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Speeches: Forum on Latvian Presidency and EU Policy Towards Central Asia

(As prepared for delivery)

It’s always an honor to be invited to speak at the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute. But I have to admit it’s also a little daunting because of the presence of the eminent scholar of Central Asia, Dr. Fred Starr. So from the very beginning, Fred, let me ask your indulgence and recognition that I am, after all, both a diplomat and a bureaucrat – a diplocrat, if you will – representing official U.S. government policy.

As someone who has been involved in U.S. Central Asian policy for more than a decade, let me say that some might see our policy as a little too aspirational and a little too unfocused, but I would argue that the concept is right. And I am grateful that we have a partner like Latvia that has a similarly far-sighted vision for the region.

I want to commend Latvia for having designated Central Asia as one of its priorities of its EU presidency. I think this is increasingly seen as prescient and very timely.

The five countries of Central Asia all to one degree or another practice a multi-vector foreign policy, balancing Russia, China, the United States, and the European Union. Over the past year, I have watched each of the five countries readjust the balance of their relationships and incrementally open up a bit more to both the United States and to the European Union – as well as to each other. I would judge this is because of events in Ukraine, as well as because of unease about the future of Afghanistan.

It’s an honor to share the stage with Eduards Stiprais, with whom I had an excellent conversation in Riga in February when I was there to brief on our Central Asia policy and to seek the government of Latvia’s advice and recommendations how we might coordinate our work both bilaterally with Latvia and multilaterally with the European Union.

I left Riga with a great admiration for the work Latvia is doing in Central Asia, including training for Central Asians at the Graduate School of Law in Riga, a program that we help to fund and for which we increased our funding after I met with the people in Riga who run this exemplary program.

We all know that priorities are reflected in how resources are spent, especially in the constrained budget environment that many governments, including our own, are facing.

So with the EU greatly increasing its seven-year budget for Central Asia to over one billion dollars for 2014-2020, it’s pretty clear that the Europeans are giving this region a new emphasis.

We recently finished updating our Central Asia policy, which is founded on two distinct principles: (one), that our security is enhanced by a stable, secure Central Asia, and (two) that regional stability is best achieved through sovereign, independent Central Asian states with secure borders, linked economies and populations, and accountable governments.

Based on those principles, we are promoting three main objectives: (1) security and stability, (2) trade and investment, and (3) good governance and human rights.

I needn’t point out that these objectives are mutually reinforcing and create a virtuous circle: security and stability are a condition for commerce, commerce is sustained by good governance, good governance and human rights enhance stability, stability supports more commerce, and on and on.

Today, I want to focus on the second objective of our policy for Central Asia, which centers on trade and investment.

I’m sure many of you are quite familiar with our New Silk Road initiative, so I’ll just briefly explain that the initiative’s objective is to increase economic connectivity among the countries of Central Asia and South Asia, along both north-south and east-west trade networks.

We are increasing connectivity by helping our partners in Central Asia along four lines of effort: (one), building a regional energy market, (2) improving trade and transport routes, (3) streamlining customs and border crossings, and (4) creating linkages between peoples and between businesses.

Essentially, we are trying to enhance the virtuous networks of global trade, investment, and knowledge-sharing, while suppressing the vicious networks of transnational crime, trafficking, and terrorism.

Now, this involves much more than just new roads and rails, though those are certainly a prerequisite.

And while, most recently, our New Silk Road initiative focused mostly on north-south connectivity -- between Central Asia and South Asia – we’re also looking at ways that U.S. leadership can help improve east-west connectivity, between Europe and Asia.

To start with, for over six years we have worked closely with our partners in Central Asia, the South Caucasus, Turkey, and the rest of Europe – including Latvia – to transport goods in and out of Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network.

We’re now seeking to build on the close partnerships forged through the NDN to support the development of an east-west trade network, stretching from China and India to Central Asia, across the Caspian to the South Caucasus, Turkey, and the rest of Europe.

