Latvia

1. Euroscepticism and European Parliament elections

Sovereignty and focus on national issues

The elec­toral cam­paign in Latvia was most­ly focused on nation­al lev­el issues, which is very char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Lat­vian polit­i­cal debate. These were, first and fore­most, eco­nom­ic and social issues such as eco­nom­ic inte­gra­tion and devel­op­ment, com­pet­i­tive­ness of Latvia and Lat­vians on the Euro­pean scale, pen­sions, and social guar­an­tees. Along the same lines, the ques­tions of bet­ter spend­ing of the EU funds also appeared. The cri­sis in Ukraine also influ­enced the cam­paign; although for­eign pol­i­cy and secu­ri­ty issues were not pre­dom­i­nant, they did appear on the par­ty pro­grammes.

Anoth­er impor­tant issue has been the rela­tions between Latvia and the EU as a whole, nation­al sov­er­eign­ty, pre­ferred ways of deci­sion-mak­ing etc. This is relat­ed to the sec­ond ques­tion or euroscep­ti­cism: in the Lat­vian polit­i­cal debate, a pro­nounced (‘mod­ernist’) stress on sov­er­eign­ty still per­sists, and ‘fed­er­al­iza­tion’ (nar­row­ly under­stood as a loss of nation­al sov­er­eign­ty to the EU insti­tu­tions) is wide­ly per­ceived as a neg­a­tive phe­nom­e­non. Against this back­ground, such issues as the preser­va­tion of the nation­al lan­guage, cul­ture and the recog­ni­tion of com­mu­nist crimes also appeared in the cam­paign.

For a cer­tain peri­od of time, the leader of one of the par­ties, Uni­ty (the ex-Prime Min­is­ter Vald­is Dom­brovskis), was believed to be a poten­tial can­di­date for the post of the Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. This prob­a­bly strength­ened his and his party’s, posi­tions. Also, Jean-Claude Junck­er came to Riga and took part in a joint debate with Mr Dom­brovskis (the lat­ter dis­trib­uted the invi­ta­tion broad­ly). Oth­er­wise, no obvi­ous ref­er­ences to the ‘Spitzenkan­di­dat­en’ were made in the cam­paigns in Latvia. The Euro­pean lev­el debates were trans­lat­ed in Lat­vian media, but, tak­ing into account the over­all strong focus on nation­al-lev­el issues, it is high­ly dubi­ous that they had large impact.

Moderate euroscepticism

None of the main­stream Lat­vian polit­i­cal par­ties is rad­i­cal­ly euroscep­tic, but a few of them could be called euro-crit­i­cal: sup­port­ive of cer­tain ben­e­fits of inte­gra­tion but at the same time wary of ‘los­ing’ nation­al sov­er­eign­ty. Even the gen­er­al­ly pro-Euro­pean win­ning par­ty, Uni­ty (which received 4 out of the 8 seats avail­able for Latvia in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment), stat­ed in its pro­gramme: “More Europe in big things and less Europe in small things.” Anoth­er polit­i­cal force that will be rep­re­sent­ed in the EP, the Nation­al Alliance, sup­port­ed the EU as Latvia’s geopo­lit­i­cal choice, but at the same time stat­ed its strong oppo­si­tion to the fed­er­al­iza­tion of the Union. The Green and Farm­ers’ Union (which obtained 1 seat) voiced a very sim­i­lar posi­tion, in spite of the fact that in 2013 their elect­ed can­di­date crit­i­cised Latvia’s mem­ber­ship in the Euro­zone. Oth­er cam­paign­ers who expressed open­ly euroscep­tic views were not elect­ed and did not obtain much vis­i­bil­i­ty.

