Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Priorities of Latvian Presidency of European Council: Latvian Ambassador to Ireland
I welcome H.E. Dr. Gints Apals, ambassador of Latvia to Ireland. Both he and Ms Vija Busa are welcome. We look forward to his address to the committee. Members will recognise the ambassador, as he is a regular observer at these committee meetings. Today, he is in formal session for the first time with the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Today's meeting will concentrate on the programme of Latvia's Presidency of the European Council, which occurs for the first six months of 2015. The format of the meeting is that we will hear an opening statement from the ambassador and then take questions from the members of the joint committee. I hope to be able to take a number of questions together. Perhaps the ambassador might bank the questions, and he or his deputy might answer them as he sees fit.
Before we start, there is the usual citation in respect of mobile phones. I ask members to switch them off to ensure that they do not interrupt the proceedings, which they do even when on silent. I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
By virtue of section 17(2) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. If they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Ambassador, I call on you to address the committee.
H.E. Dr. Gints Apals:
Thank you, Chairman. I assure the committee that the Latvian Presidency intends to work in full conformity with the provisions of the Lisbon treaty, respecting the competences and prerogatives of all the parties involved in the EU decision-making process, which is collective by default. The priorities of the Latvian Presidency have been developed in close co-operation with the other members of the trio, namely, Italy and Luxembourg, as well as all the European institutions and member states, duly respecting their interests and positions.
The general priorities of the Latvian Presidency have been presented in Dublin on several occasions. Committee members will recall that the Latvian Presidency has two broad objectives. First, to steer the work of all relevant council formations to fully overcome the economic and financial crisis. Second, to promote stability, security and development in the neighbourhood and the world in close co-operation with the European Commission, the European External Action Service and all the member states. To reach these two objectives we intend to promote three main themes, namely, competitive Europe, digital Europe and engaged Europe. Naturally, while speaking before the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade I will focus on the external dimension and the major issues pertinent to the common foreign and security policy, the common security and defence policy, external trade, economic relations and the enlargement process.
The Presidency will extend all possible support to the President of the European Council and the High Representative in her role as the President of the Foreign Affairs Council, to help her to conduct the common foreign and security policy and co-ordinate all external action of the Union. This will be done through chairing appropriate meetings upon invitation from the High Representative, organising numerous events in Latvia and lending our knowledge and expertise in specific fields of external relations.
During the coming five months the Latvian Presidency will put particular emphasis on EU relations with the Eastern Partnership countries and central Asian countries. As committee members are aware, the European neighbourhood policy will remain the key EU instrument when it comes to framing relationships with neighbouring countries. Ongoing conflicts and instability in the broader neighbourhood are a cause of great concern for all member states and institutions. More than ever, the neighbourhood countries need EU attention and support. Hence, Latvia is keen to enhance the effectiveness of the EU policy in addressing political and security challenges in the eastern and southern neighbourhoods. To achieve this, we will support a comprehensive review of the European neighbourhood policy aimed at better effectiveness through increased differentiation.
Latvia intends to contribute to the strengthening of the Eastern Partnership as an inclusive platform and the promotion of a more individual approach to each partner country, respecting their ambitions and objectives. We are keen to strengthen political association, economic integration, enhanced trade, improved mobility, people-to-people contacts, education co-operation, and engagement with civil societies, as appropriate. In co-operation with the President of the European Council and relevant EU institutions, Latvia will host the 4th Eastern Partnership summit in Riga on 21–22 May 2015. We maintain the summit will provide an excellent opportunity to review the progress that has been achieved since the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit as well as set the way ahead.
Latvia will support the European External Action Service in further developing the relationship with the southern neighbourhood region, contributing to stability and security of the region based on the principles of democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law. Latvia will also support the efforts of the High Representative to strengthen EU engagement with central Asian countries, as we see a need to intensify our relations with that part of the world. To this end, Latvia is keen to promote EU-central Asia dialogue and co-operation in areas of importance for both sides, including energy security, transport, sustainable development, the rule of law and education. In this regard, the review of the EU-central Asia strategy in March 2015 will be of the utmost importance. The scaling-down of the international security presence in Afghanistan in 2015 as well as instability in Iraq and Syria require greater EU attention towards central Asia to meet such common challenges as terrorism, border security and drug trafficking. The implementation of regional co-operation programmes, namely, the border management programme in central Asia and the central Asia drug action plan, will be crucial in this regard.
While noting the strategic importance of enlargement policy in promoting political stability and economic prosperity in Europe, the Presidency remains committed to moving forward with the ongoing accession negotiations with Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey with a view to achieving further sustained progress. The Presidency will pursue an enlargement policy based on the principles of conditionality and each country's merits. These principles will also guide the Presidency's work in advancing the European perspective for other western Balkan countries according to respective stages of their integration, while keeping EU membership as the ultimate goal of the process.
