EU membership to test Latvia’s maturity

May Day 2004. Instead of the workers of the world (or at least Europe) uniting, ten new nations of the European Union celebrated their membership. Eight of the 10 new members are former socialist states trying desperately to prove their democratic, free market and liberal credentials to a still somewhat sceptical West. Of these, Latvia gained a somewhat unexpected prominence during the day. Several international observers noted that the EU celebrations were much louder and more jubilant in Latvia than anywhere else. This was a very public event in Latvia, and comments flew that one of the poorest of the new countries was the one celebrating hardest.

Can we speculate on why this was the case? Are Latvians naturally the celebratory type? Have the experiences of Eurovision and Rīga 800 got the locals into the habit of celebrating? Or more cynically or practically, depending on your perspective, were the celebrations in anticipation of plentiful EU money flowing in Latvia’s direction—and who indeed does not want to escape poverty?

As in many cases, the perceptions from outside were not the perceptions from inside. Within Latvia, the feeling was one not only of joy but of a kind of safety being reached. Even accession to the NATO defense alliance, which had already been finalised in March, did not bring about such a fundamental emotion of relief and a daring to hope for lasting security.

Such a feeling did have some solid basis in the diplomatic settlements that were made surrounding accession to the EU. The EU and Russia, after negotiations that went up almost to the last day, finally agreed on a formula by which Russia would agree to treat all new nations as they treated any other EU nation in terms of economic relations. Russia’s long-standing claim that the Russian minority situation in Estonia and Latvia demanded an exceptional relation to these countries was eventually written out of the final agreements.

Yet this will not be the end of the matter because the stakes, in Moscow’s view, are very high indeed. The long-cherished aim of having Russian become an official state language in Estonia and Latvia could lead to Russian becoming one of the official languages of the EU, as well as strengthening Moscow’s voice internally in these countries in support of the Russian-speaking population. With border agreements between Russia and Estonia and Latvia not yet finalised, battles over minority issues may well intensify, as seen in the recent opposition to secondary school reform in Latvia. Moreover, the willingness of the EU to grant membership to countries that still had unresolved border issues testifies to the determination of the EU to press for new membership despite Moscow’s objections. For me this was one of the most encouraging signs of Europe not being seduced by newly re-elected President Vladimir Putin’s dark charms.

On this as on so many other matters, internal political strength, sense and consistency in Estonia and Latvia will determine the issue, not directives from the EU or relying on a still nebulous security guarantee. The worst outcome would be self-satisfaction with what has been achieved and an expectation that the EU will solve everyything, while continuing the worst of local practices of diverting EU money to private coffers.

But in fact accession to the EU will pose genuine dilemmas and issues that will not be able to be ignored.

One relates to foreign policy, and the clear split that has emerged in Europe between pro-American countries (basically the new candidate countries from Eastern Europe, with Poland very much in the lead) and perceived anti-American countries led by France and to some extent Germany. Latvia will need to make decisions on where it stands on a host of issues from the Iraq war (where it backs America) to the scope of the International Criminal Court (where it backs Europe) to what will become intensifying American attempts to fracture Europe and deny it a unified voice. There will be no hiding on many of these issues.

A second and more painful issue relates to how well Latvia’s own political and economic decision-making will be able to cope with the demands of EU membership. The frank question that must be asked is whether Latvia’s political system is up to the task of effective policy-making and administration of the standard expected of EU members. The appalling debacle of the fall of Prime Minister Einars Repše’s government just a few weeks before May 1, a string of poor appointments to ministerial posts, continuing concerns over corruption, and the immaturity and volatility of the political party system raise doubts as to the ability of the government to manage the benefits of EU membership in a way that will be felt by the ordinary citizen.

Ironically, what benefits will flow from EU membership now rest much more upon Latvia’s own maturity and its political and economic will, than upon the bureaucrats of Brussels. Latvia was right to celebrate a historic alliance in a union with an unprecedented record of progress and achievement. But an alliance can only ever be as strong as your own efforts to make it work and prosper.

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