Estonia jumped, but will Latvia follow?

In a Sept. 14 referendum, nearly 67 percent of Estonian voters said “yes” to joining the European Union. While a spirited “no” campaign had been waged, the issue in Estonia was never really in doubt. So far eight candidate countries have put this question to a referendum over the past year, and all have voted “yes.”

Latvia is now the last to hold a referendum, scheduled for Sept. 20. The past few weeks of feverish activity by pro-EU forces seems to have halted the steady rise of a “no” sentiment. And they will certainly loudly trumpet the Estonian result. Even at this late stage, however, a positive outcome is not guaranteed.

(A total of 10 nations have been invited to join the EU in 2004. Nine countries, including Latvia, decided to put the membership question to a popular referendum. Cyprus ratified membership without a referendum.)

Recent polls in Latvia show little change from that of July, with still a bare majority favouring “yes,” but with a huge question mark over whether those opposed will show up to vote.

The shoring up of support for a “yes” result seems to be a significant achievement of Latvia’s popular President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga. The Latvian presidency is a largely formal position with only limited political power, and one which convention dictates stays out of day-to-day politics. On this issue Vīķe-Freiberga has chosen not to be a figurehead, but has thrown herself energetically into the campaign over the past month, riding her popularity to urge a positive vote.

Also—and ominously—she has warned the government that continued wrangling over the budget and other political sideshows can only harm the pro-EU cause. She has held numerous meetings with various social organisations and appeared at several public functions to encourage a “yes” vote, stressing the historically decisive nature of this decision for Latvia. And in case even this will not be enough, a host of European heavies including presidents and prime ministers have been visiting Rīga before the referendum to urge sceptical Latvians to embrace Europe.

Why has it been such hard labour for those who favour joining the EU? In terms of likely economic benefit, support for infrastructure, access to markets and the perceived security of the EU vis a vis Latvia’s eastern neighbour, the argument for joining the EU would seem to be quite self-evident. I wrote earlier about a series of political blunders that seem to have turned the populace against the government and by extension against the referendum on the EU, with proposed budget and welfare cuts being the main culprits. But the opposition to the EU has been more frustrating and more puzzling than simply a reaction to poor government politics. It seems also to demonstrate a tremendous shortcoming in public understanding of a complex but certainly not obscure issue.

Opposition to joining the EU has been much more a consolidation of untested prejudices almost stunning in their irrelevance yet with great ability to cause fear. Will petrol rise by 5 santīms or 15 santīms? Will all Latvian land be sold to foreigners? Will Latvia be flooded with immigrants of varied races? Will most farmers be put off the land?

Getting even more bizarre, Latvian chauvinists have argued that joining the EU will mean the EU will enforce Russian as a second official language, while Russian chauvinists have argued that joining the EU will obliterate Russian and lead to Latvian-only instruction in schools, thus scaring two large constituencies at the same time.

Equally concerning, however, has been the incompetence of much of the “yes” campaign—apart from the president’s intervention—in which official spokespeople have seemed poorly briefed on the EU, and offer only vague propaganda rather than specific information that could prove decisive.

The doyen of Latvian’s print journalists, Aivars Ozoliņš of Diena, has given the sternest warning, slamming the absolute irresponsibility of those who dithered with idiotic objections to the EU, or those who could not make up their minds because they seemed incapable of grasping the issues and the seriousness of the impending decision. He cites the example of a young Latvian opera singer, training elsewhere in Europe and looking forward to a life of European achievements, who when asked by journalists says she can’t make up her mind which way to vote in the referendum and changes her mind from day to day. What, asks Ozoliņš, changes from day to day in Latvia’s geopolitical situation, or its historical links to European culture, or the importance of the EU for Latvia’s economic or social future? Ozoliņš warns that the pro-EU camp’s assumption that the “simple common sense” of the people will bring the right result is a very dangerous assumption indeed.

Given this poor standard of public debate, are we seeing some uncomfortable evidence of a still infantile inability to face up to serious political decisions, and even more evidence of an astonishingly naive and provincial belief that sturdy Latvia can go it alone and doesn’t need anyone else for support?

Hopefully, the Estonian result, as well as Lithuania’s earlier decision, may just sway enough Latvian voters to follow their two neighbour states into the EU.

Unfortunately, the Estonian result is not the only international event that has shaken Baltic perceptions of the EU. The tragic assassination of Sweden’s foreign minister, Anna Lindh, in a Stockholm department store had reverberations. Swedes in their own referendum voted against joining the euro monetary zone. Although it is a staunch member, Sweden maintains a sceptical stance towards some of the projects of the EU, particularly the union’s perceived lack of democracy and accountability. Citizens are picking and choosing what they will or will not support regarding the EU, and despite Lindh’s enthusiastic advocacy of adopting the euro, even her dramatic death could not persuade Swedish voters.

The stakes could not be higher for Latvia.

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