My country fully supports the efforts aimed at increasing the effectiveness and visibility of the common security and defence policy. Latvia will contribute to the preparations for the European Council of June 2015 and will underline the importance of continued progress on the security and defence agenda. In this regard, Latvia deems it important to advance the work towards better and more efficient civilian and military capabilities, including EU battle-groups and better civil-military co-operation to address maritime security risks and threats. We will also support enhanced civil-military co-operation when it comes to improving cyber defence awareness and protection. Of course, appropriate attention will be paid to the challenges faced by the European defence industry as well.
Latvia will highlight the crucial nature of co-operation with international organisations and individual partners as part of the CSDP, in particular, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations and the United States. Close co-operation with NATO in capability development, rapid response, training and exercise requires our attention. Naturally, Latvia will promote co-operation between the EU and the US in the light of emerging security challenges in many parts of the world. The Presidency is keen to pay particular attention to problems related to external aspects of counter-terrorism such as foreign fighters, financing of terrorism, radicalisation and recruitment. We are keen to address these issues in the first instance through better implementation of the already-agreed EU instruments and policy measures in all member states.
Open and fair external trade is vital for all of Europe. Greater market openness as well as more active trade and investment flows are essential for promoting growth and economic recovery throughout the union. The Presidency will contribute, therefore, to achieving further progress on the World Trade Organization multilateral negotiations and the Doha development agenda. The Presidency attaches great importance to the ongoing WTO accession negotiations, including, but not limited to, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kazakhstan and Serbia.
It will support the preparations for the upcoming WTO Ministerial Conference of 2015.
The Presidency will support also the ongoing work on bilateral trade agreements. I assure the committee that Latvia considers the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement and Free Trade Agreement negotiations with Japan and Vietnam as top priorities for the coming five months. The implementation of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine will be high on our agenda. In addition, Latvia will promote the approval of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, with Canada and the bilateral trade agreement with Singapore.
The year will be of crucial importance for progress on a universal post-2015 agenda for sustainable developmentand the eradication of poverty. The Presidency will work energetically to advance consultations on comprehensive EU contribution to international negotiations leading to the UN Summit in September 2015, facilitating the adoption of a new framework, including a set of globally-applicable sustainable development goals, SDGs, which will succeed the millennium development goals, MDGs. In that context the Presidency sees gender equality and women’s empowerment, good governance, the rule of law, human rights, and inclusive, sustainable growth to be of particular importance, including in regard to the European Year for Development 2015.
The Presidency will also contribute to preparations that lead to agreed EU position for the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in July 2015. The partnership agreement between the group of African, Caribbean and Pacific, ACP, countries and the EU is due to expire in 2020. Therefore, the Presidency will work with the European External Action Service, EEAS, and the European Commission to advance EU reflection on future relations with the ACP countries. Together with the EEAS and the Commission, the Presidency will closely monitor the ongoing and emerging humanitarian crises, as well as disease outbreaks, of which addressing the Ebola epidemic will be of paramount importance. The Presidency will help to further improve the efficiency and effectiveness of EU humanitarian aidand to advance EU humanitarian advocacy vis-à-visthird countries and international organisations. The Presidency will support the necessary follow-up for preparations for the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit.
I have outlined probably the most important policy areas, which we regard as a priority and the committee will understand that the work programme of the Presidency and the EU as a whole is extremely broad. I will gladly answer any questions members may have on any of the subjects I mentioned and I will also gladly go beyond the area of external relations should that be necessary. I thank the members for their kind attention and we can now move on to the members' questions and comments.
I thank the ambassador for his presentation. I compliment him on Latvia's accession of the Presidency and particularly the way Latvia has set about its work programme and we wish his country well. The first speaker is Deputy Smith and other speakers include Deputies Mitchell, Eric Byrne, Neville and Crowe.
As the Chairman did, I welcome the ambassador and his colleague to the committee. I compliment him on his presentation and wish his country well in its Presidency. I welcome that Latvia has decided to prioritise economic growth and job creation as key goals. He outlined the overarching priorities of a competitive Europe, a digital Europe and an engaged Europe. There are challenges arising from the technological expansion across the EU. It is important for all member states of the EU and its citizens that we boost smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. I welcome that Latvia hopes to advance the formulation of a proper framework for data protection, which is important in this era in which we are living. Reducing telecommunications costs is an issue particularly for people who travel a good deal and for somebody like myself who lives in a Border constituency. Unfortunately, we have a land Border in our own country and we have to put up with those costs.
With regard to the European External Action Service and the Lisbon treaty of 2009, both of those in their own way have made Europe a more visible actor in international affairs and in trade and diplomacy also. The ambassador outlined that Latvia wants to facilitate a continued and an increased presence of the EU and better engagement and relations with its immediate neighbours.
