Prime Minister Jüri Ratas' speech presenting the Estonian Presidency programme to the European Parliament in Strasbourg

  • Insights
  • 05/07/2017 12:08


Jüri Ratas in Strasbourg
The Prime Minister gave a speech in Strasbourg presenting the Estonian Presidency programme (photo: Tauno Tõhk)

Dear Mrs Vice-President of the European Parliament, Esteemed leaders of political groups, Members of the European Parliament and the European Commission,

In July 1979, the first directly elected European Parliament heard the first speech by Louise Weiss, after whom this building was named. In her speech, Weiss, then the 89-year-old 'grandmother of Europe', referred to the works of Hermann Keyserling. Keyserling was an Estonian-born philosopher, who presented his vision of a united Europe as early as at the start of the 20th century.

A Europe where states work together but preserve what is unique to them.

A Europe that is strong precisely because it is diverse. Simone Veil, who gave her first speech as the President of the European Parliament at the same session and who is being laid to rest in Paris as we speak, stressed that only the European dimension offered a solution to three major challenges: peace, freedom, and prosperity. This remains to be the case.

I am honoured to be standing here 38 years later to present the priorities of the first Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. 

Much has changed since the times of Keyserling and Weiss but the idea of a union of European nations has persisted.*

And let me now continue in English.

The European Union is not only an idea, for 500 million people in the EU, it is their daily reality.

Europeans want and deserve a union that is strong, decisive and delivers. To achieve that, we must ensure that every voice is heard and to balance the different traditions, interests and opinions in Europe, fairly.

This is why the overarching theme of the Estonian Presidency is 'Unity through Balance'. 

First – before I turn to our plans, I acknowledge that no presidency can succeed, alone. We will work very closely with you, honourable members of European Parliament, to make sure that citizens are at the heart of everything we do.

We need your wisdom and input on every topic on our agenda.

We are grateful to Malta for their excellent work paving the way for us and our trio partners, Bulgaria and Austria.

In Bratislava, Malta and Rome, we had a frank and honest discussion about where we stand and what we need to do to weather the storms ahead and emerge stronger. It is our shared agenda to find concrete answers to our citizens’ most pressing concerns – unemployment, security, immigration – and to bring Europe closer to our citizens.

For the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, our key aim is to move forward with the EU’s positive agenda.

The four priorities that we will focus on over the next 6 months reflect these discussions and are guided by the spirit of the Rome Declaration.

They include: 
•    an open and innovative European economy
•    an inclusive and sustainable Europe 
•    a safe and secure Europe, and of course   
•    a digital Europe and the free movement of data

On our priority of an open and innovative European economy, a strong and competitive European economy supports growth and employment. Of course, that will make our plans and vision in every other policy area, possible.

The single market is one of the greatest assets of the EU and the free movement of goods, services, people, and capital, benefit us all. However, the single market is not complete. Some of its potential is still untapped.

The Estonian Presidency is prioritising the creation of an innovative, European social market economy that is open to changes, opportunities, free- and fair trade, and original ideas. 

For companies to succeed, the business environment must be transparent, simple and free of red tape. We are focused on ensuring a stable banking sector, taking forward the Services Package, and we stand ready to reform EU company law. 

Equally, a smarter, cleaner and more cost-effective energy system with an enhanced role for the consumer is an important part of a competitive European economy, and one that we will pursue. 

Our next priority is an inclusive and sustainable Europe.

Of course, a strong economy must be based on the core European values of inclusivity and sustainability. The EU is not just for the few, or for the here and now.

We want to ensure that every European citizen, can continue to enjoy a Europe that is beautiful, sustainable, free, prosperous and safe. One of the biggest challenges for this generation of politicians is technological transformation.

It is one that I am confident we can shape. 

Because of our changing society and the influence of technology, the very nature of work is changing. Remote working in a digital economy means an employer and an employee may never actually meet in person.

Along with robotisation and artificial intelligence, it is the 'fourth industrial revolution'. In response, we need to adapt our social security systems and respond to changes in the economic environment. Skills must meet the needs of future jobs, be it building self-driving cars or designing virtual reality experiences.

