Brussels, 23 March 2017
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Members of Parliaments,
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to close today's conference.
Justice reforms and the fight against corruption are cornerstones of EU priority to strengthen institutions and improve good governance. There can be no trust in any State if corruption constantly drags down the economy and there is no system of independent justice. And citizens have to be treated equally which is why it is so important to ensure that anti-discrimination laws are implemented.
In recent times, there have been important advances in terms of setting up of dedicated agencies or the adoption of specialised laws and strategies, as we have seen in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
However, Moldova and Ukraine need to do more. I can't stress enough the importance of effective implementation and enforcement of those reforms to see tangible results.
These are highly political reforms. Beyond the ground work carried out by the agencies, they require constant engagement at high level. In carrying out those reforms, vested interests might also surface, but a country cannot be expected to reform if its leadership does not take the first steps.
In these fields, perhaps even more than others, we need to show our citizens the concrete results of our joint work. That is why we aim to highlight at the next Eastern Partnership Summit the progress made in specific initiatives to combat corruption and improve justice systems. I have in mind here examples such as:
asset and conflict of interest declarations;
and further development in the establishment of high-level anti-corruption institutions and offices for the recovery and management of assets.
Let me turn now to the state of play in implementation of association commitments, starting with Georgia.
First of all, let me welcome that Visa free travel will become a reality for Georgian citizens on 28 March. This is thanks to the hard work and commitment of successive Georgian governments. Let me also pay tribute to Georgia's ambitious reform programme under the Association Agreement and to the country's successful start in implementing it. Georgia's signature of the Energy Community Treaty last October and Georgia's Association to the Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation are just two more examples of the ever closer links with the EU.
This commitment and courage in implementing reforms pays off, as can be seen in the continuous improvement of Georgia's ranking in various international indexes. In the World Bank Doing Business rankings, Georgia progressed from 23rd in 2016 to 16th in 2017. Transparency International ranks Georgia 48th, well ahead of all its neighbours.
When it comes to the reform of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and also anti-discrimination issues, Georgia is moving ahead with the key reforms.
The EU will of course continue to highlight the importance of respect for the fundamental principles of rule of law and independence of the judiciary and of avoiding any perception of 'politicised justice'. Given what has been achieved so far I am confident that the government will also meet these ambitious targets.
We also encourage Georgia to continue ensuring a pluralistic media environment, as this represents - together with a dynamic and engaging civil society - the very foundation of every democratic country. Pluralism of opinions and ideas should be encouraged, preserved and strengthened.
Georgia's reform efforts also meant that it could benefit from additional EU funds of about EUR 100 million from the 'Umbrella Programme' from 2012 to 2016. And our assistance to Georgia has significantly increased for the period 2014 to 2017, reaching an average of EUR 100 million per annum.
However, in spite of a very strong track record in almost all aspects of the implementation of the AA/DCFTA, the ability of Georgian exporters to benefit from the opportunities offered by the DCFTA remains below expectations (as far as export of agriculture products in concerned).
Turning to cooperation with Moldova, last week (13 March), we published an Association Implementation Report on Moldova that demonstrates a good state of affairs in all the sectors of the Association Agreement over the last two years of implementation.
After a difficult year in 2015, Moldova has re-launched the reform process and with our extensive support, has already adopted a number of laws and measures aimed at addressing our concerns.
The implementation of the DCFTA has thus far been good and has allowed the EU to consolidate its position as Moldova's main trading partner in 2016. (+1.5% for total trade, 63% of Moldovan exports going to the EU, and around 50% of Moldovan imports coming from the EU).
In 2016, Moldova also made significant efforts to align with EU rules and standards in DCFTA-related sectors.
In the justice sector, Moldova adopted judicial reforms in 2016, reducing the number of courts. This should lead to better case management, efficiency and savings thanks to the specialisation of judges.
A new law on the Prosecution Service entered into force last August which should strengthen the independence of the prosecution service.
However, Moldova needs to improve the recruitment system for judges and prosecutors, safeguard the independence of judges and uphold the principle of integrity of all justice sector stakeholders.
Laws have been adopted to improve integrity testing and to set up an Integrity Authority, in order to fight corruption. The law on the set-up of an asset recovery service is currently being discussed in parliament.