With regard to the Eastern Partnership, does the ambassador believe that a more prudent approach is needed by the European Union in its dealings with neighbouring countries? He stated in his presentation that Latvia intends to contribute to the strengthening of the Eastern Partnership as an inclusive platform and to promoting a more individual approach to each partner country, respecting their own ambitions. That is a mutual requirement for both the EU and its neighbouring countries.
Last summer Latvia increased its defence budget on its eastern border with Russia and it requested additional security help from NATO. I note in a comment Latvia's ambassador to the United States made last Thursday that he stated that citizens of Latvia remain nervous and concerned about the rising tensions between Russia and the West. He also stated that the situation is getting worse. Has Latvia felt supported sufficiently by the European Union and the European External Action Service when dealing with Russian aggression on its borders? As we review the work of the Presidency of the EU, the heightened tension and conflict in the Ukraine today and the major loss of life is a very worrying development. We sincerely hope that a ceasefire will be achieved and that progress will be made in bringing about real and meaningful dialogue to bring that dispute to a proper conclusion. I thank the ambassador and wish his country well in its Presidency.
The ambassador and his colleague are very welcome. The ambassador is doing a great job on behalf of his country. I have met him at many events. He has been very active and I congratulate him on that. I hope the Ministry for foreign affairs in Latvia recognise his hard work.
To follow on from what Deputy Smith said, Latvia plays a very important role in a very sensitive political period. Ukraine and the Eastern Partnership were mentioned. A summit will be held in Riga on the review of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Can I be a little provocative and ask the ambassador a number of questions? We are collectively aware of the difficulties of those emerging democracies from under the yoke of communism but we are also very conscious of mistakes Europe might have made in the past in its relationship with the Eastern Partnership and in the relationship with Ukraine. I have just come back from there and this committee has addressed the issue off the largest successful political party in the recent Moldovan elections being a pro-Putin, a pro-Soviet party. In that region there are great sensibilities which require the utmost diplomatic skills. Those are the skills of Europe's relationship with the Russia Federation.
Latvia has a substantial Russian speaking population. By way of background and to counterpose what I am going to ask the ambassador, I am sure he will be aware that this country in the past four years has granted citizenship to 70,000 new Irish citizens from 126 countries in the world. He may know that we advocate new communities and immigrants to participate in local elections. If they have been living here for six months or longer, they are eligible to vote.
I might counterpose our position with Latvia's position regarding its Russian-speaking community, which is quite substantial, maybe in the region of 26% of the population, who do not have these basic democratic rights. How does the ambassador view the role of Europe under the presidency of Latvia vis-à-vis the relationship of Putin and the Russian Federation to Europe, given what they allege has happened in eastern Ukraine, namely, discrimination against Russian speakers, and the possibility that the same argument would be used against the Latvian authorities?
What are the key areas of the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga and the European neighbourhood policy? What will be different after those debates in Riga? Where will they lead?
On a domestic, but also international, front, I am conscious of being lobbied when in Latvia by politicians who argue that we are facilitating sham marriages of Latvian women, predominantly to non-Europeans. We have the statistics here. They are mainly Pakistani, Nigerian, Brazilian and Bangladeshi men. Is the ambassador happy that we are taking the necessary steps to prevent these sham marriages? It is alleged that these women are being trafficked from Latvia to Ireland. What are the Latvian authorities doing at their end to prevent the trafficking of women into Ireland to enable non-Irish citizens to avail of residency?
I, too, welcome the ambassador, thank him for his presentation and wish Latvia well in its presidency, which is coming at a crucial time for Europe in general, on the economic and social front and on a security level. There are major trade agreements coming up, economic issues that affect all of us, very particular economic issues that affect Greece and the problems in Ukraine. Everybody has mentioned the problems in Ukraine. I would also like to refer to that and how it impacts on Latvia. When the problems started in Ukraine, there was a general increase in Russian military and intelligence activity in Latvia, and Lithuania and Estonia as well, and this was noticed very much. There is a large ethnic Russian population in Latvia. About a quarter of the population is of Russian origin. The Russians justified their activities in Ukraine on the basis of the abuse of the rights of the Russian-speaking population. Is Latvia open to similar accusations? Does Latvia, which is in the EU, unlike Ukraine, feel safe from any desire of Russia to exploit what it sees as abuses of the rights of their ethnic population in other countries, whether within the EU or in Ukraine?
I welcome the ambassador and wish Latvia well in its EU presidency. The ambassador said in his speech earlier that the Latvian Presidency will be focused on jobs and growth. Ireland's EU Presidency was also focused on jobs and growth, but unfortunately unemployment, specifically youth unemployment, is a significant problem not only in Ireland but right across Europe. A €300 billion investment package has been announced by the European Commission, but many see that as one leg of the stool. Does Latvia see the area of youth employment as a priority for the Presidency?
