Speech by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas at the Riigikogu on the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU

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  • 16/05/2017 11:40

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Prime Minister Jüri Ratas discusses the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU, at the Riigikogu

President of the Riigikogu,

Members of the Parliament,

Your Excellencies Ambassadors,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Securing peace in Europe has undoubtedly been the greatest achievement of the European Union. A few years ago, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its contribution to peace. Estonia has been a member of the European family for the past 13 years, and this privilege is highly valued by our citizens. Nearly four in five of the population of Estonia support EU membership.

There are just 46 days left to the beginning of the Estonian Presidency. For many, both in Tallinn and in Brussels, the next 1,104 hours will be extremely intense, but we are ready to take over the presidency of the Council of the EU. We have set our targets, planned more than 1700 working meetings, prepared 265 events, hired 318 talented people and prepared more than 500 dossiers. I hope that this thorough preparatory work ensures that we will not be caught unawares by any emergency that may arise. I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to the preparations for the Estonian presidency, including the people in this hall who have offered and undoubtedly will continue to offer their fullest support.

The flagship themes and actions are also almost in place. But before that, I would like to speak about something else. Each and every one of our priorities has been carefully considered and extensively discussed; each and every initiative and event has been analysed in detail – nothing on the list is unimportant. However, no priority, objective or indicator is more important than a strong and united Europe. As Mr Donald Tusk rightly said recently: “Europe as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all.”

The slogan of the Estonian Presidency is “Unity through Balance”. Estonians tend to take a slightly ironic attitude towards brands and slogans. However, these three words sum up well the most important task for the Estonian Presidency: to maintain Europe’s unity and to ensure that nobody feels rejected or excluded.

Standing and acting united are not simply empty words; a mere declaration is not enough to maintain unity. Unity requires hard work, trade-offs, a strong will and sometimes even swallowing your pride, or the challenge of awareness-raising in your home country. The role of the Presidency is to search for a common denominator and balance point: to find a fair balance between new and conventional, risky and safe, economic, social and environmental, big and small, North and South, East and West.

Above all, in order to be a balancing power, we need to be good listeners. It is crucial to find common ground on the litmus test of the unity of the EU 27 and its capability to act. We are happy to take on this stabilising role because it is in everyone’s interest that the EU is capable of making decisions. We do not want the return of a Europe divided against itself.

Honourable Members of the Riigikogu,

Much to the chagrin of cynics, populists and doomsayers, Europe is still strong. The shock after the UK voted to leave the EU and the ensuing introspection led, first, to the Bratislava Summit of 27 Member States and, eventually, to the Rome Declaration. This process of rediscovering ourselves has shown the strength of Europe’s foundation and will to cooperate. We not only have to, but also want to, be united. Despite all the ordeals, I would like to paraphrase the Estonian Declaration of Independence: Europe, you are standing on the threshold of a hopeful future!

I am proud about how the Rome Declaration was created and what it says. The Rome Declaration is a statement made by a union that is not afraid of being open to the world and wishes to preserve and develop our joint achievements. Pope Francis said on that momentous day that the European Union was greater than the sum of its parts and that unity, rather than preserved by uniformity, was harmony within a community. “Ours is a time of discernment, one that invites us to determine what is essential and to build on it,” said Pope Francis. This is what we have been doing.

We can all be pleased that the document guiding Europe’s future includes the crucial issues for all of us: the importance of security, safety and neighbourhood; the need to complete the development of the European economic area and to create the necessary connections; as well as the courage to use the opportunities and tackle the threats arising from rapid technological change.

The test of our unity and determination is how well we can implement these common objectives. The Estonian Presidency is part of a longer journey. Our four priorities are inspired by the spirit of the Bratislava summit and the Rome Declaration. Our guiding principles are: an open and innovative European economy, a safe and secure Europe, a digital Europe and the free movement of data, and an inclusive and sustainable Europe.

An open and innovative European economy

Honourable Members of the Riigikogu,

While the European Union is not just an economic union, it is difficult to imagine today’s Europe without a strong economy.

The bedrock of the four fundamental freedoms makes possible our agricultural policy and Structural Funds, tackling youth unemployment, border protection, nature conservation, and a close and diverse cooperation. We have become used to taking for granted in Europe peace, security, and prosperity.

The European economy must be open and innovative – open to changes, new opportunities and original ideas. The EU's internal market of some 500 million consumers is one of the EU's most important achievements. Openness is at its core: we have opened our markets to the goods, services, capital and people of other Member States. However, the single market is not yet complete, and much of the potential of the European economy is still untapped.

