Opening session at Riga

Riga Conference OpeningI’m liveblogging the opening session at Riga – not all sessions are on the record but I’ll do what I can to record as much of the event as possible.

In this first session, we are exploring the issue of what can we do with less for economic growth and security in the EU and NATO.  The Prime Ministers of Latvia, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Finland are all due to address the issue.  Keep reloading this page for updates.

14:06 We’re getting started and the moderator, John Peet is discussing the timeliness of this event and the impact of the Euro on security.  Questions are being sought from the online audience with the #rigaconference hashtag.

Latvia’s Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis welcomes us.  He notes the Europe needs to prioritise spending in an era of fiscal adjustment as a result of the recession.  Streamlining public administration has meant that defence spending has reduced.  This means that command structure has been reformed from six units to a centralised command system.  Having to stick with commitments within NATO means that there is still the prioritisation of security, but it becomes necessary to rationalise duplication of skills and tasks across European military expertise.

The Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk follows, noting that if we are serious about our nation, we have to think about our capacity and capabilities – not just militarily, but financially and politically.  When the war starts, security finishes.  Today the priority is to take up collaboration nationally, regionally and globally to address security.  While we are in the midst of a financial crisis, we still don’t really know what is happening and what can help protect the EU from crisis.  What is most important today is to take courageous decisions to show how to address crisis.  Key is imagination and courage – this should not be considered archaic ideas but rather keys to growth.  Common action, prudent when the situation requires, is necessary for economic stability – this is necessary for security.

The Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip says that in so far as defence is concerned, this will be done in accordance with agreements.  But can’t really look at security without financial readiness.  Estonia accrued substantial reserves in readiness for the recession, but when the recession hit, it was still necessary to cut public spending. Estonia has only been able to sustain a surplus through these spending cuts and to reduce borrowing.  Common to think that politicians are only making cuts just before elections, but this is not true.  Where debt is low there is strong trust in parliament.  So Ansip believes that Euro bonds will not be as effective as budget and deficit cuts are necessary for trust – this is crucial to security.

The Prime Minister of Lithuania, Andrius Kubilius takes the stage and says that he is not goign to repeat what was needed to achieve during the crisis.  Instead he says the achievements of the Baltic States is an exemplar of what has been and what should be achieved in terms of security. With the assistance of Poland, Lithuania has made great progress in security.  The next 20 years of security challenges will be very different from those at the end of the 20th century.  He lists three major goals – security of economic stability, security of energy and transport infrastructure, and security of the Eastern neighbourhood of Europe.

[JJ says: security of access and telecommunications infrastructure should be considered a challenge too – not just for Eastern Europe but across the globe.]

Finally Jyrki Katainen, Prime Minister of Finland, notes that Finland has been the bullseye of the Euro crisis, suffering 8% drop in GDP.  He says he couldn’t agree more with Prime Minister Tusk about the bravery of Baltic states in the crisis – bigger GDP drops than any part of the world, and yet now these countries are experiencing growth.  In the next few years in Europe, the Baltic states are the most innovative and most effective in cooperation for growth.  But now need cooperation in security for defense and economic investment.  The US would like to see Europe take more responsibility for crisis management and security – this needs to happen.  Nordic defence group is already cooperating for defence expertise as well as cost savings.  This can be extended to the rest of the EU.  Katainen concludes that cybersecurity needs the most attention and is a natural area for cooperation.

Now the Chair opens the floor to questions – we have 45 minutes to address issues.

Chair begins by asking if Finland should join NATO.  Katainen notes that there are ways of cooperating with NATO that don’t require membership.  Ansip notes that cooperation across Baltic states is not just military – economic cooperation is quite deep. Cooperation between Prime Ministers in the midst of the economic crisis was fruitful.  It’s a miracle to say deficit in Latvia was near 20% but late this year it’s expected to be 3.8% and next year maybe 2.5%. Cooperation with Estonia was crucial to this.

Question from the floor – interested there has been no mention of north Africa.

Prime Minister Tusk notes the intervention in Libya.  Crucial to make sure EU as a whole, politically and militarily treats all its neighbourhoods with similar importance.  Lesson of Libya is that we have to use all political force within our neighbourhood to resist dictatorship regimes.  If we pretend that it’s okay to deal with these oppressive regimes, then we should expect a result such as that in Libya – military action.  There is also a lesson of European politics – a classical lesson – no effuicient politics without effective leadership.  Agreements and treaties don’t work without strong political leadership.  How we evaluate the Libyan conflict should be in terms of the collective action of European governments – this is promising.  However Europe was not prepared for the Libyan conflict, logistically, militarily and in terms of European policy.  In future, we could see that Europe is able to respond independently, quickly and with strength against regional issues in north Africa, or indeed any of our other neighbours. The key word in Europe is trust.  To be able to use the army together and make military decisions, we need to build a stable Euro zone and have trust in one another.  We need to be even more integrated than we are today to say stop to all disintegrating trends in Europe. Otherwise in future, we will be subject to policy isolation which will weaken opportunities to respond militarily, logistically and economically for the security of the reason.

Question from the floor – how will new states of the EU meet the requirements for cooperation that meet Prime Minister Tusk’s calls for greater EU integration.

Tusk notes that the Polish-German joint units are an example of cooperation that could extend further.  There may always be some doubt but there is capability to cooperate, even without UK participation.

A question from the floor focuses on how much can be achieved without the UK.

Tusk notes that the British can still be a good practical partner without necessarily being involved in a joint military action with the UK.  Dombrovskis notes that stronger EU defence and security cooperation should not be considered as a barrier to stronger NATO cooperation.

Question from the floor is on the question of Islamic fundamentalist control of Libya and other neighbours.

Kubilius notes that democracy as a beginning sometimes brings painful results.  We need to find a way of dealing with people who have different opinions.  We need to communicate that prosperity is dependent on cooperation on trade, whilst also being respectful of other opinions.  Katainen notes that soft power (education, welfare, etc) needs to be a focus rather than religion.

This ends the first session.  more blog updates will follow.

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