Several other efforts to develop trade corridors are also underway.

The Lapis Lazuli trade corridor transiting Turkmenistan, which Afghan President Ghani highlighted at the Joint Session of Congress last month, holds great promise. As does the Silk Wind route, which goes through Kazakhstan to China.

We’re also closely watching the EU-sponsored Eastern Partnership Network, which runs across Europe to Azerbaijan, as well as the Trans-Caucasus-Central Asia network (TRACECA) that would run through Azerbaijan, over the Caspian, across Central Asia, and into East Asia.

And then there’s the EBRD- and ADB-supported Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation network that spreads across all the Central Asian nations and branches west into Azerbaijan, south into Pakistan, and east into China.

So we encourage the countries involved to continue the hard and often tedious work that will make these proposals a reality; we are ready to assist in whatever way we can.

As I mentioned earlier, these networks require more than just new roads and rails -- potholes and broken track aren’t the only barriers to trade.

High tariffs, antiquated customs processes, complicated border crossings, and other policy issues also hamper the flow of goods. They result in trade that is costlier, slower, and smaller.

It’s probably more than a coincidence that the low level of trade among the countries of Central Asia strongly correlates with their low position on the World Bank’s trading-across-border rankings.

Viable north-south and east-west trade networks will require regulatory reforms and regional cooperation to reduce delays, documents required, and overall costs – including the costs of corruption. Removing these bottlenecks will greatly enhance the region’s competitiveness.

But fixing these policy barriers to trade requires political will at the top and coordination among various levels of government and among governments.

And so, we want to elevate our diplomatic engagement across the region and use our convening power to bring these countries together, to help solve some of these difficult issues like customs and border crossings.

We’ve already seen the efficacy of such an approach in the successes of the CASA-1000 energy project, which brought together a grouping of countries that had never before worked together on a development project. With last Friday’s signing ceremony in Istanbul, CASA-1000 is closer than ever to becoming a reality.

China, through its Silk Road Economic Belt and other initiatives, certainly has a lot to offer when it comes to financing, planning, and building the infrastructure that is so vital to trade. We see China’s investments in Central Asia as a welcome development, so long as those investments lead to broad, balanced, and sustainable growth.

I’d like to underscore balanced because, while China is the largest trading partner of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, and is Uzbekistan’s second-largest partner, 80-90 percent of China’s exports to those countries are finished goods, while, conversely, more than 85 percent of China’s imports from those countries are raw materials. Central Asia’s economies definitely have some room to grow in terms of export diversity, which is part of our own efforts and the EU’s as well.

We see China’s involvement as complementary to our own – Central Asia is definitely a region where everyone wants to see “all boats rise.” In fact, we have been consulting with China, looking for areas of common interest where we can cooperate. I’ll soon travel to Beijing with an interagency team to do just that – for the second time in less than a year.

And so, we’re looking forward to working with the EU, China, India, and the countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, to enhance and further develop those east-west networks that truly have the potential to transform global trade flows, for the benefit of all.

To conclude, I want to say thank you again to Latvia for its leadership, and of course to Fred Starr and SAIS, for bringing us together for this important discussion. I look forward to any questions that might follow.

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Daily News 17 / 02 / 2015

Investment Plan: Green light for SME financing before the summer

Small and medium sized businesses across Europe could benefit from the first funds from the new European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) before the summer, the EIB announced today. Money can be made available to SMEs by the European Investment Fund (EIF), part of the EIB-Group, which will cover the risk of transactions with intermediaries providing additional finance to SMEs and small mid-caps until the main EFSI is in place, by September at the latest. Vice-President Katainen, responsible for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, said: "This means that by the summer, cash-starved businesses across Europe will already be able to benefit from a new source of potential financing. We have said that we want to help get Europe investing again - and today we are doing exactly that." Read the full press release online. (for more information: Annika BreidthardtTel.: +32 229 51536; Siobhan BrightTel.: +32 229 57361)

