Concluding the discussions on the EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities is an important objective for the European Union, Dirk Schuebel, Head of the European Union's Delegation to Belarus, told BelTA. He also spoke about the negotiations on the visa facilitation and readmission agreements, joint efforts in the Eastern Partnership initiative with a view to expanding opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses and attracting investment, and the appreciation by the European Union of Belarus' continued constructive role in the region, especially in relation to the conflict in the east of Ukraine.
-How would you describe the current state of relations between Belarus and the European Union?
I am happy to say that EU-Belarus relations have improved over the past four years as we have maintained regular dialogue on a wide range of issues. We have finalized the negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission agreements. Belarus is now able to cooperate with the European Investment Bank, and cooperation with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has expanded considerably. In addition, Belarus is making excellent use of TWINNING, an instrument that allows Belarus' state agencies to cooperate directly with their counterparts in EU Member States to reach very concrete and topical objectives.
We look forward to soon concluding the discussions on the EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities, a document that is to become an important building-block for bilateral relations, including on financial assistance over a more extended time period. Partnership Priorities is a document that establishes mutual interests in many areas, including economy, human rights and nuclear safety.
The EU is open to enhancing political relations and sectoral cooperation with Belarus, and there are opportunities in a number of economic fields. But of course, our current and future policy towards Belarus, and any other country in the world, remains closely linked to respect for democracy, human rights and rule of law. Therefore, the pace of the development of our bilateral relations depends on the steps that Belarus is ready to take. We have an open dialogue where we discuss these matters and hope to make meaningful advances.
-What is the status of the negotiations on the visa facilitation and readmission agreements and how are these agreements interrelated? Do you think these documents will come into force before 1 February 2020 when the Schengen visa fees will increase to 80 euros? Otherwise, Belarusians will have to pay this amount, not the declared 35 euros or even today's 60 euros.
The next major step is the signature of the two agreements. The Council of the European Union already authorized the signature of the visa facilitation agreement and is expected to authorize the signature of the readmission agreement once the procedures on the EU side are finalized. Once both agreements are signed, the European Parliament is to give its consent to the conclusion of the two agreements and then the Council of the European Union is to adopt decisions on the conclusion of the two agreements.
The two agreements will enter into force simultaneously on the first day of the second month following the date on which the parties notify each other that the ratification procedures have been completed. Once the visa facilitation agreement has entered into force, the visa fee will be automatically reduced to 35 euros for all Belarusian citizens. Many categories of Belarusian citizens – depending on their travel purpose – will be able to have visa fee requirements waived and will be able to obtain longer-validity multiple-entry visas in a simplified manner.
While it is not possible to name the date when the two agreements will enter into force, we do what we can to make sure this will happen as soon as possible.
-When do you think the EU and Belarus will sign the Partnership Priorities? Are there any significant obstacles to this? What will change for Belarus once the document is signed?
The finalization of the EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities remains a priority for the European Union. Once concluded, they will become an important building block in EU-Belarus relations, covering not only mutual interests in the economy and rule of law but also addressing such fundamental issues as the human rights situation and nuclear safety. They will also define the strategic framework for the EU's financial assistance to Belarus. With this in mind, we hope for continued constructive engagement by all sides with a view to concluding negotiations as soon as possible.
-What is the status of the framework document between Belarus and the EU?
The European Union remains open to the further development of EU-Belarus relations based on our common values of democracy, human rights and rule of law. Belarus is the only country in the Eastern Partnership without a bilateral agreement with the EU. However, the conclusion of a legally binding agreement between the EU and Belarus will be addressed once political conditions allow - the February 2016 Council Conclusions indicate that tangible steps in the democracy and human rights field will remain key for shaping the EU's future policy towards Belarus. The signature of the Partnership Priorities would be a first important step in this direction.
-Has the Eastern Partnership achieved any of its goals and objectives?
In the last decade, the European Union and its Eastern partners have been working together to develop stronger, more diversified and vibrant economies by improving access to finance, helping our partners build up their policy and regulations, improving business skills and access to markets.