The services sector has been responsible for almost 90% of the new jobs created; therefore, it is essential to create a straightforward environment for job creation and for companies to grow and operate without unnecessary barriers. To this end, we are dealing with preparing the European services e-card, the issue of regulated professions, and the reform of EU company law.

In future we want to ensure that if Estonian architects happen to be designing a new opera house for Milan, Estonian and Italian officials will sort out the necessary bureaucratic procedures for them. That the qualifications of a Polish engineer involved in the same project will be recognised by local authorities. That if an Irish family business opened a cafe in the new opera house in Milan, it would be registered in the Italian business register with the minimum of bother. And if the renowned biscuits made in the opera cafe were exported to Japan or South America, it could be done under new free trade agreements.

Companies are established and succeed if the business environment is simple, predictable and supportive. However, this is not always enough – money is also needed. This is particularly the case for small businesses that struggle to secure financing. This situation can be alleviated by the Strategic Investment Fund, which supports both private and public investments and facilitates foreign investments.

Fair competition is an integral part of a favourable business environment. Honest businesses have a hard time competing with those that evade taxes. As the holder of the presidency of the Council of the EU, Estonia will seek to improve the cross-border VAT mechanism, to establish rules concerning financial advisors, and achieve more efficient cooperation between the tax authorities of different countries. Given the cross-border nature of tax competition, the so-called ‘tax havens’ should be named in a common EU blacklist of non-cooperative jurisdictions. In the future, this may mean the actual imposition of sanctions.

Finally on the topic of the economy, I would like to highlight another aspect that has highly significant implications for companies and consumers alike – energy. Europe’s energy system needs to be changed. It needs to become smarter, cleaner and more cost-efficient.

From the beginning of the term of the Estonian Presidency, we will be coordinating the Clean Energy Package – a significant package of legislative and policy proposals on many aspects of the Energy Union. Although achieving a consensus on renewable energy, the functioning of the electricity market and energy efficiency will not be easy, we need fast solutions. The realisation of our desire – to disconnect from the Russian energy system and achieve synchronisation with the European system – is difficult to realize without a common EU energy policy and energy market.

A safe and secure Europe

Ladies and gentlemen,

Politicians like to say that the issue is always the economy or, as James Carville, an adviser to Bill Clinton, famously said in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.” This is a slogan for peaceful times when history takes a break and peace seems to last forever. Europe was created by history and history is our best teacher. The European Union was born 60 years ago as a peace project and, today, security and safety are high on the agenda once again. We are open to the world but our home must be safe and protected.

Our security depends not only on our actions in our own back yard, but also on what is happening elsewhere in the world and on our persuasiveness within the international arena. Maintaining the strength and unity of external policy is continually essential for the European Union. As the Presidency, Estonia will support Federica Mogherini in her pursuit of the EU’s foreign and security policy goals.

Europe should step up its efforts in defence cooperation to improve Europe's defence capacities. I am pleased that voices recognising this are being heard from an increasing number of European capitals. Defence capabilities can only be significantly improved by increasing investment therein – an empty bag cannot stand upright. Closer defence cooperation and an agreement on the joint funding of EU military operations are equally important. NATO and the close relationship with the U.S. will remain essential to the defence and security needs of Europe. Therefore, it is crucial for Europe to become a stronger and more credible ally. In this regard, the United Kingdom will remain a very close and important partner and ally for us.

However, threats are not only military in nature. To ensure a secure Schengen Area and free movement within Europe, we need better protection of the European Union’s external borders and tighter control over the movement of persons and goods. Criminals must not have the option of disguising their crimes by moving from one member state to another. The law enforcement authorities must have appropriate legislation, a useful toolbox for cooperation and the exchange of information. For these purposes, we will develop a number of common comprehensive databases, including the European Entry/Exit system for registering border crossings, the European Travel Information and Authorisation System and a database on the return of asylum seekers. What is most important in this regard is the interoperability of these databases and the possibility for movement of information between countries. No terrorist or criminal must be able to escape simply because we cannot cooperate in a desired manner.

I don’t want to say that migration is a threat, but we are well aware that the migration pressure has created a political crisis in Europe that needs to be addressed. What is happening in Syria is a tragedy and we have a responsibility to help people fleeing war and gross violations of human rights. They have no choice and neither have we. We must help those who have arrived in Europe, even if a lot can be done beyond our external border. We must help not because we are Europeans but because we are humans. Coping with the enormous refugee flow is not easy and calls for well-considered policies. In this regard, it is worth recalling our motto: no country can resolve the migration crisis on its own. We must act together. We need to strike a balance between countries on the migration frontlines and those that can contribute to the solution of the crisis by other means.