Low turnout

The turnout for the EP elec­tions this year was only 30.24 per­cent, which is a his­toric low. In 2009, the EP elec­tions coin­cid­ed with the nation­al ones and the turnout was 53.69 per­cent, but in 2004, just after Latvia’s EU acces­sion, it was only 41.34 per­cent (well below the aver­age for nation­al and munic­i­pal elec­tions). The cam­paign, with some excep­tions, was not very notice­able and not very con­tro­ver­sial; only 14 par­ty lists were reg­is­tered, com­pared to 17 lists in 2009 and 16 in 2004. Some pos­si­ble rea­sons are the focus of nation­al par­ties on the upcom­ing par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, which are sched­uled for autumn 2014, and the inabil­i­ty of some par­ties to address and mobi­lize their elec­torate effi­cient­ly. Some tech­ni­cal rea­sons also may have been at play, such as the vot­ers’ reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem, which allowed each elec­tor to vote only in one polling sta­tion offi­cial­ly assigned to him/her before­hand. How­ev­er, the main rea­son for the poor turnout is the low lev­el of aware­ness about and inter­est in the work of the EU and its impor­tance for Latvia – not only in the soci­ety but also among the polit­i­cal par­ties. Thus, one could say that only the most polit­i­cal­ly aware and moti­vat­ed vot­ers took part in the elec­tions.

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2. The EU’s Neighbourhood

Harsh criticism of Russia mitigated by economic interests

Lat­vian-Russ­ian rela­tions are guid­ed by polit­i­cal, cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic and secu­ri­ty issues. Rus­sia is Latvia’s sec­ond biggest trade part­ner, the only source of gas imports and a major investor. These eco­nom­ic rela­tions are some­times seen as a pos­i­tive oppor­tu­ni­ty (a ten­den­cy which has inten­si­fied over the last decade) but some­times as a threat, due to the still exis­tent polit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties and Russia’s attempts at “soft” influ­ence with its eco­nom­ic and ide­o­log­i­cal instru­ments. A large eth­nic Russ­ian minor­i­ty exists in Latvia. Mean­while, Rus­sia is assertive in its “com­pa­tri­ot pol­i­cy” (offi­cial pol­i­cy, car­ried out with both open and clan­des­tine instru­ments, to strength­en its influ­ence over and make polit­i­cal use of the Russ­ian speak­ing dias­po­ra in the CIS neigh­bour­hood); and alleged minor­i­ty rights breach­es, dif­fer­ences in opin­ion on his­tor­i­cal issues, Latvia’s sup­port of the East­ern Neigh­bour­hood Pol­i­cy, NATO exer­cis­es, and espe­cial­ly the cur­rent Ukrain­ian con­flict con­tin­ue to mar the rela­tions. Due to the large pro­por­tion of Russ­ian-speak­ing / non-eth­nic-Lat­vian pop­u­la­tion (38.9 per­cent non-eth­nic-Lat­vians in 2013), this is also reflect­ed in the domes­tic polit­i­cal debate, as exem­pli­fied by, inter alia, the lan­guage ref­er­en­dum held in Feb­ru­ary 2012 (70 per­cent were opposed to the intro­duc­tion of Russ­ian as an offi­cial state lan­guage) or the exclu­sion of the “Har­mo­ny”, the largest oppo­si­tion pro-Rus­sia par­ty, from the gov­ern­ment coali­tion.

Despite the gen­er­al­ly pro-Euro­pean ori­en­ta­tion of the rul­ing coali­tion (includ­ing harsh crit­i­cism of the annex­a­tion of Crimea), the ongo­ing eco­nom­ic cri­sis and pres­sure of cer­tain influ­en­tial busi­ness groups con­tribute to an over­all more nuanced, “prag­mat­ic” for­eign pol­i­cy of Latvia. The Pres­i­dent con­grat­u­lat­ed Vladimir Putin on his last vic­to­ry in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, although the then-prime min­is­ter Vald­is Dom­brovskis crit­i­cized „a cer­tain deficit of democ­ra­cy” in the neigh­bour­ing state. Admit­ted­ly, since the Crimean cri­sis, a more prin­ci­pled posi­tion is shown in the pop­u­lar polit­i­cal dis­course.

