-- Translation of advance text --
Members of the German Bundestag,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to welcome you to the Federal Foreign Office for the New Year Reception of the Eastern and Central Europe Association. Let me also pass on the warmest greetings of Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier who is in Paris today meeting his French counterpart. You all know the great interest he has in your region and indeed how important economic matters are to him.
Dr Felsner, let me first of all congratulate you most sincerely on your election as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the OMV. You have set yourself ambitious goals. You want to continue the growth of the OMV and further strengthen the Association as the voice of the German economy in business with the East. Let me assure you that you will find many who share your passion and dedication here in the Federal Foreign Office, not least Minister Steinmeier himself.
Even if the Western European EU countries remain our biggest trade partners, Eastern Europe and Central Asia are certainly amongst the most important growth markets for the German economy. The businesses in the Eastern and Central Europe Association are on the up in the region with top level products, entrepreneurship and the essential willingness to take risks. This is not to be taken for granted! The competition is not resting on its laurels, not just in Europe, but also in countries such as China or Turkey.
With your dedication, you are anchoring prosperity in our country. But you are also exporting a dose of German business culture. German companies represent prime quality but also fairness and transparency towards business partners and staff. These corporate values make their mark on the entire business sector in the partner country. You and your businesses are behind the positive image of Made in Germany. Let’s work together to ensure this remains the case!
Associations such as the OMV are amongst the central factors behind the success of German businesses. Through them, entrepreneurs can set up networks, exchange experience, explore opportunities and avoid mistakes. Yet businesses and associations are not out on a limb. Promoting German business interests and cooperating on tapping new growth markets are amongst the most important tasks of the German Government and the parties in the coalition. The Grand Coalition is also a grand coalition to support German businesses around the world!
This Ministry is open to you and not just today for the New Year Reception. It is open the rest of the year too! Our missions abroad provide advice and assistance as you establish contacts –often in direct cooperation with the OMV. They help businesses deal with government agencies and, particularly in difficult markets, they work to provide fair access.
We all know that competition is getting stiffer. In many countries, the political conditions have not changed for the better. The security and success of your investments also depend on political stability, on the rule of law and on a business-friendly climate. Here, too, we stand ready to help, even if in some countries we still have a long way to go.
I would like to use this opportunity to make a few remarks about some countries which are the focus of OMV members.
Poland, our biggest trade partner amongst the EU member states in the region, is in many respects a prime example of the success of policies geared to markets and competition.
No other country in Europe has managed since acceding to the EU to chalk up an uninterrupted chain of positive growth rates. Even at the height of the recent economic and financial crisis, Poland stood strong as a pillar of political and economic stability. Close geographical and political ties together with shared values are the best way of achieving even greater integration between our economies and our businesses.
But it is not just large countries like Poland that warrant our attention. With enormous efforts, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have found their way out of the crisis – largely off their own bat. In Europe, they now rank once more amongst the leaders on economic growth. I have particular respect for Latvia which managed to join the eurozone – right on schedule – just a few weeks ago. Despite all the talk of crisis as well as the real problems which we have to tackle in Europe and which I by no means want to belittle, the introduction of the euro in Latvia was an important signal that Europe and the common currency are striding forth.
The European Union’s eastern neighbours face major decisions as shown once more by the summit in Vilnius in late November and Ukraine’s surprising rejection of the association and free trade agreement. Facing the choice between short-term assistance offered by Russia and the long-term prospects offered by the EU, the Ukrainian leadership opted for the short term solution. But this can only mean a postponement of the necessary political and economic reforms in the country. It does not offer a real solution to the fundamental problems the country faces.
As Europeans, we now face the task of finding new and more flexible tools to satisfy the ongoing wish of many Ukrainians for stronger links to Europe. Thus we need to keep working to ensure that Ukraine and Armenia which also decided against signing the association agreement do not have to choose between the EU and Russia. It is thus a good idea to leave our offers on the table and actively strengthen the various transformation processes in the fields of democracy, human rights and good governance.
But there were also glimmers of hope in Vilnius. Moldova and Georgia initialled the EU agreement which was a milestone in relations with these two countries. Our aim now is to sign both agreements as soon as possible. After all, only they pave the way for comprehensive modernisation and an economic upturn.
It will come as no surprise that cooperation with Belarus remains difficult. The shortfalls on the rule of law, human rights and democracy persist. This places a heavy burden on trade and investment relations.
To participate fully in the Eastern Partnership, countries have to take a number of political steps. If Minsk wants to move closer to the EU, this, along with sustainable economic reform, is the yardstick. Contacts at civil society level are especially important when it comes to building mutual understanding. To my mind, it is thus a positive step that Belarus announced in Vilnius that it was prepared to accept the EU’s offer to negotiate a visa facilitation agreement.
The German economy benefits in no small measure from our dense and diverse relations and our trade with Russia. But precisely because of the close nature of these relations, you know, indeed we all know, that Russia is and remains a difficult partner. But this does not mean we can just stop thinking and being creative. The two countries share a long and chequered history and for centuries have enriched one another. Major Russian industrial centres such as Yekaterinburg are largely the fruit of German entrepreneurship. And, turning to World War Two, we have had our share of bitter experiences. We cannot afford to turn our backs on one another but we must look for ways of looking to the future together. We must deal with conflicts frankly, we must remind Russia of its international obligations and global responsibility. But we also need to look for shared interests and keep our eyes open to social developments whether on or below the political level. In Russia, a new middle class is emerging as is a new sector of small and medium sized enterprises. They are our partners and we should encourage them. Russian society is changing! And we have a burning interest in ensuring this society takes the West as its model.
International business draws its lifeblood from openness and exchange. The further development of Central and Eastern European societies also depends on whether people can come to us and get to know their Western neighbours. That is why the question of visa liberalisation is of prime importance – an importance stretching far beyond the practical benefits – when it comes to our relations with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Some progress has been made. Visa facilitation agreements with Moldova and Ukraine entered into force on 1 July 2013 and the first agreement with Armenia kicked in on 1 January 2014. A visa facilitation agreement with Azerbaijan was signed in the autumn. Also with Georgia, considerable progress was made on visa dialogue in 2013. There is currently little movement with Russia. This is partly due to the political problems in Russia, but also problems with us and our European partners. Particularly if we want to see long term development in German-Russian relations, we should increase our efforts to move forward. I know that the Federal Foreign Office and German businesses are pulling in one direction here. I hope that, together, we will manage to remove some of the obstacles.
There are many different points of contact in the cooperation between the East and Central Europe Association and the Federal Foreign Office. Let us continue and step up this good cooperation for the benefit of all – both at home and abroad.
I wish you every success in 2014 and many interesting and beneficial talks during today’s reception. Thank you very much.