EU releases €212 million to support the Palestinian people

The European Union has released the first tranche of its 2015 financial support to the Palestinian Authority and to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), totalling €212 million. This new funding will help provide vital basic services such as education, healthcare and social services to the Palestinian people. The new financial support is financed through the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy. The ENI is the main EU financial instrument for support to Palestine for the period 2014-2020. (for more information: Maja Kocijancic – Tel.: +32 229 86570; Anca Paduraru – Tel.: +32 229 66430; Nabila Massrali – Tel.: +2229 69218)

OTHER NEWS

EU provides €32 million in humanitarian aid to Mali

The European Union is increasing its humanitarian assistance in Mali with €32 million for this year. This new aid will help meet the increasing needs in view of renewed violence, increased displacement and malnutrition. The crisis is compounded by difficult access to the affected populations due to the worsening security situation in northern Mali. "Humanitarian aid is neutral and aid workers should be allowed safe and unhindered access to those who need help. Our first priority is to provide life-saving aid to the malnourished and the displaced, and to protect people who are caught up in conflict", said Christos Stylianides, Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management who is visiting Mali. (for more information: Catherine Ray – Tel.: +32 229 69921; Irina Novakova - Tel.: +32 2 295 75 17)

Additional EU aid for flood victims in Albania

The European Commission today announced over € 118 000 in EU support for the most vulnerable people affected by the recent floods in Albania. The funding comes from the Commission's humanitarian aid budget. This EU assistance will provide around 8 000 people with food, hygiene kits and blankets as well as information on health and hygiene during floods. The funding will be channelled through the Albanian Red Cross. It comes on top of aid provided by European countries via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. In a coordinated response facilitated by the European Commission's Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and Montenegro have sent beds, tents, kitchen sets, generators, and other material support to the affected region. (for more information: Catherine Ray – Tel.: +32 229 69921; Irina Novakova - Tel.: +32 2 295 75 17)

Mergers: Commission clears acquisition of DBRS by TCGFS II and Warburg Pincus in financial services sector

The European Commission has approved under the EU Merger Regulation the acquisition of DBRS Holdings Limited of Canada by TCG Financial Services II, L.P. belonging to the Carlyle Group L.P. and Warburg Pincus LLC, both of the USA. Carlyle is a global alternative asset manager. Warburg Pincus is a global private equity firm. DBRS provides credit rating opinions across a broad range of companies, governments and structured finance products on a global basis. The Commission concluded that the proposed acquisition would raise no competition concerns because of the companies' moderate combined market shares on the markets concerned. The transaction was examined under the simplified merger review procedure. More information is available on the Commission's competition website, in the public case register under the case number M.7505. (for more information: Ricardo Cardoso – Tel.: +32 229 80100)

Le Président Juncker désigne Michel Barnier en tant que conseiller spécial pour la politique de défense et de sécurité européenne

Le Président de la Commission européenne, Jean-Claude Juncker, a désigné ce jour Michel Barnier en tant que conseiller spécial pour la politique de défense et de sécurité européenne. Le Président Juncker a déclaré: « Lorsque la nouvelle Commission a pris ses fonctions, nous avons indiqué que nous devions construire une Europe plus forte sur les questions de sécurité et de défense. Certes, l'Europe est avant tout une «puissance douce». Mais même la plus forte des puissances douces ne peut se passer à long terme d'un minimum de capacités intégrées en matière de défense et de sécurité. Michel Barnier a une longue expérience en matière de défense et est le mieux placé pour me conseiller et pour conseiller la Haute Représentante et Vice-Présidente Federica Mogherini sur ces questions essentielles pour l'avenir de l'Europe. » Dans ses nouvelles fonctions, Michel Barnier participera notamment à l'élaboration de la contribution du Président de la Commission aux travaux du Conseil européen en matière de politique européenne de défense. Pour de plus d'informations: IP/15/4437. (for more information: Natasha Bertaud – Tel.: +32 229 67456)

