LTV: Let me start by asking about economic recovery. Europe has now entered the worst economic recession since WWII and the EU is starting a huge economic recovery program. But it's taking much more time than expected. When could Latvia expect the first money to come in? Isn't there a risk that it might be a bit too late for some companies?
von der Leyen: First of all, indeed, it's good news for Latvia that in the big recovery package Next Generation EU 4 billion (euros) are for Latvia and we need now to finalize the negotiations, indeed, in Parliament and Council, and then the national ratification. But in late spring I think we can start to work with the program. But I also have good news right now for Latvia – because we already start our so called SURE program (Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency) and this means 120 million euro accessible for Latvia as of tomorrow.
The SURE program is for the workers and the healthy companies that are so much hit by the crisis. The principle is to tell the companies - don't lay off your workers, keep them in the company – because by that you keep the skill and the knowledge in the company. We will subsidize the salaries if there is not enough work to do. But if you have them at the moment the economy picks up again and the orders come – you can take the orders because you have the capacity.
But those 120 million euros are going to be a loan. How confident can member states be that we will be able to pay it back?
Well, these are loans at very, very good conditions, because – and this is the strength of European Union – when the Europan Commission goes to the capital markets to raise money we are backed by 27 member-states. So, these are excellent loans, and I think it is the right thing to do now to invest in our economy in very, very difficult time – so we can bridge this difficult time of the pandemic till the economy is picking up again and then we all know that there is an enormous strength coming from the single market to recover.
Watching how different governments in the EU are helping their business and their economies, do you think the Latvian government should do more, should be more generous in direct support to the Latvian population and businesses?
These are domestic decisions but as the European Commission we are convinced that we have to do a common effort to support but also to prepare for the future. And therefore Next Generation EU is specifically to invest – for example – in digitalization or to invest in the European Green Deal. So, that we do not only recover which is important but also prepare for stronger and more resilient economy that is cleaner, that is more healthy – so that we are better prepared for the future.
In December we will most likely see the lifting of some of the current restrictions in most EU countries. But it seems that the vaccine will not be there as of January the first. How confident are you that there will not be a third wave of pandemic in Europe?
We had good news now on the vaccines in the last days, with BioNTech, for example. Tomorrow the Commission will have the 5th contract with the pharmaceutical company on vaccines. So, these are good news. Of course, you are right, it will take some time to make sure that the potential vaccines are safe and effective. And till they are produced and then people are vaccinated – and up to that we have to be very disciplined, we have to stick to the measures – wearing a mask, distancing ourselves – we all know that. But if we are patient, if we are very disciplined, then we have the light at the end of the tunnel and these are the vaccines.
We have now good portfolio for the Europeans and I am confident that sooner or later we will have a solution to the pandemic.
Health has not been one of the areas for common EU policy – it is a responsibility of each member-state. Do you think that has to change? Will member-states be willing to give some of their powers away to Brussels?
We have already seen that member-states – rightly so – ask the Commission to coordinate more and we did that. And since then we really have a common approach – be it in testing topic or be it in risk zones, very important were the green lanes crossing the boarders. So, many topics were the European Union was coordinating, for example, contracts for vaccines, to make sure that Latvia like all the other 26 member-states have access to a vaccine when it is there – at the same conditions, pro rata and at the same time. This is very important.
Let me wrap up by asking you one final question about the 'strategic autonomy' that has been a buzzword in the recent months. Some would argue that it's building a “fortress Europe”. Where and how do you draw a line – how does Europe get more autonomy without becoming a fortress?
On one hand most of the member-states are members of a strong alliance and that is NATO. And within this strong alliance the member-states have to take their responsibility what they do. I have observed that over the last years – so, without any question the European pillar in NATO stepped up. But in this context we have to be way broader. For example autonomy means also not to be dependent on value chains. We have seen that in the pandemic that if we are too dependent on one value chain – with a severe crisis all of a sudden we have a big problem – so, for example, to diversify our value chains is important.
You can go through different topics and see how the word “autonomy” is being spelled out in the different fields. For us it is important – we are an open economy, we are as europeans convinced that multilateralism – it is working together with defined rules – is the best way forward for us and for the planet, and for the whole world. But it is also important for us to have a certain amount of flexibility in case a crisis hits. This was the case with the pandemic – we have learnt our lessons – so we step forward.