Our joint efforts helped to expand opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses, attract investment, create jobs and promote trade. We have also been working together with our partner countries to improve transport links and infrastructure, boost energy resilience and efficiency, including renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Thanks to the EU programme ERASMUS +, more than 30,000 students and academic staff from Eastern Partner Countries have studied or taught in EU countries in the past ten years.
Last but not least, the European Union has indicated as a priority over this decade to address the "fundamentals first". Rule of law, good governance, combat against corruption and a well-functioning justice system are the basis on which all other reforms take place.
The European Union and its Eastern Partners have just concluded structured consultations on the future Eastern Partnership. I was very pleased with the intensive and open process of discussing the future of our cooperation with all Belarusian stakeholders – state agencies, the civil society, all interested parties in all Eastern Partnership countries, so we could shape our future engagement, factoring in all the lessons learned.
-The European Union pays a lot of attention to regional development. How does the EU Delegation to Belarus build this work?
Local and regional development has been an important part of the EU-Belarus cooperation portfolio over the past years. A new local economic development project with a budget of €7.7 million is now being implemented in 12 pilot districts of Belarus as part of a bigger program called SPRING (Strengthening Private Initiative Growth in Belarus).
Furthermore, we are currently preparing another two major initiatives: the Resource-Efficiency Facility for Brest Oblast and Grodno Oblast to support energy/resource efficient modernization of public infrastructure and industrial enterprises, as well as the draft Belarus Regional Investment and Competitiveness program (BRIC) that is expected to pilot new regional development methodologies and support centers of economic growth in Gomel Oblast, Mogilev Oblast and Vitebsk Oblast.
Cross-border cooperation under the programs Poland-Belarus-Ukraine and Latvia-Lithuania-Belarus forms a large project portfolio that is managed directly by the Belarusian regions.
And, finally, we are actively working with the Belarusian regions under the Mayors for Economic Growth program seeking to strengthen economic governance and the Covenant of Mayors program that fosters energy-efficiency measures.
-What is the EU's stance on the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant project, since our country meets all the necessary international requirements?
Nuclear safety is a key priority for the EU, and the EU is trying to maximize cooperation among regulators both within the EU and in the neighborhood. The ENSREG Peer Review Team's report on the stress tests conducted at the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant identifies a number of issues to be corrected or improved. While the implementation of these improvements is paramount to ensure the nuclear safety of the facility, according to the information available to the Commission, the issues identified should be addressed in a timely manner in accordance with their safety significance. The implementation of the recommendations from the stress tests conducted at EU nuclear power facilities will span over a decade.
-Security issues and modern threats are the most serious challenges to today's world. How would you assess the efforts of Belarus at the international and regional levels in this area?
The European Union appreciates Belarus' continued constructive role in the region, especially in relation to the conflict in the east of Ukraine. We are grateful to Belarus for hosting the work of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine and its Working Groups.
We take note of Belarus' proposals on global security and reiterate that we in the European Union believe in a strong multilateral system and a rules-based international order with the United Nations (UN) as its bedrock. This is why the European Union will continue to engage actively on all multilateral fronts, in all pillars of the UN system: peace and security, human rights and development in order to help furthering multilateral solutions to the challenges that we all face. The EU encourages using the existing formats.
-Is the European Commission ready to start a technical or maybe even a political dialogue with the Eurasian Economic Commission and at what level? After all, it is very important that businessmen from the countries of the two integration unions - the EU and the EAEU - clearly understand the cooperation building mechanism.
Any decision by Member States on the circumstances in which the European Union might engage in formal relations with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is contingent on the political context; this is intrinsically linked to the situation in Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
In the meantime, the EU is working to enhance its bilateral relationships with individual members of the EAEU – ambitious new agreements are already up and running with Armenia and Kazakhstan. With Belarus we are currently negotiating bilateral Partnership Priorities. These agreements are a good example of the EU's collaborative, flexible and inclusive approach. It does not preclude partners from having good relations with other actors and regional organizations.