Prime minister of Latvia: EU considers Azerbaijan as a reliable partner - INTERVIEW

'We believe it crucial to maintain direct high-level contacts between Armenia and Azerbaijan in a conflict settlement process'

Baku. 13 February. REPORT.AZ/ Prime minister of Latvia Laimdota Straujuma gave an interview to Report News Agency.

- Mrs. Straujuma, competitive Europe, digital Europe and the idea of Europe in the world are among the main three priorities of Latvian chairmanship in the EU. How Latvia is going to achieve these goals?

- Latvia assumed its presidencyat the Council against a backdrop of economic and geopolitical challenges. I believe Europe is taking the right actions to address these challenges. We want Latvia’s Presidency to help strengthen Europe’s recovery, restore confidence in its politics and inspire belief in its future. We have developed three clear themes for our Presidency: competitiveness, digital and engaged Europe. First, we want to make Europe more competitive.

This means a new investment drive that produces concrete benefits for citizens and reflects the diversity and circumstances of Member States. We welcome new investment plan and Latvian presidency is ready to ensure we have a European Fund for Strategic Investments in place by June. We will continue work to strengthen the Single Market, to unlock its potential and unleash its benefits, with a renewed focus on better regulation and implementation, and recognition that the four freedoms are its four cornerstones.

Placed at its heart a new Energy Union with effective governance, and drawing on the best examples of regional energy cooperation such as in the Baltic region. Second, we want to make Europe more digital.

We want to harness Europe’s digital potential and work towards creating a genuine Digital Single Market to deliver jobs, growth and consumer benefits. And, by making policy ‘digital by default’, to help transform Europe into the world’s leading knowledge-based economy. We want to help lead work on the new Digital Strategy and we will host the Digital Assembly in Riga. We will take forward work on data protection, especially under the background of need to streamline our fight against the terrorism, cyber security and consumer rules. And we will pursue balanced telecommunications reform.

Third, we want Europe to be more engaged as a global actor.

Europe has to be united for peace and stability. Nowhere is this more pressing than in our own neighborhood. So we will advance on the review of the European Neighborhood Policy and host the Eastern partnership Summit in Riga. Engaged Europe also means Global Europe. We will work to update and give a boost to the EU’s Central Asia Strategy and help advance trade agreements with Canada, Japan and the US.

And we will carry forward important work on European Security and Defense, foreign fighters, migration, enlargement and development, in the European Year of Development.

- Latvia will be the chairman in the EU Council for the first time. What positive changes did membership in the EU brought to your country?

- During past 10 years since joining the EU Latvia has gone through dynamic and huge changes and set of reforms. We have approached the average EU level of quality of life for about 20%. Regarding my government, I would like to underline here our focus on digital agenda, innovation and science based economy as two priorities, that go hand in hand with our priorities for the Latvian Presidency at the EU Council.

- Noting that Latvia and Azerbaijan were a part of one country for many years, how Latvia is going to develop relations between our two countries and which areas of cooperation are the most interesting for Latvia?

- Latvia considers Azerbaijan as an important partner in the South Caucasus. We are satisfied with the developments in our bilateral relations. Our political dialogue is active and constructive. We are looking forward to welcome Azerbaijani leadership in Riga during Eastern Partnership Summit. We should put more efforts in developing our economic cooperation for the benefit of our people. The potential and opportunities of economic cooperation is not fully realized. The most perspective areas for bilateral economic cooperation are IT, health services, industry, ecology and environmental protection.

Latvia is interested to share our reform experience. We welcome that in 2014 Azerbaijan participated in advanced programme in European Law and Economics for Eastern Partnership Region and Central Asia offered by Riga Graduate School of Law. We will continue this program in 2015. We would also like to expand our cooperation in field of education and to see more students from Azerbaijan in Latvian universities.

- How Latvia can play role of a bridge between the EU and Azerbaijan? Is Latvia still interested in developing the EU Eastern Partnership program?

- The development of the EU Eastern Partnership initiative is an important priority of the Latvian presidency. The Riga Summit should send a signal that the European Union has clear interests in the strengthening and continuation of the Eastern Partnership. The Riga Summit will also take stock of the fulfilment of objectives set by the Vilnius Summit and provide a preliminary assessment of implementation of the Association Agreements. The process of visa liberalisation with the Eastern Partnership countries which comply with the criteria should be taken forward. We believe that individual approach should be applied in cooperation with each country taking into account the level of ambitions of each country with regard to the cooperation with the EU.

