Check against delivery!

Mr President, Dear Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to join you at the Southern Gas Corridor Ministerial Advisory Council. Even more so, as we gather to celebrate its success! I hope that today we open a new chapter in extending and expanding it towards the Western Balkans. Let me touch upon two key issues: our energy cooperation in the context of the Eastern Partnership and with the Western Balkans.

First of all, I would like to welcome the finalisation of the Trans-Adriatic Gas Pipeline, and the start of commercial deliveries of natural gas from Azerbaijan to the European Union. With this, the last leg of the Southern Gas Corridor is completed. This is a great achievement, which we owe to the vision, the perseverance and the efficient cooperation of the states and the public and private stakeholders present here today. Congratulations to all!

The Southern Gas Corridor has been a part of our Eastern Partnership policy agenda “20 deliverables for 2020”. Building on those achievements, we presented last March a Joint Communication on the future policy priorities of the Eastern Partnership, putting resilience at the heart of our cooperation - resilience when it comes to economy as well as energy security. We are now fully engaged in elaborating a plan to implement these priorities - with real targets and objectives. The work done for the Southern Gas Corridor is an inspiration in this context. Strengthening transport and energy connectivity and security of supply supports the resilience of our economies.

Gas has a key role in the transition towards decarbonised economies in Europe’s neighbourhood.

This role needs to be well reflected in our policy objectives that are also addressing energy poverty and fairness. All this needs to be accompanied by significant investments. Through its EU4Energy action, the European Union has supported Azerbaijan and other countries in the region on issues related to energy regulation and connectivity. We will continue to do so, by supporting the clean energy transition, decreasing energy consumption, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

In the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has deeply impacted our economies, it is important to work on resilience, recovery and reforms. We can do that by focusing our efforts on unlocking and mobilising investments in order to build forward and build better.

Let me now move to another aspect that is very important in our cooperation – and something that is very close to my heart - the energy transition in the Western Balkans.

Last October the Commission adopted the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. This Plan sets out EUR 9 billion of grant funding and an additional EUR 20 billion of investments leveraged by guarantees, to support the economic recovery and the long-term convergence with the EU. The plan is focussing on the connectivity of energy, transport and digital infrastructure within the region and towards the EU. It aims to unleash the untapped economic potential of the region and support governments in their endeavours to integrate the economies of the region more closely with one another and with the EU.

Decarbonisation and energy transition are a key objective of this Plan, which is why we dedicated three Flagship initiatives to it: (i) on renewable energy, (ii) on just transition from coal and (iii) on the renovation wave. These flagships reflect the EU’s own energy policy and feature prominently in the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans as endorsed by the leaders of the region.

Natural gas has a special role to play in the Western Balkans as a transition fuel. Currently energy security issues in the region constitute an economic bottleneck. Increasing gas consumption in the region would make it easier to phase out coal. Such a change would not only help us achieve our common climate objectives, but also decrease air pollution – a serious health hazard in the region -  and lead to lower prices for consumers.

To make it happen we need infrastructure. This is why the Economic and Investment Plan lists five essential interconnections that would allow new gas deliveries to the Western Balkans. Those links would also increase security of supply and competition, two cornerstones of the EU energy market, leading to cheaper and safer conditions for consumers in the Western Balkans. At the same time, a clear plan for a coal phase-out is an imperative.

I know there is interest among the Western Balkan economies in new gas supplies and in developing a thriving gas market. This has become clear from the productive discussions we have had in recent months. I look forward to advancing our discussions, and the results of the binding market test planned by our Azeri partners for the summer this year, so that we can start building the necessary infrastructure that delivers gas from Azerbaijan to the Western Balkans as soon as possible and within this Commission’s mandate.

To conclude, let me emphasise that the key condition for moving ahead with those important gas projects is to ensure that they are part of your long-term decarbonisation strategy. First and foremost this strategy needs to include a firm plan for the phase out of coal. And, to enhanced supply, it is essential that the Western Balkan economies set out clear plans for gas rollout as part of wider energy transition plans, and express their positions in the market testing process taking place this year.

I am very much encouraged by the words of President Alijev and Minister Shahbazov that Azerbaijan has the capacity to supply Western Balkan region with a diversified energy mix.

I invite all of us to continue our efforts to reach those important energy and climate commitments, using all the means at our disposal.

The road ahead of us is long but clear, and I sincerely trust we will make it!

Thank you for your attention.