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Thank you, Mr President [of Uzbekistan, Mr Shavkat Mirziyoyev].
Thank you Ministers, Excellences, friends,
It is indeed a pleasure to be here with you, and for me personally to be for the first time in this beautiful city of Samarkand. UNESCO, in its World Heritage list, calls Samarkand a "Crossroads of cultures" – and it is hard to find a better description for this place.
Let me start from far away back in time. This city lies on the most ancient global trade route. But, as we well know, it has never been only about trade; it is about civilisation and people. About eight centuries ago a merchant from Venice, my compatriot Marco Polo, came to Samarkand and described it in his Book of the Marvels of the World. He was struck not only by the beauty of this city, that we can still admire: its mosques and gardens, but most of all he was struck by its diversity.
Central Asia has always been a crossroad between Europe, Russia and the Far East. A place where different peoples, cultures and religions lived side by side. And I believe this is even more true today, and even more important today. The Silk Road is not just a memory of the past, but one of the most important global infrastructure projects. Europe and the five Asian countries are closer than ever. Your neighbourhood is our own neighbourhood. Events in Afghanistan or in the Middle East are as important for us as they are for you. Your security is clearly linked to our security.
The world is changing, and this region is changing as well. Free elections and peaceful transitions of power are becoming a more regular feature. You have become independent and stronger – a partner for the East and for the West, and not the chessboard for some Great Game among empires. And throughout this change, the partnership between Central Asia and the European Union has grown stronger – both regionally and with each of your countries. In fact, it has never been stronger than today. And I would like to thank in particular the Government and the people of Uzbekistan for the hospitality, for the invitation, and for the excellent series of meetings we will have today. And I am very pleased and honoured to see all the Foreign Ministers of the five countries of Central Asia with whom we will have today our annual European Union-Central Asia ministerial meeting. As always, a very important opportunity to turn our friendship into concrete cooperation.
I would like to focus in particular on three issues where we have achieved a lot, and where we see much room for greater progress.
First, the European Union and Central Asia are partners for change. I give you one example: we have supported Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan on their way to join the World Trade Organisation, and we hope we can do the same for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Central Asia can be the gateway between Europe and the Far East, but it is also in itself also a young and growing market of 70 million people. EU companies are keen to invest here, to the benefit of both Central Asia and Europe, and improving the business environment is an interest we share.
But this isn't just about business, as it wasn't just about the trade route. Diversity and pluralism are written in this region's history, and there is no reason to fear them, be it on Central Asian territory, in Europe or elsewhere. On the contrary, diversity and pluralism can only make our States and our societies stronger. With independent media, an open space for civil society, human rights for all, institutions are more credible, States more resilient in times of crisis – and you know that we are crossing times of crisis - and economies are more solid and attractive. This is another interest we share.
A partnership for change is a partnership for innovation, for research and for human growth. It is a pleasure to see – for me personally - that our youth is already seizing the opportunities of our partnership. Since 2015, - not even two years - thousands of Central Asian researchers and students have had the chance to work and study inside the European Union. I think this is the most solid basis for our partnership, in the present and in the future.
Second, we are partners for development. In fact, the European Union is the largest development partner for Central Asia – as well as the largest development donor worldwide and in your neighbourhood, including Afghanistan. And we will remain so. Our assistance is focusing on citizens' and governments' main priorities: very concrete and tangible things, such as health, education and rural development.
I know that the global economic slowdown has hit many of your citizens hard – in particular poor families who often depend on income sent home from abroad. I am Italian, I know the feeling. We have all been countries of migrants at some time. I know that this has hit hard, but overall, if you look over the past decade, poverty in this region has declined substantially, thanks to good national policies and international cooperation. Most people in Central Asia are living healthier and longer lives than in the past. Women and children are more protected than before. Yet we know that full equality is a continuous process, and our cooperation on this must never slow down.
Let me add that in our European experience, regional integration has contributed immensely to our economic growth. Actually, the European Union was started out of the simple idea after the Second World War that making business together and economic cooperation was much more convenient for our people than making war. It's a very simple principle, very simple idea, that has been proven right.
But the choice about integration and cooperation in this region belongs to you and you only. But should you decide – and it seems to me that you are deciding this - to follow this path, it is important that you know that the European Union is not only ready and willing to share our experience and expertise on this but to support the region and each of you on its cooperative choices with all our means; our means are not irrelevant and are many. We can also help each other to find together collective answers to global issues: climate change, the environment, water and energy management. Most of the challenges we face go far beyond national borders, so cooperation – both regional and international - has become a must. We are with you in any choice for regional cooperation and integration that you are ready to take.
And this is particularly true on security issues. So – third and finally – we are also partners for security. Because we share the same security interests. I will mention a few of them.
Preserving the Iran nuclear deal [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]: a major achievement of European and international multilateral diplomacy, that is delivering, and the European Union will make sure it will continue to be fully implemented by all in all its parts.
Working for peace, security and prosperity in Afghanistan. Supporting the peace and reconciliation process with an Afghan-led and –owned process, with the support not only of the European Union and the international community, but with what I believe has to be a regional support.
Addressing the issue of radicalisation of our youth, that has different paths in this region and in Europe, but brings us together in the need for searching effective measures to prevent it and to manage the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters.
These are all interests in the field of security that we share - and we could continue with a long list - on which we will only deliver through regional and international cooperation. And our common work on security reflects this situation.
We are strong partners inside the UN system, at a moment when the United Nations is increasingly put into question. I want to be very clear on this: we, as the European Union – but I am sure, together – we will continue to be the strongest supporters of the UN system, because we believe that with multilateralism and with a more cooperative norms-based global order, we are all better off. We believe in cooperation, globally and regionally. We hold an annual High-Level Political and Security Dialogue, recently in Bishkek; we support your work on border management, and we are substantially involved in the ongoing reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
So, cooperation, for us, is the only way to tackle these kind of threats – and we are ready to work even more closely together, for instance – as I mentioned – on radicalisation and on monitoring foreign terrorist fighters. For instance, just a few months ago, we took the decision to extend our network of counter-terrorism and security experts also to the European Union embassies in Central Asia.
We live in complex and dangerous times – and probably in the most delicate moment since the end of the Cold War. Still, in a region like this, I see even more opportunities to take, than threats to tackle. Opportunities for connectivity and economic growth; opportunities for greater security and regional cooperation; opportunities for human development, both in Europe and in Central Asia.
You live at the crossroad – not only of continents – but also of our era. From this part of the world, I think it is clear that it is partnership, not isolation, not confrontation, that is the only effective answer to the challenges of our times, and also the only way to benefit from the opportunities of our times.
So, let us invest in our partnership, for our own interest, for a more peaceful and secure region and world. You know you can always count on us, on the European Union, to be the strong, cooperative, reliable partner the dangerous and complex world of today needs. You can always count on us in Central Asia and beyond.
Link to the video: http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I146253