This is, for me, maybe one of the most important moments of the two day visit to Bishkek, bringing the recommendations that we have just heard [from the Forum Rapporteur, Professor Fabienne Bossuyt] to our [EU-Central Asia] Ministerial Meeting tomorrow, and then me bringing the recommendations back to Brussels. I always travel with a very small suitcase, but ideas fortunately don’t need a lot of physical space: they stay in the head and in the heart for appropriate follow up. So thank you for giving me additional luggage to bring back. I am sure that tomorrow with the Ministers we will carefully look at the recommendations that we have just heard and practical ways that we will implement decisions, in a way that is consistent with what you have discussed here at this Forum.
In these five years of my mandate [as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission], which is almost coming to an end, I have visited Central Asia – even Bishkek – pretty often. But this kind of meeting is really a first. Not for me personally – some of you might know that I come from a civil society background in my previous, previous, previous life, but it is the first time that we organise such a Forum to accompany, to prepare, to give ideas and input to our Ministerial meeting between the European Union and our Central Asian partners. Let me say how happy I am, and how good I feel when I see our flags together. I think that we really feel at home in this format.
Our idea in organising this Forum today was to bring together the best of our societies – the social workers, the think-tankers, the student associations, the business leaders. We are interested in what you have to tell us – what is useful, what is needed to make the most of our institutional cooperation. You are, in your respective environments, innovators and agents of change, and we wanted people like you to celebrate a new phase in the partnership between the European Union and Central Asia.
In these years, we have really tried to challenge a lot of obstacles or even misperceptions and prejudices about this part of the world.
Central Asia, it is clear to all of us now, is not a periphery of other regions. You are at the crossroads of continents and of cultures. It is definitely not, and definitely not intended to be a chessboard for powers and for geopolitical games. It is a region of 70 million people, of incredible culture, natural beauty, and it is a place of great history. But to me, most importantly, even if I love history, the people of this region have great aspirations and great dreams for their future.
Today, we see that these aspirations can truly turn into reality. This is a time of opportunities, I believe, for Central Asia. Opportunities for change, for democracy, for economic growth and for regional cooperation. The wind is maybe changing, and the European Union that has always been here in times of transition, in times of difficulty, couldn’t miss this moment of partnership in positive times.
We as Europeans are not here for geopolitical interests or games. You know that well. This is not what drives our foreign policy. We are here because we believe in the potential of this region, and most importantly the potential of the people of this region. This is the core of our new Strategy on Central Asia, but this is also the core of all the work we have done together in these years.
First of all, we believe in the people of this region. This is why, as we were drafting our Strategy, we engaged with many of you in this room. We wanted to hear your expectations and aspirations for our partnership and for your future. But this is also why we are bringing more and more students, for instance, from Central Asia to Europe through Erasmus. We want to build stronger ties among us, and invest in our friendship.
This is not only an institutional exercise. This is first and foremost a societal exercise, a people exercise.
We also believe in the economic potential of this region. But to fulfil this potential, we believe – and allow me to be blunt - that there is the need for something more than some big infrastructure projects that run through these countries. There is a need to have real, long-term investments that bring benefits to local communities, and with sustainable and long-standing perspectives.
Connectivity for us is not and should never be about creating spheres of influence. For us, connectivity should always rather be focussed on creating opportunities for everyone, starting with the local communities in countries like those of Central Asia. This is what we call the ‘European way’ to connectivity. Not in competition with others; more in complementarity, but we strongly believe in economic investments that can really empower the people of the countries that are involved and the local communities in a sustainable manner.
Finally, we believe that only democracy can truly fulfil the potential of Central Asia. Only with independent media and an open space for civil society, only with strong rule of law and good governance, Central Asia can become stronger and more attractive also for business.
One of the first questions that business men and women from the European Union’s Member States ask when seeking advice on whether to invest in a country is always the same: security, certainty of the legal framework, predictability, anti-corruption and open societies that can allow private investments to find fertile ground in a way that is comparable with European standards. This is something I say not because I think that democracy, the rule of law, human rights need to be incentivised by economic perspectives of more investment, but it helps.
Any argument that we can raise in favour of a stronger, democratic, open society, we will always do. And we will always accompany processes of reforms and change in all countries of Central Asia, always keeping in mind that any country has its specificities, its history, its society, its background, but there are certain values and certain principles that are benefitting each and every country, individual, and each and every economic investment.
This is the first EU-Central Asia Forum, but our goal is to make it a regular event. I hope that with my friends and colleagues – the Ministers of the Central Asian countries – we will discuss your recommendations in a very concrete manner tomorrow.
I believe that making this Forum a regular event would be a sign of a wise investment in bringing together our societies much more than we are doing today. It would also be a sign of a growing partnership, which again I want to stress is not only a growing partnership among institutions - that is the driving force - but also is a growing partnership among our societies and our people. This, I would say, is the fertile ground on which institutions can then build their cooperation.
I believe you are an essential partner, not only for the European Union but also for the rest of Asia and others in the world that are recognising more and more the interests of this region. Again, the interest of this region does not only lie in the institutional aspects, but also in the people and societies of these countries.
The European Union wants to invest more and more, in a consistent manner, in our partnership. If there is one thing that I am really proud of, it is that we have invested so much together in this friendship. It is not always easy, but it is always very productive.
If I look back five years ago, I think that we have advanced enormously – bilaterally, with each of the five countries; all together as a region. I believe that with a modest and humble approach, that we have contributed and that we can contribute to further regional cooperation, because - very much in line with the recommendations that were summarised - this will the key for further positive developments in the region.
I am very much encouraged because the headlines of what I have heard from Fabienne [Bossuyt], your recommendations are very much in line with the content of our discussions, the work we will start as of tomorrow, hopefully, on the implementation of our strategy. I am sure that this is the first chapter of a very fruitful and extremely important dialogue and cooperation that will complement in a vital manner the institutional work that we do with the governments and Ministers.
Thank you very much. I would also like to say a special word of thanks to the authorities of the Kyrgyz Republic, to the Minister [of Foreign Affairs, Chingiz Aidarbekov], for their hospitality, and to say how happy I am, and I believe we all are, for being here in Bishkek to initiate what can be the first step of a long and fruitful journey. It is not always easy, but always respectful and always fruitful.