We are the European Union
The second Latvian foreign policy debate, dedicated to the 91st anniversary of Latvia’s international recognition, was held at the Saeima on January 26.
In comparison to the very first foreign policy debate last year, this debate was animated if not heated on some sensitive domestic issues. The opening speech delivered by Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs was debated by nearly 30 speakers, with Saeima Chairperson Solvita Āboltiņa and Saeima Foreign Policy Committee Chairman Ojārs Kalniņš taking the lead, followed by former president Valdis Zatlers (now head of the Saeima Defense and Security Committee), Defense Minister Artis Pabriks, parliamentary secretaries from the sectoral ministries, the heads of the parliament’s international delegations, as well as members of coalition and opposition factions in the parliament.
Experts praised Minister Rinkēvičs for his clear presentation and his repeated intermissions in order to respond to additional issues raised and questions posed. They also marked three streams of opinions taking shape during the debate – the coalition, the opposition, and the National Alliance.
Thus, according to BNS, Foreign Policy Institute Director Andris Sprūds noted that “The coalition position fortified the vision presented by the minister, the opposition tried to speak in the name of its electorate and gave a clear signal that its members were against the new EU Fiscal Discipline Treaty,” while “the National Alliance balanced on the brink of coalition solidarity by posing uncomfortable questions.”
Summing up his keynote speech, Minister Rinkēvičs stressed that Latvia’s foreign policy during this Saeima’s tenure “will be about the enhancement of Latvia’s political and economic competitiveness. It will be about strengthening the country’s security. Latvia’s foreign policy will be about an integrated, effective, and modern European Union and NATO. Latvia’s foreign policy will deal with a close regional cooperation of the Baltic and Nordic countries, Germany, Poland, with a special focus on energy and transport.”
In his speech, Rinkēvičs characterized the current period as “a time of dynamic political and economic change.” This period has been influenced by the Arab Spring and the challenges faced by the European Union and its member states.
However, the minister warned against the haste to “ring funeral bells” for the European Union and “prepare a funeral meal.” He said, “Over more than fifty years of its existence, the European Union has demonstrated to the world that it is capable of rising up to the challenge, grow and get stronger.”
Rinkēvičs continually stressed that the most vital gain for Latvia in 2011 was “restoring the image of Latvia as a responsible and respected European Union member state that had brought its financial situation back into shape and had been able to make tough decisions. … At the same time, we were able to meet our commitments in the NATO alliance and avoid reducing our engagement in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan.”
Speaking about the goals of foreign policy, Minister Rinkēvičs emphasized the reinforcing of the European Union, overcoming the crisis within the European Union framework, and integration with the European Union member states in the field of energy and transport.
Further integration into the economic and scientific space of Europe is the path that Latvia should follow. “A full development of the national economy, for its part, can take place through attracting investment, knowledge, and state-of-the-art technologies, which mostly come from the European Union member states. At present, eight out of ten main Latvia’s export partners are members of the European Union, nine out of ten biggest importers represent the European Union, and eight European Union member states are among key investors. The free trade area established within the European Union framework, the customs union, the Schengen Area, common currency, support for less-developed regions has brought major benefits for Europe and each its resident.”
The minister admitted, however, that disregarding these obvious benefits there exists today a diversity of subjective opinions about our European membership. “The best answer to all these different perceptions is a simple but very meaningful revelation: we are the European Union. It is we who determine our own lives, and that of Europe, too.”
However, Rinkēvičs emphasized, “Latvia’s interests lie in a union where the principle of solidarity, ‘all for one and one for all,’ is a priority for each member.” The foreign minister also said, “Latvia wants to be at the core of EU cooperation,” expressing a hope that the Saeima would support the new EU fiscal discipline treaty, since Latvia already complies with the conditions it will provide.
Talking about Latvia’s first presidency in the EU, to be held in 2015, the minister thought it would be wise to “use this opportunity to define presidency’s priorities that would be consistent with the interests of the European Union, the region, and our country.”
In the matter of strengthening Latvia’s external security, the minister remarked that “NATO was and remains the mainstay of our security, and we must be aware that the efficiency of NATO lies in the attitude of each of its members toward its own defense and security.” He added that this year would see groundbreaking decisions in the NATO context, where one of Latvia’s priorities was the Baltic air-space policing mission.