The question of Greece was touched on earlier. There are a few debates in Europe on how we move forward. Some are pro-austerity and others are pro-stimulus. The Greek Government has called for a debt conference. Would Latvia see that as part of its EU Presidency or would it have a view on that idea of a debt conference and bringing together people, not only the public representatives, but civic society groups and so on that are impacted by debt and poverty and deprivation? Greece is looking for a write-down again. It is outside the EU Presidency, but I am interested in Latvia and where it positions itself in that debate within Europe.
The ambassador said TTIP is one of the priorities. There are huge concerns about this, which we have discussed at this committee and at the European Affairs committee. There are aspects of TTIP with which people are very uncomfortable. Ireland has concerns about the impact on our agricultural and food sectors, whether it is about regulation and deregulation and so on. The big area people are concerned about is investor-state dispute settlement. There is significant concern about it right across Europe. The Commission stated recently that it had received 150,000 replies to its consultation and 145,000 related to opposition to this matter. The ambassador says he wants to push ahead with the negotiations, but the concern from civil society and across Europe relates to the secrecy surrounding the negotiations themselves. Are there similar concerns in Latvia on aspects of that agreement - the change in work portfolios, people moving from jobs, trade within countries, within Europe and so on? Are those concerns shared? Some are calling for the suspension rather than the prioritisation of the talks.
The ambassador says Latvia strongly supports the European common security and defence policy and he would like to see enhanced co-operation with NATO and the increased use of training and battle groups. I do not share his enthusiasm. I accept that Latvia has historical reasons for this, and it is a member of NATO, but many of us see NATO as a relic from a previous time. Would the ambassador see the interaction there as complementary rather than competitive? Ireland is not a member of NATO. How do countries like Ireland figure in this closer alignment? Does the ambassador not believe issues like the common security and defence policy, CSDP, are driving some of the scepticism in Europe? Some would say it is an attack on sovereignty. Is CSDP entirely framed in the interests of larger EU countries? I am more concerned about the debate on where we fit into this moving together with NATO, as a neutral country. There are concerns. Latvia is very concerned about the issues in Ukraine, as are others, and the Eastern Partnership. Is there a role for those countries that have decided to stay outside the partnership? The ambassador mentioned people having an independent role and so on. How does he see outreach to those countries, like Armenia and Azerbaijan, that have decided to stay outside the partnership developing?
Is the Presidency thinking in terms of conferences or how is it going to pull that together? Does it favour an increase in military involvement in the Ukraine? Some people say there is still potential even at this late stage with the initiative from France and Germany.
On the European Year for Development 2015 can the ambassador detail any specific plans in this regard? How will the Latvian Presidency advance many of those issues? The ambassador mentioned the implementation of regional co-operation programmes in central Asia and the whole area of drug trafficking. After we returned from Iran some were keen that it should have a relationship with the European Union. Previously the European Union had a relationship with Iran and countries in that region to try to stop the flow of drugs from Afghanistan. Figures were given for the growth of the poppy and it will all end up on our shore. Does the ambassador see the Iranians or other countries in that region as having a role and what can Latvia, during its presidency, do in this area? The Iranians complain that they are not getting support. One of the reasons given for this was the death penalty. We co-operate with other countries around the world, despite the death penalty, as it is flowing straight to Europe.
On the issue of minority languages, I understand there are many minority languages and community groups throughout Europe which the European Union supports. Given the tension with the Latvian and Russian minorities, do the representatives see that as a contradiction in terms of the direction in which the European Union is going?
I welcome the representatives and thank them for appearing before the committee and wish them every success. We know how time consuming and difficult the presidency is for all sections of government. Russia has been mentioned. Can the ambassador see any approaches that would improve relationships with Russia, outside of the issues in relation to concerns in Ukraine, as the dialogue between Russia, which is Latvia's nearest neighbour, and the European Union has almost dried up? Surely, that is not conducive to developing relationships, understanding and influencing events which are important to both Russia and to the European Union. One of the key issues in the European Union at the moment is the situation regarding Greece and potentially leaving the Union but hopefully not. As for the Presidency, can Latvia see itself taking initiatives rather than the various ministerial meetings to try to overcome the difficulties that have arisen and find solutions as it is a highly complex issue? While some commentators say the EU is in a better position now to lose Greece than it was previously, we have to be careful about believing much of that because it certainly would reduce international confidence in the euro if Greece left the European Union, apart from other issues surrounding it. Has Latvia looked at any initiatives that the Presidency could take?
I join in the welcome to the ambassador and wish Latvia well with the Presidency of the European Union. I apologise for my late arrival but I have read his presentation which is interesting. I was particularly struck by his comments with regard to strengthening the Eastern Partnership. He also included the engagement with central Asian countries, some of us hope to be there later this month. There is much tension in that area. The relationship that Latvia builds with those countries will, to a large extent, assist the direction that the EU and those countries will go in the future. I welcome the Latvian Presidency committing to doing that.
