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Latvian Foreign Minister Rinkevics: EU needs 'constructive engagement'

In an interview with DW at the Munich Security Conference, Edgars Rinkēvičs struck a careful balance between deterrence and engagement with Russia. He also called on the EU not to 'punish' British citizens for Brexit.

DW: What are the foreign policy priorities for Latvia?

Edgars Rinkēvičs: We have outlined four priorities. First is strengthening our security, especially taking into account what is happening in our close neighborhood. Implementing the Warsaw 2016 summit goals and staying engaged in transatlantic relations are part of this. Second is dealing with Brexit. We have a direct interest in the status of Latvian nationals in the UK, and also in issues related to what kind of divorce deal should be reached. As I am also the minister responsible for international trade, the third priority is the reorientation of our export markets away from Russia and vulnerable territories because these have suffered quite a lot economically. The final priority is the diaspora.

How would you describe your relations with Russia?

Litauen Vilnius Karikatur Kuss Putin Trump mit Marihuana (Getty Images/S. Gallup)

Latvia and other Baltic states fear a resurgent Russia

We are neighbors. This means we have day-to-day contact to sort out neighboring-country issues. But there is the larger scale - the illegal annexation of Crimea and the ongoing situation in the east of Ukraine. Our own historic memory leads us to an approach where we would like to see Russia form part of the international order, following international law and rules. Unfortunately, we do not see this. This is why we believe our current approach - and that of the European Union and NATO - deters and contains them where necessary. This is done through sanction policy linked to the implementation of the Minsk agreement and through the Enhanced Forward Presence - NATO language for the stationing of more allied troops in the Baltic region. These are necessary steps. Then we must engage where it is possible, with the Iran deal being one example. There are other issues, like the fight against terrorism, where I see no problem with engagement.

It is interesting you spoke of Brexit. There have been a lot of discussions concerning the future of the EU. From your perspective, how do you move forward? 

London Demo gegen Brexit (picture-alliance/dpa/A. Rain)

The UK will trigger Article 50 by the end of March

After a meeting of the EU General Affairs Council, I met Mr. Michel Barnier, the EU Chief Negotiator for Brexit. We discussed the steps needed after the UK government triggers Article 50, and I outlined our basic approach. I believe we need to conduct the divorce process and our engagement in the new relationship as constructively as possible. We have a core interest in the status of our nationals in the UK, and we have to sort out the budgetary and financial implications of Brexit. We also need to figure out how to engage in a new trade relationship because Prime Minister Theresa May has said explicitly the UK will leave the single market and wants new trade relations. We have to engage in the most constructive way possible and not punish British citizens for what they did, as some are saying we should do. There are, of course, core interests for the European Union. I think it will be very interesting, difficult and complicated to agree first on how we approach the process. Then our core priorities can come. I will take the most pragmatic and constructive approach. We should understand the UK will not disappear somewhere in outer space. We still need to engage with them. While defending the interests of the 27 member states, we should also find constructive engagement.

From a foreign policy perspective, what is the biggest challenge for Latvia?

We are a small country in the northeast corner of Europe, but what we want to see is the understanding that no matter the emotions both within the European Union and across the ocean; no matter what the disappointments are; no matter what our feelings are, we can only tackle challenges as a strong European Union and a strong NATO alliance. I said it back in 2015 when we had this huge emotional implosion about migration – Germany versus Hungary, East versus West, and on financial issues North versus South. Now there are so many emotional statements about the US administration, and the United States sometimes makes statements about the EU. The biggest challenge is to keep moving ahead with common sense and to understand our best approach is as a united Europe. Ideally, we will approach common challenges in close partnership with the United States, but this also requires same level of commitment from the US. I found the speech by US Vice President Mike Pence here in Munich this morning, as well as the Baltic presidents' meeting with him later in the afternoon, rather reassuring. I hope this kind of understanding - that we can only do things together - will prevail on both sides of the Atlantic and within the European Union as well.

Edgars Rinkēvičs is Minister for Foreign Affairs of Latvia.

The interview was conducted by Lewis Sanders.

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