“Although the situation in Afghanistan is gradually stabilizing, there remains a lot of ground to cover before Latvian soldiers can return home. It is in Latvia’s interests that the transition process in the country would be successful and the work would continue on a common vision of the Alliance on NATO involvement in Afghanistan after 2014.”
Rinkēvičš held that for all the above reasons it is essential for Latvia to return to its former commitments in terms of financing its defense needs.
In the conclusion of his speech, Foreign Minister Rinkēvičs stressed the need to coordinate the steps taken by several players in this field – the president, Saeima, Cabinet, social partners, and non-governmental organizations – in order for Latvia to achieve its foreign policy objectives. After thanking all the partners, Rinkēvičs expressed a hope that despite these challenges, the “ship” of Latvia will be steered in accord with the course taken by those allies and friends with whom we share common values.
The speaker of the Saeima, Solvita Āboltiņa, in her speech stressed that Latvia, by choosing to join the EU, chose to share not only the structural funds or wider frontiers, but also certain European values. She called for not juxtaposing national and European identities.
Speaking about the challenges and difficulties the EU and Latvia are facing, Āboltiņa admitted that the successful overcoming of financial restraints unfortunately does not provide immunity against a new crisis in Europe. She emphasized, however, that there was no reason to project a dark future, because Latvia has a great potential to contribute to stabilization in Europe and creative foreign policy by presiding in the EU in 2015.
The chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ojārs Kalniņš, stated that the foreign policy priorities of Latvia have not changed since the previous debate in the parliament a year ago. What has changed, though, over the past year is the background against which Latvia has to take its foreign policy decisions. However, by overcoming the crisis, Latvia has been empowered to help tackle European financial crisis. Another important goal is to protect its own interests in the context of European budgetary and farming subsidies. In this context he called on regarding European financial stability as an issue that is crucial for the interests of European and Latvian farmers.
Valdis Zatlers, the leader of Zatlers Reform Party, stated that for the sake of retaining a military balance in the world, Latvia was interested in the presence of US nuclear forces in Europe. He urged to increase Latvia’s defense budget, as well as called on considering the country’s involvement with Afghanistan after 2014.
Many opposition speakers voiced concerns about the secrecy over the new EU treaty regarding fiscal discipline (ZZS, SC), called on the government to sooner withdraw Latvian troops from Afghanistan (Iveta Grigule, ZZS), demanded more explicit mention of environmental concerns and interests in the policy paper (Raimonds Vējonis, Ingmārs Līdaka, ZZS), and were skeptical about Latvia’s participation in the Visagina Nuclear Power Plant (ZZS, SC).
Both opposition factions defended more active presence in regions that have recently shown fast economic development – China, India, Central Asia, and Brazil (Valērijs Agešins, SC; Iveta Grigule, ZZS).
In regard to Russia, the SC faction stressed the necessity to de-ideologize the relationship. “It has to be based on consequential pragmatism. It is clear that a difference of opinions in the interpretation of separate, essential historical events will be inevitable in the nearest future. … However, it is essential to achieve that these differences do not hamper cooperation in economy, culture, tourism, and other sectors,” Valērijs Agešins said.
Minister Rinkēvičs took the floor several times during the debate to respond to the issues raised by the lawmakers. He praised the quality of the debate and thanked all the partners for their involvement.
Responding to criticism on lack of coordination in foreign economic policy as well as in the defense of vital energy sector interests, Minister Rinkēvičs said that currently the Economics Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were looking at how better to coordinate their individual efforts and use their resources to the best effect. However, even though environmental and energy interests are vital for Latvia, the Foreign Ministry will not try to replace relevant sectoral ministries, and will not redundantly elaborate on specific issues in the policy report. The issues are being addressed by responsible members of the cabinet and are coordinated in the Baltic Region and among the Baltic states.
Among other things, the foreign minister said that the issues of Latvia’s preparation for EU presidency ought to be the main topic of next year’s Saeima debate and expressed a hope that the parliamentarians would contribute to defining the priorities. Ojārs Kalniņš has already responded to that, stating that the Saeima Foreign Affairs Committee will take the lead in the debate on Latvian priorities for the 2015 EU presidency.
Rinkēvičs also promised to address the issue of the secrecy of documents on the new EU fiscal discipline treaty while in Brussels at the end of this week.