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First of all, thank you for the opportunity, thank you for a very kind introduction.
Thank you very much for your presence here today and apologies for the delay, but we started already this morning with a full list of bilateral meetings. I guess that this is how the European Union also exercises its global role.
Thanks to Singapore for hosting such a relevant meeting in these days. We are literally on the other side of the world compared to Europe, and even if I know that there are European students in this room and I know that the links among universities and centres of studies are very intense, geographically we are on the other side of the world.
At a first glance, Singapore and the European Union may seem to have very little in common. Apparently, a city-state and a continental Union do not have much to share. But I believe the opposite is true. Although we are incredibly far apart geographically, we stand on the same side of global politics. We both believe that international disputes should be settled peacefully, through diplomacy and dialogue.
We share an interest to make international trade both free and fair. We are both perceived as honest brokers in international negotiations, we are reliable, credible, predictable and consistent partners on the global stage. In a very confused moment for global politics, the European Union and Singapore are somehow natural partners. And I believe we must invest in this partnership, because we do not only share the same values, but many of the same interests.
Peace and stability in this part of the world matters to Europe. There are 12.000 European businesses which have made a home here in Singapore. The European Union is the second largest trading partner for South-East Asia after China, and we are by far the largest foreign investor in ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries.
I know the European Union may appear as slow and complex. By the way, complexity is part of life. So, let me say, this is even an asset, being complex ourselves, we are well positioned to understand and manage complexity wherever we find it in the world, and we find quite some complexity in the world of today. Sometimes indeed, we do take our time to take decisions, to go through our procedures with 28 [Member States], but sometimes we are also fast.
I can give you the example of one of our military operations – EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia - that is active in the Mediterranean; it was established in less than one month, from the moment when we took the decision to the moment our assets were at sea with military men and women acting under the European Union flag.
But in any case, in a world that is terribly unpredictable and "un-strategic", you can count on us as a predictable and reliable partner, always. In a nutshell, it might be complex, it might sometimes take time, but with the European Union, you know what you get. And this is good - I think - for both the European Union and our partners.
We have a clear interest in peace, security and economic growth on this side of the world. A peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific is an economic opportunity for the European Union as well. So, we are looking to get more engaged with Singapore and with this region. If you look at all we have done in recent years, the direction of our work is very clear, as certified by the number of contacts.
To give you just a few examples based on my personal experience of these last three years and half of my mandate, we hold regular Summits with our four Asian Strategic Partners. I am myself on my 16th mission to Asia since the beginning of my mandate, at the end of 2014.
And our bilateral trade agreement is now finalised, and the goal of getting it signed is coming closer.
Singapore – I say Singapore because I know that many of you in this room are not from Singapore themselves, which is in itself a testimony of how open and international this place is, which is a value that we also share - will be the first country in South-East Asia to get free access to the largest market in the world, the European Union one. We also plan to sign a free-trade agreement with Vietnam before the end of this year, and we hope Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and others will follow soon. We have also increased our engagement with ASEAN as a whole, as an organisation, and indeed the whole of Asia. Only few weeks ago, we signed the biggest free-trade agreement ever with Japan – linking closely the second and the fourth economies in the world.
Let me say this very clearly, trade wars have no winners, they only have losers. On the contrary, a good agreement can bring benefits to both sides – a true win-win solution. And in the European Union, we do believe in win-win solutions. They are the only sustainable solutions to our problems in the world.
But our cooperation - in particular with this part of Asia but with Asia in general - is not only about trade. As I am amongst students, let me mention that we are financing an exchange programme called “Share”, to give students in this part of the world the same opportunities that our European students enjoy thanks to our Erasmus programme. I was an Erasmus student myself, I can witness, testimony the fact that it is probably the most successful European Union project ever initiated and I am looking forward to another decade of successful Erasmus but also other students' and researchers' exchange programs outside of the European Union. For us, these are key elements of our people to people contacts and developing understanding for the world.
Here in Singapore, you have built the strength of this country on the internal diversity, and the openness to the world. Cultural and economic exchanges have made Singapore strong. So whenever you will seek to expand such cultural and economic exchanges, you will be able to count on the European Union as your partner and as your friend. The European Union is always ready to invest in this openness, exchanges, links.
