Head of EU Delegation: We very much value Azerbaijan`s long standing good traditions in the area of tolerance and multi-confessional co-existence

In an exclusive interview with AZERTAC`s correspondent, Head of the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan Kestutis Jankauskas has hailed tolerance and multi-confessional co-existence in the country.

"We very much value very long standing good traditions of Azerbaijan in the area of tolerance and multi-confessional co-existence. Recently in September we hosted in Brussels a group of Azerbaijani religious leaders. It was a very good visit, and we need to build on that and continue that cooperation. Also in October our Delegation, helped by embassies of the EU member states, hosted the first ever Euro Tolerance festival in Baku, where tolerance and multiculturalism were one of the main topics. The festival was attended by more than 3000 people and we definitely intend to continue that next year. Next year Azerbaijan will celebrate 100 years of establishment of its independence with various events, which is another occasion to stress tolerance and multiculturalism."

On Azerbaijan-EU relations, Mr. Jankauskas said this relationship is based on the existing partnership and cooperation agreement. He hailed the relationship as good, adding that “we work to make the positive momentum even more sustainable".

“Speaking of achievements, indeed restoration of that trend is very important one. Secondly we have an intensive ongoing dialogue in many areas based on the partnership and cooperation agreement. In February this year we started negotiations on the new comprehensive agreement. In summer this year we restarted negotiations on the aviation agreement. Now we are finalizing partnership priorities, which will serve as a basis for future financial project-based cooperation."

He mentioned the signing of visa facilitation and readmission agreements a few years ago, saying these agreements "actually allow the citizens of Azerbaijan to travel cheaper and easier to the European Union".

“Thinking of wider areas, we can also mention Erasmus+ program. Over 900 students have had a chance in 2015-2017 to benefit from studies in the European Union countries. Last but not least Azerbaijan is a champion in Twinning. Twinning connects civil servants of Azerbaijan and the European Union and exchanges the latest and most modern ways of governance and cooperation in many areas assisting Azerbaijan in the reforms and economic diversification. Currently, 67 per cent of Azerbaijani people think that our relations are good."

“It's good that our relations are based on mutual interest and are pragmatic, but they work even better when they are based on shared values. For that both sides need to contribute."

Mr. Jankauskas pointed out economic relations, saying that “over the years Azerbaijan and the EU have developed very strong economic links”. “Azerbaijan and the European Union are strong partners. The EU is the largest trade partner of Azerbaijan – almost 50 per cent of trade – and the largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan. Since 2009, 14,000 Azerbaijani companies have received over 444 million manats from the European Union. Recently, last June this year, we held another EU-Azerbaijan business forum attended by over 500 people who looked into prospects of our cooperation.”

“What else we could do? First of all, Azerbaijan has embarked on a quite extensive work on economic diversification. And we believe that we also need to diversify our trade. So far most of the trade is oil and gas. We need to go beyond that, for example, trade, food and agriculture, small and medium size enterprises. We work on these areas to enable more and more of good production and diversified exports to the European markets from Azerbaijan. We are quite intensively working on support to vocational training here to produce more skilled labour force for the labour market."

He highlighted some areas for possible expansion of cooperation between Azerbaijan and the EU. Singling out agricultural sector, the head of the EU Delegation said: “In Azerbaijan`s diversification efforts, agriculture is a very important priority. We believe that Azerbaijani farmers will grow very good products and could benefit from access to the European market.”

“Small and medium size enterprises can take a much bigger share in the Azerbaijani market and could be much more of our cooperation. We could do more on education. For example, already 1800 young people have been on the exchanges in various European institutions. We could do more on that. That would help to reduce unemployment and produce a better skilled labour.”

Mr. Jankauskas hailed the inauguration of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, describing it as “a major step providing very important inter-connections between Europe, European Union, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and then connecting it to the Central Asia. “The European Union definitely welcomes this new rail corridor." “We believe that coupled with further work, with future investments, with more increased logistic opportunities and trade opportunities, this road will provide a very-very important transport link between Europe and Asia. This has always been supported in the European Union partnership priorities and also our in Central Asia strategy. Improving interconnectivity has always been our priority. We believe that this is an important link that fits into the ancient Silk route, similarly like Southern Gas Corridor. It is a very important interconnector. Symbolic, I would say, but also very practical, bringing alternative energy resources, gas from the Caspian to the European markets and linking Azerbaijan to the European Union. It fully fits the strategies of the European Union on energy diversification."

He also commented on the settlement of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: "I know very much how painful that problem is here in Azerbaijan. The European Union fully supports efforts of the Minsk Group and its co-chairs. It is an internationally established format for managing this conflict and for maintaining peace talks. We fully support efforts of both parties in settlement of that conflict peacefully. We have been following very closely recent efforts by the two presidents who met in Geneva, and are also now expecting a meeting of the co-chairs and foreign ministers hopefully with some results in the end of this year, the beginning of next year."

Speaking about a new agreement to be signed between Azerbaijan and the EU, Mr. Jankauskas said: “We have started working on the new, comprehensive agreement that will replace the existing partnership agreement, which we have been using since 1996."

“Negotiations started when President Ilham Aliyev made a trip to Brussels this February and ever since we have been intensively working on preparing and negotiating the text. Thera are several parts, including political, sectorial and trade. In all of these three strands work is ongoing. Currently we can note a good progress in this negotiations.” “We hope and keep working to make sure that this agreement is concluded as soon as possible. It will take some time because it's really comprehensive and the content of that is very important."

“Indeed, it will also be noted during the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit that will take place on the 24th of November in Brussels,” he said.

“We keep working on the Joint Declaration to be issued at that summit, and we will also look into the progress and achievements to date, and also how we can work better and more in the years to come to implement 20 priorities until 2020 in a variety of areas to make and connect a stronger economy, stronger governance, stronger connectivity and stronger society. In all of these areas, covering basically all of our relations, we have quite ambitious goals. We will evaluate progress to date and see how we can best work to implement them in the future."

"We look forward to start talks on visa liberalization, but for that we first of all need to make sure that sufficient progress has been achieved in the visa facilitation implementation,” Mr. Jankauskas added.

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