Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top foreign and security policy official, praised “real progress” in the expansion of the EU’s relations with Armenia as she wrapped up a visit to Yerevan on Thursday.
Ashton met with President Serzh Sarkisian and other Armenian officials on the final leg of her tour of the three South Caucasus states.
“I want to express my pleasure at the progress that is being made in the bilateral relations between the European Union and Armenia,” she told a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian.
“As I described it earlier to you [Nalbandian,] I think we have made real progress in developing the strength of this relationship,” she said. “And as you rightly say, it’s a relationship based on values that we share, the values of support for the people of this country and support for democracy and human rights and the rule of law.”
Ashton appeared to refer to ongoing negotiations on a wide-ranging “association agreement” between the EU and Armenia stemming from the bloc’s Eastern Partnership program for six former Soviet republics.
Senior Armenian and EU officials reported further progress towards the signing of such an accord after a fresh round of talks held in Yerevan late last month. In particular, they said the Armenian government has pledged to address by the end of this year EU concerns preventing the official launch of separate talks on the creation of a “deep and comprehensive free trade area,” or DCFTA.
The DCFTA is a key element of the association agreement proposed to Yerevan. It envisages not only mutual lifting of customs duties but also harmonization of Armenia’s economic laws and regulations with those existing in the EU.
Ashton singled out the future free trade regime, saying that it will “make a huge difference” for Armenian and EU businesses. “I think progress now made on moving towards a free trade agreement will come to fruition in the next few months,” she said.
The Armenian leaders, meanwhile, reaffirmed their strong commitment to the Eastern Partnership and Armenia’s broader European integration. Meeting with Ashton late on Wednesday, President Sarkisian said, “Our goal is precise and we have stated on many occasions that we see Armenia’s future as a prosperous country built according to European standards, and we are following that path steadfastly.”
Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (no relation) gave the chief EU diplomat similar assurances the next morning. “Our relations with the EU have entered a new phase of development lately,” he said, according to his press office. “As a result of that, we have given new impetus to reforms implemented by us.”
Tigran Sarkisian detailed those reforms during two recent visits to Brussels. He said they cover 33 specific areas of state policy, including human rights protection, judicial reform, tax and customs administration as well as food safety.
The premier also told European politicians last week that the Armenian parliamentary elections scheduled for next May will be the most democratic in the country’s history.
Armenian opposition leaders dismissed that pledge, however, saying that the authorities are in fact planning to rig the vote. Some of them have repeatedly accused the EU and other European structures of turning a blind eye to electoral fraud and human rights abuses in Armenia.
Speaking at the news conference, Ashton also insisted that Brussels has not delayed the start of formal negotiations on simplifying visa requirements for Armenian citizens travelling to EU countries. The EU’s top decision-making body, the European Council, has yet to give the green light for such talks.
According to Ashton, “many issues of technical nature” still need to be resolved by the two sides. “Once you have done all the technical work then the process of negotiation moves much more quickly,” she said. “So you shouldn’t see this as being about delay. It’s about making sure that everything is actually in place.”