On 1 January 2015, 10 years after Latvia became a member of the European Union, we will assume the rotating presidency of the EU council. This six month period coincides with the end of a period of institutional change, a gradual yet delicate recovery from the economic crisis, growing competition from other regions of the world, and a difficult geopolitical situation. This presents significant challenges and many opportunities. The new legislative cycle offers an opportunity to set the policy course for the coming years.
While our ambition is to bring new vision and dynamism, the presidency is also about continuity. Our priorities are part of the agenda set together with the outgoing presidency of Italy and the next presidency to follow of Luxembourg. We have the EU's strategic agenda and the political guidelines of commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, which need to be implemented. During our presidency, we will focus our work on three main areas - a competitive Europe to promote growth and jobs, a digital Europe to seize the opportunities provided by information and communication technologies and engaged Europe to define our role in global issues.
People in Europe complain that the economic outlook is not brilliant. It is true that many people in Europe are still suffering severely from the crisis, but let’s put that into context. The situation is better than a couple of years ago and we continue to enjoy freedoms that many in the rest of the world are ready to give their lives for. The EU is still the world’s largest economy with strong trading power, specialising in high-end products and services.
"The new legislative cycle presents an opportunity to set the policy course for the coming years"
Our job now is to use our advantages and become more competitive. That cannot be done without investment and a continued commitment to reforms that are aimed at achieving the Europe 2020 strategy.
The commission has already outlined its three-pillar plan to boost investment in Europe. This plan will underpin much of the EU's agenda for the years to come. Members of the European parliament have already expressed their views at the plenary session in November and this is a good basis for further discussion that will continue during the next six months as Latvia will fast-track discussions on the investment package in the council. I share the view that investment should be focused, sustainable, and able to generate new additional investment through a multiplier effect.
The investment package also has to be seen in the context of wider economic reform. During our presidency, we will implement the fifth European semester - the yearly cycle of economic policy coordination on the basis of a renewed Europe 2020 strategy. We are also presented with the opportunity of strengthening the single market, by progressing the remaining single market act II proposals, developing an energy union and a clear action plan for industrial competitiveness.
An effective single market has been the basis of prosperity for Europe and still inspires many outside the EU. The challenge for us is to deepen it and adapt to social and technological change, and developments in global markets. We need to find solutions for business that are also consumer-friendly. The key is better rather than more regulation and removal of the remaining hurdles to trading in goods and services.
Digital Europe, another priority area of our presidency, is essentially about establishing the right framework and infrastructure for a digital economy used by a digital society. Currently, there are over 50 billion inter-connected devices in the world and in the EU alone we can create 900,000 jobs in this sector. Without a clear path towards a digital single market, we cannot contest on the world stage, nor enhance our competitiveness at home. And we have much to share. Riga is Europe’s capital of free wireless internet, with more wifi spots per square meter than any other city in the EU. We have the highest penetration of broadband internet connection, which allows us to provide the fastest internet services in the EU and to be ranked the fourth fastest in the world. So it is not surprising that many information and communication technology start-ups, such as Infogr.am, are emerging from Latvia.
"The grinding stone we have chosen as our logo was once a significant innovation and a trigger of change in households across Europe. For me, the grinding stone also means continuity and stability"
During the coming six months, we will work on initiatives aimed at developing a truly digital single market. This includes measures for removing barriers to cross-border online trade and a more coherent data protection framework. We want to find the right balance between high quality services, a competitive framework and a reasonable cost for consumers. We will also advocate measures that focus on protecting consumer and privacy rights online. In the debate on the next stage of the government action plan, we want to address easier and faster access to public administration, the use of open processes and promotion of digital skills for all. We have to be aware that in order to advance this, we must become digital by default and include digital aspects and solutions to all policy areas and initiatives.
Our third priority area is Europe’s engagement on the global stage. With conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Libya, the security situation on our doorstep is as challenging as ever. The key role of the council presidency in these areas is to assist the high representative of the European external action service. At the same time, our experience and expertise can bring additional value. It is only natural that we will focus more on the eastern partnership, but we also recognise the importance of the southern neighbourhood. In the framework of the regular review of the EU central Asia strategy, we want to examine the possibilities of revitalising the EU's approach to this region.
In May, we will host the Riga eastern partnership summit. We should send a strong signal confirming that the EU has a long lasting commitment towards this region. In the framework of a wider review of the European neighbourhood policy we want to see that the eastern partnership has a more inclusive approach to all six partner countries - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - and take into account their differences.
"An effective single market has been the basis of prosperity for Europe and still inspires many outside the EU"
For creating jobs and growth, we face the challenge of reasserting our role as a competitive economic partner. As a strong believer in the multilateral trading system, the EU should pursue further progress of the negotiations within the world trade organisation (WTO). Yet, while working towards tangible results at the WTO, we must also continue bilateral initiatives to further facilitate trade. We will assist in the continuation of negotiations that are being carried out by the commission on the transatlantic trade and investment partnership and the free trade agreement with Japan. We also hope to obtain consent from the European parliament on the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement in order to reach a conclusion by mid-2015 and will continue efforts to adapt the EU’s domestic trade legislation to reflect the new challenges in the global economy.
The grinding stone we have chosen as our logo was once a significant innovation and a trigger of change in households across Europe. For me, the grinding stone also means continuity and stability. I would like to see our presidency reflect the various facets of our logo. It should bring to the fore energy and growth with which Europe meets new challenges and the future.