let me add that we had excellent exchanges today, but we need to continue. So it is my pleasure to invite the Minister to come to Brussels as soon as we find a suitable date, so that we can continue our work on the future of our relations and on the present of the steps we can take to build them even stronger.
Link to the video: http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I117263