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Ladies and Gentlemen,
Excellences, distinguished guests, friends,
It is great to be here at the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the occasion of the German Nordic Baltic Forum.
Riga is a perfect choice for this year’s Forum. Like few places in Europe Riga represents the troubled history of the 20th century and the beauty of Europe. Naming Riga "European Capital of Culture 2014" was a perfect choice. Riga’s power of cultural inspiration is well known in Germany: Creative minds like Johann Gottfried Herder or Richard Wagner have lived and found inspiration here.
I first visited Riga in December – only three days after I took office as German Minister for Europe. This is my second stay in Riga. This reflects Germany’s excellent relationship with Latvia and with our Nordic and Baltic partners in the EU.
2014 is a year of numerous anniversaries.
These days, we all look back to the catastrophes of the 20th century such as the outbreak of the First World War 100 years ago and the German invasion in Poland 75 years ago.
But in 2014 we also remember wonderful moments: 25 years ago, the division of Europe ended when courageous citizens revolted successfully against their communist governments. In August 1989, two million people held their hands to form the "Baltic Chain", spanning more than 600 kilometres across all three Baltic States. What an amazing symbol for the force of civil society! Yet, when speaking of the "Singing Revolution", we should not overlook the brutality that citizens in the Baltic States had to suffer in their struggle for democracy and freedom.
I believe that the "Baltic Chain" was an impressive example of European values at work. We should never forget: It was civil society that brought the communist regimes in Eastern Europe down. The fall of the Iron Curtain was not an achievement of the political elites!
2014 also marks the 10th anniversary of Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s membership in the European Union. Relations between our countries have never been better. I also strongly believe that the accession of the so-called "new" Member States to the EU in 2004 has been a great success for both: old Member States and new Member States.
Still, we must not forget that many citizens in the Baltic countries had to make hard sacrifices in the transition to freedom, democracy and free market economies. Becoming a member of the EU took a lot of hard work!
The same is true for the financial and economic crisis. Even though it was painful, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have fought hard against the crisis – with success! Today we can say that all three countries have returned to stability and growth.
Even though I am sceptical to the idea that economic policies can be "transplanted" one-to-one from one country to another: I believe that the Baltic example is a success story, which all EU Member States should study very closely.
Now let me get to the core of my address, which I would like to structure around five points.
1. Strengthening the Economic and Monetary Union
First, let me start with the Economic and Monetary Union. The EU is slowly recovering from the most dramatic financial and economic crisis in its history. The Eurozone was about to break apart. But we have stood together in this crisis. Our common efforts are finally bearing fruit. But even where things have changed for the better – like in the Baltic States – youth unemployment is still an issue. Therefore, we have to keep in mind: The crisis is not over yet. Much remains to be done. We have to continue the path of structural reform in Europe. And we have to reduce the dramatic levels of youth unemployment in many European countries.
All three Baltics states have demonstrated their commitment to our common currency. Estonia and Latvia are already members of the Eurozone and we are happy that Lithuania will join the club in January 2015. This shows: The Eurozone is an open club, new members are always welcome!
Important steps to strengthen the Economic and Monetary Union have been taken: We have established the European Stability Mechanism. We have adopted an ambitious pact for growth and employment. We have agreed on a Fiscal Compact. We have reached a compromise on the banking union. Substantial progress has been achieved on making economic coordination in the Eurozone more binding.
And yet our response to the crisis is more than just austerity measures or the liberalisation of markets, which brings me to my second point:
2. Strengthening social cohesion in Europe
We need a comprehensive policy approach. The European Union should be strong politically and economically, but at the same time socially well balanced. We have to do more to strengthen social cohesion and to promote growth and employment in Europe.
Recently, I visited Finland and I was very impressed by what I saw. The Nordic countries can teach us an important lesson: reforms do not necessarily result in a crackdown on the social system. We can learn from the Nordics that a strong and competitive economy is compatible with social cohesion.
We have to start investing more in those areas that really matter – like education, research and development and life sciences. Investing in people means investing in our future. In a globalised world, human knowledge and human skills are key factors for prosperity and success. In this regard, the Nordics have a lot to offer.
Another area in which our coordination should be improved is the Europe 2020 strategy. The mid-term review of the strategy is due in 2015. I believe that this is a perfect moment to take a fresh look at the results of our social policies and to see where there is room for improvement.
Let us be optimistic: Every crisis has been a catalyst for reform. In the past, the EU has always emerged stronger from each crisis. I am convinced that today the EU is able to strengthen social cohesion and solidarity instead of tearing societies apart.
Now, we all know that the EU not only facing internal challenges but also from the outside. Thus, let me turn to my third point:
3. Readjusting the European Neighbourhood Policy
From Iraq, to Syria, to the Middle East – there are currently many international crises. But you will agree with me that the crisis in Ukraine is one of the most pressing issues.
