Your Excellencies, Distinguished Members of Parliaments, Ladies and Gentlemen,
As President of the European Economic and Social Committee, I am most honoured to represent my Committee and its members at the ninth ordinary session of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly.
I am very pleased to see the importance that this Assembly grants to organised civil society. It demonstrates your recognition of the crucial role that civil society plays in democratisation, conflict resolution and development processes.
We fully support you in keeping the Eastern Partnership at the top of the EU's foreign affairs priorities and we are ready to engage further in our cooperation. We believe that the EU is first and foremost a union of values and that relations with our neighbours should be based on the same principles.
I am proud to say that the Eastern Neighbourhood has been high on the European Economic and Social Committee's external relations agenda. The Association Agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine gave us a mandate to establish bilateral monitoring mechanisms, namely civil society platforms and domestic advisory groups. Their role is to monitor implementation of the Agreements from the civil society's perspective, and to make concrete, timely recommendations to the Parties. We appreciate the fact that the three Parliamentary Association Committees regularly invite us to report on our activities and we would like this good practice to continue in the future. We are also involved in establishing a similar civil society platform with Armenia, which we hope to see operational very soon.
Our efforts are bearing fruit: we have been able to build up the capacities of civil society organisations in these countries; we have obtained structured, balanced and representative counterpart organisations; we have provided a working method for dialogue and consensus; and we have consolidated a practice of dialogue between those organisations and their governments. These are achievements that we are proud of, and that we will continue to strengthen.
The current situation in Belarus has generated enormous interest among our members. The EESC has been very vocal in expressing its full support for the Belarusians in their courageous fight for democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and dignity. However, we felt that statements, regardless of how strong they were, needed to be accompanied by actions. As a result, an ad-hoc group on Belarus has recently been created. It will aim at fostering links between EU and Belarusian business associations, independent trade unions and other civil society organisations. In order to coordinate the activities of the EU political authorities and the European civil society, this group will closely cooperate with the European Parliament's dedicated body on Belarus.
Unfortunately, I cannot omit to mention the health crisis we are all going through. During my mandate, the European Economic and Social Committee is striving to provide a vision for a stronger, more resilient post-COVID Europe – one that prospers economically while being socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. The EU should continue to support our Eastern neighbours in the same direction. In this regard, I would like to highlight the need to involve civil society across the region in the development and implementation of policies to address the negative effects of the pandemic. Economic and social dimensions should receive equal attention in the recovery plans. This is also a key message we convey, on behalf of European civil society, in our current bilateral exchanges.
We are very much looking forward to the Eastern Partnership Summit taking place later this year. We believe that the three associated countries deserve a more tailor-made approach from the EU and we echo the position of the European Parliament on deepening ties with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Positive achievements in this connection will no doubt motivate other Eastern neighbours to be more ambitious in their European agenda. Nonetheless, we shall not compromise on key issues such as the rule of law and good governance.
To conclude, let me emphasise that the EU's policy towards its Eastern neighbours must not be ambiguous, as this will lead to geopolitical destabilisation by other players. The EU has to be reliable and firm in its positions. We strongly believe that deepening ties with our Eastern neighbours represents a geostrategic investment in peace, security and economic growth across our continent, while putting the Eastern Partnership in a lower position on our list of priorities would make it easier for foreign powers – in particular Russia and China – to undermine our efforts to build a strong, secure and prosperous neighbourhood. Building the latter means a strong, secure and prosperous European Union.
Be assured, the European Economic and Social Committee is and will remain a strong ally, keeping the Eastern Partnership at the top of the EU's foreign affairs priorities and I am looking very much forward to our future cooperation.
Thank you for your attention.