Commission appoints top researchers to the European Research Council Scientific Council

Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, welcomes the appointment of three accomplished scientists to join the European Research Council's Scientific Council, an independent body that decides the strategy and distribution of ERC funding. The three new members, selected for a four-year term of office are Professors Tomas Jungwirth of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Dame Janet Thornton of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, and Fabio Zwirner of the University of Padova. The Commission also renewed the term of office of three current members: Professors Nicholas Canny of the National University of Ireland, Galway, Timothy Hunt of Cancer Research UK, South Mimms, and Mart Saarma of the University of Helsinki. At the same time, the Scientific Council appointed Professor Saarma as well as Professor Sierd Cloetingh of the Utrecht University new Vice-Presidents of the ERC. All Members of the Scientific Council are selected by an Identification Committee. An ERC press release is available online. (for more information: Lucia Caudet – Tel.: +32 229 56182; Mirna Bratoz – Tel.: +32 229 87278)

 

ANNOUNCEMENTS

 

Commissioner Hahn in Skopje and Pristina on 17-18 February

Commissioner Hahn will visit Skopje on 17 February 2015 and Pristina on 18 February for the first time in his capacity as Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations. He will meet with government and opposition politicians, representatives of civil society, business community. Topics for discussion in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will include the current political situation, key EU-related reform priorities, EU financial assistance, as well as good neighbourly relations. The aim of this first visit to Kosovo is to meet the newly established government institutions and to reaffirm the commitment to Kosovo's European perspective. Commissioner Hahn will underline the key priorities for EU-Kosovo relations in 2015 and that the signature and conclusion of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement will mark the beginning of a new phase in EU-Kosovo relations. (for more information: Maja Kocijancic – Tel.: +32 229 86570; Anca Paduraru – Tel.: +32 229 66430)

Women’s Economic Empowerment and Sustainable Development: High-Level Event on 2 March, Riga

Achieving gender equality and women's empowerment is one of the priorities of the European Commission. The month of March is the thematic month dedicated to women and girls during the European Year for Development 2015 (EYD2015). In this context, a high level political event, organised by the Latvian Presidency of the EU Council and the European Commission, will take place on March 2 in Riga (Latvia) to discuss possible solutions for ensuring women’s equal rights, as well as economic resources for unlocking women’s potential, with a specific focus on developing countries. Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica, is among the key personalities who will be present at the event. More info on the event is available online. (for more information: Catherine Ray - Tel.: +32 229 69921; Sharon Zarb - Tel.: +32 229 92256)

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Press release – Latvian Presidency priorities discussed by EP committees – Committee on Development – Committee on International Trade – Committee on Foreign Affairs – Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs – Committee on Legal Affairs – Committee on Culture and Education – Committee on….

The priorities of Latvia’s EU Council Presidency will be outlined to the various parliamentary committees by Latvian ministers in a series of meetings to be held during the last two weeks of January.

Fisheries

Putting the new Common Fisheries Policy into practice, with a special focus on competitiveness and sustainability, is the Presidency's major priority in this field, Agriculture Minister Jānis Dūklavs told the Fisheries Committee on Thursday. The most pressing need here is to agree on the "landing obligation" regulation, in order to make the discard ban work, he said. The Presidency will also push for progress on the multi-annual management plans, in order to establish maximum sustainable yields for all stocks, he added.

MEPs acknowledged the urgent need to overcome the legal difficulties delaying the entry into force of the discard ban. They asked Mr Dūklavs how he planned to help resolve the dispute between Parliament and Council over the legal basis of the multiannual management plans, which have been blocked in the Council for years. He replied that the legislators would have to build on the results achieved so far by the inter-institutional task force, and that the Baltic Sea multiannual plan, if agreed upon, could become an example for future management plans. MEPs also raised the difficult issues of the proposed ban on driftnets and the deep-sea trawling law. Mr Dūklavs also announced that a special effort would be made to negotiate fisheries partnership deals with third countries, especially Mauritania, whose fisheries agreement with the EU expired in December.

