Brussels 20 March 2017
Check against delivery!
I am delighted to be speaking to such a large gathering of staff, both from delegations and Headquarters;
It is important that we meet, reinforce our joint mission and continue working as one European team, wherever we may be, whichever Directorate General or EU Delegation we work for;
Thank you for being our European Ambassadors – your insights and dedication are crucial in these volatile times.
I do not use the word “volatile” lightly. It’s probably an understatement anyway. We all know that it’s been a difficult year.
And I’m afraid the next years won’t be any easier: economic difficulties persist in our Union, we have the Brexit riddle to solve, the conflicts and unrest in our immediate neighbourhood (Libya, Syria, Ukraine), and the ongoing migration crisis is far from over.
But make no mistake: These challenges make our work more important than ever before. In times of global turmoil, we can’t put our heads into the sand. On the contrary. And I think also our Member States understand this more and more.
So everything you are doing falls squarely within the key priorities of the EU (Migration, Economy, Security, Political reforms).
I am proud to say that you have more than risen to the occasion and are making a difference.
We continue to see the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. But in the last year, the Union has gotten its act together, all the way along the migration routes:
we are doing more than ever to tackle migratory pressure at the source, be in in and around Syria or in Africa;
We are delivering to those neighbours who, as host communities, shoulder a big burden. The fact that our funds are programmed and disbursed so fast and effectively is also your achievement – thank you!
But we are also tougher than before along our borders, breaking the business model of smugglers in the Eastern and Central Mediterranean, bringing down the number of fatalities, cooperating in a more hard-headed way with source and transit countries, and sending a clear signal.
This crisis is far from over, and we will need to sharpen our comprehensive approach even further, especially in the Central Med. This will include more work with local communities and agencies, and also assisted voluntary return programmes.
But at the end of the day, even though it will take time, we can’t solve this if we don’t mitigate the root causes of migration more effectively.
That’s why we must not look at our partner countries through a limited “migration only” prism. Our policies is not simply about “borders and fences”, popular as that may be in some quarters.
Our revised Neighbourhood Policy is already yielding first results in this regard. “Stabilisation” in all its facets remains the key priority.
Our Communication on the implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) will be out shortly. It will take stock of the progress made with our new toolbox and reaffirm our focus on increased political and economic stability.
In the same vein, on financial assistance is becoming more investment-minded. Lack of economic opportunities is often at the heart of instability; therefore economic development remains a key priority.
We must also keep up the emphasis on youth and employability, and more differentiation in our trade and investment relations.
Tunisia is of course the prime example for which we are rolling out this ambitious agenda, but not the only one. That’s why I am so keen on deepening our work on the socio-economic development of Egypt.
With our Neighbours to the East, we will keep focusing on energy security, connectivity and job creation, especially for young people.
We have the good news that agreement was reached on visa liberalisation for Georgia and that Georgian citizens will enjoy visa-free travel to the EU shortly.
The Eastern Partnership Summit in November will be a milestone event to deliver on priorities. We hope to have a number of relevant developments to present by the summit, which clearly illustrate our commitment to the Eastern Partnership – visa liberalisation with Ukraine, finally.
I also hope that the result of the Dutch elections provides new momentum for the ratification of the AA/DCFTA with Ukraine.
Then there is of course the signature of the EU-Armenia Agreement, the launch of negotiations on the new Agreement with Azerbaijan, possible opening of negotiations on an agreement with Belarus.
So we got our work cut out for the next years.
Let me now turn to the Western Balkans. The situation in the Western Balkans is fragile, despite the gradual progress over the last years. Also, the colourful local rhetoric is not always that of countries aspiring to join our community of values.
Still, the EU remains totally committed to the accession perspective of the entire region; this has been made clear through the recent missions of EU leaders and the European Council President’s conclusions.
Frankly, I think all had to be reminded – also by the migration crisis – how vital this region is for Europe’s security and prosperity.
The countries must now take advantage of this important window of opportunity, bilaterally and in their mutual relations.
I will not dwell on individual countries here, entertaining as that may be for some of us. Let me rather say that after the very successful Leaders’ Summit in Sarajevo last week, Connectivity will remain a key item on our agenda in the Western Balkans:
Well-connected transport and energy networks drive economic growth and jobs. They help attract investments and provide opportunities for businesses and people.
It will take centre stage alongside youth and regional market integration at the Western Balkans Summit in July.
We all know that our relations with Turkey are currently going through a difficult time.
The draft Constitution and the opinion of the Venice Commission have given us reason to be seriously concerned, not to mention the completely absurd statements directed towards individual Member States by Turkey.
So we are very far from ‘business as usual’.
Nevertheless, we need to be realistic. Geography is destiny. We will continue working with Turkey on the Facility for Refugees in Turkey. We have made a proposal to modernise our Customs Union – in the mutual interest. And we must keep channels open on other areas of common interest.
Turkey may stand, pars pro toto, for the opportunities and challenges we face in our policies.
We will continue to face turbulent times. And exactly in times we must continue to uphold and promote our principles and interests – in a robust, pro-active and engaging way.
We must anchor stability and security in countries that are our direct neighbours. If we do not do this, we risk importing instability into our own borders.
I urge you to keep going with the same enthusiasm and dedication you’ve shown these past 3 years. Thank you.