The political component gained so much importance in Armenia-EU relationship, especially after the story with Association Agreement, that all other agendas of bilateral relations - whether about the human rights, or visa facilitation, improvement of trade environment, or sectorial EU programs - appeared overshadowed with it. Despite all the dialogue and cooperation going on between the Armenia and EU, as long as the new overarching agreement isn’t signed and put into action, the sense of imperfectness in bilateral relations won’t be overcome. Still the negotiations on new agreement, as the Head of EU Delegation to Armenia, H. E. Piotr Switalski tells can’t conclude before the end of 2016.
Below is the interview with Ambassador Switalski that as usual I didn’t record. Still Mr. Switalski delighted me with the manner that in contrary to my expectations, he didn’t tell that some parts of the talk, information, assessments were for my own knowledge and couldn’t be published. Whatever I found important he agreed to be published.
- Mr. Ambassador thanks a lot for this opportunity of talking to you. There are so many questions about the Armenia-EU relations that deserve to be asked, but let me start with exactly this one. On recent days during his annual press-conference Foreign Minister Nalbandyan told that the schedule of EU-Armenia negotiations - launched on December 7 last year - now is determined. So, may I ask for the details - how many rounds there will be and when do you expect to arrive to its completion?
- Yes, it’s true. On December 7th when Minister Nalbandyan and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the Commission (HR/VP) Federica Mogherini launched the negotiations, the parties agreed that during the year 2016 there will be eight rounds of negotiations. They will convene in sequence of one round in Brussels, the next in Yerevan and the intervals between the meetings will make approximately six weeks. Indeed, meetings in every 1.5 months secure a pretty rapid pace of negotiations. In addition to these main tete-a-tete meetings of the negotiating teams, there will be teleconferences and other interaction formats.
Regarding the accomplishment of the negotiations Mr. Nalbandyan and HRVP Mogherini agreed that no deadlines will be set for the process, but both sides will do their best to conduct it successfully and accomplish as soon as possible. However, none expects the negotiations to be concluded earlier than the end of 2016. Time will show when they will be concluded. But the scope and the volume of the negotiating topics is pretty large, containing both political and technical issues – like improvement of trade environment, foreign investments security, energy sector development, etc.
- Sorry, what are the political issues, it’s something new? Would you give an example?
- For example the Armenian side has some ideas that this new agreement should take into account Armenia's commitments and obligations stemming from Armenia's membership to the EEU and CSTO. How and when this request of the Armenian side can be resolved is another issue, which can't happen soon. The European side has made it clear that this new agreement can't be subordinated to other obligations, which is a normal practice in international law.
This is something new which has not been during the negotiations between the EU and Kazakhstan, which is also a member of EEU and CSTO, but there wasn't was such a provision in their Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation agreement. This is a clear example of a political issue and a legal one at the same time, which will have to be resolved. As I said, we can't say when and how, but not soon.
- Mr. Ambassador, the 2015 was a year of failure and disaster for the EEU, the 2016 promises even harsher financial and economic destroy of Russia, so hardly the EEU will survive until the end of 2016, especially if Russia deepens further in Syrian conflict. So my next question - who’s going to be the top EU negotiator with Armenia? I read somewhere that now the Managing Directors for the EEAS Geographical Departments will be the chief figures and negotiators regarding their regions, which means most probably these won’t be the countries’ Directors, like for example Mr. Wiegand was for years.
- Mr. Wiegand has now moved to the position of a Managing Director for Asia and Pacific, so first someone should be selected and appointed to his previous post as Director for Russia, Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, Regional Cooperation and OSCE. Maybe this new person will take responsibilities similar to Mr. Wiegand, but there may be also other considerations. For the moment that’s Dirk Schuebel, Head of Division for bilateral relations with the Eastern Partnership countries in the European External Action Service, who leads the EU team, including for the second round of EU-Armenia negotiations scheduled for the current week.
HORIZON 2020 AND COSME FOR THE FUTURE OF ARMENIA
- Mr. Ambassador, I think next to the launch of negotiations the second important development in 2015 EU-Armenia relations, was the Armenia’s accession to EU Horizon 2020 and COSME programmes. I know that Armenia was in accession process, but don’t realize have we successfully concluded it or are still in process?
- I guess Armenia has already concluded the necessary procedures and has become part of Horizon 2020 and COSME, which really open huge possibilities for Armenian science, innovation and also medium-scale business development. In December the Armenian Minister of Economy Mr. Chshmarityan visited Brussels and I think he signed all the final papers at that time. Also you should know that the EU side made extensive discounts for Armenia – the country will pay just the 50% of the membership fees for both programmes thanks to EU grants. It’s a notable support and I hope the Armenian people will benefit at the best of their abilities from the opening perspectives.
As you may know, the Horizon 2020 is the main EU project in the sphere of research, innovation and technologies with nearly 80 billion dollars budget, and it was absolutely essential and must for Armenia to join this program. If to reflect strategically, then the base for Armenia’s economic growth mainly lies in innovation and science. The Armenians are clever, well educated, so the support, funding and investment in science and innovation may rise the Armenian economy, also its science and society, and the Horizon 2020 makes all that available. From the strategic perspective it was a wise decision by the Government to join Horizon 2020.
- Your insight is encouraging and what about the COSME?
