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Good morning and welcome to everybody, especially a very warm welcome to the President [of The Gambia, Adama Barrow] and all of his delegation. It is a pleasure to receive you once again in Brussels, and to be able to have some good news today.
In difficult times, I think you are allowing us to dedicate some time to positive trends and supporting positive work.
First of all, let me start by thanking everyone who is here with us today – notably our colleagues and friends from The Gambia and the President [of The Gambia, Adama Barrow] himself, but also our colleagues and friends from the African Union, from ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States], from the United Nations and all the Ministers who are here, from the European Union and from our partners.
We all need to send very special thanks to all the people of The Gambia, because it is them giving us hope in very difficult times. They have never given up, even when the situation seemed desperate and when change seemed impossible. Against all odds, the people of The Gambia have brought change in their country, and they did it democratically, using the tools that they had to have a say.
They did it peacefully, and this was the best reaction after all the violence that had been imposed on them.
And they did it together with their African brothers and sisters – with the neighbours, with the West African Community, with the African Union, with the entire international community, and with the European Union.
I will never forget, Mr President [of The Gambia, Adama Barrow], our first phone call on the day you were sworn in. You could not enter your country yet, and there was so much uncertainty about the future. In those hours, it was really about respecting the electoral results, creating the security space and then the political space for you to play your institutional responsibility. But something huge had already happened. Because your people had asked for change, for the first time in the history of The Gambia.
Since then, The Gambia has taken impressive steps forward. Last year, you released political prisoners and announced a moratorium on the death penalty. Exiles have returned home, civil society is now active and journalists are free to do their job without fear.
Today we have with us the Minister of Finance [and Economic Affairs of The Gambia, Amadou Sanneh]. For three years he was kept in jail, as a political prisoner. He regained freedom – if I remember well – just before he was appointed minister. And other members of your government have endured similar treatment, from repression to arrests and jail.
The Gambia is showing to the world that freedom and democracy are not just abstract concepts – they are about real people and real lives – and that change is possible.
The law on the national human rights committee has been passed. A constitutional reform commission is being set up. New judges have been appointed, and the justice system is now operational. The Gambia has re-joined the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – as yet another demonstration that you want to turn the page from violence and impunity.
And I know, President Barrow, that you are determined to continue on this path, and realise the promise of a new Gambia.
A truly democratic Gambia needs strong and effective institutions. I am proud of the work you have done and that we have supported – that we have done together. We agreed on the first ever EU Election Observation Mission to The Gambia, to observe parliamentary elections last year in April. Others around this table have also worked with you to make the elections credible, fair and transparent.
For the first time in over twenty years, the parliament is now working in a democratic environment. And I am glad that the European Parliament has welcomed members and staff of the National Assembly [of The Gambia] to support you in this crucial moment for your democracy.
A truly democratic Gambia also needs professional and respectful security forces – this is one of the first issues we tackled together. The reform of your security sector is and must be owned by The Gambia. But we, Europeans and the European Union as such – you know that well – are here and we will continue to be here to give you all our support, both directly and through the ECOWAS mission in The Gambia, which has played a key role to preserve the stability of the country.
The new Gambia can and must be a place where every citizen can feel at home, and enjoy the same rights. It has to be a reconciled Gambia, after decades of suffering. And reconciliation always needs justice, so I am glad that you sought help from countries that have gone through similar processes. On this issue as well, we are ready to support your work as European Union.
The new Gambia can be an inclusive country, where everybody finds their place beyond gender, faith or ethnicity. It is a small country and yet it is also very diverse. But I am confident that you can find unity in your diversity, a shared identity beyond social and political divides.
Just days ago, I know your capital city has elected the first Lady Mayor in the country's history – and I believe that this can also give hope and inspiration to many women, not only in The Gambia, but also elsewhere in the continent and in the world.
A more inclusive and democratic country is also one with better economic opportunities for all. The Gambia has a vibrant youth with a strong entrepreneurship spirit, asking for good training and for the opportunity to start their own activity.
You see colourful notebooks that have been offered and done by Tiga – a young woman entrepreneur who benefited from our support under the "Youth Empowerment Project". She has set up her small business: this is just a small example of how a project really transforms and supports real lives.
Companies from Europe and from around the world – I believe – are discovering and will discover more and more the potential of The Gambia. I believe this will be clear tomorrow during the Business Forum that will focus precisely on how to foster growth and bring more investment to The Gambia.
Your government has good projects to improve the country's business environment and the infrastructure. You have set up an ambitious National Development Plan – and we will hear about it directly from the Finance Minister [Amadou Sanneh] in a few moments.
We want to accompany you in this work to make sure that the benefits of democracy reach all the people of The Gambia and turn into something very concrete.
Today, as the European Union, we can announce and we are proud to announce an additional support of €140 million in grants for The Gambia to help you implement the National Development Plan. I am very much confident that other partners around this table will also do their part at this level, so that we can make this high-level conference a success, but most of all that we can make your future work in The Gambia a success.
After the presidential election in 2016, your neighbours and the international community stood with the Gambian people. We stood on the side of freedom and democracy. And the news – I believe – today is this: that two years on, we are still here by your side, we are determined to continue to accompany you on this path, to consolidate the results you have started to achieve, to accompany the people of The Gambia on this path – as you build a democratic, successful, inclusive country for all the people of The Gambia. You can count on us all to do that.
I thank you very much.