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Ladies and gentlemen, professors and students,
Thank you for having me today at the Tbilisi State University.
I would like to focus this speech on three main issues, which are of concern to all of us today:
The challenges we face in Europe;
The opportunities and potential that our Eastern Partnership offers;
And, in particular, the new impetus in the relations between the EU and Georgia.
Europe today has three major priorities.
First and foremost, restoring economic growth; second, addressing its security challenges and, third, tackling the current migration crisis.
In 2008/9 Europe was hit by the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s. Unemployment rose sharply. Growth rates plunged. This profound crisis required urgent action and deep reforms. Only now are we starting to see some positive trends.
Eight years on, Ireland has come through a painful banking crisis. Latvia has turned around its negative growth. Greece is undertaking significant structural adjustments.
Focus has been on innovation to increase investment in research and development. This is and will remain vital to Europe's competitiveness in the global economy.
Throughout the crisis Europe has continued to attract investment through its fundamental values and public accountability.
As a whole, the EU is growing again. And not only that, we also continue to be the world's largest single market.
With only 7% of the world's population, we are the world's largest economy and trading bloc, representing around 20% of the world's GDP and share of global trade.
Today 40% of foreign direct investment flows across the globe come from the EU.
Security is a global challenge. There is a widespread sense of insecurity. Following attacks in Brussels and Paris, Berlin and Istanbul, our citizens are demanding a response. Tackling terrorism is a top priority. We also need to combat cyber threats and fight organised crime.
Migration is now a major issue. There are 64m displaced people across the world of these 25m are refugees. People are fleeing their countries, notably Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, to seek a better future in Europe.
We are working hard in the EU to address these challenges. The measures we have put in place are slowly bearing fruit. The economy is now regaining positive momentum. Security has been stepped up across the continent. A common EU-wide approach to migration is now being shaped.
The way we are addressing these issues is also relevant for how we jointly structure our partnership with Georgia and with all our Eastern neighbours.
The Eastern Partnership is the key framework of our relations bringing together the countries of the EU and our neighbours to the East, including Georgia. The partnership is based on an inclusive approach and a common agenda.
The challenges we face together are similar.
Citizens across the Eastern Partnership countries aspire to economic development and greater prosperity. To achieve this, all six countries are facing similar challenges as the EU in terms of structural reforms.
We support these reforms, which aim at diversifying and modernising the economies and addressing gaps in financial infrastructures.
To promote economic development, an effective and professional public administration is key. Strong institutions and good governance are essential to fight against corruption. This is the best way to serve citizens and businesses. In this respect, engagement with civil society and free media is key.
Connectivity and energy efficiency are also central to economic development. Our joint focus here is to better connect the core transport and energy networks.
Within the Eastern Partnership we are also proposing concrete measures to stimulate mobility and people to people contacts. It is important that we regularly exchange experiences to maximise the potential opportunities of our cooperation and to face together our common challenges.
In the framework of these key areas, the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels this November will be an excellent opportunity to take stock of progress made and chart the way forward.
What does this mean in concrete terms for our relations with Georgia?
I have been truly impressed by Georgia's commitment to reforms.
Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the EU in 2014. This has been and will continue to be a very ambitious transformation path for Georgia's –legal system, the governance system, the judiciary, the public administration.
The impact of its implementation is already starting to become visible.
Today the European Union is Georgia's main trading partner (accounting for over 30% of all Georgia's trade. Georgia's exports to the EU increased by 16% in 2015.
The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) has the potential to boost trade and economic growth even further.
In the first year of implementation of the DCFTA we have seen how the number and range of Georgia's export to the EU are increasing. From Georgian kiwis, blueberries, nuts, garlic and wine, copper and petroleum oils.
Georgia can now start exporting honey while first Georgian wool exports have already reached the UK market.
Again in the context of the DCFTA, Georgia has adopted over 7,000 European standards in the areas of health, safety and environmental protection. This will result in better quality products not only for export markets, but also for Georgian consumers. Higher standards also mean better air quality and safety on roads.
The economic benefits of this are clear.
Georgia is building its economic resilience by conducting key economic reforms which unlock the potential for the development of small and medium enterprises. The EU is here to help Georgian businesses along the way: hundred companies have already received technical advice thanks to EU support, info centres on EU trade are being set up in the regions, and EU-backed credit lines will provide finance to Georgian SMEs.
We are also focused on making a direct and positive impact on the lives of Georgian citizens. We have supported Georgia's efforts to establish public service outlets outside of the main cities.
Over 30 Community Centres have been set up across the country to offer a number of administrative and other services. This has made life easier for many people in rural areas who don't need to travel long distances anymore to get their pension, a new ID or a permit to open a business.
Enhanced connectivity is also important. Georgia is at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. The East-West Highway and the Southern Gas Corridor are important examples of our cooperation.
With regards to security, the European Union has greatly appreciated Georgia's support in a number of peace-keeping missions. We are also proud of the work of the European Monitoring Mission along the administrative boundary lines.
Following Prime Minister Kvirikashvili's call at the EU-Georgia Association Council last December for a security dialogue, we look forward to strengthening our cooperation in this area.
Achieving visa-free travel for Georgia is a top priority for the government. Georgia has fulfilled all its obligations under the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan as the European Commission confirmed recently. This is truly a success.
I am glad to see the process on visa-liberalisation is going forward so that the citizens of Georgia can enjoy this well-deserved benefit already this spring.
Visa-free travel is important for generating enhanced mobility. It will complement the success of Erasmus+ Programme in Georgia, which is in its most successful year until now. Already over 1000 Georgians have gone to EU countries on exchange and Georgia's higher education institutions are benefiting from a record number of partnerships.
Improved quality of higher education in turn will support our efforts of establishing a well-educated and skilled workforce to support further economic modernisation and growth. Higher rates of employment, innovative jobs, increased international trade are but a few of the benefits that this will bring.
Moving forward, the EU will continue to support Georgia through the implementation of the Association Agenda and DCFTA with over €100 million per year.
Last December the European Union and Georgia also agreed on the short and medium priorities and this will allow us to focus our cooperation based on a common agenda.
In conclusion, the EU and Georgia stand side by side. Georgia's reform efforts so far demonstrate the determination of Georgian citizens to address the key challenges we all face. Together we can build on this determination to continue to extend the benefits of the European path to all Georgians.
Thank you for your attention.