Latvia: Saying ‘I Do’ to Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The last of nine countries to hold a referendum on joining the European Union voted decisively pro-Europe. Ethnic Russians who didn’t get to vote are appealing the results.

The final vote in Latvia’s EU referendum was 67
percent in favor and 32 percent opposed. Turnout was nearly 73
percent–more than double the 35 percent needed to make the
referendum binding and higher than in the past parliamentary
elections in October 2002. Only Malta had a bigger turnout for its
referendum.

The chairman of the Central Voting Commission
(CVC), Arnis Cimdars, confirmed the voting results in a press
conference on the morning of 21 September. Latvian Prime Minister
Einars Repse called the vote one of the three most important events
in the country’s history, along with Latvia’s winning its
independence between the two world wars, and regaining it after the
fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. “The third (came) today with the
decision to join the European Union,” Repse said.

In voting ‘yes’ Latvia takes its
place along eight other countries that held EU referendums in
2003–the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta,
Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Cyprus also is set to join the EU
but will not hold a referendum. The EU now is set to expand from 15
to 25 members.

On the night of the referendum, Latvian
Television carried a live broadcast of Prime Minister Repse’s
speech to the Latvian people. “I am thankful to all those
voters who took [an] active part in the referendum and helped us
realize the aim for which we have [had a long time,] through many
years: to return to Europe,” he said. “We voted for
security, stability, development, and the future for our children,
and for the welfare of the country in general. For the first time
in the history of our country, Latvia will become a full-fledged
and equal decision-maker in the united Europe, together with
Germany, France, United Kingdom, and other member
states.”

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga also
thanked Latvian voters for their decision, declaring it the first
time “our people have had [a] free opportunity to take active
part in determining in which direction we want to see the
development of our state and people.” Foreign Affairs
Minister Sandra Kalniete commented that “Latvia has
irrevocably strengthened its democracy.”

Supporters and congratulations from all over
Europe poured in, with EU Enlargement Commissioner saying what many
Latvians were eager to hear: “Welcome home,
Latvia!”

SHUT OUT

Latvia’s sizeable Russian minority–at 644,000,
it is almost one-third of the total population–were largely
excluded from the vote. Only citizens of Latvia were eligible to
weigh in on the question of joining Europe. (Latvia has opened the
door for ethnic Russians who arrived during the Soviet-era to apply
for citizenship but few have actually applied.)

Before the referendum, concerns ran high among
ethnic Russians that EU membership would widen the gulf between
Latvia and Russia. With the votes counted, Latvian Socialist Party
leader Alfreds Rubiks announced that he will appeal the result to
the Constitutional Court, on the basis that he and about half a
million non-citizens were discriminated against in the electoral
process.

A PUSH FOR ‘YES’

Prime Minister Einars Repse’s Management Group
started campaigning for a win on 5 May and didn’t stop trying to
convince people that Europe was the future until the day before the
vote, 19 September. Formed by Repse to disseminate information and
promote public discussion on EU membership, the group’s task force
was led by music academy professor Ramona Umblija.

In the last weeks before the referendum, the
group launched an advertising campaign on television, radio, and in
the print media. With the slogan, “Don’t stay
aside!” it targeted three main audiences: farmers, workers
and pensioners. The Latvian government allocat ed approximately 1.5
million euro ($1.7 million) for the campaign, which ended with an
evening musical performance in Riga’s Dome Square.

When asked by TOL to assess the effectiveness of
the campaign, Umblija said she had found that the more information
a person received, the more likely they were to vote ‘yes.’ Did the
campaign have weak points? The ad campaign could have been more
visible, she said, but its success was never in doubt.

ON THE WORLD STAGE

On the day of the referendum, a large crowd of
foreign press turned up to cover the voting. Inevitably, some
politicians could not resist the chance to speak out.

With only 25 percent of voting stations closed,
Latvian First Party chairman Eriks Jekabsons declared to reporters
that “Latvia [was] on the breach of dictatorship and that the
only possibility to save the country is to change … Prime
Minister Einars Repse.” That comment angered several
listening politicians and a three-hour debate followed on just who
had stabbed whom in the back. In the aftermath, Foreign Affairs
Minister Sandra Kalniete commented to the press that the fact that
a “national celebration can be spoilt in such a way shows
that some [people] just do not have a sense of
proportion.”

After the various factions finished celebrating
and bickering, reality set in fairly quickly. President Vaira
Vike-Freiberga reminded Latvians and her colleagues in government
that “the framework of [the] EU is not a rose garden or milk
and honey. It is a household of grown-up and mature democratic
nations, where practical work needs to be done, where each nation
defends its interests, and where each has to work to be
competitive.” She added, “We now have to go back to all
the concrete daily tasks and continue to carry out the engagements
that we have taken in the agreement signed in Athens
[2003].”

During its accession talks, Latvia agreed to
abide by 35 transition periods in areas such as agriculture and
fisheries, transport policy, tax policy, social policy and
employment, environment, and energy. For example, the current EU
member states asked for, and received, a transition period of up to
seven years before free movement of labor is allowed, with a caveat
that the issue be revisited after a few years.

Widespread fears among Latvians–during
negotiations–that foreigners would rush in and buy up all the land
were quelled by a mandated transition period of seven years, when
only Latvians will be able to become owners of Latvian land.
Enterprises that aren’t registered in Latvia will not be able to
buy land, and if an EU citizen wants to buy Latvian land, he will
have to live in the country for three consecutive years first.

As for the economic consequences of joining the
EU, Eriks Plato, Deputy Director of Nordea Bank Latvia branch, told
TOL that the European Central Bank has already declared 1 January
2005 as the date when the Latvian lat will be attached to the euro.
For technical reasons, he said, it is not possible to switch to the
euro before 1 May 2007. (None of the new member states will vote on
whether to join the euro; their approval of EU membership means
they accept the EU’s currency.)

The next political battle will be the selection
of the final roster of representatives to the European Parliament.
Several places will have to be filled: one commissioner, rotating
judges for the European courts, seven people for the Economic and
Social Committee, and seven for the Committee of Regions.

A RANGE OF REACTIONS

A sampling of ordinary people in Latvia reveals
a range of opinions on the results that track along ethnic,
religious, and economic lines.

Maris Noviks, of the European Movement in
Latvia, said he was “very pleased with the results” since he
had played a role in encour aging a ‘yes’ vote.

Juris Birznieks, head of the board of directors
of the School of Business Administration Turiba, said by voting
‘yes,’ Latvians have given up a chance “to keep
the reins of control in their hands.”

The poet Mara Zalite–whose call for a
‘yes’ vote was signed by 248 well-known members of
society–reminded people that future successes “will depend
on the state administrative capacity and on people; how much they
will understand that they themselves have to move, work, and think
actively and creatively.”

A member of an international youth organization
named Jura–a Russian speaking non-citizen–said he would have
voted ‘no’ if he could “because Latvia is not up
to Europe’s standards, and that will cause
instability.”

Guntis Gutmanis, of A People’s Party, said
EU membership will give him“[a] greater possibility of
receiving a bigger pension and a better life.”

But Pauls Stelps said he fears that membership
in the EU will force amorality on Latvia. “If Christian faith
says that we shall see the tree by its fruit,” he said, “then
looking at the changes in EU countries, we see great
putridity.”


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