The migration crisis proves to us that Europe cannot ignore the events unfolding outside its borders. A long-term solution is only possible if the situation in the countries of origin improves and an end is put to cross-border human trafficking – we are making a considerable effort within mobility partnerships to achieve this. This has already made it considerably more difficult for Libyan human traffickers to reach Italy.

Peace and prosperity in our close neighbourhood is in the interest of Europe. An efficient Eastern Partnership is important for us. We will make sure that Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus and Georgia feel that the EU offers every possible support to them. The Eastern Partnership summit on 24 November must offer tangible results to partner countries, their citizens and companies.

Although Estonia is not leading the foreign policy of the European Union, I will stress again that the unity of the European Union is the most important foreign policy tool we have. This also applies to the EU’s relations with Russia. The European Union has taken a unified and principled position on behaviour that violates international law.

Russia has not changed its behaviour nor met its responsibilities, and the conflict in Ukraine continues. Thus, European Union’s policy towards Russia must also continue, based on the five principles agreed-upon by foreign ministers, the most important of which is the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Digital Europe and the free movement of data

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Perhaps what is least surprising about the Estonian presidency is that a digital Europe and the free movement of data is one of our priorities. When talking to our counterparts in Europe, Estonia’s reputation as an e-state seems to be so strong that we are expected to deliver an e-Europe in six months. While we must remain realistic, we do have a sizeable programme in the field of digital technology that is critical to Europe's future.

Achieving a Digital Single Market could contribute more than 400 billion euros to our economy and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs annually. Europe must act swiftly to ensure that we do not lag behind the rest of the rapidly developing world. Estonia, too, could lose its leading edge if we fail to regain momentum.

Although our digital programme focuses on the Digital Single Market package, we are looking at the presidency through binary glasses: perhaps there is a smarter, better way of doing something by using IT solutions? Information technology is not an end in itself; it is an integral part of today’s society and a tool for achieving our objectives. The internet and digital tools have already changed and continue to change the way we work, rest, interact with family members and friends, and enjoy hobbies.

Clear conditions are necessary for the proper functioning of a digital society. One such condition is the free movement of data. People, goods, services and capital enjoy free and unrestricted movement throughout the European Union and so should data and information. We have dubbed it the fifth fundamental freedom. Much remains to be done to create a well-functioning digital single market. Among other things, we expect the Commission to launch the initiative for the free movement of data by the autumn.

The proposed European Electronic Communications Code provides a basis for the free movement of data and for high-speed and high-quality cross-border internet access.

Every Estonian has at least once felt frustration at not being able to watch skiing with commentary in Estonian while on a trip, or to buy a jumper that took their fancy on the internet. This should not be the case: When shopping in Paris, Spanish nationals are not charged more than locals. The development of cross-border e-commerce and e-services is one of those areas with palpable benefits for both businesses and consumers. Besides seeking to end unjustified geo-blocking in the EU, we want to make sure that consumers have the same rights and guarantees wherever they make their e-purchase. VAT for cross-border e-commerce as well as VAT rates for e-books and e-publications also need to be modernised.

Another major initiative of direct relevance to people’s everyday lives is the reform of copyright legislation: most of us read news online, watch videos on YouTube or use catch-up TV services. We did not do that 10 years ago, but it is high time for regulation to catch up with life. This reform would make Estonian TV available across Europe.

We, the Estonians, are rightly proud of how easy it is in Estonia to do business over the internet. We have this experience to offer and we hope that Europe is willing to contribute to our views on how to make e-governance a reality. We intend to summarise these discussions in the Tallinn Declaration, which will act as a reminder of the Estonian presidency. Practical steps are proposed in the fields of e-health and e-justice.

Our enthusiasm for digital technology is well known, but not all countries share that feeling. This is understandable. Drastic changes are always accompanied by fears and challenges. Somebody will be at risk of losing out. We know from our own experience that cybersecurity and privacy risks exist and, therefore, we must not dismiss our partners’ concerns. If we want to move forward with digital technology, we must be able to provide convincing arguments.

I believe that Europe is ready to change gear. An indication of this is the fact that the heads of state or government of the European Union will come to Tallinn in September to discuss Europe’s digital future. Together, we will take a look not at tomorrow or the day after tomorrow but five, 10 and 50 years from now.

An inclusive and sustainable Europe

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Economic and technological progress is sometimes opposed to humanity and the environment. This isn’t right and fortunately not the case for Europe. Valuing people and nature is not a luxury but rather the principle we are trying to respect in our daily lives. In this regard, we are unique in the world.