Latvia is strong­ly sup­port­ive of Ukraine’s inter­im gov­ern­ment, Maid­an pro­test­ers, and ter­ri­to­r­i­al integri­ty. “Har­mo­ny” was the only par­ty to oppose the res­o­lu­tion passed by Saeima (the Lat­vian Par­lia­ment) in sup­port of Ukraine’s ter­ri­to­r­i­al uni­ty and con­demn­ing Russ­ian actions on Crimean soil. Latvia’s author­i­ties are ready to sup­port the intro­duc­tion of the third phase of sanc­tions if the esca­la­tion in East­ern Ukraine con­tin­ues, although at the same time the influ­ence of busi­ness inter­ests still serves as a mod­er­at­ing fac­tor. The gov­ern­ment has eval­u­at­ed the pos­si­ble influ­ence of sanc­tions on the Lat­vian econ­o­my; meet­ings with indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives took place and the Min­is­ter of Finance even opined that Latvia might have to ask for com­pen­sa­tions from the EU in case sanc­tions are actu­al­ly intro­duced and hit the Lat­vian econ­o­my. Latvia will con­tin­ue to push for a more sub­stan­tial NATO pres­ence as a guar­an­tee of sta­bil­i­ty and secu­ri­ty in the Baltic Sea region, despite the fact that such pres­ence is con­sid­ered a provo­ca­tion by Rus­sia.

With the Lat­vian pres­i­den­cy of the Coun­cil of the EU approach­ing, a sim­i­lar sce­nario to the “tran­sit wars” or “milk wars,” played to under­mine the Lithuan­ian pres­i­den­cy, is thought of with anx­i­ety. Latvia is main­tain­ing its sup­port to the East­ern Part­ner­ship which is yet anoth­er fac­tor pro­vok­ing Rus­sia. How­ev­er, the pub­lic opin­ion and polit­i­cal par­ties (some more than oth­ers) are all unit­ed by the idea that Latvia, along­side the EU, has to strive for prag­mat­ic and con­struc­tive rela­tions with Rus­sia, even while it attempts to dimin­ish its eco­nom­ic depen­dence on its large East­ern neigh­bour. Hence, fric­tions per­sist, but prag­mat­ic inter­ests are mak­ing Latvia’s for­eign pol­i­cy more mod­er­ate.

A flexible Eastern Partnership

Latvia believes that the East­ern Part­ner­ship (EaP) must be respon­sive to the needs and pref­er­ences of the part­ner coun­tries. The more hes­i­tant ones (e.g. Belarus, Arme­nia) should be allowed to main­tain a slow­er tem­po, but the focus in Latvia is actu­al­ly not so much on dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed speed of coop­er­a­tion with the EU as on dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed offers. Latvia for many polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al rea­sons is one of the strongest advo­cates of the EaP in the EU. The EaP is one of the top pri­or­i­ties for Latvia’s upcom­ing EU pres­i­den­cy. Latvia wants not only to pre­serve but also to strength­en this for­mat sub­stan­tial­ly. First­ly, it will like­ly attempt to review the EaP ini­tia­tive, tweak­ing the offers to the needs of each part­ner state. Sec­ond­ly, Latvia in prin­ci­ple advo­cates “per­spec­tives of clos­er inte­gra­tion” (read: mem­ber­ship) to those states who have advanced most in their reforms. Third­ly, the Lat­vian for­eign min­is­ter has voiced an idea about a Euro-Atlantic East­ern Part­ner­ship, involv­ing the US more close­ly.

Some oppo­si­tion par­ties have empha­sized that the East­ern Part­ner­ship works against Latvia’s inter­ests and its oppor­tu­ni­ty to keep up the con­struc­tive rela­tions with Rus­sia, but the cur­rent gov­ern­ing elite, despite being care­ful about Rus­sia, keeps the EaP high on its agen­da. Latvia’s motives for forg­ing clos­er ties with the East­ern Part­ner­ship are not pure­ly nor­ma­tive (“pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic”, “pro-reuni­fi­ca­tion of Europe”). Both busi­ness and geopo­lit­i­cal inter­ests, espe­cial­ly the for­mer, some­times affect Latvia’s poli­cies and bring the focus away from the democ­ra­ti­za­tion and lib­er­al­iza­tion of the part­ner states.