Ukraine has been mentioned. I welcome the dialogue which is taking place. I would raise a question in that regard, it is very much a German-Franco driven initiative. It struck me that perhaps there should have been some EU-wide involvement and Latvia, given that it holds the presidency, might be involved. Perhaps the representatives will comment. I am friendly with some of the Latvian parliamentarians and I know that they would be hostile to Russia because of their experience; in the same way as we were oppressed by the British for many centuries, Latvia has also suffered oppression under the Russians in its history. Some of them have chastised me for some of my encouragement with the Russian authorities. As Deputy Neville said, that is the way forward. Russia and Europe have many inter-connected objectives and interests that need to be founded on a better relationship than we had. Perhaps the representatives would comment on the Europe-wide aspect of that.
The ultimate question would be with regard to Greece. There is much talk about the economic crisis in Greece which obviously is hurting the people badly. We have experienced it here as have other European countries to a greater or lesser degree. It has to be said that the European project has been damaged by this crisis. There has been a dearth of quality political leadership across Europe all during this crisis. The manner in which they tried to deal with it has not taken into account the effects on citizens and, perhaps, dealing with it in a way which has ameliorated some of the difficulties which people have encountered in their daily lives as a consequence of this. All governments carry some responsibility. Given the geographic location of Greece, and given what is happening in the Middle East - it is nearly an entry point for any escalation of the crisis there - but also given the political make-up in Greece, real leadership will be required to deal with that issue. Nobody is talking any more about a two tier euro which would reflect the disparity between the economies. That was largely debated at the outset of the crisis but seems to have gone off the radar altogether. How Greece is handled is not just a Greek issue, there will be knock-on effects in Spain, probably in the not too distant future, and perhaps in Italy as well. It needs to be handled in a way that takes into account the medium and longer-term vision if there is a vision for Europe any more. I say that as somebody who is fully committed to the European project but who will think long and hard the next time we are voting for a treaty as to whether I will vote "Yes" or "No".
That would never have been my position in the past, but the manner in which this crisis has been dealt with by the European Union is nothing short of scandalous, although others may disagree with that point of view.
I refer to the ambassador's comments on counter-terrorism and the high profile incidents in Paris and other issues come to mind. Approximately 30 people have left Ireland to travel to the Middle East as combatants. They have joined the terrorist group that is in charge of parts of Iraq and Syria and are being trained to engage in terrorist activities. I listened to a radio programme yesterday on which it was reported that foreign combatants were being placed at the forefront in killing people, including by beheading. It is obvious that this is being done to break any taboo they might have in order that when they move to other countries, they may well pose a significant threat to the civilian populations. In the opinion of the ambassador, how should citizens who return to European countries and who have participated in violence be dealt with? How should we deal with the issue of immigration? It is not inconceivable that many who are not citizens of European countries may find themselves drifting into Europe in the next two decades. They may well come with a particular intent which will not be benevolent towards the freedom we enjoy in this part of the world. How will the programme anticipate and deal with this issue?
The ambassador has a wide area to cover in his response. I refer to questions concerning the future shape of Europe; the future relationship between Europe and neighbouring countries; the situation in Ukraine; and the possible impact of a smaller or larger European Union. Other questions concern security and defence matters and the efficacy of the European Union, the United Nations and NATO; the influence of Europe on its neighbours in terms of human rights issues; and Russia, a subject with which the ambassador will be very familiar.
H.E. Dr. Gints Apals:
On a conservative estimate, there are 21 separate questions from members and more may be raised as I make detailed responses. I assure members that I will try to do my best to answer the questions one by one in order that every member will receive a proper response from our representation. Not all of the questions are pertinent to the role of Latvia as Presidency of the European Council. Nevertheless, I regard this as a unique opportunity to speak to a large number of elected representatives of the Irish people; therefore, I will gladly dwell on each and every question raised.
I will begin with the question from Deputy Brendan Smith concerning the role of the European Union, the External Action Service and support for those countries that might be nervous, as the Deputy described it, about the situation to the east of their borders. One must always keep in mind the wider context. There are several international organisations active on a global or regional basis; this is not only about the European Union and the External Action Service. I also deliberately referred to NATO as the defence alliance in that it deals directly with military threats to its members. The European Union is not a military alliance and this distinction should be kept in mind. Therefore, the instruments of the European Union are mostly political and economic.
From my perspective, the European Union and the External Action Service are doing their best, employing the means in their possession - diplomatic means, statements, public messages and economic sanctions against individuals or states. This is the role of the European Union and the External Action service.