Agriculture

 

A key Presidency priority is the organic farming regulation, Agriculture Minister Jānis Dūklavs told the Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, stressing that the Presidency will seek agreement in the Council and start negotiations with the Parliament as soon as possible to avoid having the proposal withdrawn by the Commission.

The Presidency will also focus on simplifying the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and making progress on the animal health and plant health regulations in “trialogue” talks with the European Parliament and Commission, he said. The Presidency will closely follow market developments with regard both to the Russian embargo on EU food products and in the dairy sector, given that milk quotas are to expire at the end of March 2015.

MEPs urged the Presidency to tackle the impending crisis in the dairy sector, press for more measures to help farmers hit by the Russian embargo and back Parliament's wish to pursue work on reform of the EU school fruit, vegetable and milk scheme, despite the Commission's recommendation that legislative work on it be put on hold.

Employment and social affairs

 

An inclusive and sustainable labour market in Europe, fighting poverty, creating quality jobs, particularly for young people and people with disabilities, while also tackling the health and safety at work and gender equality issues will be the Presidency’s key priorities, Welfare Minister Uldis Augulis told the Employment Committee on Wednesday.

MEPs welcomed the Presidency initiatives and urged Mr Augulis to press for legislation to be passed on the EU employment services network, thus improving labour mobility, but to include measures to prevent wage dumping. They also wanted more specific measures for integrating disabled job seekers in the labour market and reducing the gender gap in wages and pensions. Since employment policies are a matter for EU member states, the Presidency also pledged to  promote better cooperation and EU-wide exchanges of best practices in fighting unemployment.

Environment - market stability reserve, biofuels

The Presidency is committed to creating a market reserve to improve the stability of the EU carbon market,  Environment and Regional Development minister Kaspars Gerhards told the Environment Committee on Wednesday. Discussion would probably start early in the spring, he added.

On the reform of EU biofuels legislation, “we hope to achieve agreement between the two legislators, one that would create clarity for operators and for European biofuels policy, through a balanced approach to the sustainable generation of biofuels” Mr Gerhards said. He also emphasised the importance of pressing ahead with plans for cleaner air, e.g. to limit emissions of certain pollutants from medium-sized combustion plants, on  which the Presidency aims to get an agreement with Parliament. National emission target ceilings and efficient use of natural resources could help to achieve this goal, he added.

Health - medical devices, alcohol strategy

Health Minister Guntis Belēvičs intends to begin negotiations with the European Parliament on reforming EU regulations on medical devices and in vitro diagnostic medical devices, he told the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee on Wednesday.  “But it is clear that there are many areas where Council still has to find an agreement” he added. He mentioned measures against psychoactive substances and addictions as another priority, and undertook to start a debate on a new EU alcohol strategy: “it remains a competence of member states, but in recent years, there has been a discussion on having an integrated policy at EU level” he said. He also highlighted the issue of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. “it is mostly eradicated from the West, but does spread across borders, irrespective of lifestyles, and represents a threat to all of us”, he said.

International trade

 

Work to further advance the multilateral trade system within the World Trade Organization and implementing plurilateral deals already done, trade talks with the USA, Japan and Vietnam are key trade priorities for the Presidency, Parliamentary State Secretary for European Affairs Zanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica said in a debate with the International Trade Committee Wednesday.

MEPs stressed the need to push through pending international trade legislation. Some advocated bringing forward the implementation dates of trade deals already concluded with third countries. Others insisted that the Presidency should come up with a timetable for taking up the findings of the European Commission’s public consultation on whether investor-to-state dispute settlement clauses should be included in the forthcoming Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal with the USA.

Internal market

 

A more competitive and more digital Europe, further integrating the single market, improving enforcement of EU rules, and promoting mutual trust and free movement of goods and services will be the Presidency’s key priorities, Economy Minister Dana Reizniece-Ozola told the Internal Market Committee on Wednesday 21 January.

