Koenders: ‘Partnership with eastern neighbours still based on fundamental values’

The Netherlands and the EU intend to further strengthen relations with the EU’s eastern neighbours. The announcement was made by foreign minister Bert Koenders on Friday during the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, an initiative between the EU and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus.

‘Increasingly tense times call for better relations and closer cooperation,’ said the minister. ‘The Eastern Partnership is more important than ever, especially in the light of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of eastern Ukraine. Creating and maintaining close ties is the best way of preventing conflicts.’

Mr Koenders believes that closer cooperation between the EU and its eastern neighbours shouldn’t be seen as being directed against Russia. ‘Since the last summit in Vilnius, a lot has happened, especially in Ukraine,’ he said. ‘It’s now more crucial than ever that we stand by the aims of our partnership, which are based on fundamental values like respect for human rights and good governance.’

‘At the same time, the partnership is not a gateway to EU membership’, he remarked. ‘At this stage, we should not arouse expectations that can’t be realised. This will only lead to frustration and disappointment.’

The minister sees establishing closer ties between the EU and its neighbours as primarily a choice in favour of shared values like democracy, a free market economy, human rights protection and good governance. ‘But it’s also a choice in favour of stable international relations,’ said the minister. ‘We don’t want a repeat of a situation like the one in Ukraine after the EU association agreement wasn’t signed.’

Cooperation is also of great importance for the Netherlands and the EU. ‘Cooperation is the best way of contributing to stability and prosperity on the EU’s eastern borders. This is especially important given the rising tensions on the fringes of the Union.’

Mr Koenders noted that in recent years, the EU and its eastern neighbours have begun to work together more closely. ‘This is due in part to the association agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine,’ he said. ‘These ambitious agreements have encouraged economic cooperation and free trade, but also necessary reforms, such as improving the rule of law. Implementing these agreements is a huge task, but our partners can rely on the full support of the EU and the Netherlands.’

The minister also discussed the MH17 incident during the summit. ‘We are using every opportunity to maintain international support for the investigations into the disaster,’ he said. ‘I’m pleased all those present today have rallied behind the call made in the final declaration for all parties to fully cooperate with the investigations and criminal proceedings.’

Mr Koenders also met with his Belarussian counterpart Vladimir Makei in the margins of the summit. He asked for a greater commitment to human rights in Belarus, especially with regard to political prisoners. ‘Respecting human rights is vital for long-term stability and economic development; this is also a focus of the Eastern Partnership.’

In the period ahead, closer cooperation will also extend to the economy and education. ‘We’re making it easier for SMEs from Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to invest in EU member states. This is an important step towards further integrating these countries into the EU market,’ said Mr Koenders. There are also plans for an exchange programme for students from the six eastern neighbours. ‘This will make it easier for young people from these countries to study in the EU, and vice versa. Future relations rely on younger generations getting to know each other’s culture.’