I referred to NATO and the NATO alliance. The individual member states and their governments are responsible for the defence of the territories. There are many other international forums which are also very useful in addressing these security concerns. I refer, for example, to the OSCE and, in partial form, the Council of Europe. I could list many more, if necessary. In brief, the role of the European Union has been appropriate, while the External Action Service has also been active, given its mandate. The latest initiative is an initiative of France and Germany, coming on top of the activities of or those agreed and pursued by the European Union. I can only hope for complementary work between the European Union, the External Action Service and individual member states, including my own.
Deputy Eric Byrne asked many questions. I do not necessarily agree with all of his qualifications when speaking about the situation in my country or Ukraine. He asked about the European neighbourhood policy and the positions of Ukraine and Moldova. We recognise that there might be differences between national positions. The European neighbourhood policy concerns six very different countries. Three countries have signed association agreements that are being ratified by EU member states, while three other countries are still interested in participation in the European neighbourhood policy, but they have their own approach. For example, Armenia has chosen to join the Eurasian economic union and customs union, but it is still eager to have political dialogue and a political association with the European Union. In the future member states might look for flexible arrangements to accommodate every single member of that group according to their ambitions and objectives. At least from the perspective of my government, the Eastern Partnership is a useful platform for dialogue with these countries. It is also a useful platform for dialogue between the countries of the partnership. It is a multilateral platform that facilitates exchange and co-operation between the six countries mentioned. Therefore, in holding the Presidency and as a member state, Latvia is very much interested in keeping this platform active for the future because it opens a range of avenues in relations between Europe and these countries and between themselves. The ultimate purpose is to promote our values in the wider region, not only economic interests but also the values of the European Union, including human rights and the rule of law, for example. This also applies to Ukraine and Moldova, even in spite of the fact that not all political parties in these countries fully embrace European values. One should always keep in mind that this is an open and ongoing process. The spread of European values and the extension of our principles form part of an open-ended process. The Deputy referred to the success of specific parties in the Moldovan elections, but one should always continue dialogue and convince people that the European approach has its merits.
I refer to the Deputy's second question on the Russian-speaking population. I do not really recognise the link between ethnic origin or the native tongue and citizenship.
We have citizens of many backgrounds and citizenship is not awarded to anybody on the basis of their ethnic origins or linguistic identity. Therefore, there are many Russian-speaking citizens of Latvia, some of whom are ethnic Russians while others are not. The Russian language is widely spoken and Russian is probably my second language and my first foreign language. Therefore, the committee might also consider me to be a Russian speaker or a member of the group.
Latvian policy in matters of citizenship is very simple. Latvia will grant citizenship to any permanent resident on the basis of individual application. What we cannot accept for legal and political considerations is that the State could or should impose citizenship on a group of persons without individual applications. This would be wrong. Citizenship cannot be imposed on anyone. This applies not only to Latvia but also to many other countries in the world. Therefore, when it comes to citizenship, let me assure the committee that this is a purely legal question in my country which has been resolved using all democratic mechanisms and there is no discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or language origins.
In respect of local elections, if I understand correctly, Deputy Byrne suggested that any permanent resident should be entitled to participate in local elections regardless of his or her citizenship, place or origin, etc. The international practice contains several approaches. My country still belongs to a large group of countries that see full participation in political processes, including the right to vote and be elected at all levels, as the prerogative of the citizen. Anybody who would like to take part in those elections is cordially invited to apply for a Latvian passport. This will be a speedy process that will facilitate social integration between different groups.
In respect of discrimination against Russian speakers in Ukraine, I can only say that I do not necessarily agree because I am not in possession of any facts concerning discrimination against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine in the past or currently. I do not even recall many signals about discrimination against the Russian-speaking population before the outbreak of the recent crisis in eastern Ukraine. For more than 20 years, Ukraine was a stable country and the international media did not report much about any sort of discrimination. I can only voice my surprise that very recently and suddenly, many mass media outlets were reporting and talking about the notion of discrimination against ethnic Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. This was not the case in the past. This would lead me to say that the EU collectively and EU member states should do something to promote our own values and views through the mass media in the eastern neighbourhood and the Russian Federation because sometimes we might have different views on certain subjects but we then need to have a dialogue which would be a two-way street - not only us accepting certain notions but also us having the liberty to make our voice heard. This would certainly promote peace and stability throughout the region.
In respect of the agenda of the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, I should say that the international situation remains very dynamic. Certainly the agenda of the summit will be defined in a collective manner which means that all the EU institutions concerned will have the right along with the host nation to define the agenda and the programme of the summit. We would like to see this as a venue for free and broad debate among all participants - European and those coming from partner countries. That will allow us not only to take stock of the implementation of association agreements and not only to talk of mobility but also to reflect on the way ahead. Given the dynamic and changing nature of the situation in the region, some questions are still open. I am quite sure that by April, we will have much more clarity. We should also remember that the summit will happen on 21 and 22 May. That is to say, there is still some time. While we can collectively define the agenda items, proposals are more than welcome.