The crisis teaches us an important lesson: We have to review our European Neighbourhood Policy. It should become more flexible. We need a better toolbox for the future. And we have to think about attractive offers to our partners, tailored to their specific needs – beneath the offer of a membership perspective. And as EU member states and institutions we also need to better coordinate our efforts.
We also have to keep in mind that our offers must be compatible with the integration offers by others. In the future we should avoid the dilemma perceived by many Ukrainians who felt forced to choose between the EU and Russia.
With this in mind the Foreign Ministers of Germany, Poland and France have proposed a reform of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Foreign Ministers Steinmeier, Sikorski and Fabius have started a necessary debate. Based on their experiences and creativity I am convinced that the Baltic and Nordic countries can give very valuable input to this debate!
Of course the crisis in Ukraine is also a crisis of our relationship with Russia. This is very obvious from the perspective of the "border states" of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and – if we count Kaliningrad – Lithuania.
The international order has been severely shaken by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Let’s make no mistake about it: Russia’s actions are absolutely unacceptable. The new situation is a challenge to the foundations on which Europe is built.
We need a common European response. So far we have acted with a remarkable degree of unanimity. We have constantly made clear that we will not accept a policy that divides and splits Ukraine or that seeks to spread instability to the East of Ukraine or other Eastern European countries. If Russia pursues this course, Germany will support new action, including measures in the economic field.
Still, we work hard for a diplomatic solution to the conflict! We believe that in the long run, there can be no peace and prosperity in Europe against Russia. We have to keep communication channels open and work on re-establishing a meaningful dialogue.
Europe is keeping the door open for talks. But allow me to say loud and clear: We will not tolerate Russian threats to international law and to the integrity of sovereign states!
We need your – the Nordic and Baltic – expertise on Russia. In this German Nordic Baltic Forum and beyond – we are here to listen and to learn from you!
The crisis in and around Ukraine brings me to my fourth point:
4. Strengthening European Energy Policy
The crisis in Ukraine has brought energy security once more to the top of the EU agenda. On the one hand it highlights that we have to intensify our efforts for the diversification of European energy supplies. We urgently need a common approach to external energy relations. We have to speak with one voice when it comes to securing new suppliers and supply routes, to extend partnerships and to promote international energy governance.
On the other hand we should cooperate more closely within Europe. Germany supports efforts to complete the EU internal energy market and to fully interconnect all Nordic and Baltic States within the European grid system. Better interconnections will reduce vulnerabilities. There should be no "energy islands" within Europe. "More Europe" in this sense will help reduce Europe’s dependence on energy imports.
I would like to stress one further element: Renewables and energy efficiency contribute to reducing energy imports. That way, we can enhance energy security. Some may argue that this comes at a high cost. However, the cheapest energy is the one we do not consume! This should be reflected in our decision about the EU energy and climate policy until 2030. A "Green Economy" and economic competitiveness are no contradiction. Germany has shown that we can decouple economic growth from CO2 emission rates. Together we should work on an intelligent energy and climate policy framework which triggers investment, strengthens Europe's competitiveness and leads to a sustainable, secure and affordable energy supply.
Last but not least, let me briefly make a fifth point on
5. Defending European fundamental values
After decades of peace, democracy and freedom the citizens in many "old" Member States citizens seem to be taking these achievements for granted. The European elections have been a wake-up call: Eurosceptic and populist parties are gaining influence in the European Parliament.
In contrast, in many "new" Member States, citizens are decidedly pro-European. Yet, surprisingly few actually participate in European elections! I believe that in a globalised world the EU is more relevant than ever in providing solutions. And I also believe that European values are more relevant today than ever before!
We see how attractive our values are for many people outside the EU – in Ukraine or in Northern Africa. Of course we should put emphasis on promoting our values abroad. But we should also protect them at home. This is extremely important for our credibility. The EU is much more than just a single market and a monetary union. It is first and foremost a union of values.
The Nordic countries in the EU belong to the world’s most advanced countries with modern, open and liberal societies in which everybody enjoys the same rights and opportunities. Likewise, the Baltics offer good examples of successful transition from communist regimes to strong democracies and market economies. In this regard, they can serve as role models for Ukraine and other post-communist states!
Let me be frank: Not everywhere in the EU do things look as good. We cannot stay silent if the freedom of press is in danger, if judicial independence is undermined and if Member States shy away from combatting corruption and organised crime.
I am convinced that by strengthening solidarity and social cohesion in Europe, by defending our values and by taking on more responsibility in our neighbourhood, we will make the EU stronger. We should allow ourselves to learn from one another. That way Europe, as a political project, will emerge stronger from the crisis than before.
To take it one step further: The Baltic and the Nordic countries should take the lead in the EU and be an inspiration for all of us. I am deeply convinced: It is not the size of a country that matters in the EU. What matters are ideas, creativity and a pro-European commitment. In this respect the Nordic and Baltic countries have a lot to offer!