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European cooperation – and why we must defend it

30. August 2016 - 0:00

Opinion piece in Svenska Dagbladet 30 August 2016 by Margot Wallström, Marina Kaljurand, Linas Linkevičius, and Edgars Rinkēvičs.

We foreign ministers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden are gathered here today in Stockholm to commemorate the fact that it is 25 years since we re-established our diplomatic relations after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence following the Soviet occupation.

During these 25 years, we have witnessed how the three Baltic States have developed into free democratic states and equal partners in the European Union. We have seen how economic, cultural and political contacts over the Baltic Sea, which were natural for centuries, could be resumed. Soviet oppression and the Iron Curtain were replaced by democracy and transparency. Courageous citizens of the Baltic States came together to defend democracy and independence. Early on, Sweden actively contributed to the changes and building of the societies that followed at political level and through the actions of organisations and individuals in a number of different areas. In 1990, then Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson hosted a Baltic Sea States Summit in Ronneby in which the Baltic States participated for the first time under their own flags. Close cooperation has flourished among our countries. The Baltic Sea no longer divides us, it unites us in our broad Nordic-Baltic cooperation, in the work on the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region and in our commitment to European cooperation.

These achievements must be constantly defended. Europe is facing major challenges. For the last few years, Russia has been openly challenging the European security order – through the illegal annexation of Crimea and the continuous aggression against Ukraine. Terrorist attacks that strike randomly, war and conflicts in the EU's southern neighbourhood and continued refugee flows are severely testing EU cohesion. At the same time, the British people have chosen to leave the EU, which we respect but also deeply regret. The EU and the UK must continue to have a close relationship.

This is not the first time that Europe and the EU have had to tackle difficult challenges. Less than ten years ago we experienced a deep financial crisis from which we are slowly emerging. Through negotiations and compromises, the Union has always found opportunities and solutions to the problems it has faced. No country can address the challenges in a globalised world on its own, regardless of whether they involve guaranteeing our peace and security, fighting terrorism or managing refugee flows, or dealing with the threat against our energy security and climate. The only way to achieve results is through close cooperation.

We welcome the joint declaration by EU and NATO leaders at the NATO Summit in Warsaw, and we attach great value to the defence and security cooperation between our Nordic and Baltic countries. Sweden's policy of military non-alignment and the Baltic States' membership of NATO are key for our regional and international security cooperation.

For quite some time the Baltic States, being members of both the EU and NATO, remained 'energy islands' in the EU. In December 2015 the strategic energy infrastructure project, NordBalt, connecting the electricity networks between Sweden and the Baltic countries, was inaugurated. NordBalt is of significant importance to security policy in the Baltic region and enhances the Baltic countries' resilience and the security of electricity supply.

It is now necessary to look ahead and for the EU to tackle the challenges that face us – in particular in the areas that are important to our citizens. We should focus on discussing the issues that affect us the most. These include how we can develop democracy in Europe and how we can build a more secure European continent, not least in our part of Europe. They also include creating more jobs and sustainable growth, and continuing to develop a socially responsible and more gender-equal and fair Europe – a Social Europe.

The EU is also needed as a coherent force so as to contribute to a safer world. Not least, this involves the EU's crisis management capacity, preparedness to counter and strengthen resilience to hybrid threats, measures to prevent radicalisation, safeguarding respect for human rights and strengthening the role of women in peace and development. It is also essential that we ensure democracy, stability and economic growth in both our southern and our eastern neighbourhoods. EU support to the countries of the Eastern Partnership is therefore vital. The dialogue that the EU is conducting with Russia must be clear and principled, and the sanctions must remain in place until Russia lives up to its side of the Minsk Agreement. Support to Ukraine must remain strong.

The EU's role is also crucial in the areas of energy, climate and environment. To tackle the cross-border challenge that these issues represent, a coherent and ambitious climate, energy, environmental and nuclear safety policy is necessary to ensure a sustainable future for coming generations. The EU's Energy Union, with initiatives in areas such as renewable energy, interconnections, energy security and efficiency, is important, as are joint measures for a non-toxic environment. We should promote internationally agreed nuclear safety standards to third countries to avoid potential transboundary nuclear threats arising in the immediate EU neighbourhood.

For these reasons, there is a need to strengthen the EU's capacity to act in the area of foreign policy. The recently presented European Global Strategy (EGS) for the EU's foreign and security policy is key in this respect.

We also cooperate in the EU to safeguard freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and our fundamental values, which are being challenged by disinformation and propaganda . This feels particularly relevant this year, since Sweden is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Freedom of the Press Act, and it is 25 years since the Baltic States regained their freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

The progress we have seen in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since the countries became members of the EU in May 2004 is remarkable. Foreign direct investment has multiplied, particularly from Sweden, which is the largest foreign investor in all three countries. Unemployment has decreased and the standard of living is considerably higher. Life expectancy has increased and the share of students at higher education institutions has risen significantly.

It is important to keep in mind the successes brought about by EU cooperation, not least for our four countries. We need to highlight that which is positive, which is often taken for granted. EU enlargement has proven to be one of the most important tools for peace, growth and prosperity in Europe. In this respect the EU's peacebuilding capability has proven to be one of the most successful in the world. It is therefore essential for the EU to keep the door open for new members that meet the requirements set out by the EU.

The positive developments in our region – around the Baltic Sea – are intimately bound up with European integration. Let us – at the Nordic-Baltic level – continue to develop the EU together with our European partners for a strong, united and solidarity-based Europe.
 

Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sweden
Marina Kaljurand, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Estonia
Linas Linkevičius, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lithuania
Edgars Rinkēvičs, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Latvia

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