Prevailing support for Turkey’s EU accession

Latvia, as the rest of the EU, has a very prag­mat­ic view towards Turkey’s per­spec­tive of join­ing the EU, espe­cial­ly regard­ing growth and mobil­i­ty prospects, as well as the EU’s defence capa­bil­i­ties. Latvia’s Min­istry of For­eign Affairs has con­sis­tent­ly voiced its sup­port for Turkey’s EU acces­sion; last May, the For­eign Min­is­ter opined in favour of open­ing new nego­ti­a­tion chap­ters with Turkey. This sup­port is rather broad­ly shared across the polit­i­cal sys­tem. Dur­ing the April 2013 vis­it of Abdul­lah Gül in Riga, the Pres­i­dent of Latvia expressed his sup­port to Turkey, empha­sis­ing the dynam­ic eco­nom­ic rela­tion­ship between it and the EU. The same view is shared by the cur­rent Prime Min­is­ter Laim­do­ta Strau­ju­ma, by var­i­ous gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives (e.g. ex-Defence Min­is­ter Atis Pabriks, Min­is­ter of Eco­nom­ics Vjačeslavs Dom­brovskis) and mem­bers of the par­lia­ment.

How­ev­er, it is impor­tant to note that the media and pub­lic polls reflect a more crit­i­cal view of Turkey’s EU acces­sion. The breach­es of human rights and con­tin­u­ing riots, as well as the vio­lent repres­sion of protests by gov­ern­ment forces, are seen as crit­i­cal signs of Turkey’s dif­fi­cul­ties to respect with demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues. Reforms are seen as an inte­gral pre­con­di­tion to con­tin­ue the acces­sion talks on judi­cia­ry ques­tions and fun­da­men­tal rights. Pub­lic sup­port of Turkey’s EU acces­sion is also lim­it­ed by cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences.

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3. Power relations in the EU

Advocating stronger German leadership in Europe

A call for a stronger role of Ger­many has already been issued twice: dur­ing the sov­er­eign debt cri­sis and after the Ukraine cri­sis. Accord­ing to Saeima’s EU Affairs Com­mit­tee chair, Zan­da Luka­se­vi­ca Kalni­na, Ger­many is indis­putably the strongest econ­o­my and one of the most influ­en­tial polit­i­cal play­ers in the EU. The same view was expressed also on the brink of the sov­er­eign debt cri­sis by the ex-defence Min­is­ter Atis Pabriks. Pabriks who said that, if Ger­many was ever to demand a big­ger role in exchange for han­dling the sit­u­a­tion, the mem­ber states would have to agree. Latvia and Ger­many have very intense diplo­mat­ic con­tacts, includ­ing with­in such frame­works as the Baltic-Ger­man talks at the lev­el of for­eign min­is­ters (since 1996). More­over, a num­ber of times Lat­vian offi­cials have described Ger­many as Latvia’s strate­gic eco­nom­ic part­ner, thus encour­ag­ing increased Ger­man eco­nom­ic pen­e­tra­tion of Latvia.

Ger­many is also per­ceived as a desir­able secu­ri­ty guar­an­tor and, in the con­text of the Ukrain­ian cri­sis, some pol­i­cy-mak­ers voiced a desire for a more prin­ci­pled Ger­man posi­tion on Rus­sia. This mir­rors some ear­li­er wor­ries about Germany’s prag­mat­ic pol­i­cy towards Rus­sia on occa­sions such as the con­struc­tion of the Nord Stream pipeline. It also shows the poten­tial attrib­uted to the Ger­man lead­er­ship. Angela Merkel is seen as the strongest rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an EU-28 posi­tion in the brink of Russia’s annex­a­tion of Crimea, espe­cial­ly as France is still hold­ing on to its arms deals with Rus­sia.