We cannot arrange the priorities of the Estonian presidency by order of importance, although to me, an inclusive and sustainable Europe is a central theme, similarly those related to digital technology. We all want a Europe that is at peace with itself and others. A Europe that is beautiful, free, prosperous and safe. We want this Europe for everybody, and not just for now but also into the future.

The European Union has always been about equal opportunities, be it employment or participation in social life. This means that during the Estonian presidency we will focus on ensuring the equal treatment of seconded employees; on developing technologies to bring people with disabilities closer to society and to improve their access to products; and on services to facilitate the reconciliation of work and family life.

We know that technological progress changes the nature of work. This brings interesting opportunities: from digital nomads, to grannies selling knitwear on Ebay and Etsy. However, people can only benefit from these changes if they are ready, they have the necessary skills and legislation is adapted to the new reality. This is all the more important for young people. Hopefully, the proposed Europass online platform will make it easier for them to find opportunities for study and work. In circumstances where finding a job is not easy, volunteering can provide valuable experience and be useful for CV-building. The European Solidarity Corps will bring together those who need volunteers and young people who want to work as volunteers – an EU version of the Estonian start-up Jobbatical.

No one is dispensable. Everybody has the right to be cared for, to work, to spend time with their family, to live a full, active life and to contribute to our society. Satisfaction with life largely depends on the environment in which we live. We must find a way to have a life that is less demanding on nature. Not only for the benefit of our mental and physical health – although this should be a sufficiently compelling reason – but for more rational reasons. Overwhelmed and degraded ecosystems pose a direct threat to our agriculture, industry and energy production – the whole economy in fact.

Striking a balance between the needs of nature and the economy is not just possible but imperative. As the holder of the presidency of the Council of the EU, we need to address two major issues that, in cooperation with other Member States, involve finding a balance: EU climate and waste management policies.

99.9% of world’s climatologists agree that man-made climate change is a reality. We take the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement very seriously. For this purpose, we intend to reform the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, reduce CO2 emissions from various sectors and address the contribution to global warming by the land use and forestry sectors. In addition to reducing the pace and consequences of global warming, there is a bonus – cleaner air.

A competitive economy is not only less energy-intensive but also more resource-efficient. Waste is a visible symptom of the misuse of resources, and it threatens wildlife and destroys habitats. We need to restructure manufacturing and consumption so as to generate less waste, and reuse or reprocess the waste that is generated. While this is an ambitious goal, it will be reflected in the size of the EU waste package.

Fellow Europeans,

In the six months of the Estonian Presidency, we have the possibility to accomplish much of what can make the lives of European people tangibly better. Sadly, a regrettable event also falls within that period: the start of the negotiations on the UK's exit from the EU. For us, this will be a sad day: The United Kingdom is a long-term partner and ally of Estonia. But as Brits say themselves - there is no use crying over spilt milk.

We need to accept that the negotiations will be held during our term of presidency and will affect the environment in which we operate. Brexit is neither the main theme nor the priority of our presidency. While we have a role in this process, the main burden lies on the Commission. For the Council, Mr Donald Tusk is leading the negotiations. We must focus on the future of the EU. No priority will be neglected. Europeans who will head to the ballot boxes in 2019 expect concrete solutions to issues that affect their security and wellbeing.

I mentioned earlier that the main themes of the Estonian presidency are in line with the Bratislava roadmap and the Rome Declaration. This does not mean that Estonia will take over pending EU issues only. It does, however, mean that the EU has been dealing for years with issues that are important for Estonia. We have often had a significant role in putting and keeping those issues on the agenda – the Rome Declaration is neither the first nor the last EU instrument with the fingerprints of Estonians all over it.

Preparations for the upcoming presidency did not start merely in 2012, when the EU Secretariat of the Government Office made its first plans for the presidency. They started 20 years ago when Estonia began accession negotiations with the European Union.

With each participation in working groups, each speech and commentary, and with each visit by a minister to the Council, we have obtained a better understanding of the EU and have demonstrated to the EU who we are and what we have to offer.

I would like to thank all Estonian presidents and prime ministers for keeping Estonia on the European track. Ambitious digital files being discussed by the EU, more upright and determined foreign and energy policies, consistent neighbourhood policy and a fairer agricultural policy – this did not all happen on its own. Today, these are the themes for Europe, not just for Estonia, and we have made this happen.

The second half of this year is an opportunity for us to increase that common denominator because this is the only way forward for us. We all have to contribute. Dear officials in Estonia and in Europe, ministers and members of the Riigikogu, Members of the European Parliament, commissioners of the European Commission, journalists and cooperation partners, may we all have the strength required!

Thank you!

* Please note that the parts in italic were not read out by the Prime Minister.