Internal market MEPs welcomed the first-ever Latvian Presidency of EU Council and urged it to spare no effort to break Council deadlock over the "made in" regulation and the telecoms package. They backed the Presidency’s pledges to advance digital single market initiatives, ensure that the services directive is properly implemented, and find compromises on network and information security and package travel rules.


Development

The Presidency's development priorities are tackling crises in Syria and Ukraine and the Ebola epidemic in Western Africa, Parliamentary State Secretary for European Affairs Zanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica told the Development Committee on Wednesday. MEPs urged Latvia to seize the opportunity of European Year for Development 2015 to push for an end to the "chronic underfinancing of development" and to strengthen the link between humanitarian and development aid by looking for long term solutions, such as investing in health care systems in African countries.

Justice and home affairs

Making progress on the data protection package, towards achieving a negotiating mandate for the Council, will be the Presidency's first priority, Justice Minister Dzintars Rasnačs, assured the Justice and Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday. Other priorities will be work on protecting the EU's financial interests and the rights of suspects in criminal law. Interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis said the Presidency is open to dialogue to make progress on the EU PNR proposal, based on respect for human rights and freedoms. Work on updating the EU Internal Security Strategy and the new laws governing Europol and CEPOL will also continue, he added. On migration and asylum, he stressed the need for a common EU approach to human smuggling in the Mediterranean and said that work on a single asylum system must be taken further.

Replying to questions on the data protection package, Justice Minister Dzintars Rasnačs said that trialogues (three-way talks between Parliament, Council and Commission) should be possible only "after the June Council", but stressed member states' willingness to move ahead with this file.

On EU PNR proposal, Mr Kozlovskis mentioned that "good practices" on the use of PNR by member states who have already introduced their own systems should be discussed at the 29 January informal Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting. He assured MEPs that "the objective is to provide for data protection and respect for fundamental rights". On migration, he told MEPs that the Presidency would build on the work of previous presidencies and highlighted its plans to fight human smuggling.

Transport and tourism

“We want to make progress on the technical pillar of the 4th railway package our priority, but work on every part of it will continue” Transport Minister Andrijs Matīss told the Transport and Tourism Committee on Wednesday. The Presidency will pursue work on the Single European Sky 2+ package and air passenger rights, and also on the ports proposal, in which it will seek to ensure proper financial transparency and take account of the differing stages of development of member states’ ports, he said. Investment in and development of the TEN-T network will be discussed at a ministerial meeting in March and the June Transport Council will address road safety issues, he announced.

MEPs stressed that the Gibraltar issue needs to be resolved to permit progress on aviation files. Some asked whether the Presidency would consider splitting the railway package, others how the introduction of minimum wages in Germany would affect transport operators from other member states operating in Germany. MEPs also quizzed Mr Matīss on his plans to address cuts in transport sector emissions and tackle social dumping in the transport sector.

Industry, research and energy

"Our approach is to reduce roaming charges gradually, as there are different conditions in the member states" said Transport Minister Anrijs Matīss, in Wednesday morning's debate on Presidency priorities for the telecoms package and ICT. Three-party talks (Parliament, Council and Commission) could be held In March on the Network Information Security (NIS) proposals, with the aim of approving the directive by July, he suggested. The "digital agenda" is a Presidency priority and a Competition Council meeting in May will address the various aspects of this comprehensive topic, he announced.

Education and Science Minister Mārīte Seile presented the Presidency's four research and space priorities: linking the Innovation Union and the European Research Area, further developing the research area, the digital elements of research innovation, and a comprehensive space policy.

Constitutional affairs

 

A more active digital Europe, with better relations between EU institutions and citizens, is a key Presidency goal, Zanda Kalnina-Lukaševica, Parliamentary Secretary to the Latvian Foreign Minister, told the Constitutional Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

Striking the right balance between safety and transparency, EU accession to the Human Rights Convention and possible improvements to the citizen's initiative and interinstitutional cooperation between Parliament, Council and Commission were among the priorities discussed with MEPs.