In favour of austerity

Latvia is often con­sid­ered and pro­mot­ed as being one of the most suc­cess­ful “aus­ter­i­ty sto­ries.” Based upon the suc­cess of the mea­sures tak­en in macro­eco­nom­ic sta­bi­liza­tion, with the return to sta­ble growth in less than three years, the Lat­vian exam­ple is occa­sion­al­ly used and dis­cussed in media, among experts and politi­cians. Aus­ter­i­ty was large­ly per­ceived as unavoid­able to obtain the IMF loan, which Latvia need­ed for the sta­bi­liza­tion of its finan­cial sys­tem and nation­al bud­get. Latvia restruc­tured most of its econ­o­my dur­ing the aus­ter­i­ty years, becom­ing more export-ori­ent­ed. The reforms of the bureau­crat­ic appa­ra­tus are large­ly per­ceived as the deter­mi­nant fac­tor that brought the deficit down and sta­bilised the econ­o­my. A rather strong polit­i­cal own­er­ship of the anti-cri­sis mea­sures and a gen­er­al­ly flex­i­ble / tol­er­ant / pas­sive atti­tude of the soci­ety towards these also was a con­tribut­ing fac­tor. How­ev­er, Lat­vians believe that com­pre­hen­sive reforms must accom­pa­ny aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures.

In Latvia, aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures led to changes in the polit­i­cal pro­grammes of main­stream par­ties. The rul­ing “Uni­ty” par­ty came to pow­er by stress­ing eco­nom­ic poli­cies more than any oth­er issue. The cri­sis also made the sec­ond most influ­en­tial polit­i­cal par­ty, “Har­mo­ny”, change their posi­tion­ing from the sole advance­ment of the rights of the Russ­ian-speak­ing minor­i­ty towards a more inclu­sive pop­ulist-social-demo­c­ra­t­ic rhetoric.

As for the Euro­pean lev­el, Latvia is in favour of a cen­tralised super­vi­sion via a Bank­ing Union. Reg­u­la­tions and direc­tives com­ple­men­tary to the Treaty on Sta­bil­i­ty, Coor­di­na­tion and Gov­er­nance are favourable to a small, yet open and dynam­ic econ­o­my like Latvia’s. Steps to bring about more cen­tralised eco­nom­ic gov­er­nance are seen as nec­es­sary to achieve con­ver­gence and bud­getary dis­ci­pline. Latvia is ready to sup­port EU-wide dis­ci­pline and sol­i­dar­i­ty, while empha­sis­ing the impor­tance of the role of nation­al par­lia­ments with­in the mech­a­nisms of the new instru­ment.

UK: better in the EU

The gen­er­al polit­i­cal view on the UK’s exit from the EU is neg­a­tive, although David Cameron’s rea­son­ing was care­ful­ly sup­port­ed by the Lat­vian Min­is­ter of For­eign Affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs. Opin­ion mak­ers and the pub­lic, how­ev­er, see Cameron’s approach as appease­ment of the large­ly Euroscep­tic UK soci­ety and a response to the rise in pop­u­lar­i­ty of the Unit­ed King­dom Inde­pen­dence Par­ty (UKIP). Cameron’s rhetoric is believed to trans­late into a deter­mi­na­tion to change the rules of the game for the UK in terms of more com­pet­i­tive­ness and con­trol, as well as a polit­i­cal pow­er play with­in the coun­try. Addi­tion­al­ly, the review of the bal­ance of com­pe­tences, under­tak­en by the British author­i­ties, is also seen as a time-win­ning approach for the EU which allows for a more prag­mat­ic and less emo­tion­al dis­cus­sion on the future of the Union.

Here we also have to point out that the “earth­quake” caused by the results of the EU par­lia­men­tary elec­tion, with Euroscep­tic par­ties such as UKIP and Front Nation­al gain­ing addi­tion­al seats, are per­ceived as a response to cri­sis and a vote of protest against cur­rent eco­nom­ic poli­cies, rather than as a per­ma­nent trend in EU pol­i­tics. Accord­ing to the For­eign Min­is­ter of Latvia, it is in Latvia’s fun­da­men­tal inter­ests to see the Unit­ed King­dom as an act­ing mem­ber coun­try of the EU.

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This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2014. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2014. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the EU-28 Watch web­site: www.eu-28watch.org.

The EU-28 Watch No. 10 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained there­in.