Foreign policy Egils Levits
14.02.2022. Valsts prezidents Egils Levits uzrunā Eiropas Parlamenta deputātus Strasbūrā

Dear Madam President of the European Parliament,

Honourable members,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me begin by expressing my great sadness for the victims of the recent earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria. Times are difficult enough, without the sudden loss of tens of thousands of lives and widespread destruction. It is right that the European Union shows solidarity with its neighbours in their hour of need.



The European Parliament is the political heart of Europe. It is where the diverse interests of the citizens of the European Union come together.

It is where the public opinion of 450 million European citizens is formed and crystallised.

Europe must use its economic, intellectual and cultural potential in such a way that all 450 million of us can shape our lives according to our values and achieve our goals.


European citizens as the upholders of European democracy

A citizen of a member state is at the same time a citizen of the European Union.

This means that they are first and foremost concerned with their own nation, society, culture, and language. They are the bearer and maintainer of democracy. Their political horizon first and foremost encompasses their own country.

However, for a citizen of the European Union, this is not enough. A citizen of the European Union is also a bearer and maintainer of the European Union’s democracy.

Being a citizen of the European Union means caring not only for your country, for its common good, but also for the common good of the European Union. It is a twofold task.

It also means that our citizens must have the entirety of the European Union in their sights. Not just their own country, but the entire European Union.

We, all European citizens, but especially political decision-makers, must be able to step up from a purely national to a supranational European perspective.


The European (supranational) perspective and lack of awareness of shared history

There is still work to be done on this common European point of view.

After the collapse of the Soviet empire, Europe united. Imposed political and economic borders were gradually dismantled.

But the border remains in our consciousness, in the social memory of European society. The European story is still largely told only as the story of Western Europe.

This narrow provincialism in understanding the whole of Europe prevents us from achieving our goals.


Europe has no centre and no periphery

The full story of Europe is one in which all European nations can recognise themselves and their historical experiences.

Today’s Europe has no centre and no periphery. Today, Europe is created and shaped in Riga and Paris, Warsaw and Berlin, Bucharest and Brussels, Prague and Rome. In all European countries, in all European capitals.

Also in Oslo, Bern, London. Also, in Kyiv.


A balanced European perspective is needed

Honourable members!

We need a common understanding of European history where there is a place for the historical experience of all European nations.

We need to consolidate a common point of view from which the whole of Europe – from North to South, from East to West – can be seen.

And from which the world, and Europe’s place in it, is clear, so that we can define what Europe wants to achieve globally.


European public opinion and the role of the European Parliament

Over 20 years ago, the German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas identified the lack of a common European public opinion (‘Europäische Öffentlichkeit’) as one of the European Union’s biggest problems.

Since then, I believe that things have somewhat improved. The common European public opinion has acquired greater significance in the minds of citizens. Crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine have also contributed to our common consciousness of us as Europeans. This is the basis of Europe’s ability to act.


The role of the European Parliament

The European Parliament is a unique, democratically legitimised European forum.

I, therefore, call on you, honourable members, to play a more active role in shaping the common European public opinion.

This does not mean merely advancing national, economic or other interests in a fierce battle for compromise.

In the parliamentary debates and decisions, you need to achieve a European vision that is qualitatively more advanced than just agreeing on a price.

Your solutions must be truly European.

Such solutions must equally incorporate the national and historical experiences and equitable interests of all member states. They must synthesise them into a new quality.

That is what European citizens expect from you.

To represent the whole European Union, you need to understand its member states better.

For example, only a very small number of the members of the European Parliament have ever been in Latvia. Let me therefore today encourage you to visit Latvia and get to know us better.


European values

When thinking about European solutions, we need to be clear about our European foundations.

Our shared values and our common European legal system are precisely what distinguish the European Union from all other international organisations, from all other regional platforms.

Our values and legal system make Europe and our way of life attractive to others.  Values such as democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental human rights.

They are the source of strength for the European Union.


Democracy, rule of law and populism

The member states of the European Union are, in principle, stable, consolidated democracies.

However, we face serious challenges.

The most obvious challenge is the desire to limit the rule of law on the basis of populist arguments about the will of the people.

A modern constitutional democracy is based on a carefully balanced system.

On the one hand, you have a democratically legitimised parliament and government.

On the other, an independent, professionally legitimised judiciary.

The democratic process itself, free elections and political freedoms – the very core of the European Union’s political identity – can only be guaranteed by such a system of checks and balances.

I say this with my 24 years of experience as a judge at the European Court of Human Rights and at the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The upsetting of this balance, which the proponents of constitutional populism are seeking to achieve, may ultimately lead to the weakening or even the complete loss of democracy itself.

Europe is united in its diversity.

Member states are diverse in issues of national identity, culture, language, traditions and social sphere – and so it should remain.

Here Europe must not interfere. Here diversity is Europe’s strength.

However, the principles of the rule of law must be the same everywhere. Here, diversity is permissible only in the concrete manifestations of these principles.