Unfortunately, political interference in the judiciary, law enforcement bodies and economic regulators, are impediments to social and economic development. Investigations still need to be carried out to bring all those responsible for the banking fraud – the fraud of the century - to justice. There is no room for political interference here.
On several occasions, the EU has expressed its concerns about the rule of law in Moldova, with selective prosecutions, court hearings behind closed doors, conflicts of interest and increasing pressure on media and investigative journalists.
On anti-discrimination and gender issues, Moldova has made some progress. It has adopted laws to fight sexism and establish quotas for women, taking a step towards gender equality. However, the gender placement provision in the electoral lists is still lacking.
Moldova has also signed the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. However, domestic violence against women and children remains widespread and more needs to be done.
On labour rights, Moldova is moving ahead with transposing EU health and safety directives. It is important that the modification of the Labour Code will not weaken the capacity of law enforcement bodies to safeguard working conditions and labour rights.
We are happy to see that the Association agreement is encouraging Moldova to implement further reforms. However, strong implementation measures are needed in order to deliver tangible results for the population.
This is the only way to build a resilient state and a resilient society, in line with the aspirations of Moldova.
As regards our cooperation with Ukraine, the challenges of implementing its Association Agreement commitments obviously come on top of the enormous difficulties linked to the illegal annexation of Crimea, destabilisation and conflict in the east as well as its macroeconomic situation. Our support remains unwavering: for its territorial integrity and independence, for the implementation of the Minsk agreements and for its wide-ranging reform efforts.
Ukraine has made unprecedented efforts in introducing reforms. More progress has been made over the past two years than in the previous twenty. The provisional application of the trade part of the Association Agreement since 1 January 2016 has already produced considerable results: the volume of trade between the EU and Ukraine has increased by over 8% in just one year.
Through our continued support we encourage the country to stay the course. The focus is on strengthening "accountable and transparent governance", notably through decentralisation, anti-corruption, public administration, rule of law and economic reforms. In 2017 support will focus on energy efficiency, Public Financial Management and support for the conflict-affected areas in the East.
Concrete examples of successful reforms include macro-economic stabilisation, banking sector reform, gas sector reform, reform of the police and public administration. A civil service law and a strategy on reforming the public administration, in line with European standards, are in place. An innovative public procurement system [ProZorro] has already helped save public funds.
While more needs to be done, impressive steps have also been taken in the crucial fight against corruption.
Constitutional amendments as well as new legislation on the judiciary were adopted in 2016 to strengthen judicial independence, reorganise the court system and improve the functioning of justice including prosecution. Implementation – notably setting up of new Supreme Court and of anti-corruption courts – is vital.
New anti-corruption bodies have been established and started their work. They are facing obstacles but the fight against corruption is an area where there is no room for complacency. The EU has been following this very closely and we hope to see convictions in anti-corruption cases. Until now there have been no high-level convictions to the disappointment of the Ukrainian public.
The launch of the electronic asset declarations system for public officials has resulted in the publication of over 100,000 detailed declarations, going beyond anything comparable among EU Member States in its scope and ambition for increased transparency. And now systemic verification and investigations are needed to follow-up on this.
Our response to these efforts is maintaining our - unprecedented - support. The "EU anti-corruption initiative in Ukraine", launched in February 2017, will provide training, technical assistance and IT equipment to all of Ukraine's new anti-corruption institutions.
Progress on anti-discrimination, gender equality and labour rights in Ukraine is regularly discussed in the context of our regular dialogue on human rights. Further work on anti-discrimination will be important and we hope to see Ukraine adopt its new Labour Code soon, including the provisions on prohibition of discrimination in line with International Labour Organisation fundamental labour standards.
Finally our dialogue with Ukraine on visa liberalisation, as part of which Ukraine has worked hard on implementing its reform commitments, means visa free travel to the EU should also become a reality for Ukrainian citizens soon – hopefully by summer – once the decision-making procedures in the Council and European Parliament are finalised.
With all these examples I mentioned for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, I am sure you will agree with me that the positive effects of justice reform and the fight against corruption all contribute to greater resilience as well an optimal climate for attracting investments which contribute to jobs and growth.
Therefore, I would like to conclude by underlining once again that aspects related to judicial reform and anti-corruption have been and will stay at the heart of our engagement.
Thank you for your attention