EC President Van Rompuy: The relations between Azerbaijan and the EU are deepening

rend interviews President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, on the eve of his visit to Azerbaijan

-What issues do you plan to discuss during your forthcoming visit to Azerbaijan? What are the priorities of the multilateral cooperation between Azerbaijan and the EU?

First let me say that I am looking forward to visiting Azerbaijan for the first time. I see the visit as a direct follow-up to my last meeting with President Aliyev, in June 2011, where we agreed to work jointly to strengthen relations between the EU and Azerbaijan.

Today the European Union and Azerbaijan are working together on a wide range of issues of common interest. We are currently negotiating an Association Agreement, covering all areas of our cooperation: mobility, energy and economic cooperation as well as issues related to regional and international security.

This visit will be an important occasion to assess the state of play for our relations and to advance our cooperation. Our agenda will also include discussions on internal developments in Azerbaijan and in the European Union, and on regional security issues such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

One of the cornerstones of our relations is the community of values enshrined in the Eastern Partnership and already in the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which Azerbaijan has signed up to. For economic reform and for our bilateral cooperation to be sustainable, it will have to go hand in hand with political reform and the respect for human rights and the rule of law. The stronger Azerbaijan's commitment to pursue genuine reform and advancing human rights and the rule of law, the more the EU will be able to cooperate and support you. In this regard, the recent release of the remaining nine participants of the rally held in Baku on April 2, 2011 is a positive sign and an important step taken by Azerbaijan towards ensuring full-fledged exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms to its citizens.
-The EU is actively monitoring the process of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement. The last resolution adopted by the European Parliament on this issue in April confirms this fact. Does the EU plan to take a more active part in the settlement of this conflict?

The EU is wholeheartedly committed to supporting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process. This conflict has devastated lives, held up progress and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Military force will not resolve the conflict in a lasting way. Only a peaceful, negotiated settlement can allow the entire region to move beyond the status quo toward a secure and prosperous future.

Only peace can bring new economic opportunities and can help unleash the full potential of the South Caucasus region as a gateway between Europe and Asia. This is in the best interest of our partner countries Azerbaijan and Armenia, and is also of strong interest to the EU.

The EU has reinvigorated its support to the work of the OSCE Minsk group. We welcome all the considerable efforts of the Co-Chairs: France, the Russian Federation and the United States of America. The final responsibility to reach an agreement is essentially in the hands of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and we urge them to pursue a peaceful solution based on the Madrid principles with vision, wisdom and courage.

We are concerned by the slow progress in the negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It was with great concern that I learnt about recent violence along the Line of Contact and the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia [editor's note: border between the two countries in Azerbaijan's Gazakh region], and I deeply regret the tragic and unnecessary loss of life. The EU stands ready to help with confidence building measures, in support of the work of the OSCE Minsk group and its co-chairs.

In support of efforts towards peace, the EU conducts regular political dialogue with both partner countries, and has also appointed the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia, Ambassador Phillipe Lefort.
-Currently Azerbaijan is choosing the route of its gas delivery to Europe. In your opinion, what criteria should Azerbaijan follow while making this choice? What prospects will Azerbaijan have after launching gas supplies to Europe?

First of all, I would like to mention that over the last year the European Union and Azerbaijan have made considerable progress in improving energy cooperation, including work to develop the strategic Southern Gas Corridor, which will bring gas to Europe.

Energy is an area where Azerbaijan and the EU both have an interest: Azerbaijan needs to ensure stable exports to the EU, and the EU needs to diversify its imports. Commercial profitability is essential, and the EU strongly favours a route with a capacity to eventually provide large volumes of gas with more gas suppliers involved.

For Azerbaijan, supplying gas to Europe will mean long-term economic cooperation with a stable and reliable partner with the world's largest integrated market.
-What are the priorities for economic relations between Azerbaijan and the EU?

I am pleased to note that bilateral trade relations continue to increase. Over the last year, EU imports from Azerbaijan increased by over 50%, and EU exports to Azerbaijan rose by over 20%. However, more can be done to diversify Azerbaijan's exports, as nearly all of the EU's imports from Azerbaijan still consist of fuels and mining products.

Azerbaijan is committed to diversifying its production base. The EU can offer a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area to Azerbaijan to lift barriers to trade and to increase ties with the EU's internal market, by adopting norms and standards closer to those of the EU. However, entering into such a Free Trade Area with the EU requires countries to be members of the World Trade Organization. That is why one of our current priorities is to enhance the dialogue with Azerbaijan on its accession to the World Trade Organization.
-Under the mandate of the European Union, negotiations are underway with Azerbaijan on visa facilitation and readmission. When the negotiations are expected to be completed?

There is a strong willingness from the European Union and Eastern partners to expand cooperation between people, by facilitating and encouraging contacts and mobility.

That is why the EU adopted directives to negotiate visa facilitation and readmission agreements with Azerbaijan in 2011. A successful first round of negotiations was held in Baku in March 2012. Azerbaijan demonstrated commitment and a constructive attitude which I warmly welcome. These negotiations will require strong political will and commitment and hard work. Similar negotiations with other countries in the region have been met with success, and I am confident Azerbaijan will also do what is necessary in this regard.