Cohesion policy

 

Cohesion policy is still one of the most important investment policies geared to creating growth and jobs, Finance Minister Jānis Reirs told the Regional Development Committee on Tuesday, underlining that EU funds made up 70% of public investment in his own country. The  Presidency aims to ensure that all the preconditions are met for the smooth start of the new cohesion policy for 2014-2020, including agreeing on budgetary amendments needed to approve the delayed remaining operational programmes, he said, adding that it would also pay particular attention to strengthening the role of small- and medium-sized cities, as part of an EU Urban Agenda.

MEPs reiterated their demand for a proper cohesion policy Council formation and asked about the linkage and synergy between cohesion policy and the Commission's Strategic Investment Plan ("Juncker-Plan"), warning that if, with these combined funds, the EU fails to re-launch the economy, it will lose its credibility in the eyes of the electorate. Mr Reirs replied that the "Juncker-Plan" will not become a "second Cohesion Policy" but complement existing programmes, and added that another Presidency priority is to pursue work on macro-regional strategic initiatives.

 

Women’s rights and gender equality

The Presidency will take an integrative approach to the issue of equality between women and men, building it into all policy areas, but especially employment, social and health policies, Welfare Minister Uldis Augulis told the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee on Monday.

His priorities include ensuring equal pay for women and men, fighting exclusion and poverty, reconciling work and family life and reducing pension gaps between women and men. The Presidency will urge EU member states to ratify and implement the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women. “We will seek compromise in the Council to support the women on company boards directive, so as to get more women into top positions”, he added.

Finally, he reiterated the importance of the proposed maternity leave directive, but doubted that the Council would come up with a common agreement on it. Instead, “what we need is new initiative and something more modern”, he said.

 

Legal affairs

Reaching agreements with Parliament on the trade mark package and the small claims procedure proposals will be among Presidency priorities in the justice field Justice Minister Dzintars Rasnačs told to the Legal Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The Presidency also aims to make progress on the proposal to simplify acceptance of certain public documents and on plans to increase number of judges at the General Court of the European Court of Justice.

MEPs quizzed Mr Rasnačs on the interinstitutional agreement on better regulation, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty on access for visually impaired people to published works, single-member companies, insolvency of natural persons and priorities in the field of family law.

Culture and education

Culture and creative industries are an engine of economic growth and the Presidency will focus on bridging them to foster their development in Europe, Culture Minister Dace Melbārde told the Culture and Education Committee on Monday. Answering MEPs’ questions, she underlined the importance of technologies in broadening access to digital content and the diversity of broadcasting material. The Presidency will  work to build consensus around the proposed "cultural exception" in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks, she added.


The Presidency aims to consolidate the role of education and training in delivering skills that the labour market needs, in line with Agenda 2020, said Education and Science MinisterMārīte Seile. It will also seek to strengthen informal education, including social skills that are essential for working life. Replying to MEPs’ questions, she added that the Presidency would prepare a coordinated position on the work of the Anti-Doping Agency and looks for ways to move forward with the European Convention on the Manipulation of Sport Competitions. 

Foreign affairs

EU enlargement talks will "advance where possible" promised Foreign Affairs Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, presenting the Presidency’s priorities to the Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday. He hoped to open the first negotiating chapters with Serbia, sign a stabilization and association agreement with Kosovo, open new chapters in talks with Montenegro and achieve progress with Turkey, should it "show commitment to EU values".

MEPs asked whether progress could be expected with Bosnia and Hercegovina. Some worried that Latvia’s restrictions on the use of Russian could affect relations with Russia, but also asked what would be done to implement the Ukraine ceasefire. Other questions concerned Latvia’s aims for the EU Eastern Partnership summit in Riga in May, fighting terrorism, engaging Muslim societies to counter radicalization and support for peace in Syria and Libya.

This text will be updated twice a day

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