One and a half years ago, heavy clouds filled the European horizon and a great thunderstorm was on its way. After the Brexit referendum, the air was full of political confusion, and there were even pangs of existential angst.
When Estonia took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU in July, we did not have any illusions that these six months or, one brushstroke can solve all the problems of the EU.
Reaching the agreements required for implementing the Paris climate agreement. Approving the European Pillar of Social Rights with a promise to reduce unemployment, poverty and inequality together. Developments in European Union defence cooperation to increase the defence capabilities of our continent. These are without a doubt some of the most important long-term milestones that Europe achieved during the past six months.
Europe also conquered the adverse weather conditions and regained control of the ship being ready for Brexit talks, by stabilising the euro and getting the migration crisis under control.
Thanks to our collective stretch the migration crisis has now become again migration management, which will allow us to focus on long-term joint solutions, based on responsibility and solidarity. Whereas in summer some 12 000 people per week arrived in Italy, numbers of arrivals on the Central Mediterranean route have significantly dropped since July and there are 32 percent less arrivals than this time last year. Of course, this was an effort of all member states, especially those who suffered from the greatest migration pressure.
I admit that the reform of the common European asylum system has been a real challenge. But we have made progress in order to move further. We have to listen to each other, find a common ground and lend a helping hand, if necessary.
I will not tire of repeating that Europe must keep up with technological progress and make it work in its favour. As Jim Hagemann Snabe, the CEO of Maersk, pointedly said for EU Leaders in the first ever EU Digital Summit in Tallinn, digitisation will not be about the rise of the machine, but about empowering the people. Digitisation helps to save time, money, and other valuable resources, creates new opportunities and makes people’s everyday life easier. Last year, for example, Estonia saved 3543 years of working time thanks to e-services and at least 2% of GDP thanks to digital signatures.
I stand for the application for secure electronic identification across Europe to ensure that all Europeans can safely operate, transact and communicate in the digital domain both locally and cross border. I also encourage innovation in governments facilitating more cross-border digital services.
New, more efficient, and more convenient services can be created with the help of artificial intelligence, such as self-driving vehicles, which could, for example, help people with reduced mobility or disability to participate in social life.
Digital skills and trust in digital society
Trust in technology comes from the security and transparency of services – you cannot have one without the other. People need to be protected both offline and online.
At a time when the challenges and threats to the security of Europe do not recognise national borders, the ability to think and act together is more important than ever. The EU also needs cutting-edge information systems in order to fight against terrorism and organised crime and to protect its external borders.
When it comes to European economy, it is fundamental to support investments in digital economy and other sectors which ensure employment for young people. Entrepreneurship – especially small and medium-sized enterprises – offers the most opportunities for this.
Economic growth is also supported by transparent tax policy and just playing field for online and offline business in taxation. I am also happy to report that Santa´s life will be much easier soon, when the new rules limiting the geoblocking of goods and services will enter into force.
Neighbours in East and South
It has become almost a truism that any real foreign policy starts with the immediate neighbourhood. Our renewed impetus and focus to Western Balkans, Eastern neighbourhood and Africa signify the importance and also the inevitability of co-operation. The 20 practical steps we agreed with Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaidjan, Armenia and Belarus by 2020 will improve the lives of millions of people and also help to bring those countries closer to the European Union. I will not stop dreaming that one day all European freedoms will be accessible to the people of those countries willing to go, like Estonia, through the profound change that also took us here.
The near future – euro and budget
Next long-term topic for the leaders of the EU will be single currency, the euro. I agree that all member states, with the exception of Denmark and the United Kingdom, which have official opt-outs, should switch to the single currency.
February will bring the discussions for the next long-term budget period. During the last six months we have debated ways forward for the next generation of transport, energy, cohesion, research, digital and agricultural policies. Estonia stands for more Europe, but a smaller budget would be counterproductive for this purpose. Therefore, the size of the next budget of the EU should remain as large as the current one.