I feel honored to have been invited to this important gathering of think tanks from sixteen central European countries and from China.
The place and time of our gathering is deeply symbolic. We meet in Slovenia, a country which connects various European regions and cultural traditions. Connectivity is one of our main objectives and cherished values.
Moreover, we meet at the time when our global connectivity and interdependence are not only recognized as facts, but above all, as a matter for thinking about our common future.
Interdependence today requires both - reflection as well as practical work. And it all has to start with the understanding of the historical depth of our connections. The notion of the Silk Road conveys this message, the message of ages of communications and of the historic roots of our interdependence.
In addition, there are many other historic examples, some of them long overlooked. This year we commemorate the centennial anniversary of the beginning of World War I, a cataclysmic and deeply tragic experience which has marked the tragic nature of history for the entire 20th century. Here, in Europe the commemorations are felt deeply and sincerely. We, the Europeans, are again becoming aware of many of the painful experiences of that terrible war, some of them long neglected or forgotten. The fate of a hundred forty thousands of Chinese laborers who were sent to France and England to help in the war effort - many of whom died during the war because of overwork and difficult labor conditions - has been, until recently, unrecognized and largely unknown. This year we all recognize their sacrifice. This shows that the world today is better aware of its shared history than was the case before.
Our shared history and our shared future, this is the realization which ought to guide Europe and China today in an effort to improve the world.
The last two and a half decades, the period that we in Europe describe as the “post cold war era” has been marked by profound changes in Europe and with the breathtaking development in China. This development has opened new opportunities for global cooperation and calls for careful consideration of all the problems that impede global development.
Let me mention just a few.
Cooperation to find technological and economic solutions of the problems resulting from global warming must be strengthened. A common effort of the key global players - such as the EU and China is essential for the much needed success.
The current discussions in the UN devoted to the Millennium Development Goals post 2015 should be used for the formulation of the objectives and targets that will guide policy makers towards a more coherent and sustainable path of global development in the coming decades.
The United Nations Organization and its programs, funds and agencies must be strengthened and made better capable to assist in the global development effort.
The United Nations Security Council should improve its effectiveness in dealing with the variety of challenges to international peace and security in the world. In this context is necessary to emphasize the special role and responsibility of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Only their collective work can guarantee a more peaceful and secure world. Their strategic understanding and cooperation is essential for the future.
These are some of the main issues of the world today. It is important to keep in mind the “big picture” while discussing more specific projects of cooperation. The European Union and China will meet in discussions on all the key issues of the world. They have to understand each other fully and cooperate effectively in order to fulfill their common historic responsibility.
And it is precisely in this context, in the context of the much needed deepening of understanding of each other of our shared destiny where the cooperation in the format of 16 + 1 has its most important value. The format is imaginative and contains great potential. It includes countries of central Europe, both EU members and non members and seeks to strengthen the economic development in both - as well as in China. This is welcome, not least because Europe, divided artificially in the recent past, needs additional development efforts in its central and eastern parts so as to avoid new artificial divisions. An accelerated economic development of this part of Europe would be an important contribution to stability of the continent as a whole and should be welcomed by all. At the same time it is increasingly well understood that China has very good reasons for additional development efforts in its western provinces. This too is in the interest of us all.
In Europe, the EU enlargement of the past decade represents a very positive, indeed historic change - for Europe and for the world. The economic development in the new member states has been significantly strengthened. Implementation of the demanding EU standards in the fields of technology, trade and environmental protection is a major part of this positive change.
However, the process is far from completed. The development gap between the old and the new members of the EU continues to be significant and there is a need for special attention to the needs in all European countries represented in the 16 + 1 format. The needs for a nuanced application of the EU standards and their gradual implementation have to be examined carefully, on a case by case basis. As we know from experience, very often wisdom requires a special understanding of the needs of the partner in a weaker position. All can benefit from cooperation that takes such specific needs into account.
An important additional factor lies in the circumstance that some of the participating sixteen states do not - as yet - belong to the EU. It is realistic to expect that the preparatory process of their accession will take time. This is an additional reason for the effort to find imaginative ways to strengthen their connections with China, the powerhouse of global development.
The words “connections” and “connectivity” are central in this regard and they relate not only to roads and railways but also to all other forms of communication and people to people contacts. Culture and tourism are of great importance in this context.
This brings me to some of the more specific areas of cooperation. Obviously, our cooperation is not starting from scratch and the level of achievement and experience gained so far varies from country to country. At the same time it is necessary to bear in mind that cooperation of Central and Eastern European countries accounts only for 10 per cent of the total of the European Union’s trade and investment with China. This tells us a great deal about the untapped potential and of the need for practical projects for the future.
Some areas of future cooperation are recognized already. Our part of Europe needs new and improved roads and railways, as well as much other, new infrastructure. It should be understood that projects such as the future Budapest - Belgrade railway can represent a major contribution to the development of infrastructure in the region and an important boost to economic development.
Much can be done in the manufacturing industries. Central and Eastern European countries have significant industrial traditions and skilled labor and management. It is both possible and necessary to find the production capacities appropriate for additional investment and capable of developing new products interesting for markets in China, in Europe and elsewhere. The example of “Durabus” buses manufactured in Maribor, Slovenia, is a small but telling example.
An expansion in trade and investment will require additional financial services, an area of cooperation that clearly has to be developed much further from the current levels.
And then tourism, an industry that has demonstrated steady and reliable growth of 4-5 per cent globally even at the time of the recent financial and economic crisis. In some parts of the World, China being a prime example, tourism has been growing at double digit growth rates. Tourism represents a major potential. However, it has to be understood that new tourist markets are characterized by their own cultural traditions and that tourism industry has to develop new products for its future expansion.
This brings me to my final and most fundamental point. I wish to emphasize the central importance of the mutual cultural understanding, a basic requirement of all other forms of cooperation. Here too, a basis already exists and it has to be made broader and stronger. The Confucius Institutes have already made a major contribution to the spreading of knowledge about Chinese culture and art. Their work will undoubtedly expand in the future and become ever more diverse.
At the same time, it is understood that cultural cooperation is a two way street. There is very little doubt left that many more people in this part of the world will have to learn Chinese in the future. The initial results are becoming visible already. At the same time, we in Slovenia welcome the care for studies of the Slovene language in China. I believe that similar sentiments exist in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe as well. Linguistic diversity is one of its major features of our region and traditionally an important factor of political identities of our peoples. It will be a necessary part of our future cooperation.
Central and Eastern Europe represents the converging area of the great Euro-Asian belt. Let us use our geographic position for a strengthened economic convergence and, through such a convergence, to international stability and new levels of global development.
I thank you for your attention.