During the Estonian Presidency, we will focus on ways in which the EU can offer equal opportunities and conditions for people, both in their own member states and also when working and living in another.

Equally, we owe it to our future generations and we owe it to our planet that we fulfil our commitment to the Paris Agreement and ensure that sustainability is a key feature of all European policies. 

Despite the United States withdrawing from the agreement, we will not change our own commitment.  

Our next priority is a safe and secure Europe. 

Born from the destruction of two bloody world wars, Europe came together, united. It is our utmost duty to keep Europe safe and secure. We cannot fail in that.

Let me underline this to the house. In the 21st century we must not accept aggression against a European country or the illegal annexation and occupation of part of its territory. 

Were it not for the 1983 European Parliament resolution on Soviet-occupied Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, perhaps I would not be standing in front of you today. 

I remember what it means to live inside closed borders when the Berlin Wall, and the Iron Curtain divided Europe. We were not allowed to visit foreign countries. Even Estonian islands were highly guarded border zones that could be visited only with special permit. Some of our cities did not exist on official maps. I remember my parents watching Finnish television and listening to the Radio Free Europe - the only access to the free world. I know what it means to wish for freedom and democracy.

I believe that it is not impossible that one day in the future, a Ukrainian President may stand in front of this house, in the same role as I am today.

It is clear that the European Union must assume greater responsibility for security in and around Europe. No single country is able to stand up to the threats we face, or solve these challenges, alone. 
The EU Global Strategy, the EU-NATO joint declaration and the debate on the future of defence rightly set out a high ambition. In order to keep those ambitious promises and deliver results, we need to spend more, and we need to spend better on defence.

That means joint development of the necessary capabilities. At the same time, we need to make full use of the existing and new mechanisms, such as the battlegroups, the permanent structured cooperation, and the European Defence Fund. 

Practice makes perfect, so we must regularly carry out coordinated crisis-management exercises. The EU has a vast toolbox ranging from industry, to cyber-defence, from strategic communication to battlegroups.

The EU’s external border needs better protection and tighter control over the movement of both, irregular migrants and illicit goods. Law enforcement needs a targeted tool box for cooperation and information sharing.

Sadly, many of the recent terror attacks have proven that often the threats to our safety are not caused by shortcomings on the ground, but by the lack of information sharing.

Therefore, we must continue creating modern IT solutions for the rapid exchange of information. We must improve the interoperability of information systems and the quality of data exchange.

There cannot be known 'unknowns', when peoples’ lives are at stake.

The ongoing migration crisis remains the most urgent challenge that we have seen for decades. It is our responsibility, not only as Europeans but as human beings, to assist those seeking refuge in Europe from the tragedy of the Syrian war.

Once again: no member state can resolve the crisis on their own. We can only keep Europe safe, if we act together, in the spirit of solidarity and responsibility.

The EU cannot only look inwards. We must look outwards, actively assisting countries in our neighborhood, both in the south as well as the east. We must reconfirm our political commitment to the Eastern Partnership, to better respond to the ambitions of all the partners. In addition to the Eastern Partnership Summit, we will also contribute to the preparations of the European Union, Latin American and Caribbean States Summit, and the EU-Africa Summit.

In summary, our citizens expect safety and security and we must deliver it. Together and without hesitation.

Next is our priority of creating a digital Europe and the free movement of data.

In Estonia, we think of the free movement of data as the fifth freedom of the EU. Hence, we will start a political debate in Europe on this essential freedom.

The digital revolution is at the core of every challenge and opportunity that Europe faces today. Together with our trio partners, Bulgaria and Austria, we are committed to delivering a digital single market in 2018. 

But we must also look further afield, which is why we have a digital dimension to almost every aspect of our Presidency programme, from fisheries to space. Underpinning all these initiatives is the use of data, the raw material of the digital society. 

The development of cross-border services and e-commerce has tangible benefits for EU citizens.

Buying goods or services online, watching your favourite domestic TV-show, or using e-prescriptions in another European country should be possible and easy. Concluding the current negotiations on geo-blocking, audiovisual media services and taking forward the reform of copyright will help get us there.