The last question concerned bilateral relations and the problem of sham marriages. This is a complex issue because in the past, several hundred Latvian women came to Ireland and married third country nationals from several countries. This was a difficult situation. The trend has changed and the number of Latvian women coming to Ireland to marry third country nationals has decreased significantly. We also appreciate all the steps taken by Irish authorities to prevent sham marriages and the human trafficking element of that problem. This work should continue and is continuing. There are several international co-operation projects involving institutions and NGOs from Latvia, Ireland and other countries. Probably the best way to prevent sham marriages involves raising awareness of the risks of such marriages. At the same time, I must voice my respect for the position of the Irish Government because it is fully entitled to adopt whatever immigration procedures and policies it wishes. This is a matter for the Irish nation, Parliament and Government. We cannot interfere with the Government's decisions regarding whether or not the Irish authorities would recognise certain types of marriage.
H.E. Dr. Gints Apals:
The question of sham marriages is extremely complex and contains several elements. I only addressed one question. The criminal code of Latvia has provisions for the prosecution of people who would organise such marriages for profit. These people would be prosecuted in criminal courts in Latvia. This is not the case in Ireland. We have discussed these issues on many occasions. Of course, the Irish approach is based more on certain decisions taken by the European Court of Human Rights that see the right to engage in marriage as a basic human right that cannot be restricted in any way. Certainly both sides will continue-----
It is not a question. It is just to clarify that there was a loophole in Irish law that gave better rights to citizenship to third country citizens, such as people coming from Bangladesh or India, when they married an EU national than somebody from within the EU who married an EU national. I think that loophole has been closed so the incentive to traffic is not as great as it previously was.
The Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2014 has been introduced in the House. The statistics I am reading are in the briefing on that Bill. It has not concluded but it has been introduced. Our end would also say that Latvia has a responsibility because the trafficking of women is organised there rather than in Ireland. We have attempted to stop some of these sham marriages and we fell foul of the law.
Ms Vija Busa:
I thank the committee for the chance to discuss this issue.
We greatly appreciate the decision made by Parliament to amend the Civil Registration Act by enacting the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2014 in December because it is part of the package that would help to guard the slope. There were several recommendations from the General Assembly from the United Nations on amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. I have not mentioned all the titles of the Bills. More laws will be passed by the Oireachtas and we look forward to their enactment very soon.
I thank the Irish authorities, Garda National Immigration Bureau and the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service for their close co-operation. I should mention that the problem does not apply only to Latvian women, but in the years 2009 and 2010, the women mostly came from Latvia. The situation has changed and as H.E. Dr. Gints Apals stated it is not only the Latvians who come to Ireland. We can deal with the issue only on a national level as we did by amending the Latvian criminal law in 2013. The law came into force in 2013 to tackle sham marriages by making it a crime to facilitate the application for residency rights. In January we also started the HESTIA project in co-operation with the European Commission and the six countries involved are Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Slovakia and Ireland. We greatly appreciate the Irish Immigrant Council, which joined this project, as well as the support of the Department of Justice and Equality.
This is a complex issue and will take a great deal to stop. It is not only about immigration risks, it is not only about addressing the evolving form of human trafficking but also about the security risks.
H.E. Dr. Gints Apals:
I will try to be brief in responding to the list of question. First, I will respond to the questions from Deputy Olivia Mitchell. If a government wants to pursue an aggressive policy, the pretext is always at hand. I cannot really support the example she gave on the point of international law. I would find it difficult to conceive that the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland or the United Kingdom would claim the right to defend the interests of English speaking people around the world only on the basis of their linguistic identify. Normally in international law, states have the right to protect the interests of their citizens, but the idea that any country could claim the right to protect the interests of the citizens of another country is a very difficult question and I cannot see how such an argument could be used against my country or neighbouring countries while remaining within the bounds of international law.
H.E. Dr. Gints Apals:
On the issue of Greece, my Government's position is very clear. We appreciate the fact the Greek Government would like to negotiate a solution to the existing economic crisis and debt problem. This is certainly a positive message. We also recognise the fact the Greek Government has a democratic mandate. As far as the European Council is concerned, I must emphasise that the Council can and will even tomorrow discuss the situation in Greece but decisions concerning the problems arising from assistance and possible modification of those provisions are for the eurozone finance ministers. This probably will be the correct way to negotiate any alteration of existing provisions.
With regard to the transatlantic trade and investment partnership, I recognise what Deputy Crowe said that the issue is complex but the Council has given a clear mandate to the Commission to pursue negotiations. Democratic scrutiny is important. I have had assurances from the members of the Commission that of course the Commission is looking for a balanced deal with the United States, which respects the interests of both sides, both the European countries and the United States. The negotiations will continue for some time because the Commission would like to assure a fair and balanced deal for both sides. In that process there are elements of democratic control, not only NGOs, the world conference but also elections to the European Parliament and contacts with elected members of the European Parliament, not least of course, members of the government. There are many mechanisms to acquire more information and probably these means should be employed by citizens. The Latvian Presidency will not be of any particular assistance in the process.
