The vision that drives the Latvian presidency of the Council of the European Union is that of a competitive, digital and engaged Europe. These three areas and their different facets also dominated the discussion at FNF Europe’s and the ALDE Party’s first Liberal Breakfast in 2015, which drew a large audience despite the early morning hours.
Having successfully overcome a deep economic crisis themselves, Latvia is eager to help improve Europe’s economic situation and competitiveness. “During the crisis, we learnt our lessons,” said Janis Berzins, Spokesperson at Latvia’s Permanent Representation to the EU. He underlined that Latvia did not only employ hurtful measure like cutting wages. “There was a second tier: increased spending on investment.” By investing in schools, hospitals and streets, Latvia managed not only to rebound but to become one of the fastest growing countries in Europe. Thus, furthering an agreement on the Commission’s proposed Investment Plan is a key element of Latvia’s presidency.
Moreover, strengthening the single market and moving forward with a European energy union are key to Latvia, said Janis Berzins. In order to set up a successful energy union, he explained, Latvia would focus on building the necessary infrastructure, enhancing solidarity among countries and increasing energy efficiency as well as the use of renewable energies. Fittingly, Sir Graham Watson, the President of the ALDE Party, had earlier welcomed the Latvian presidency saying they would bring their remarkable can-do spirit to the EU and inject it with energy – what a well-chosen ambiguity!
A digital and engaged Europe
Referring to the second priority, a digital Europe, Janis Berzins elaborated on Latvia’s ambition to move Europe towards a digital single European market. To highlight the current challenges in this area, he drew on a story recounted in a video statement by Juris Puce, leader of the Latvian liberal party Latvijas attīstībai. In this video, Juris Puce had told the story of a young entrepreneur who was selling her social media services in three countries and had to register four different companies in order to deal with taxation and other important business matters. “You have to be able to work from where you are,” commented the spokesman from the Latvian Permanent Representation. From his point of view to achieve this goal, the web has to be accessible for everybody and people need to be able to trust that their data is protected.
As to the third priority of Latvia’s presidency, an engaged Europe, Janis Berzins referred to many different facets. He drew a picture of a global European player involved in such different areas as enhancing security, fighting Ebola, fostering a good neighborhood, increasing trade through TTIP and other agreements, and successfully managing migration.
Challenges of the Latvian presidency
Being asked for the biggest challenge of holding the EU presidency, the Latvian diplomat turned surprisingly personal: “The biggest challenge is how to stay awake,” he admitted smilingly. “There are so many things to do; we keep running out of time, we need to stay focused, move forward and keep track of everything.” Turning back to the policy sphere, he said that one of the biggest challenges for Europe was to increase public support for the European project. This could only be achieved once politicians no longer “privatize” successes of the EU for their party’s and personal ends.
A representative from the employment agency sector asked about the social aspects of the Latvian presidency. Janis Berzins answered that the first social protection pillar should always be to have a job and earn a living. Therefore, Latvia aims to create more jobs through growth and teaching young people the (digital) skills they need for a successful career in a changing working environment.
Lastly, a topic of interest to the audience were EU-Russia relations. Sharing a border with Russia and having a considerable Russian minority in their own society, Janis Berzins underlined that it is vital to understand what’s driving Russia. For him, solving the conflict should start by repeatedly pointing out that Russia faces no threat from the EU and powerful nations. He said, deepened free trade was also a likely future scenario.
Wrapping up the discussion, Graham Watson thanked Janis Berzins for his remarks and said “You know how to get things done!” – The next six months will show just how much energy Latvia will be able to inject into the EU.
Caroline Margaux Haury
Photo credits: FNF Europe