Latvia and the European Union: A primer

In a few years, Latvians from outside Europe visiting their ancestral homeland may be surprised that they’ll be paying for souvenirs with euros rather than with the good, old lat.

While Latvians in Canada and the United States have followed with great interest the pending enlargement of the NATO defense alliance, they may have pushed to the back of their minds an equally important debate: whether Latvia should join the European Union.

For those who may have only scanned the headlines of the past several months, here is a primer on European Union expansion, a process that promises to create the largest economic market in the world by eventually adding 13 new countries—including Latvia—to its current roster of 15.

The idea for the modern European Union was born in the context of a Europe still struggling to determine what its future would be like after the end of World War II. British political leader Winston Churchill first suggested formation of a “United States of Europe” in 1946. Four years later, France proposed a federation of European countries. By 1951, six Western European nations had formed the European Coal and Steel Community, the first step in moving Europe toward the ideal of reducing barriers to free trade.

In the early years, efforts at closer cooperation in politics and military defense failed, but succeeded in the economic arena. In 1958, the European Economic Community treaty went into effect, aimed at allowing the free movement of trade across the borders of the countries of the “common market.” The six original members of the EEC—Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands—have been joined by nine other nations.

The modern European Union came about in 1993 with the adoption of the Treaty of Maastricht, which reorganized and expanded the responsibilities of the member states. Among the most visible changes was the adoption of the euro as the common currency of the EU, agreement on a joint security policy and coordination on issues such as immigration and fighting drug trafficking.

The EU today remains an often confusing array of treaties and institutions. At its head is what the EU refers to as its “institutional triangle” consisting of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. Beyond the “triangle” are two dozen other institutions and agencies.

The European Commission may be viewed as the EU’s executive branch. It proposes legislation to the parliament and to the council and administers the decisions of those institutions. The 20-member commission also is the body that often speaks for the EU in international questions.

The European Parliament is elected every five years by the voters of the EU’s member countries. The parliament has 626 members. It and the Council of Europe make laws that govern the EU and also determine its budget. The parliament also oversees the work of the European Commission.

The Council of the European Union, according to EU literature, is the union’s chief decision-making body. It shares lawmaking and budgetary authority with the parliament. Council members are ministers from each of the member countries. The council’s presidency changes every half year. Currently, the presidency is held by Denmark. In January, Greece will take over.

Although full of promise, the EU over the years has had plenty of detractors as well as its share of problems, such as trade disputes with the United States, the growth of a transnational bureaucracy, and enough political scandal to keep things interesting.

Regardless, it’s an economic force to reckoned with—and the government of Latvia is among those that want in.

Already in August 1991, after the Soviet Union crumbled and Latvia regained its independence, leaders began looking west with a dream of “returning” to Europe. Latvia applied to join the EU in 1995, becoming one of 13 Eastern and Central European nations eager for membership in the club.

To join the EU, the candidate countries have to complete 31 “chapters” of accession negotiations. The negotiations are essentially a give-and-take process during which the candidate countries listen to recommendations for fixing things that aren’t up to the snuff of EU standards, known as the acquis.

Five years ago, when the European Commission adopted its Agenda 2000, it seemed doubtful that Latvia and Lithuania could join the EU any time soon. Estonia, where economic and political reforms had moved at a quicker pace, was included in a list of six countries that could be in a first wave of enlargement. Accession negotations with those countries started in 1998. But the following year another six, including Latvia and Lithuania, began talks.

For Latvians eager to see their country join the European Union, the month of October has been a critical time.

Originally, 13 countries were considered for enlargement. Meeting in Brussels on Oct. 9, the European Commission said 10 nations—including the Baltics—are ready for the last leg of negotiations that should lead to them becoming members in 2004. Bulgaria and Romania were told they would have to wait until 2007, while Turkey must continue working on reforms with no clear date for membership.

Then, on Oct. 19, Irish voters ratified the EU’s Treaty of Nice. Last year, Ireland rejected the treaty. If it had done so again, enlargement of the union would have been thrown into question.

Now all that remains is for Latvia and other candidates to keep plugging away at government and economic reforms so that they can join the EU by 2004.

In its latest report on Latvia’s progress toward membership, the EU noted:

  • Continued problems with the nation’s judicial system.
  • Latvia’s problem with corruption “remains a cause for serious concern.”
  • Integration of non-citizens should be accelerated.
  • Improvements to the functioning of the labor market would be welcomed, particularly in areas such as aiding disadvantaged workers and education.

Of course, even if the Latvian government accomplishes all that is left in addressing the EU’s concerns, nothing is guaranteed. One major hurdle remains: public opinion. Referendums are to be conducted in each candidate country to determine if voters want to join the EU.

A referendum on joining the EU is not a sure bet for supporters. In 1994, voters in Norway turned thumbs down on membership.

In Latvia, the margin of potential victory has been shrinking. The latest Eurobarometer poll conducted in March and April by the EU found that just 52 percent of Latvian voters would support a referendum on EU membership. Although that’s enough to get by, it’s a significant drop of 7 percentage points from the last survey in the autumn of 2001.

It’s also the lowest level of support found in all the candidate countries.

By comparison, in Estonia 59 percent of voters said they would support an EU referendum, while in Lithuania support reached 75 percent. In Romania, which now has to wait until at least 2007 for membership, support was at an astounding 96 percent.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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