The European legal system is based on mutual trust that these principles apply in all member states in the same way, without exception. If there is a problem with the rule of law in one member state, it affects the entire European Union.

In some cases, these populist tendencies have already led to disputes that are now difficult to unravel in a purely legal way.

In order to avoid an impasse, I think that there could also be a political solution that would cut this ‘Gordian knot’. This would give the involved parties an opportunity to start afresh.

In any case, the rule of law in Europe must not be weakened!


Russian aggression against Ukraine

Honourable members!

Democracy and the rule of law are under threat not only from within.

Today, it is also threatened by Russia’s aggressive ideology, which is behind their attack on Ukraine – a sovereign, democratic European country.

The authoritarian Russian regime has gone back 200 years in its thinking.

It has regressed back to the imperialist, colonialist and racist ideology of the 19th century.

As the German example shows, renouncing an aggressive, toxic ideology requires a huge collective effort (‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’). And it takes a long time. But it can be done.

Until Russian society evaluates, overcomes, condemns and clearly renounces this ideology, we have to reckon with Russia as an aggressive state.

Let the romantic notions of the broad Russian soul remain for the lovers of literature. This cannot be a leitmotif for politicians who are responsible for Europe’s security, for Europe’s future.

We must also acknowledge the enormous mistake and naivety of moving purposefully towards dependence on Russian energy sources.

It would also be good to reflect on how such a mistake was even possible, despite our warnings. Certainly, the ‘Putinversteher’ in think-tanks and policy-making circles had a role, as did business interests.

In future, Europe and the West, as a whole, must no longer make such strategic mistakes.

Therefore, we need to be realistic about Russia. Without false sentiments. 

The effective strategy is deterrence through credible defence capacities. In all areas. 


Support for Ukraine

If we do not want to betray the values on which the European Union is founded, if we do not want to lose our credibility in the eyes of future generations, then Europe must be on the right side of history.

That means – on the side of Ukraine.

This war must end with the victory of Ukraine. Russia started the war. Russia must end it now and withdraw from Ukraine!

The European Union and its member states have provided significant support to Ukraine.  I am proud that Latvia is currently among the top providers of aid to Ukraine in terms of GDP per capita. Not only the government, but also local authorities and a vast number of individuals send what help they can.

Certainly, what Ukraine needs most urgently now is military equipment to win the war.

But it also needs justice, and it needs a future in Europe.

And what Ukraine needs, we all need.


Special Tribunal

First, some words about law and justice.

The Charter of the United Nations prohibits aggressive war.

Without this prohibition, the world would fall back into belligerent anarchy.

Therefore, the waging of a war of aggression against another sovereign state is the gravest possible crime in modern international law.

For the first time since the Second World War, we are experiencing a war of aggression in Europe.

International law must therefore respond.

There must be a Special tribunal to try this crime of aggression.

This is not only necessary for the sake of justice for Ukraine.

It is necessary in order not to undermine the standard of international law that has been achieved since the Second World War. To make it absolutely clear that waging a war of aggression is a crime and those responsible will be brought to justice.

None of us wants to live in a world where aggressive war is the norm.

However, at the moment, neither the International Criminal Court, nor any other international mechanism can exercise jurisdiction over this crime of aggressive war.

Therefore, it is necessary to create a Special tribunal to try Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

This has been done in the cases of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia and others. Each case has been different. However, the international community has been creative and has found a way to set up such tribunals.

This is all the more necessary in the case of Russia because, as I said, we are talking about the most serious international crime.

In any case, it is legally possible. All that is needed is political will.

Latvia was one of the first countries to encourage the creation of such a tribunal last year, shortly after the outbreak of the war.

Now, this proposal has already received quite broad support.

I would particularly like to thank you, honourable members, for your resolution of the 19th of January this year, where you expressed your firm support for the creation of such a tribunal by an overwhelming majority.

At the EU–Ukraine Summit on the 3rd of February, the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that the European Union would establish an International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression in Ukraine, which would begin to collect evidence.

This is already the first practical step towards the creation of such a tribunal.

The further political and legal roadmap and details remain to be worked out.

In any case, Europe must be consistent and ensure that this crime of aggression can be tried in an international court.


Use of Russian funds for the reconstruction of Ukraine

The use of frozen Russian assets for the reconstruction of Ukraine must also be ensured.

This applies not only to the assets of the oligarchs close to the regime, but in particular to the assets of the Central Bank of Russia. The US, Canada and UK have already made some preliminary work here.

Again, although complicated, it is legally possible. What is needed is political will.

I am confident that the European Union will find this political will.


In lieu of conclusion – European perspective

In conclusion, Madam President,

Last Thursday you rightly said to President Zelenskyy here in the European Parliament, ‘Ukraine is Europe, and your nation’s future is in the European Union’.

Of course, we see how difficult this path will be for Ukraine. But we also see the determination and courage of Ukrainians.

For us, it is much less demanding to be courageous.

We have to make the right decision.  This is a historic decision that we might have only one chance to make.

The Ukrainian people have decided.

Now it is our turn to do so.

Thank you for your attention!