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Honourable Minister, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all again to the celebration of Europe day.
Last year at the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, I highlighted the long and lasting achievements of the European Union for all its citizens. Peace and Democracy, the protection of individual rights, social assistance, advanced health and education systems, freedom of movement to mention just a few.
At the same time the EU has developed itself to become the largest and most important trading partner in the world, creating new opportunities for enterprises and promoting and exporting our safeguards and standards, be they social or environmental, data protection or food safety requirements.
But I didn't hide the fact that the EU was also confronted with serious challenges:
- the global recession;
- Unchecked migration flows
- Spread of populist and nationalist movements questioning the very values on which we founded and developed the European Union
- Impact of Brexit on the future of the EU.
Where do we stand today?
Starting with the economy, we are now in the sixth year of an economic recovery that has benefitted every single Member State. Unemployment is at a nine year low and 8 Mio jobs have been created since 2015. Public deficits have been brought down from 6.6% to 1.6%. Ten years after the economic crisis, Europe's economy is firmly on the road to recovery. At the same time we have strengthened the European trade agenda to create more jobs and offer new opportunities to Europe's businesses. We are delighted to have concluded a Trade agreement with Canada. We have a political agreement with Japan on a new partnership; important progress has been made with India towards the finalisation of an FTA. We are hopeful of soon the same with concluding similar deals with Mexico and the main South American economies. At a time when the world is faced with the menace of trade wars and reopening of multilateral trade agreements, the EU has reinforced its position as the leading global advocate of free trade and the international system.
Turning towards security, we believe that we must continue to do more to protect our citizens and ensure peace and security within and beyond its borders. We are therefore increasing our efforts on common defence, cyber-security, counterterrorism, police cooperation, energy, security and ensuring the freedom of strategic communications. Considerable progress has been made with the adoption of a common Defence and Security policy with new capabilities, tools and structures. The EU wants to be ready to respond to external conflicts and crises through both civilian and military crisis management working closely with our partners, in particular the United Nations and NATO. On the issue of migration, the EU has made real progress in stemming the irregular flows of migrants. While the fight against illegal migration has been stepped up, we remain strongly committed to keep open our doors towards genuine asylum seekers. Last year alone our Member States resettled or granted asylum to over 720.000 refugees. And we are the leading provider of financial support to developing countries – providing half of the world’s development assistance, helping them to better provide for their own citizens and reducing the incentives to seek a better life elsewhere.
Within Europe, it must be acknowledged that the challenge of populism and nationalism remains. Positive results for those who support the European project have been countered by continuing support for populist leaders who want to benefit of the advantages of the European Club without accepting all the common rules. The EU is based on the primacy of the rule of law. To undermine judgements of the European Court of Justice or to undermine the independence of national courts is to strip citizens of their fundamental rights, Democrats and Civil Society members must remain vigilant and mobilised.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
among the challenges, there is of course Brexit. We remain sad about the decision of British voters, but it is a decision that has helped those who remain in the EU to reflect on what binds us and strengthen it – rather than weakening the links between us. With the UK, there is now a more positive atmosphere. Intense negotiations have taken place and continue to take place between the UK government and the EU to agree on the terms of departure and the future relationship between us. In December last year, a joint report was agreed which safeguards the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK nationals in the EU; it settles also the existing financial obligations of the UK. In addition, it provides a clear UK commitment for addressing the unique circumstances in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The objective for all remains to avoid a hard border and to protect the Good Friday Agreement. The final strand of negotiations relates to the future relationship. It is hoped that this will go beyond trade and economic cooperation and that a strong partnership will be agreed in other key areas, such as the fight against terrorism and international crime, as well as in security, defence and foreign policy matters.
With this brief overview of the state of the Union, I could summarise things by saying that the wind is back in Europe's sails. The EU has the ambition to increase its political and economic influence in the coming years. We want to be seen and to behave like a responsible, reliable and fair partner.
The EU and its Member States will remain one of the largest trade blocs in the world. We will continue to be the world's leading aid donors, We will also continue to offer favourable trade regimes to a large number of third countries in supporting their development based on the principles of human rights, labour rights and environmental sustainability, as illustrated here in Sri Lanka with the granting back of the GSP+.
I want to say first a few words on the positive impact that GSP+ has already had on the Sri Lankan economy. Exports toward the EU have increased by 12%, representing nearly one third of the total exports of the country in 2017. This means 2,75 billion EUR out of Sri Lanka's 9,94 billion EUR total export-value to the world.
2018 will be the first full year for assessing the impact and it is expected that Sri Lanka will follow the pattern of other countries benefiting from GSP+ that have seen exports rise by 20% in the first year, and with that doubling to around 40% over a 3 year period. In addition, the lifting of the fisheries ban in 2016 allowed exports to the EU to develop at an unprecedented rate – SL exports of fish to the EU in 2017 was amounting to 63 Mio EUR compared to 31 MIO Euro in 2016. Beyond exports and our ongoing development projects, the EU Delegation here in Sri Lanka has started to finance several important new projects as illustrated by the signature with the SL government of new financial agreements in the area of agriculture, amounting to 60 Mio EUR and helping in the development of a comprehensive policy for the sector. Furthermore, in the area of governance a first intervention is focusing on public finance reform and we are presently developing with the government future good governance programmes for up to 40 Mio EUR.
To conclude on our bilateral cooperation and its interlinked policy dialogue, the EU continues to firmly support the reform commitments made by the coalition government as regards the governance and reconciliation agenda. We are convinced that further progresses on these issues are the best guarantee to ensure a lasting peace and allow prosperity for all the Sri Lankan citizens.
Honourable Minister, your Excellencies, distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I wish to propose a toast to the friendship and the continuous development of cooperation between the EU, also represented by its Member States Ambassadors, and Sri Lanka. More specifically, I wish to present the EU's wishes of success to President Sirisena and P.M. Wickremesinghe for the objectives that have been assigned to the new reshuffled government and presented today in front of the Parliament.