The Head of the European Union Delegation to Azerbaijan, Ambassador Malena Mard, explains in an interview why the partnership between the EU and Azerbaijan is so important.
Which are the main EU values that are shared by Azerbaijan?
The European Union wants to see a democratic, prosperous and stable neighbourhood, including of course Azerbaijan. It is important in this context to note that Azerbaijan and the European Union's member states are members of the Council of Europe, and on that basis we co-operate on, and discuss, our commitments as members of the Council of Europe, which are the same for Azerbaijan as for all European Union member states. We have several joint projects between the EU, the Council of Europe and Azerbaijan, which are being implemented in Azerbaijan on different topics.
Do you see any divergence between European values and those of Azerbaijan?
I like to talk about universal values and rights rather than those of any particular country or region, and I think we can look at things from that perspective.
Why does the partnership with Azerbaijan matter for Europe?
First of all, Azerbaijan is in our neighbourhood and neighbours matter a lot. On that basis, it is important for the European Union to promote democracy, stability and prosperity in our neighbourhood, including in our co-operation and dialogue with Azerbaijan. The European Union co-operates broadly with Azerbaijan in many sectors. The EU is the main trading partner of Azerbaijan and the EU is one of the largest foreign direct investors in Azerbaijan's economy, so we are very much engaged in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is also a strategic partner to the European Union in the field of energy. We very much look forward to our joint priority project to deliver the Southern Gas Corridor, with the first gas flowing to Italy in early 2020.
What does it mean to be a good neighbour?
A good neighbour is one who is respectful but not afraid of also pointing out to colleagues and partners when you think that something may not be developing in the right direction. It is very important for us to have an open and frank dialogue between the European Union and our partners in the neighbourhood.
Do close ties with the EU come at a cost for Azerbaijan’s other relationships in the region?
It is important to develop ties with your neighbours in your region. I do not see any contradiction between strong ties with the European Union and also with other neighbours, such as for instance Turkey; on the contrary, strong ties with Azerbaijan’s immediate neighbours will also mean that co-operation can develop further with the European Union.
What is the impact of EU support provided to Azerbaijan?
Many partners in Azerbaijan are very interested to learn from the European Union's experience, especially as Azerbaijan is developing its reform programme on diversification of the economy. Many people have a positive view of the European Union and European society and want to learn from EU experience.
To give you a concrete example, I recently inaugurated, together with Azerbaijani partners, a joint training programme on delivering social service support to rural areas in Azerbaijan. This is a programme that is helping to train social workers going out to provide services to elderly people, to families in challenging situations, and to vulnerable groups. With the input of EU experience, I hope this programme will have a positive direct impact on the everyday lives of Azerbaijani citizens.
Why is education so important in terms of EU assistance to Azerbaijan?
Education is an area where the Azerbaijani government has decided that there is a need for reforms, including in the field of vocational training. Currently, there seems to be a certain mismatch in the skills provided to different kinds of professional groups and the needs of the Azerbaijani economy, and this topic is particularly important for the business community. To ensure economic growth outside the oil and gas sector you need to develop your skills and invest in education. I think that cooperating with Azerbaijan in the field of education is a right priority for the EU, because investing in education means investing in the future.
How do people in Azerbaijan perceive the EU, do they know enough about the EU?
Many people are very curious about what the European Union is, and what we are actually doing. During my many field trips, talking with young people, talking with teachers, talking with social workers, I have always observed a curiosity about the European Union. I think that there is a wish to know more about the EU. This is why it is also important that we are increasing our people-to-people contacts. I think that to promote people-to-people contacts is one of the best ways of ensuring that we have a strong basis for our EU-Azerbaijan partnership.
In which fields is the EU most active supporting Azerbaijan?
We offer a great deal of support in the field of education, with a focus on vocational training. A second priority area is support to regional and rural development, which is extremely important in a country where up to 50 per cent of the population is employed in the wider agricultural sector in rural areas. The EU in this context also supports the development of small and medium-sized companies in Azerbaijan with different programmes. Good governance is a third priority for our co-operation. It is important to support building strong institutions in any country and this is what we are trying to do together with our partners.
This interview has been produced by the EU Neighbours East project.