Thank you, Chairman Samad Seyidov, for your invitation to the European Parliament to visit Baku and for hosting us in the busy period of the Islamic Solidarity Games.
It is very important for us to be here in Azerbaijan today – this is my first visit to the South Caucasus since my election as Chair of the Foreign Affairs committee of the European Parliament. Above all, our visit is a demonstration of the resumption of an open and frank dialogue between the European Parliament and the Milli Mejlis.
This week, 8 Members of the European Parliament, representing all of the 6 largest political groups in Parliament are visiting Azerbaijan followed by Georgia and Armenia.
Today, we started with a very good meeting with President Aliyev, followed by the First Vice-Chairman of the Milli Mejlis – Mr Ziyafat Asgarov – then with my counterpart, Chairman Samad Seyidov. This afternoon we will visit internally displaced people and refugees in Masazir followed by a meeting with Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
Finally, as we do in every country we visit, we will also meet with civil society representatives and human rights defenders. It is important for us to meet political authorities, parliamentarians and civil society, to discuss our relations with all the key actors.
Azerbaijan is an important partner for the European Union and we have had the opportunity to reaffirm our support to Azerbaijan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
We share common challenges, such as terrorism and illegal migration. We also share common interests.
A few months ago, the EU and Azerbaijan started to negotiate a new agreement. This agreement is for us both an opportunity to develop a closer relationship to tackle these challenges and pursue our interests. Our partnership in the energy sector is already strategic. Let me just mention the Southern Gas Corridor. There is also potential here to boost our cooperation in terms of tourism, infrastructure and transportation.
The European Parliament is closely following the negotiations of this new agreement and, once the negotiations are over, we will be asked to give our consent to the deal.
The parts of the agreement on our common values such as democracy, the Rule of Law, good governance, the protection of Human Rights and fundamental freedoms – all these are equally as important as the parts on trade and sectorial cooperation. The EU and Azerbaijan agree to these within the UN, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE. All these values will be the subject of the debate in the European Parliament.
For this reason, I am very happy that we have relaunched our interparliamentary dialogue. Already, earlier this month, European and Azerbaijani Members of Parliament agreed in a joint statement that, “progress” in the area of protection of human rights and freedoms “is important also in the context of the new agreement”.
Today, we continued our open and frank dialogue. We welcomed the release of a few Human Rights defenders at Novrus this year as well as Leyla & Arif Yunus in 2015 and we encouraged the authorities to implement the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and swiftly release all political activists and human rights defenders. We also discussed recent legislation, which limits the funding of NGOs, and the situation surrounding some media outlets that are experiencing difficulties in Azerbaijan.
Let me add that we value Azerbaijan´s role as a Muslim secular country, with freedom of religion and belief and inter-cultural dialogue. We also understand the challenges that arise from Azerbaijan´s geographical situation.
This is why we hope that Azerbaijan can prove to become a leading democracy, with a thriving civil society, upholding our common values, at the juncture between Europe, the Muslim world and Asia.
The Rule of Law and an effective fight against corruption can bring more trade and more investment. Our European and Azerbaijani businesses need little more to develop strong partnerships. Together, we will work hard to deepen our cooperation and to support your reform efforts.
Mr Seyidov, I would like to thank you once more and I personally look forward to welcoming you back in Brussels in the very near future.
Thank you and we are ready to take a few questions.