Potato politics

The euphoria of being invited to join the NATO defense alliance has barely abated, and now an equally significant moment for Latvia has been reached at the European Union summit in Copenhagen, during which the three Baltic states were among 10 countries invited to join the EU.

As with the NATO decision, the final days before the Dec. 12-13 summit saw various rumours of delay, possible treachery and unresolved differences. Denmark currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union and engaged in a furious shuttle diplomacy to bed down arrangements and ensure a smooth outcome.

And what are the bones of contention?

Milk, meat, fruit, grains, nuts—not to forget potatoes… and tomatoes. Europe, which considers itself the most sophisticated of unions, the paragon of peaceful coexistence and no doubt the pinnacle of western civilisation, is constantly embroiled in disputes over its most ancient area of production—agriculture. And the potential expansion only exacerbates already bitter conflicts.

Besides the three Baltic states, the candidate countries are Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. For all of them the prospect of joining the EU has essentially two quite contradictory faces.

On the positive front, there is the lure of Europe’s wealth: access to a huge market to which candidate countries have had only limited access up to now. For hard-pressed farmers there is the promise of subsidies. For politicians and bureaucrats, not insignificantly, there is the prospect of gaining glittering (or at least highly paid) careers in Brussels, in the European Parliament or the many other branches of the EU bureaucratic Babylon—a significant reason why so many prominent politicians are enthusiastically in favour of joining Europe. And beyond all this, for the Eastern European countries as well, there is something more symbolic but equally tangible: the feeling of having “rejoined Europe,” of being recognised as a part of Europe’s own cultural heritage after half a century or more of isolation from it.

But that is only one side of the story. The notion of joining the EU has always been controversial, for membership also implies abiding by its rules and norms on a whole plethora of issues. The EU’s farm subsidies are famous (or infamous), but they come together with a determined effort to reduce the agricultural sector in terms of employment and even in some cases production, rationalising industries and forcing many farmers to quit the land. Industries as prominent as the Danish dairy industry now only have a fraction of the farmers they had a few decades ago, and this tinier fraction can now through efficiencies produce just as much as in the past. Internal quotas limit the amount each country is allowed to produce. And the battles with French and Italian wine and vegetable growers are regularly on the front page as opposition to rationalisation grows, resembling more skirmishes from the Thirty Years’ War than orderly and civilised decision-making.

There is little chance these scenes will not be repeated in, say, the huge Polish agricultural sector. Latvia has had to fight hard to get acceptable quotas for its own milk, meat and vegetable production, and many small producers fear they will have no chance to make a living when asked to compete with huge Euro agribusinesses.

As all candidate countries will hold referenda on the desirability of joining the EU, the mix of positives and negatives make predicting referenda outcomes difficult. The latest polls in Latvia suggest a knife-edge of around 50 percent in favour of joining.

And there is more. Joining the EU means abiding by all sorts of other rules—on budgetary deficits, on borrowing and lending, on privatisation and restructuring on freedom of movement of people, as well as steady pressure for all countries to adopt the Euro currency. In all this, there are pluses and minuses for Latvia. One aspect that the EU negotiations have picked on is the need to rid Latvian institutions of corruption and introduce a more transparent and modern judicial system. Latvia will need to work hard on these aspects to have appropriate institutional design by May 2004, when the candidate countries are expected to become full-fledged members of the EU.

For Latvia and Estonia particularly there was another, more poignant issue in the process of getting invitations from NATO and the EU. For nearly a decade now, the two countries have had to endure sustained European pressure to change various aspects of their citizenship or language laws. In a bizarre process, mainly Russian objections to these laws have been taken up by European institutions, which in turn have pressed Estonia and Latvia. The series of negotiations, conflicts, retreats and compromises has been a lesson in the pressures that can be exerted on countries even by supposedly “friendly” powers.

This complicated set of positive and negative aspects of the EU means that after Copenhagen, the next two years will see an increasing level of exhaustion and not a little bitterness as countries struggle to meet an evolving set of demands on their institutions and economies to be deemed worthy of membership. And final accession may also be viewed from quite varied perspectives. For some, it will be welcome back to Europe. For others, it will be farewell to a brief sovereignty. For many, it will be welcome to the daily potato politics of the EU.

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