Tallinn, 26 October 2017
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Madam President, Vice President of the European Investment Bank, Business representatives, distinguished guests
Allow me to welcome you all to this fourth Eastern Partnership Business Forum and congratulate the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU for proposing such a topical agenda for our debates today.
We are all here today because we share a common objective; to stimulate and galvanise economic growth by creating jobs and business opportunities in the Eastern Partnership countries.
To reach this objective, there must be a political climate in which business can prosper.
The rule of law and economic development are two sides of the same coin; there can be no economic development without the rule of law guaranteeing a stable legal and business environment.
Legal certainty, a functioning independent judicial system, a functioning banking system and fundamental rights like property rights are essential preconditions to attract investors and to stimulate economic growth and jobs.
The key added value of the Eastern Partnership from a business perspective is building and forging links so that entrepreneurs and enterprises from the EU and partner countries can do business together. And one sector in particular has a huge potential for growth – it is the Digital Economy.
Just last month, Tallinn hosted the Eastern Partnership Digital Ministerial. I invite businesses to build on the ambitious commitments made there and reap the benefits of investing in the digital economy.
As a former business man, I am particularly interested in hearing the views of the business representatives here in the room today. I have recently received the Business Position Paper adopted in June 2017, through our EastInvest programme. More than 200 business support organisations were consulted. They have identified the following main challenges for SMEs:
• the business climate;
• capacity for innovation;
• access to markets, finance and skills; and
• taxation and customs procedures.
The Position Paper recommends promoting digital solutions in all these areas. I expect this document to serve as a reference for today's debates and for our further work.
As responsible politicians, donors or financial institutions, we should make every effort to help businesses address these challenges. We are already making progress – let me give you some examples:
• The entry into force of the Association Agreements including DCFTAs and visa liberalisation for the citizens of the Republic of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine have all generated important economic opportunities;
• Business representatives can now move across Europe, contact their counterparts, participate in fairs, exhibitions and events such as this one, promote their products, engage with new partners and explore new markets;
The "EU4Business Initiative" is also making a difference:
• Bilateral and regional cooperation programmes financed by the EU provided support to over 100,000 enterprises and have created 10,000 new jobs;
• Through our key partners - the EIB and EBRD - over 190.000 loans have reached Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises in the partner countries.
• And we keep providing business skills and business advice to partner countries for increased access to new markets, notably with the EU.
At the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels, we will commit to achieving further results until 2020 and beyond. In close cooperation with our International Financial Institutions, we aim to stimulate lending in local currency.
Already this morning, with Vice President Hudak, we signed an agreement under which the EU, in cooperation with the EIB, will provide long term finance in local currency for the SMEs in Ukraine through our blending instruments.
Also, this morning, the European Investment Fund and local banks from Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine signed EU-funded Guarantee Agreements to improve access to finance for SMEs operating in the context of the DCFTA. You will hear more about access to finance during the dedicated panel later today.
Our new EU4Innovation initiative should help SMEs access innovation and digitalisation through research-industry partnerships. We have also recently launched the Ready to Trade project to support SMEs exporting to the EU and within the region.
And finally, the new External Investment Plan, of which you will hear more in a dedicated session tomorrow, includes an innovative guarantee, that will facilitate and demonstrate the benefits [for private businesses especially] of investing in key sectors in our partner countries. Our ambition is to have a significant multiplier effect, triggering more investments.
Ladies and gentlemen, in any partnership, responsibilities are shared.
We count on the International Financial Institutions and national banking systems to facilitate access to finance - indispensable for a successful business to thrive.
We count equally on partner governments to continue implementing key reforms to improve the business environment. According to the latest World Bank's Doing Business Report, Georgia and Belarus were among the top 10 world reformers in 2017. This trend should continue, with more partners joining the group.
The business community is naturally focused on efficiency and results. We certainly count on you to bring an added dynamism to our cooperation, to make our work more efficient and to contribute to spreading prosperity and hope to as many citizens as possible.
I look forward to animated debates and fruitful "Business to Business" sessions in this Forum.