National crisis management more important than future of the EU

Latvian Institute of International Affairs

Latvia
Latvian Institute of International Affairs

For the past two years, but especially since autumn 2008, Latvia has been increasingly preoccupied with its own problems. The Latvians are particularly concerned with:

  • the quality of political leadership, especially at the national level, and the dramatic decline in confidence in the elected and appointed officials;
  • economic recession.

Given that credible steps to resolve the problems are not yet in sight, early in 2009 the Latvian public is focusing more than ever on their own problems. Other issues, including the Lisbon Treaty and the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’, are regarded as having less immediacy.
 
In early November 2008 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs promoted a four-day visit to Portugal for the purpose of better acquainting Latvian journalists with the Lisbon Treaty. They, in turn, were expected to stimulate the interest of the Latvian public in the treaty and its implementation.[1] The results, however, did not meet the expectations owing primarily to the unexpected collapse of the “Parex” bank, the second largest bank in Latvia which had heretofore enjoyed a very good reputation both at home and abroad. Acting on news received only a few days earlier, the Prime Minister, Ivars Godmanis, decided on 8 November 2008 to bail out the bank.[2] The implementation of the decision revealed basic weaknesses in the country’s economy and extremely short-sighted planning, especially during the years when Aigars Kalvītis was Prime Minister and Latvia was experiencing fast growth and steadily increasing inflation.
 
Consequently, there has been minimal public discussion of the Lisbon Treaty and its impact on Latvia, and even less discussion of the Irish ‘No’, the proposed ways of resolving it or what might happen to the European Union should the dilemma become protracted. The broader international issues have become more and more the domain of the country’s leaders because the populace has been focussing on domestic developments. Currently, issues, such as the formation of a new European Commission in autumn 2009, appointment of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the EU integration process, are not on the public’s list of priority topics and they have not been discussed in the mass media. While many political parties have already chosen their candidates for Latvia’s delegation to the European Parliament, no pre-election excitement is yet to be felt among the electorate.
 
The address of President, Valdis Zatlers, to the European Parliament on 13 January 2009 in Strasbourg, illustrates well the EU topics perceived as most relevant to Latvians.[3] Recalling that the year 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Latvia’s membership in the Union, the president underlined the importance of the EU enlargement of 2004 for Latvia. The president also expressed his appreciation to the European Parliament for declaring 23 August as a day of remembrance of the victims of Stalinism and Nazism.
 
Turning to current issues, Zatlers welcomed the EU’s initiatives to deal with the international economic problems; Zatlers thanked warmly the European institutions and individual countries for the assistance offered to Latvia to overcome its economic difficulties. He focused on the Union’s energy security and its Eastern Partnership, and welcomed the Baltic Sea regional initiatives and projects.
 
In conclusion, President Zatlers outlined his vision of the European Union in 2015, noting also Latvia’s role and the honour and responsibility of assuming the EU presidency that year. Reiterating his support for the Lisbon Treaty and the conclusions of the European Council of December 2008 to activate it, he called for a more united Europe and cautioned against measures that could lead to fragmentation or “a Europe of several speeds”.
 
The President’s endorsement of the Lisbon Treaty does not reflect fully the variety of sentiments in Latvia. While most Latvians see their parliament’s approval of the treaty on 8 May 2008 as a condition of belonging to the European Union, 13 political activists questioned the procedure, claiming that a referendum was mandatory. On 25 July 2008, they asked the constitutional court to consider the issue. In autumn, the court agreed to look into the matter and early in 2009 both sides were preparing their cases for the first hearing, scheduled for 3 March 2009. How and when the court will decide cannot be predicted.[4]
As for President Zatlers, in his speech he did not acknowledge the possibility that the Lisbon Treaty might end up in a state of limbo either in Latvia, or in the European Union as a whole. His view of the EU in 2015 was distinctly upbeat. Quoting the Latvian poet Rainis, who said that he who changes will survive, Zatlers envisions the EU as one of the pillars of economic power after the worldwide economic crisis has been overcome. Furthermore, the will and ability to be united in diversity will be the key to increasing the EU’s role in the world. It will also permit the admission of other European countries, which uphold European values, into the Union. The EU will have become larger while retaining its ability of act effectively. The Union will not look at its members through the prism of geography, geopolitics, or length of EU membership, but rather their achievements.




[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Latvijas žurnālisti Portugālē uzzina par Lisabonas līguma nozīmi Eiropas Savienības tālākajā attīstībā, press release, 7 November 2008, available at: http://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/Jaunumi/vestniecibu/2008/2008-11-07-4/ (last access: 25 January 2009).


[2] See BNS and LETA, news agencies: dispatches of 8 November 2008.


[3] President Zatlers delivered his speech in Latvian. For the full text see: http://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/Jaunumi/Runas/2009/janvaris/13-1/?print=on (last access: 25 January 2009). The subsequent references to the speech will not be separately footnoted.


[4] See LETA, news agency: dispatches of 16 March 2009, available at: http://leta.lv/archive_item.php?id=C83892EF-C833-4FCC-AF1D-84E561806473&phase=Lisabonas+l%C4%ABgums&sd=1&sm=1&sy=2008&ed=23&em=2&ey=2009&t[]=t0&t[]=t1&t[]=t3&t[]=t5&t[]=t4&more=true&moreid=0 (last access: 25 January 2009).