The EU considers Azerbaijan as a reliable partner in regional and international security, energy, anti-terrorism, investment, culture, education and other fields. We are interested to build relations on the basis of mutual respect and common interests, but also on the basis of our common values and principles. Latvia, as the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, supports efforts to deepen the relations between the EU and Azerbaijan.

- Europe faces today many serious challenges like slow economic growth, flow of migrants and terrorists’ threats. What Latvia is going to suggest to the EU in order to combat these challenges?

- The key challenges the EU is facing today are those of radicalization of our societies on the basis of economic, religious and other differences. The consequences of these dangerous tendencies are much wider than we could imagine some years before – considerable number of population excluded from economic and social life, extreme populists becoming more and more popular on political scene, terrorist attacks. I am deeply concern on the rising armed escalation in Eastern Ukraine. This is the result of failure to implement the most important commitments of the Minsk agreements - withdrawal of Russia’s armed forces, halt of flow of arms and military personnel from Russia to Ukraine, Ukrainian control over its border.

We all want to have stable and pragmatic relations with our neighbors, among them Russia. But the annexation of Crimea, aggression in Ukraine and violation of international law does not allow us to continue business as usual with Russia. The response of the EU was clear and united and the sanctions will stay until the Minsk agreement will be implemented by Russia. Mitigation or strengthening of sanction regime should be adjusted only depending on Russia’s activities on the ground. Annexation of Crimea should not be forgotten or forgiven. The EU makes effort to fully implement its policy of non-recognition through its further strengthening.

When it comes to economics, the main challenge the EU is facing today is how to put the Union and its different Member States back to sustainable economic growth. Competitiveness is the key. The EU needs more investments and close economic contacts with strategic partners. Investment plan for Europe, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with USA and full implementation of EU Internal market are the main actions we will take to address these challenges.

Since the beginning of January and the tragic events in Paris, the fight against terrorism has been in the heart of discussed at a number of occasions at different levels and a lot has been done already by the EU and its Member states. As a result of discussions of Ministers for Home Affairs and Justice, Riga Joint Statement was adopted. It outlines a further comprehensive set of measures to the current threats, namely, prevention of radicalization, information sharing and cooperation between competent authorities, prevention of illegal trafficking in firearms and reinforcement of external borders.

Latvia pays particular attention to EU Passenger Name Record system and its swift adoption without further delay. Finance Ministers discussed further steps to be taken to combat the financing of terrorism and together with the Commission adopted a joint declaration to enhance the efficiency of the new rules of Anti-Money Laundering package.

Moreover with regard to further work on counter-terrorism external aspects Foreign Affairs Ministers agreed on strengthening engagement with third countries, swift implementation of the Counter-terrorism/ foreign terrorist fighters’ strategy and addressing the unresolved crises and conflicts fostering terrorism.

- Mrs. Straujuma, recently, the whole world was the witness of the drama in Paris and its suburbs when terrorists killed many people. At the same time there are anti-muslim protests in Germany and abuses against Muslims in Sweden. Can we expect the growth of anti-muslim and anti-migrant attitudes in Europe and what Latvia and the EU can do in order to face this serious challenge?

- I am convinced, that no any religion, let it be Islam or Christianity, is in favour of violence and terrorism. Europe is a home of many nations and many different religions for many centuries, and the main idea of the EU is "United in diversity". Another issue is preventing radicalization and extremism of some individual members of our society. The EU already is doing a lot in this field, promoting social integration, facilitating cultural dialogue, improving education. However, there is still more to do, and we expect that after the Paris terror attacks the EU will be even more efficient in addressing the underlying factors of radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism. Azerbaijan, the Islam country with European values, also could be our good adviser and partner in this regard.

- Speaking about terrorists and security in Europe, there are several frozen conflicts at the border of the EU. Which steps Latvia, as EU chairman, is going to take with the respect to resolving these conflicts, especially Armenia-Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh conflict?

- We, as the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, support the negotiations mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs aimed at settling the conflict. We believe it crucial to maintain direct high-level contacts between Armenia and Azerbaijan in a conflict settlement process. Efforts to reach a sustainable conflict settlement should be continued and Latvia supports them. Latvia is convinced that conflict over Nagorno Karabakh should be resolved only by using peaceful means taking into an account the basic principles of international law. The sides should show restraint and avoid any actions or statements which could escalate the situation.

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