It’s the turn of Latvia

From January 1st 2015 the Baltic Country will hold the Council's six-month presidency. The program announced by Premier Straujuma

A woman, Laimdota Straujuma, serving as Premier, and with her, her small country at the lead of the European community. From 1 January, in fact, Latvia will take over the rotating presidency of the EU Council of Ministers, succeeding Italy. A delicate role at a problematic phase of Europe’s integration process, ranging from the economic crisis to attempts to revive growth and employment. National identikit. There are just over two million inhabitants in Latvia, a Baltic republic that is struggling with all his strength to recover from a history of foreign domination – in chronological order throughout the centuries: Sweden, Russian Empire and the Soviet Union – with repeated efforts to free a territory slightly larger than Ireland and covered with forests for more than half. Disengaged from the Soviets in 1991, it joined the European Union in 2004 and on 1 January 2014, it became also a member of the euro zone. Nearly 30% of its population is of Russian origin, while at political level pro-Russian sympathies embodied by the political party Saskaòâ emerged as victorious with 23% of the vote in last October’s parliamentary elections. All others fear their Russian neighbour, especially since the situation in Ukraine exploded, and the collapse of the rouble in recent days is far from reassuring. According to Eurostat, 35% of the population is at risk of poverty, as in Greece, although internal surveys give 19%. However, economic growth for 2015 is estimated at 2.8% and the deficit / GDP ratio at about 1%. Latvia is among the five EU countries that in 2014 have increased funding to the school system by more than 5% (source Erasmus +). A sad record is that of divorces (77% of married couples are separated). 20% of the overall population declare themselves Catholic. Riga, European Capital of Culture in 2014, has registered over a million and a half of tourists-visitors. Three political priorities. Thus the six-month EU chair will be occupied by Laimdota Straujuma, first woman premier of Latvia, in office since past January, member of the conservative party Vienotiba (Unity). “Our ambition is to bring new vision and dynamism”, said the Prime Minister presenting the priorities of the Presidency, “in continuity” with Italy and Luxembourg, which will take office in June, and in harmony with the strategic agenda of the EU. Notwithstanding all this, Latvia will focus on three priorities: a competitive Europe to promote growth and employment; a digital Europe to seize the opportunities offered by information and communication technologies; a “committed” Europe, with a clear role in global issues. The goal of competitiveness will entail strengthening the single market, based on the principle, “less but better rules” and “on the removal of obstacles that still restrict the exchange of goods and services”. Other commitments include working for the advancement of the energy union and the strengthening of monetary union, coupled by plans “for targeted, sustainable investments, capable of generating other investments with a multiplier effect”, also to boost industrial competitiveness. The Digital Single Market is another key target of the Latvian presidency, proud of the fact that Riga is “the European capital of free WI-FI”, with the fastest Internet services in the EU, fourth in global rankings. We must become “digital by default”, said the Prime Minister. Foreign affairs and migration. Another goal is Europe’s engagement “on the world stage”. If the management of crisis situations should be handled by the High Representative of the EU, who “will be supported by the Presidency of the Council”, a point dear to Latvia is the Eastern Partnership, which involve Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. A key moment will be May’s summit in Riga, when, according to Latvia, it will be necessary “to send a strong signal to that region”. A strength that would enable Europe to recover authority in the world order, according to the Latvian program, is “addressing the challenge to reaffirm our role as competitive economic partners” which means to make progress in negotiations within the WTO, and continue negotiations for TTIP, namely, trade agreements with the US. But this chapter includes also efforts for “a new migration policy” in a Europe of “justice and fundamental rights”. Official opening in Riga. The logo chosen by the Latvian Presidency is a millstone, a symbol of “continuity and stability” but also of “strength and growth”, while its circular shape is designed to express unity and completeness. The semester’s agenda envisages over 200 summits, meetings and events in Latvian territory. The opening celebrations of the semester will be held in Riga on January 8, when will be launched the European Year for Development.

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