Lviv, 19 November 2015
Dear students, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, friends,
One of my key tasks as EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement negotiations is to build strong relationships with all the countries that are neighbours of the European Union, or which have a wish to join it.
I have to do a lot of travelling and whenever possible I try to ensure that a visit to a university can be part of my programme. Universities are places of critical thought and philosophical reflection – and I like them because this is where I get the best questions!
It is here that world events are analysed and new ideas are born. It is from here that future leaders emerge.
Let me assure the students in the audience: we know that the decisions which are taken today on future relations between the EU and Ukraine will impact above all on you – the rising generation.
So I am looking forward to our discussion this evening.
I am more than aware of the huge challenges your country is facing, with threats to your territorial integrity and a struggling economy.
But you are not facing these threats alone. This is why I would like to use this opportunity to put a couple of things straight about the European Union.
I am from Austria, where these days we live in peace with our Neighbours – EU Member States as well as Non-Member States. This has not always been the case. Europe's history is littered with wars, land grabs and tensions between its peoples.
The European Union was set up to put an end to the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours. Our separate nation states have decided to work together on issues of common interest rather than working alone. We remain different in many ways, but what we have in common is that we are all democratic market economies, where individual rights are protected under rule of law. This is what defines us.
It is in these conditions that investors can have confidence and businesses can flourish. It is in these conditions that people can create jobs and trade, and achieve decent standards of living for themselves and their children. We believe that the EU's success is based on these values.
This why we are so determined to help the Ukrainian government undertake deep reforms to achieve the same quality of life that we enjoy.
A number of crucial reforms have already been initiated in Ukraine. We recognise the efforts that have been made. But you know, better than I: your country is at the beginning of a challenging road. In order to succeed, Ukraine needs determination and courage. To continue adopting the necessary legislation even when this is difficult. To make tough choices to ensure new laws are properly implemented, sometimes in the face of vested interests. Don't take these difficult steps to please us: do it for your own benefit!
In short, it will be vital to:
FIRST put in place a truly independent judiciary and a truly functioning administration;
SECOND foster a new political culture where corruption cannot flourish;
THIRD decentralise power and wealth so that the whole country benefits from a new order.
In my previous job I was Commissioner for Regional Policy so I know the importance of giving regions the opportunity to develop their full potential and to handle at local level what is best done at local level.
Even during these challenging times for Ukraine, reforms are not a luxury, they are essential to restore Ukraine's political, social and economic resilience. And I know from my many meetings with Ukrainian civil society that the public demands such reforms.
This is why we put reform conditions on the support we give Ukraine – whether we are talking about financial assistance or the possibility of Visa Liberalisation. Our aim is to support the will of the Ukrainian government to take the measures necessary to build for your country's future.
The European Union is making unprecedented volumes of assistance available to Ukraine, because we want to see you succeed. A lot of this money goes to support for young people: - for example, under the Erasmus+ programme which provides funding for students to study in Europe. I want to see more of you coming to Europe to study, develop skills, and bring them back here to build up a stronger Ukraine!
Allow me to give you a few figures:
Last year we and the European financial institutions announced an 11 billion Euro programme of grants and loans to support Ukraine. That is being rolled out, and another 1.8 billion Euros of loans have been added to the original plans.
And, as I have said, a large part of this financing is conditional on progress with reforms. That is why we are counting on the Verkhovna Rada to vote on key measures this autumn – and on your government to ensure that momentum is maintained.
When Ukraine DOES deliver on reforms, we deliver even more support. I can announce that Ukraine will receive substantial extra help this year – over 70 million Euros more - because of the reforms that have already been launched.
The vision I have for Ukraine is of a country that does not need assistance from others anymore. Your country has huge economic potential.
As you all know, from 1 January 2016, a new Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area will open up between Ukraine and the EU. The change will not come overnight, but in due course this will help your economy integrate with European and world markets.
You need to prepare thoroughly for this. First to seize the new opportunities that are before you. Second because there are those who will try to make life harder and you need to make your economy better able to cope with outside pressures.
We're putting in place measures to help Ukrainian businesses get ready, with the funds that will leverage around 1 billion Euros worth of support for Ukraine over time. We are providing grant aid to enable Small and Medium sized Enterprises get help, advice and access to finance. And we have been working hard to prepare with you key sectors like agriculture to seek new export markets.
Our support to your country is not just about money. To grow, to become stronger – and certainly to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the Free Trade Area, Ukraine needs an excellent business climate, and efficient administration. We are supporting you in developing better administration in your new amalgamated communes, and I hope that next year we will be able to support a reform of public administration throughout Ukraine.
Another way we help is by sitting with Ukraine in trilateral talks with Russia, on trade and on energy,
In an ideal world it should be possible for Ukraine to have good relations both with the EU and with Russia.
Let’s get one thing straight in this context: There is nothing in our Association Agreement that needs, per se, to damage trade between Ukraine and Russia or any other partner. Ukraine has preferential trade relations with many countries in its neighbourhood. These are perfectly compatible with the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area and there is no reason why they should not be maintained.
The EU is not presenting Ukraine with a false choice here, and I hope that others will not do so either.
Russia's decision to disregard international law and walk away from its own commitments to secure Ukraine's territorial integrity is unacceptable. The illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, the destabilising actions in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, have left us with no alternative but to react with sanctions to persuade Russia to change course.
Our sanctions are hurting Russia. They have also posed some new challenges for entrepreneurs in Europe. But they are an essential message that the European Union will not tolerate this kind of behaviour.
We would prefer to return to a more constructive partnership with Russia. But clearly, we can only even begin to think in these terms if the Minsk Agreements are fully implemented by all players.
We are watching carefully the ceasefire and the agreement reached on the withdrawal of lighter weapons in this regard.
The path ahead looks challenging and will involve painful decisions. But the actions set out in the Minsk agreements are our only hope of moving forward towards a sustainable solution.
In the meantime, we do not and will not recognise the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula. All Members of the European Union recently signed Ukraine’s statement at the UN, on the human rights situation on the peninsula. I know this is a particularly pertinent issue in Lviv, which has received so many IDPs, among them numerous Crimean Tatar people forced to leave their homes.
Ukraine remains a top priority for us. Make the most of the possibilities that are opening up to you and be courageous in the face of challenges – and I promise, we will be there to support you.
Thanks for listening…. now I'm happy to take your questions.