Latvians’ Principal Concerns in Spring 2010: Economic Recession and Parliamentary Elections

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Despite the fact that Latvia has been a member of the European Union for six years, despite Latvia’s endorsement of the Lisbon Treaty and simultaneous acceptance of the collective responsibility to implement it, and despite the relevance for all EU member states of the decisions made in Brussels, most Latvians remain much more concerned about what is going on in Latvia than in the rest of Europe. In 2010, their attention has been especially focussed on two issues:

Latvia supports the fight against climate change

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As in many parts of the world, the prevailing view in Latvia has been that the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as the Copenhagen summit or the Copenhagen climate conference, was by and large a failure. Latvia had wholeheartedly supported the proposals of the EU that had been approved at the Council of the European Union on 29-30 October 2009 in Brussels. The only caveat of the Latvians was that the plans adopted in Copenhagen on 7-18 December 2009 should take into consideration the economic and financial situation of each country committing itself to the common goals.[1]
Already before the conclusion of the UN climate conference, Latvia’s Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who attended the international gathering in the Danish capital, predicted that the conference would end without an agreement on any of its ambitious goals. He told the Latvian TV journalists that, in all likelihood, the questions discussed at the conference would serve as a basis for hammering out, at a later time, an accord to limit climate change.[2] These views were shared by the Environment Minister, Raimonds Vējonis, who said after the conference that all the proposals leading to substantive action fell through and that everything would have to start again from the beginning, because the accord that was finally agreed upon is so weak.

Latvia favours European Economic Governance and the Europe 2020 Strategy

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The economic and financial situation in Europe is undoubtedly an issue of high interest in Latvia. The principal reason for such interest has little to do with the dramatic eruptions of public sentiment in Greece, the disputes between some Europeans and the Icelanders over the consequences deriving from the banking and financial crisis in Iceland or the various efforts in other European capitals to cope with deficits and deep budget cuts, but rather with Latvia’s own economic recession and the painful decisions that are being made in order to deal with the myriad of problems. Factual reports appear regularly in the Latvian media about the economic situation in other EU countries, but commentaries are rare. The sentiment in Latvia towards Greece and other EU member states facing serious economic and financial problems appears to be that of an interested observer, and clearly not that of a critic or an advisor. Latvians are too deeply aware of their own difficulties to pass judgement on others encountering similar difficulties. This is true both in the official and the public domain. At the same time, throughout this period of economic downturn, what has been stressed by many Latvians is the importance of EU solidarity and the Union’s readiness to come to assist those members having problems.

Latvia endorses EU Enlargement and the European Neighbourhood Policy

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Latvia firmly believes in the further enlargement of the European Union. As the erstwhile Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Māris Riekstiņš told Turkey’s Minister of European Affairs and chief EU negotiator Egemen Bagiş on 26 February 2010, “[A]ny European country which has demonstrated its desire to join the European Union and has committed itself to carrying out the internal reforms and fulfilling the essential criteria must be given this opportunity.”[1] An important reason for this, as Riekstiņš has stressed on other occasions, is the significance of the enlargement policy in securing stability in Europe.[2] Latvia endorses enlargement if it is grounded in an individual approach and the fulfilment of EU membership criteria.

Considering the four EU membership candidate countries, Croatia, Iceland, Macedonia and Turkey, Latvia anticipates that Croatia could become eligible for membership by the next enlargement round, especially since the border dispute with Slovenia appears to be close to settlement. Macedonia and Turkey have not made as much progress toward fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria. Moreover, a conspicuous factor standing in the way of Macedonia’s progress toward EU accession is the unresolved quarrel with Greece over the name “Macedonia”.

Implementation of the Lisbon Treaty as seen from Latvia

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From the ample media coverage and the numerous informative discussions organised under the auspices of universities, government institutions, and non-governmental organisations in recent years, it would seem that every citizen of Latvia has heard of the Lisbon Treaty. However, even if Latvians tend to recognise the term and acknowledge that the Treaty affects everyone in every EU member state, relatively few are sufficiently familiar with the Treaty’s content to make an informed comment about it and even fewer have actually read the entire document.

No particular reaction to Commission’s Communication but general support for EU enlargement in South Eastern Europe

There was hardly any reaction in Latvia to the Commission’s Communication on „Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2007-2008” of November 2007. The explanation lies in the internal affairs of Latvia at that time, rather than in general lack of interest in EU enlargement and the progress made by the candidate countries. The issues preoccupying all of Latvia were how long the unpopular government of Prime Minister Kalvitis would last and who would head the new government. Further complicating matters was the internal strife in the People’s Party, chaired by Kalvitis, and the resignation of Artis Pabriks as Minister of Foreign Affairs on 19 October 2007 and as member of that party on 8 November 2007. Maris Riekstins, a career diplomat and a newcomer to the People’s Party, became the new Minister of Foreign Affairs on 8 November 2007.

The EU after the Irish referendum: Reactions in Latvia

The decision of the Irish voters not to endorse the Lisbon Treaty on June 12th 2008 had very minimal repercussions in Latvia, especially since other issues (these will be discussed later) have been of much greater concern to both the Latvian electorate and the politicians throughout 2008.
The Irish ‘No’ came more than a month after the Latvian parliament had approved the Lisbon Treaty. On May 8th 2008, 70 deputies voted for the treaty, three voted against it, while one abstained.[1]
When the results of the Irish referendum were announced in June, most Latvians reacted with detachment. The topic was certainly covered by the media, but did not spark any heated or wide-ranging debates, even if a few eurosceptics insisted that the Latvian parliament had acted hastily, without adequately consulting the people. The prevailing attitude was an acceptance of the Irish voters’ right to express their opinion. Hardly anyone blamed the Irish for ingratitude to the institution widely considered as having been essentially responsible for Ireland’s economic upswing.
On June 13th 2008 Latvia’s Foreign Minister Māris Riekstiņš told journalists of the national news agency “LETA” that he respected the Irish voters’ decision and stressed that the explanations for such a decision need to be analysed carefully.

Ratification process should be completed in spring 2008

The about-to-be replaced government of Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis reacted quickly to the news of the signing of the Lisbon Treaty and decided on 11 December 2007 to begin the process leading to the treaty’s ratification. On 19 February 2008 the Cabinet of Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis voted unanimously to forward to the parliament the draft law on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and recommended that the lawmakers act speedily. Since there is neither a widespread nor a vocal opposition to the treaty in Latvia, the ratification process should be completed in spring 2008. As was already shown by Latvia’s endorsement of the Constitutional Treaty through a favourable vote of the parliament on 2 June 2005, the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty will be equally straightforward and will not depend on a referendum.

Political uncertainty and economic recession

Latvian Institute of International Affairs
At the beginning of 2009 Latvia is facing political uncertainty and the onset of what is likely to be deep economic recession. Public discourse tends to concentrate on those two general themes.
The current political uncertainty is closely linked with that fact that the national government as well as the parliament and political parties no longer enjoy the public’s confidence. According to an opinion poll, published in late January 2009, 64 percent of Latvia’s citizens would favour dissolving the parliament.[1] Another public opinion poll in December 2008, reveals that 51 percent of the people were totally dissatisfied with the performance of the government and only 10 percent said that they were satisfied.[2]
This is the lowest rating of any government since 1996 when thousands of Latvians lost their life’s savings owing to the folding of “Banka Baltija”.