We have learned from our history that this was the way to overcome difficulties in the past: to invest in our diversity and accept it as a point of strength.
The European Union's engagement in this region is not new and it is here to stay. One of our first security missions abroad was back in 2005, a monitoring mission to accompany the peace process in Aceh, Indonesia, that we launched back then. Since then, our security cooperation with South-East Asia has grown much stronger and we are working to accompany peace processes; I just mentioned Myanmar as the most recent and probably striking example of our times; we are working together with Vietnam and Australia on maritime security; and we took part in military exercises with ASEAN.
So just to mention a few examples: I know that the European Union is perceived as mainly an economic and trade player, but we are expanding our role also in the security domain, not only the hard, traditional security, but also the non-traditional security field from cyber, to maritime, to hybrid threats.
As I said, I know that when you think of the European Union you see economic power, but you do not see us as a military power. That is natural. Europe's soft power has always been strong and it is here to stay. But taken together, our Member States have the second largest military budget in the world. This is a number that does not come to your minds often, but if you take the EU Member States' budget on defence and military we are, indeed, the second military power in the world.
And over the last couple of years, in the European Union, we have taken historic, unprecedented steps so that European Union Member States can invest together in their defence budgets and be a more effective and more powerful, I would say, global security provider.
At the same time, we will keep our European way to defence and security, which means that we know that sometimes you might need military means, but military means alone would never be sufficient to solve any of the crises of our times. We will never use our military strength to threaten or to impose anything. The more dangerous our work becomes, the more we will invest in international cooperation, in the protection of international law and in multilateralism. This is our way to security. This is what I often call sustainable security: invest, yes, in the hard core, but also on human rights, the rule of law, democracy, cooperation and multilateralism. This is the European way.
It is the result, I would say, of the lessons we have learned from our history. The European Union was born when Europeans that were fighting each other for thousands of years - sometimes exporting war to the world - realised that it was much more convenient to make business together rather than to fight each other. It was as simple as that at the beginning and it proved to be quite successful, because we have become the most developed economic part of the world with a certain level of respect of rights, from socio-economic to political rights, that has probably not precedent or parallel in the world.
We stand clearly on one side. We stand on the side of a more cooperative global order, all of us. We stand on the side of international rules, including on delicate issues such as the South China Sea. This is our culture and this is our interest. Take the case of North Korea. For years - even when this was not so common – we have been pushing for two things: the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula as the only way to bring peace and stability to that part of the world and we also said that denuclearisation has to be complete, verifiable and irreversible and that this has to be achieved through dialogue and diplomacy in a peaceful manner. This was our position years ago, this is our current position and this will continue to be our position in the months and years ahead, we are quite consistent on this.
The Singapore Summit on 12 June, has generated, I believe, great hopes all across the world and I am very grateful to Singapore for the commitment to peace and to diplomacy that we share. I believe we have a collective duty now to accompany the negotiations in all possible ways just like Singapore did by hosting the Summit. For this reason, we Europeans will continue with our policy of critical engagement with North Korea. This means that we combine sanctions and pressure with open channels of communication. That is how you make a good deal. We are now doing all we can as Europeans, but also together with our international partners around the world, to preserve the nuclear deal with Iran and we will work with our partners all around the world so that legitimate business with Iran can continue. We are doing so, because the deal is good for our collective security and for our European security, but also to serve the principle that international agreements must be respected once they are achieved - by all.
We may be an imperfect union - nothing is perfect I am afraid - but you will always know where we stand and you will always know you can count on us. Our unity, our strength, our reliability, are assets, as far as I see it, not just for Europeans, but for the whole world. This is who we are as a global actor and I see the demand for a partnership with the European Union in these months much stronger than in previous years. I understand why: a credible, reliable, consistent partner for the rest of the world, for Asia in particular, and an indispensable partner in a global world in a moment of global confusion.
And I believe that Europe and Asia are global partners for global challenges, but also for getting the best out of global opportunities that are there. This is also the theme of the Summit of Asian and European leaders, which we have the honour to host in October in Brussels.
So, we are looking forward to working even more closely together. And let me say that we are counting on the energy, the vision, the strength and the brightness of a younger generation that across Asia and Europe, I know, is very much ready to work together in a global manner. I thank you very much.