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Thank you, Mr Minister [of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic, Chingiz Aidarbekov]. It is indeed a pleasure for me to be back in Bishkek for my second official visit in my capacity [as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission], but personally for the third time. Particularly at a significant time for the European Union and the Kyrgyz Republic, and also a very significant time for the relations between the European Union and Central Asia.
Over the past years, Central Asia has become increasingly important for the European Union, and I would say that the relations between the Union and the Kyrgyz Republic have been instrumental for this intensification of our partnership.
Central Asia, and the Kyrgyz Republic in particular, are not at the centre of the European Union’s attention because of conflict or crisis, but because there is positive news coming from your region and from your country: improving relations between neighbours, ambitious reforms in all different sectors, and new opportunities for the citizens.
It is in this positive spirit that the European Union has adopted just a few weeks ago a new Strategy on Central Asia – a strategy that reflects our positive vision for the region and the very close cooperation in which we wish to engage in the years to come. This will be with the region as a whole as we will discuss tomorrow with our colleagues from other countries in the region, but also bilaterally with the Kyrgyz Republic.
I would like to thank you - first and foremost - from the bottom of my heart for your initiative to host this important ministerial meeting tomorrow, and to host for the first time ever a forum [the EU-Central Asia Forum] that is gathering together civil society of both European Union countries and Central Asia in Bishkek.
I would also like to thank you for your efforts and for all the political capital invested in strengthening our bilateral relations. Tomorrow we will have the opportunity to tell more about the EU-Central Asia partnership, but today, bilateral relations between the European Union and the Kyrgyz Republic are in the spotlight, and I want to dedicate some time to this.
Today we celebrate a new step in our bilateral relations and we just had the pleasure and honour to witness the initialling of the new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and the Kyrgyz Republic.
Our teams have worked hard in these months and years. We have agreed on an ambitious, forward looking document, which reflects the growth in our partnership.
I want to thank you, Minister, and also our respective teams, for the commitment that has been put into these negotiations, the result of which is a very important document in our bilateral relations. I believe that for the negotiating teams, this is the last chapter in a long negotiation, but for the European Union and the Kyrgyz Republic this is the first chapter in a long and positive story of partnership and friendship between the Kyrgyz Republic and the European Union. Because this is a new agreement, but the story of our friendship is a long and solid one.
When the Kyrgyz Republic gained independence, the European Union provided support in the difficult time of transition.
The European Union was there to back the objective to establish a pluralist democracy that the Kyrgyz Republic undertook.
Building a well-rooted system of democratic governance and open society is first of all something that cannot be imposed from the outside, and we have seen the willingness and the ambitions of the citizens of the country to go in this direction. We have supported it. We know that it is an ambition that takes years, even generations sometimes to be built, and the work is never really finished or can never really be considered accomplished once and for all. But you know that you can count on the European Union day after day, in a consistent manner, without any hidden agenda in a very transparent and reliable manner, to always accompany you in promoting and strengthening the democratic principles, the rule of law and respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms. This is the basis of our friendship, our partnership, and you know that you have in us a reliable friend.
This new agreement will give us new instruments to strengthen our relations in many different fields. It will contribute to implementing the political, rule of law and economic reforms of the Kyrgyz Republic, as well as the modernisation of the country and the prosperity of the people.
It will also guide our development cooperation. In the last seven years, the European Union has invested €264 million in favour of the Kyrgyz Republic, and we are committed, as we discussed with the Minister today, to further supporting the implementation of your National Development Strategy.
The agreement will also help us to strengthen what is already a growing economic relationship. Kyrgyz exporters already have preferential access to the European Union’s market, but the new agreement will provide further incentives in particular for improving business environment and attracting investment from European companies. We will also work on connectivity between the European Union and the Kyrgyz Republic, as part of a wider approach to connecting Europe and Asia.
The agreement will also open up opportunities for cooperation in other sectors of the economy. It will promote in particular sustainable economic development, increase the capacity to address challenges such as environmental degradation and climate change, and as education and youth is a priority for both of us, I am today pleased to announce that we signed a new budget support programme, through which the European Union will provide €36 million for the education sector in the Kyrgyz Republic in the coming years.
And we also decided that we want to work together more and more against common challenges, such as the fight against organised crime, cyber-crime or terrorism. We also want to develop exchanges between our people, as well as cooperate on migration and visa policies, on judicial and legal issues.
Last but not least, for us the Kyrgyz Republic is a key interlocutor and partner in our approach to the region. The European Union is building a network of very solid relations with countries in Central Asia. We do this in full respect of engagements and choices of our partners, as well as the ambitions and dreams of their citizens.
We see many areas where our future cooperation will benefit Central Asia, areas where the European Union can add value thanks to our specific experience and expertise.
It is not an exclusive partnership, but it is a partnership based on mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual benefits: benefits for our countries and, more importantly, benefits for our citizens.
So, I want to thank you once again for a very warm and kind welcome to Bishkek. I am looking forward very much to the continuation of my visit, both in this bilateral part but also to the next Ministerial meeting with our colleagues from Central Asia tomorrow.
Thank you very much.