I will comment on the CSDP and the role of NATO. NATO is a defence alliance and at the same time it is an important organisational structure providing security and addressing humanitarian crisis and peace operation throughout the world. The EU through the CSDP mechanisms co-operate with NATO for the purpose of peace operations. Ireland, as far as I know, is also co-operating with NATO, being a member of the partnership for peace arrangement, with the purpose of conducting joint peace operations. This is how I see the relationship between Ireland and NATO. What I said about co-operation with NATO does not necessarily extend to territorial defence. The EU unfortunately is not a defence alliance, even though the treaty contains the Sovereignty Clause.
In respect of the Eastern Partnership of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the ambitions and interests of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus should be taken into account when thinking of the future of the Eastern Partnership. One can negotiate with those countries. It is important that they remain as participants of the process. With time their positions on certain issues may change. Certainly during this process, we can only keep the existing context and welcome those countries as participants of the Riga Eastern Partnership summit.
I did not fully grasp the points made on the increased military involvement in Ukraine. I would say that I oppose any military involvement or intervention in eastern Ukraine but at this moment there is only one party which is engaged in military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Certainly this is not the EU and these are not EU member states.
In Central Asia, the very important issues are the fight against drugs and the position of Iran in that respect. The EU is doing a great deal and we need to raise awareness of what it is doing. For more than a decade the EU has funded two significant programmes in that part of the world, the Board of Management Programme for Central Asia, helping those countries to establish civilised borders and to control migration, trade and everything else across borders; second, the Central Asia drug action plan initiative is also funded by the European Commission. These are two major instruments. In addition, one can involve many international structures. In Malta there are bilateral projects, involving not only EU member states and countries such as Iran but the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna. That structure is very active in Central Asia doing research and controlling the drugs traffic across central Asian countries to Europe. This is a matter for international co-operation and the EU can certainly play a positive role and is already doing so.
The next question is how to improve relations with the Russian Federation. I already mentioned that there is certainly one possibility which is to send our message concerning our values and views to the Russian public as actively and widely as possible. There is a deficit of information inside the Russian Federation on developments elsewhere and how people in Europe perceive developments in Eastern Ukraine and other places. Much more active exchange of information using European funds for information in the Russian language intended for the Russian population would be a means to improve our relations with the Russian Federation in general. It is not only about dialogue between governments. This is also about public diplomacy and everything else.
I already tried to answer the question on Greece by saying that the Presidency of the European Council can probably not take any significant initiatives to address and modify the existing assistance programme to Greece. Simultaneously, the European Council is having a debate on the social and economic situation in Greece, but the meeting of the eurozone ministers for finance would probably be the correct institution through which to formally address those concerns.
I was asked about the European perspective of Eastern Partnership countries. Certainly, a European perspective exists, but it might be rather remote. When we speak on Eastern Partnership countries, we must recognise that while they have signed the association agreements, these have not yet even been ratified by all European member states. This is only the beginning of a very long process which might in time lead to membership as a subject for negotiations and probably as an ultimate reality. That is not going to be within a few years but rather we should speak in this context of a decade or two.
I have already said concerning the initiative of Germany and France that all complementary initiatives are welcome from the point of view of the Presidency. I have heard also of similar views of the High Representative who spoke in Dublin two weeks ago. Therefore, one can only appreciate the new initiative should it be productive. Concerning Greece, we addressed the issue of negotiations.
The last question I was asked was on counter-terrorism. The Presidency would like to do whatever is possible to improve counter-terrorism measures in Europe but we must also recognise three important factors. First, counter-terrorism measures are mostly national competencies of EU member states. Second, they normally involve sharing information and co-operation between security and intelligence services. Third, there are already a number of European documents and initiatives on this subject. Therefore, we believe that the European Council should certainly continue to debate the matter while paying particular attention to better implementation of existing measures. Before producing new declarations or adopting new documents, one could simultaneously consider full or better implementation of the agreed measures. I thank the committee.
The ambassador's concluding remark referred to the European Union's humanitarian aid programme. At a time like this, we should not lose sight of the terrible atrocities that continue to occur in Syria and that region. We are aware of the ongoing barbarity of ISIL. I understand that in a five-day period in the past week 143 civilians were killed by Assad's barrel bombing, including 29 children and 28 women. Humanitarian aid is still not reaching people who have been starving. It is an issue that must be kept at the forefront of EU policy and work.
We thank the ambassador and Ms Vija Busa for attending. We hope the Presidency continues to travel in a positive mode. We recognise the challenges that exist within Europe and outside. While these will not be readily resolved, they require continued attention on a daily basis from every country within the European Union in co-operation, hopefully, with those who are similarly affected outside and in the neighbourhood areas.