18 March 2005

Benita Ferrero-Waldner EU Commissioner for External Relations Statement by Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner Belarus Assistance Co-ordination Workshop Vilnius, Lithuania, 18 March 2005

Reference: SPEECH/05/187 Date: 18/03/2005


Benita Ferrero-Waldner

EU Commissioner for External Relations

Statement by Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner

Belarus Assistance Co-ordination Workshop
Vilnius, Lithuania, 18 March 2005

Minister, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you to this workshop on coordinating assistance for Belarus. I would like to thank Minister Valionis and the Government of Lithuania as a whole for their support in hosting this workshop. And thank you to all the participants for joining us here for this important meeting.

We are here today for the third and concluding workshop in a series; designed to broaden the donor community, and coordinate our assistance efforts to Belarus, helping it undertake fundamental democratic and economic reforms, support civil society, and address the needs of the Belarusian people.

Before we start our discussions, it is worth reminding ourselves why we are here and what it is we are trying to achieve.

We, the European Union, want to have close relations with all of our neighbours, and that includes Belarus. We want to build a close partnership with Belarus and to share with its people the benefits of our common European home. This is desirable from many perspectives: trade, security, and economic relations, not to mention the cross-border contacts between our citizens. Both sides would have much to gain from such a partnership. And we now have the mechanism for achieving it - the European Neighbourhood Policy.

The Neighbourhood Policy provides our neighbours with a chance to engage in greater political, security, economic and cultural cooperation with the European Union, and thereby strengthens our relationship. It allows for greater involvement in our Single Market; closer cooperation on energy and transport links; and a chance to participate in our internal programmes. We want to see Belarus fully benefit from our Neighbourhood Policy in all its aspects.

But there is a choice to be made. That choice is to turn away from authoritarian, non-democratic structures and to commit instead to our fundamental values. We want to see Belarus as a democratic, stable and prosperous country, fully committed to values we share - respect for the rule of law, good governance, human rights and democracy. Taking steps to demonstrate this commitment is an absolute prerequisite for closer co-operation.

Unfortunately, the present reality in Belarus is far removed from that commitment. It is deeply worrying for us all that democratisation, respect for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are further deteriorating in Belarus. Life is becoming increasingly difficult for democratic forces and independent media, and for contacts between Belarusian citizens and those on the other side of its borders.

The conduct of the parliamentary elections and the referendum in October 2004 demonstrated that Belarus is seriously lagging behind in terms of democratic development.

I am particularly concerned about the case of Mr Marinich, a leading figure of the Belarus opposition. The EU believes that this was a politically motivated trial which ended in a disproportionate sentence on a questionable charge. We have now heard worrying news about the state of Mr Marinich's health, I hope that the Belarusian authorities will do everything they can to facilitate his access to whatever medical attention he needs.

In these circumstances, how should we respond?

We cannot be indifferent to such a situation in any of our neighbouring countries. Following this latest demonstration of the government's scant regard for democratic standards we adopted a two-fold approach, laid out in the Conclusions of the EU Foreign Ministers meeting in November 2004.

On the one hand, we confirmed the restrictions on Ministerial-level contacts with Belarusian authorities, thus sending a clear signal that we cannot tolerate such anti-democratic behaviour.

On the other hand, we sent a clear message to the Belarusian population that they have not been forgotten and that we are strongly committed to supporting civil society and democratic forces in their country. Belarus is part of the European continent and we believe it is natural for us to have close relations. We do not want its citizens to feel they are being punished for the actions of their leaders.

The EU institutions, the EU Member States and our citizens have a genuine and profound interest in encouraging and assisting Belarus in its democratic development. And we all have a part to play in seeking every opportunity to do so.

The European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Belarus has also made a contribution, by developing an "action plan" on EU-Belarus relations. This signals the great concern of the EU's citizens for their neighbours in Belarus, and our solidarity in wishing them a better future.

We also need to make clear that our support for Belarusian democracy is not just rhetorical. For that reason we have considerably stepped up our assistance.

Assistance can be a powerful mechanism for change, providing countries with the skills and tools that contribute to stability, security and prosperity. In the case of Belarus we need to pursue a coherent policy on human rights and democracy in order to make a difference.

Let me take a moment to clarify the Commission's goals in providing assistance to Belarus. Promoting democracy and the rule of law is our main priority. This is not just a question of high-minded principle: democracies are, on the whole, more stable, more prosperous, and better neighbours for EU citizens. Yet we firmly believe that democracy cannot be imposed from outside. A genuine and lasting democracy must develop from within or it will be unlikely to take root. But where our neighbours are turning to us and requesting our help, we are bound to respond. So there are two key objectives for our assistance.

The first is to support democratisation, civil society and democratic forces in the strict sense of the word. We will pay special attention to support for independent media, non-governmental organisations, the strengthening of democratic institutions and the rule of law. We will do this through the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights and the Decentralised Cooperation instrument which was recently opened to Belarus.

The second is to support the broader needs of the population in related areas. The European Commission's Tacis programme focuses on support to the needs of the population and support for democratisation and civil society in the broad sense of the term. Activities under the Tacis programme will be implemented with the full involvement of Belarusian civil society. The use of multiple targeted instruments will considerably increase the effectiveness of our assistance. Over the past years the European Union and its Member States have provided considerable assistance to Belarus. The Commission alone has provided ?222 million since 1991. Key areas of cooperation have been support to civil society and democratisation as well as assistance to alleviate the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe. We have increased our assistance in 2005-06, moving from around ?10 million annually to around ?12 million. Special emphasis has been given to civil society by making over ?5 million available for this purpose this year alone. We are going to be working in areas such as strengthening NGO capacity, promoting knowledge and respect for human rights and democracy, promoting cultural diversity and the fight against and intolerance. I would like to take this opportunity to invite Belarusian and European non-governmental organisations to use these financing opportunities and come up with high-quality proposals. Vital work is being done by NGOs in keeping open the channels of communication with Belarusian society, and it is important that we facilitate your work. We need to combine our efforts to tackle the task of helping Belarusian society develop. We are therefore determined to strengthen our support to the people of Belarus. To conclude, let me turn to the heart of our discussion. Today we will have an opportunity to exchange views among a wide range of stakeholders, including civil society representatives and other donors. We will be working together to coordinate and target our assistance, creating synergies that will help us to help Belarus reach its potential by making progress towards democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Pooling our expertise, we will jointly explore ways to make our support more focussed and efficient and take steps to optimise our roles in the process, bearing in mind the specific added value each of us can offer. Today's event will be an important occasion to intensify the coordination of our assistance to Belarus, not only between the Commission and the Member States, but also with other donors like the US, Norway, and international organisations active in Belarus. This is essential - if we are to see the changes we hope for in Belarus, we must find a way of improving our coordination. In my view, this is a process that needs to be sustained. The Commission is willing to take an active role in this regard. Let me thank you again for your presence here today. I am convinced that this seminar will give fresh impetus to our efforts to help Belarus overcome its challenges. And in working together we can help Belarus and her people towards a more prosperous, more democratic future.