- I think COSME is also an important project that is designed to support the small and medium enterprises. When you analyse from a strategic point of view Armenia should accelerate the strengthening of SMEs. The future of Armenia depends on good economic governance. I don’t agree with some high ranking Armenian officials who consider the small and medium business rather as a tool and measure of social impact than of economic growth. In visible future I don’t see any perspectives of creating some tremendous international brands in Armenia. In contrary to that, you may ask this to any Ambassador in Armenia, all will tell the same - what differs Armenians from other nations, including other EAP countries, is the talent of Armenians in entrepreneurship. Actually every Armenian is a born entrepreneur and it’s the greatest resource for the country’s economic and social rise. Simply the appropriate economic and legal environment should be created and the people should be given the funding and opportunities. They should be encouraged and protected.
- It seems to me there are three obstacles that obstruct Armenia’s economic relief and growth. Firstly the discredited and corrupted authorities with their mal-governance, secondly the imperfect legal environment and absence of even start-up funding and the third problem is the blockage of the country, lack of cheap international transportation, communication, etc. To my understanding the COSME may support with funding.
- Yes, it will support with funding but not only. We also seek improvement of the legal environment for the business. I’m pleased that the Tax Code of Armenia is going to be changed. We encourage the Armenian parliament and authorities to make the new Tax Code and the taxes simple and fair, so they could attract and not distract the entrepreneurs. The security of foreign investments is also crucial and it stands on EU-Armenia negotiations agenda. The corruption is another huge problem that has to be defeated in this country. We are keen to support the Armenian people on all those tracks any way we can.
- Indeed, thanks for that. And are there any particular initiatives proposed in the line of Horizon 2020 or COSME already or we are still in a preparatory period?
- Actually both the Horizon and the COSME require establishment of national bodies that arrange the projects’ operation in the country. So, that’s the Armenian authorities who will establish this body, perhaps the Ministry of Economy will carry the responsibility for that.
EU VISAS AND VISIBILITY
- Mr. Ambassador, I guess there’s a topic that interests the average Armenians even more than the Armenia-EU negotiations, the Horizon and COSME perspectives - it’s the visa-free travel to Europe. I don’t know how many phases does this process have and where Armenia stands now, but to my knowledge the Moldovan citizens already enjoy the visa-free travel to Europe and the Georgia and Ukraine are on same track. So what about the Armenians who perhaps maintain the best connection with Europe?
- Yes, I agree that the Armenians are very well connected with Europe, generally they are incredibly integrating in any society and partly the problem lies there. If tomorrow the Europe opens its doors to Armenia for visa-free travel, definitely every Armenian family might find someone in Europe that will be happy to support or host them. If there are so many Armenians leading to Russia, then imagine how many of them will move to France or Germany which are much better places for most of the Armenians.
However, Armenia still stands in Visa Facilitation phase, in this stage the visa fees are reduced, for some categories even totally cancelled. Definitely at some point in the future Armenia will move from the visa facilitation into visa liberalization, at the end of which the Armenian citizens will be granted visa-free travels, but I can’t tell when this will happen. The visa-related issues weren’t part of Association negotiations and currently that dialogue is separate from the on-going Armenia-EU negotiations.
- Sorry, I don’t think so many Armenians have migrated to Russia. Indeed, some people state imaginary numbers, but I trust to Russian population census, according to which roughly 1 million Armenians live in Russia, and half of them live in Krasnodar and Stavropol regions, even in rural communities. These should be mainly the Hamshen Armenians who lived at Black seashores for centuries - since tsarist regime and earlier. Also several hundreds of thousands Armenians migrated to Russia from Azerbaijan in 1988-89. So statistically and arithmetically there remains pretty modest number of Armenians who could move to Russia from Armenia, maybe the number will get somewhat larger if to include the seasonal male migrants, but they return annually. And anyway I can’t imagine that after lifting the visa requirement the migrant flow from Armenia to EU will be substantially bigger than those from Moldova, Ukraine or Georgia.
- Since 2014 one million Ukrainians have moved to Poland. Of course, from the named countries there’s a considerable migration as well. But the matter is that those three countries – Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine have signed the Association Agreement, and the Brussels can’t tell them we open our borders for free move of your goods and services, but we keep the gates closed for your people. You can’t tell it, so the logic of Association fact and the visa liberalization process obliges to open the EU borders and lift the visa requirements for Moldovan, Ukrainian and Georgian citizens.
- Thanks, I understood, but hope anyway there will be a move. And my last question - referring not to visa, but the EU visibility in Armenia. Millions of dollars are awarded to companies like the GOPA- Cartermill based in Brussels as if for communicating EU policies and activities to Armenian public, but they produce zero results. Shouldn’t something be done here?
- I agree that EU is not visible enough in Armenia. For me it's one of the priorities. What I started with is my personal accessibility for Armenian media as a part of efforts to become more understandable and visible to Armenian citizens. We are also working with the Government, because much of our support goes via budget support. And the Government of Armenia should make it clear to the public that a lot is being done on EU money. As we know, it's not always the case.
For example, I’m sure very few people in Armenia know that twelve court buildings in Armenia were constructed or renovated on EU money. There are also other examples that the European Union gave the money, but there are no visible signs that these projects were financed by the EU. We encourage the Armenian Government to show more what the EU does.
- Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for the interview.