A critical aspect of a functioning digital society is trust. Europe should be a safe place where rules respecting privacy, data protection and our digital identity are vital. As seen from the recent global cyber-attacks, we need to up our game to keep Europe safe.

To support this digital society, Europe requires fast, seamless, always-on and always-available connectivity. Europe needs to be among the pioneers in rolling out 5G and developing new connected products and services.

Updating the telecommunications regulatory framework will contribute to these goals.

A data driven economy and the fourth industrial revolution will also need a digital government. Every person in Europe should be able to interact with the government with ease and without worry. During our Presidency, we’ll encourage the use of IT solutions in daily life, including our health, justice, and financial systems.

Trust me on this point, once you have filled your tax declaration in just three minutes when sitting by the river on a nice Sunday, you will never want to go back to paperwork. In the Estonian Government, we save a stack of papers as high as the Eiffel Tower each month.

In September, I look forward to welcoming the heads of states, governments and institutions to the Digital Summit in Tallinn to discuss these very issues and opportunities. 

There is one more topic that I’d like to address before I conclude – Brexit.

We are sad to see the UK withdraw from the EU. 

It’s a loss for our country, for the European Union, and for the UK. I am sure that the UK will remain a close friend. 

The negotiations need to be conducted in a constructive spirit, tackling first, the citizens’ rights, the financial settlement, and the border in Ireland. However, the Presidency’s task is also to make sure that EU27 continues to work, and continues to deliver for our future. We will not let Brexit negotiations dominate our work or prevent us from achieving results.

In conclusion, honourable members of the Parliament, I hope that our Presidency will be remembered as one that allowed Europe to put the crises behind us and once again look optimistically towards our future. 

In the words of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, this could be a 'once in a lifetime' moment, when hope and history rhyme.

My own country and people have been very lucky. 

Our hope and history have rhymed twice in less than a century, in the aftermaths of World War One, and the Cold War. Twice, we have been given a 'moment in time', when claiming our independence has been possible, and twice, we have turned it into a reality. 

So, in a way, it makes us experts on 'seizing the day'.

I’m sure we’re not alone in feeling that change is in the air.

Europe needs to be redefined for every generation, to adapt and to inspire. Helmut Kohl was one of the key architects of Europe. We sent him on his last journey from this very room only a few days ago. He said: "The visionaries of yesterday are the realists of today".

I believe that things we never thought possible are happening, right before our eyes.
So, there is no excuse for not acting, there is no excuse for thinking small.

We will turn tomorrow’s reality into the one we want. 

Today, it’s up to us to begin creating that vision, creating that reality.

Thank you.


* The Prime Minister gave the beginning portion of his speech in Estonian, the original Estonian text is as follows: 

Lugupeetud Euroopa Parlamendi Asepresident,

Austatud poliitiliste gruppide juhid,

Euroopa Parlamendi ja Euroopa Komisjoni liikmed,

Juulis 1979 pidas esimese kõne esimese otsevalitud Euroopa Parlamendi ees Louise Weiss, kelle järgi see maja on oma nime saanud. Oma kõnes viitas Weiss – tollal 89-aastane “Euroopa Vanaema” – Hermann Keyserling ’i loomingule. Keyserling oli Eestis sündinud filosoof, kes juba 20. sajandi alguses omas visiooni ühtsest Euroopast.

Euroopast, kus riigid töötavad koos, aga säilitavad oma unikaalsuse.

Euroopast, mis on tugev just oma mitmekesisuse tõttu.

Samal istungil Presidendina oma esimese kõne pidanud Simone Veil – keda just neil hetkil Pariisis viimsele teekonnale saadetakse - rõhutas, et ainult Euroopa dimensiooni kaudu on võimalik leida lahendus kolmele suurele väljakutsele: rahule, vabadustele ja heaolule. See on endiselt nii.

38 aastat hiljem on mul au seista siin, et esitleda esimese Eesti Euroopa Liidu Nõukogu eesistumise prioriteete.

Keyserling’i ja Weiss’i ajaga võrreldes on palju muutunud, kuid idee Euroopa rahvaste liidust on püsima jäänud.