Ratas to European Parliament: Feeling of unity crucial to future of EU

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday. 3 October 2018.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday. 3 October 2018. Source: Jürgen Randma/Government Office

In a speech focusing on the future of Europe before the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) agreed with French President Emmanuel Macron that the EU depends on a feeling of unity. ERR News is publishing Ratas' speech in full, as provided by the Government Office.

Mr. President, President of the Commission, distinguished leaders of the political groups and Members of the European Parliament,

I am honoured and humbled to be back in this great house. I would like to thank [President of the European Parliament] Antonio [Tajani] for organising the debates on the future of Europe and for the opportunity to participate.

Today, we can all together congratulate our German friends and all Europeans on the occasion of German Unification Day. For my generation, this day symbolises not only the end of the division of Germany, but it also heralded the liberation of Eastern Europe and the start of the eastward enlargement of the European Union. It made possible the starting of accession talks 20 years ago. It has been an amazing journey for Estonia. The role of the European Parliament in it has been remarkable. I would like to thank you, honourable Members of the European Parliament, for your support.

This year, Estonia celebrates the one hundred year anniversary of our statehood. Like Germans in the east of the country, we had to wait and dream for 50 years about freedom, the rule of law and justice. I very clearly remember watching Finnish TV as this was our only connection to the free world. This is why I, from the bottom of my heart, dislike borders in Europe: those still existing for Member States who have fulfilled all criteria to join Schengen; those that have been partly reintroduced following the migration crisis — although I understand the concerns back then; and those that still may be erected, should we — which I refuse to accept — collectively fail in Brexit negotiations. Against this background, it is not hard to understand why Estonians have such a special emotional connection to Europe.

Europeans are stronger together

I can only agree with the Irish singer Bono that Europe is not only an idea, but also a feeling and a destiny, because our, and I quote, "values and aspirations make Europe so much more than just a geography. They go to the core of who we are as human beings, and who we want to be."

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Compared to its share of territory and population in the world, Europe is small and diverse. But by sharing our sovereignty and pooling our strength, by having common policies, we have been able to make a difference in the world. I believe that we all have shared interest in rules-based and effective multilateral order, built on liberal values and democratic principles.

We have common interests also in open, free and fair global markets. It is what the world expects from us, and it is what our citizens want. Because it is Europe that protects our values and freedoms against the turbulence of today's world. Europe's geographical ties and our global interdependence as the world's largest trader dictate that it is vital to have a world that functions. We Europeans are all stronger together, and I hope we will spare no effort in securing our collective interests and values in the world.

Europe's core strength is its diversity. Being European adds a rich layer to one's identity. Nothing represents this better than the fate of small nations in the European family.

I would like to paraphrase former Estonian President Lennart Meri, who once said that small nations in Europe are the glue, the oil and the cement in the European construction. Therefore, allow me to express here modest enthusiasm when it comes to grand institutional designs in Europe which could lead to the lesser role of smaller nations in our common institutions. Less diversity will also result in less Europe.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today, in this limited timeframe, please allow me to focus on only some areas essential for Europe according to Estonia.

First, preserving unity within the EU.

Unity does not mean uniformity

The key for our common future is our ability to keep the EU united and move forward with EU's positive agenda. There is a saying that the best way to predict the future is to create it. The future is not something abstract or another treaty change. We are building our future every day. We are doing this by providing answers to the concrete concerns of our citizens and, whenever possible, building connections that bring Europeans closer together — human, physical and professional connections.

Europeans also expect us to tackle transformational challenges that are too big for a single Member State, such as European defence, climate change and digital transformation. We will also have to find answers to global population growth and migration, triggered by these changes. I therefore hope for an ambitious multiannual financial framework that reflects these challenges. The new multiannual financial framework is actually the best indicator of how we will see our common future.

I agree with [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron that the European Union depends on the feeling of unity. But as we know, unity does not have to mean uniformity. Sometimes we should simply recognise our different views, without compromising on the same values. I find different levels of direct taxes in Member States perfectly normal.

I also feel that with a European budget the size of only 1% of GNI, fundamental decisions of a redistributive nature can be made at the national or even local level through social dialogue.

At the same time, we must have credible framework vital for our common future, like the national spending of 2% of our GDP to keep Europe safe or aiming at expenditure level of 3% of GDP on research and innovation. Also, we expect Europe to be big in big things but at the same time it has to be excellent in details. Without standards and fine details, the Single Market or Capital Markets Union would simply not function.

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen,

We are now trying to find consensus when deciding on the core elements on how to manage migration. It is difficult, but we all realise that short-term measures will only bring short-term solutions. All of us need to show solidarity in the way that suits best our common purpose and each Member State's particularities.

The key in decreasing irregular migration is to work with third countries. We must use all the instruments that our trade, visa and development policies offer. 
The new Africa-EU alliance proposed by President [of the European Commission Jean-Claude] Juncker to support jobs, skills and private investments in Africa definitely serves long-term effects. Estonia pulls its weight here. Last November, I signed an e-government cooperation agreement between Estonia and the African Union. Estonia is geographically distant from Africa, but the digital world does not recognise distance.

EU influence in global economy important

Secondly, it is important to maintain and strengthen EU's influence in the global economy.

I cannot imagine a better example than the Single Market to prove that we are bigger and stronger together. But it still remains unfinished. Take for example the field of services: while the sector continues to grow unlike anything else, especially in the digital domain, we are far from using its full cross-border potential. For example, public services remain essentially national.

