Battle for EU membership is far from over

As Latvia moves towards the Sept. 20 referendum on joining the European Union, recent events have unexpectedly created uncertainty over whether a yes vote can be confidently expected. These events include a tightening of Latvia’s budget and slashing of some services, confusions over social security and other payments, mooted rationalisation of local government boundaries and functions, and some clear panic in government ranks about increasing opposition to the EU.

This chain of events has been added to what are now regarded as “traditional” arguments against joining the EU: fear of a flood of migration, of rising prices and of uncertainty in the agricultural sector, as well as general scepticism over the tangible benefits that individuals will get from joining the EU. While proponents of joining the EU have tended to regard the referendum as a foregone conclusion in the past, and have tended to denigrate or dismiss opponents, they are now clearly working much harder to get their message across.

The force of all these concerns was demonstrated in the results of a July opinion poll by Latvijas fakti that showed an 8 percent drop since June—down to 49.6 percent—in the proportion of Latvian citizens who said they would vote yes in the referendum. Opponents meanwhile grew by 10 percent and now represent 34.4 percent of respondents, while those uncertain dropped slightly to 15.9 percent.

The shock of the poll was in seeing support fall below the decisive 50 percent line, and to experience such a massive fall in just one month. Some commentators have stressed that the key will be the number of people who participate in the referendum, as many opponents simply will not vote. However, the July survey has itself electrified opposition and made the government even more jumpy.

The issue of the state budget does have a link to the EU, but not in the way it has been exploited by opponents. In line with EU demands, all candidate nations have to get their budget deficit down to 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product. In Latvia’s case this was a relatively small step, the previous deficit being 3 percent. Moreover, Latvia’s economy and with it government revenue have grown strongly so that there will actually be an increase of some LVL 150 million in budget expenditure in the coming year, making the needed savings relatively small.

But when all ministries nevertheless were asked to submit plans for economising, popular fear exploded that this would mean a reduction in the already meagre social security payments. The government said social security payments would not be cut and would in fact be increased in line with normal cost-of-living increases, but the damage was done: opponents of the EU could link joining the EU with undermining pensions. Subsequent plans to have budget cuts include a reduction of the police force and some other direct services have again created fears, which seem to now be systematically channelled into anti-EU sentiment.

The government also received poor press for its urging of ministers and coalition members to “talk up” the budget specifically to counter the “Eurosceptics”—a move widely seen as panicking and trying once more to pull the wool over the electorate’s eyes.

And it got worse for the government. In June, it revealed a plan for sweeping reform of local government, seeking to rationalise the number of local government authorities. This plan has nothing as such to do with the EU, which does not prescribe how local government should be organised. But there is much jockeying among local authorities for how eventual EU funds for regions might be accessed.

So again the issue was linked to joining the European Union and how it would reduce local sovereignty. And this growing opposition to the EU has in turn reinforced those who do not want local government reform on the scale envisaged.

Bad timing? Or bad politics? One lingering problem for the government is that its information program on the referendum and the EU has been generally seen as a costly, undiluted propaganda exercise urging a yes vote rather than giving useful and objective information about pros and cons and what can realistically expected if Latvia does join the EU.

This itself is only a part of deeper scepticism about politicians who urge joining the EU for their own career interests and the possibility of getting to well-paid positions in Brussels. The party that was most clearly identified with promoting the EU and with such a self-serving interests, Latvijas ceļš (Latvia’s Way), was punished severely in the last election.

The battle is far from over. Those outside Latvia often see joining he EU as an obvious step to take and one barely worth debating. For those on the ground in Latvia, it raises a host of other concerns about the political process and politicians that are hard to counter.

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