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Presidents, dear friends,
It is for me really a pleasure first of all to be back in Uzbekistan for the second time in less than six months. And it is an honour to open with you this conference that brings together all the relevant players in such a crucial moment for Afghanistan.
We believe that the time has come to turn the page in Afghanistan. We all know that peace, even a meaningful peace process, won't be easy to achieve, because very often it takes more courage to make peace than to keep fighting.
It takes the courage of change. It takes the courage of dialogue, engagement, of compromise and reconciliation.
President [of Afghanistan, Ashraf] Ghani and the Afghan government have shown such courage. Last month the President made a bold and concrete offer to the Taliban, to engage in a genuine peace process, and finally end the war.
This is an unprecedented opportunity for peace – after decades of war and civil strife. Today, we believe that the future of Afghanistan lies in the hands of its people and of their leaders.
We – as the European Union and the international community – have one great responsibility in this moment: to accompany and support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process, to do all we can to create the conditions for peace and for Afghanistan's renaissance.
This was the idea already behind the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan one and half years ago. And this is what brings us here to Uzbekistan today. It has to be clear: neither the regional partners, nor the international community, none of us can substitute ourselves for the Afghan people and leaders. And we will not. But we can be on their side, foster their courage, support their hope and their hard work.
In Brussels last year we said that peace in Afghanistan would need a new deal; a new deal first of all inside the Afghan society; a new deal in the region; and a new deal with the international community.
Since then, we have started to lay the ground for this three-fold new deal.
First, a new deal with the international community. At the Brussels Conference the international community has committed to greater investment for Afghanistan than in the previous four years.
Once again, the European Union and its Member States, collectively, proved to be the largest international donor to Afghanistan and its people, with more than 5 billion dollars in investment.
Since then, we have delivered on our promises. Last year we signed a new Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and Afghanistan. We have set up a constant dialogue on all issues we commonly care about, from the economy to the training of Afghan police forces, from women empowerment to human rights.
In Brussels we also brought together all the neighbours of Afghanistan, the regional and international powers and the United Nations.
Because peace in Afghanistan also requires a new deal within this region – that is your common region, as you rightly said, at the crossroads between Europe, the Far East and the Middle East.
This meeting today is the natural, welcome continuation of the work we started in Brussels and of the successful Kabul meeting a few weeks ago.
This part of Asia – it is clear - needs a stable Afghanistan, and a stable Afghanistan needs regional cooperation.
The people in this room know better than anyone else the consequences of the Afghan conflict on security, all across this region and in the world.
For years, we Europeans have been investing on cross-border cooperation in this region, particularly between Afghanistan and Central Asia.
With our programmes we have supported joint border management to tackle all sorts of trafficking, both to stop the flow of drugs out of Afghanistan and to close one important channel of financing for criminal groups on the other side of the border.
Together we have also worked to monitor the movements of foreign terrorist fighters – which is a security interest we all share, in Afghanistan, in Central Asia and in Europe.
But our cooperation does not only aim to prevent instability from spreading. Regional cooperation can also be a great opportunity - I would say the great opportunity - for development, in Afghanistan and in the entire region.
This part of the world used to be the chessboard of a Great Game between empires. A Game that only made this region and its people more exposed, more unstable, with no benefit for the people.
The time has come to realise that you have a choice: that the alternative to being “the chessboard of somebody else’s game” is not necessarily chaos and conflict. It can be peace and prosperity through cooperation – cooperation is the key word here, internally within the region and with your international partners and friends gathered here around this table.
Today, we all share an interest in a stable and prosperous Central Asia and Afghanistan. Yes, this is very much about large infrastructure projects and energy corridors, connecting this region to the rest of the world. But when it comes to intercontinental trade routes, your countries deserve to be more than just "transit countries".
We want these big infrastructure projects not only to bring natural resources out of Central Asia, but to bring sustainable development inside Central Asia.
We, as European Union, are already contributing to regional initiatives – spanning from energy infrastructure to railway connections between Afghanistan and its neighbours.
We want these initiatives to benefit local communities both in Afghanistan and Central Asia, bringing good jobs and new opportunities inside each of your countries, especially for the large number of young people in your countries.
This is also why we are ready to support more trilateral projects – between Afghanistan, Central Asia and the European Union. For instance, I know that Afghan students are already coming to Central Asian to get their higher education or professional training. We could explore new opportunities for cooperation, to invest together in the talent of the Afghan youth.
And this leads me to my third point: peace in Afghanistan will only be possible if the Afghan people support it and make it happen, with a new deal within the Afghan society, with the Afghan people.
Afghanistan has already changed immensely. This change needs to be preserved, consolidated, and made irreversible. This year and next year the people of Afghanistan will once again vote for their representatives in parliamentary and presidential elections.
We Europeans are supporting the electoral process with our investment and expertise, and we want the next elections to be inclusive, transparent and credible, to consolidate democracy in Afghanistan, which is a key element of any Afghan renaissance, of any future, peaceful Afghanistan.
If we are here today, it is first and foremost to support an intra-Afghan peace process. President Ghani's proposal is an opportunity that cannot be wasted. It is up to the Taliban to take a decision, and show the courage of taking this chance of making peace.
Today, I am here to put on the table the European Union's readiness to accompany a peace process with all our tools – from economic support to our diplomatic convening power, from our political backing to our technical expertise.
The European Union was born as a peace project. That is what our Union has always been, and will always be. At the beginning, its goal was to bring peace to the European continent. And through the decades, we have gained a unique experience on the many roads that lead to peace, and also the many obstacles that are there to peace and that can be overcome.
Today, the European Union is a force for peace and cooperation all around the world. We stand for cooperation – always - not competition, not confrontation. Because we know from our own history how much damage this can bring.
Just to mention a couple of examples: In Iraq, we are demining the regions where the fighting has just ended and we are working to encourage reconciliation.
In Colombia, we are helping the former fighters of the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] to reintegrate in their communities, get a job, to enter democratic politics.
And in Afghanistan, we are already helping implement one peace agreement with Hezb-i-Islami: we are involved in particular in supporting dialogue and reconciliation between the ex-fighters, the civil society, the women, the ulemas.
We can offer support if President Ghani's proposal leads to peace negotiations, and to a peace agreement.
To continue with concrete examples of what we could do: On the diplomatic side, we could provide our support to de-list from the UN sanctions list those who denounce violence and opt for peace.
We could expand our support to initiatives such as the High Peace Council. We are ready to engage even more with the Afghan civil society and with the victims, to support justice and reconciliation.
We could also work with the people who permanently lay down their arms, or with former inmates, or with their families - an important component of any justice and reconciliation process - so that they can find a new place in the Afghan society - that is also their society - start a business, go back to school.
The European Union will be on your side. But let me be very clear. The decision on peace and war in Afghanistan does not belong to us, does not belong to any other player, but to the Afghan people, and to the Afghans only.
To those who are still fighting, our message is clear. Take President Ghani's offer. Choose the path of dialogue and reconciliation. Have the courage of peace.
And if you find this courage, we Europeans – together with our partners in this region and worldwide – we will help you end this war, and build peace together in Afghanistan.
We in the European Union have no other agenda but peace and human development for the people of Afghanistan. I am sure that in working together - all of us - we can achieve it.
Link to the video: http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I153207