My good colleague [Dutch Prime Minister] Mark Rutte called the services market the elephant in the room when standing in front of you here in June. I understand him well, and I also worry — when did talking about the completion of the Single Market, our economic engine, become a taboo? It is high time that we set ourselves new goals in building the Single Market.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

"Success in creating effective artificial intelligence could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation. Or the worst. We just don't know." A famous quote by Stephen Hawking. In the field of artificial intelligence, the race is definitely on. Everybody is keen on exploring and developing strategies and reaping the benefits while we are still struggling to make it work.

Upon entering from the age of invention into the age of implementation of AI, Europe has to reinforce our values and lead technological change in the public and the private sector. We need to progress in the areas of free movement of data, the data economy and artificial intelligence.

In the world of hybrid warfare, cybercrime and fake news, security in cyberspace should come by design and go hand in hand with emerging technologies. We need to build data integrity into systems, to be able to guarantee that the sensor inputs and computing of the robotic systems are not compromised. 

We need to develop strong digital identities in order to be able to distinguish real persons from fake unfriendly bots. We need to establish practice with a strong professional spirit on keeping AI open and transparent.

I am very pleased with the Commission proposals resulting from the Tallinn Digital Summit last year, especially our commitment to invest into technological and social readiness throughout the new budget. It is time to adopt proposals to complete the Digital Single Market and enable digital transformation. The world will not wait.

Security most widespread concern

Thirdly, it is important to maintain and enhance internal and external security.

All Eurobarometer surveys have shown that our people are most concerned about security. Our long-term focus should be on prevention of crime and illegal activities at our borders. A high level of border and customs surveillance ensures security throughout Europe. Common standards and investments into both technical and operational features in border surveillance are required. Only then can we realistically assess what to expect from the 10,000 European border guards that [Juncker] has proposed.

Also, effective control of people and goods at our external borders demands reliable databases that can communicate with each other. We do not need to collect the same data into different information systems, we just have to make them able to share the information. Interoperability of EU-wide databases by 2020 is the only way forward. We must also explore how to develop better synergies between internal security, border control and customs information systems.

And it is time that also Romania and Bulgaria benefit from membership in the Schengen area.  

Honourable Members of the European Parliament,

The call for European nations to show that they take their security seriously has been around for a long time, and clearly, it will not go away. This is not merely a question about maintaining or increasing our military capabilities. This is ultimately a question about how serious Europe is over its role in its immediate neighbourhood and in the world in general. How serious are we about our transatlantic partnership with the United States.

A Europe that protects has to maintain a strong relationship with our global partners. In addition to the European defence cooperation, it is inevitable to preserve transatlantic unity. Europe cannot deal with the global security risks alone.

For the European Union, this means going beyond its current role as a regulatory superpower and start supporting the development as well as deployment of more traditional instruments of foreign and security policy. Therefore, increased defence cooperation among the EU Member States is very welcome. This will lead to increased defence spending and to a larger number of commonly usable capabilities.

At the same time, NATO will remain the bedrock of collective defence in Europe and our aim should be a mutually reinforcing relationship between the EU and NATO.

Europe needs to fight populism

Mr. President,

The final point I would like to make — we need to strengthen the European feeling and fight populism.

We are working hard in the EU to make our citizens feel well. However, at a recent youth forum in Estonia, students said that even their teachers were not able to explain the European Union. Upcoming European Parliament elections give us, politicians, the perfect opportunity to explain our decisions. The European Union has brought so many opportunities that people nowadays seem to take for granted. We have to speak about the benefits of the single market and single currency to our businesses, about free movement to our people, about ERASMUS to our students...

I very much appreciate the structured dialogues on the future of Europe, initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron, the President of the European Commission Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker and the president of this great house Mr. Antonio Tajani. Working for better Europe that benefits citizens is a daily work. This also includes taking responsibility for the decisions and compromises made in the EU and showing very clearly that we own these decisions.

The action taken after the Bratislava and Rome Summits already seems to have positive results and enjoys support by the people. More than two thirds of EU citizens feel that EU membership has been beneficial to their country — the best result since 1983.

To summarise:

External pressure and crises have always pushed the EU forward and motivated Member States and institutions to cooperate. Our common, unanimous response to Russian aggression against Ukraine, to the Bataclan terrorist attack, or, if we will, to the euro zone crisis, is an example of solidarity and common values. 

European Union as a community of values — and, of course, shared interests — has to have the means to stand up for the respect of individual freedoms and fundamental rights, for multilateral and rules-based order and to tackle the challenges to our security, peace and wellbeing. I believe that our citizens understand this while we engage in the negotiations over the next Multi-annual Financial Framework.

The fundamentals of the European Union are constantly disputed by the people, by the Member States and also by third states. Our Union is therefore politically fragile. This means that we need a self-confident, reassuring Union that protects its citizens and its members.

We also need citizens and Member States that are passionate about the Union and everything it stands for as a family of peoples and states. And there must be more of us. I hope, that in ten years from now, I can listen to a colleague from any of the current candidate countries in the same role that I am standing here today.

Now I would like to conclude in my mother tongue, Estonian:

Dear Members of the European Parliament!

I want to thank you all for the fact that you are not indifferent to the present and future of Europe. Only today do I fully understand what a privilege and responsibility it was for Estonia and me last year, when we led the work of the Council of the European Union.

The Estonian author Anton Hansen Tammsaare has said that love grows in doing work. So it is. Europe was, is, and will remain in my heart.

Thank you!


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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