Latvia's new Commissioner designate receives energy portfolio

  • 2004-11-10
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Latvian politicians sighed a breath of relief on Nov. 4 when European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso officially announced that the Baltic state's new Commissioner designate Andris Piebalgs would receive the energy portfolio - a sector long desired by Latvia.

The importance of the energy portfolio was hailed by local politicians, who hoped for this portfolio even when former Commissioner designate Ingrida Udre was initially chosen. In fact, the benefits were considered so obvious that some politicians did not even feel the need to explain them.

"I believe there are very few people in Latvia who do not understand why energy is such an important sphere for the state," Prime Minister Indulis Emsis said.

State officials have long wanted to renew Russian oil shipments through a pipeline that runs to the western port city of Venstpils. The transit line has been dry since Jan. 2003, but Russian oil still travels to the port by rail.

Theoretically, commissioners are appointed to represent Europe as a whole, not just their home country.

In an interview with the Latvian daily Diena on Nov. 8 in Brussels, Piebalgs said he had never thought about becoming a commissioner, and, even though he's a member of Latvia's Way - which would put him with the liberals in European politics - he plans to remain independent.

Piebalgs quickly laid out four job priorities, should he be confirmed as commissioner; citing energy safety, efficiency, alternative sources, and environmental protection.

"If the Latvian government thinks I am up for the job, then I will try not to let them down," Piebalgs told the Baltic News Service.

The commissioner designate will still have to face a hearing Nov. 15 although he will most likely be given leeway since he is replacing Udre, who resigned after Barroso asked for a replacement. The EC president sent a letter asking for Udre's removal on Oct. 29, yet Prime Minister Indulis Emsis and President Vaira Vike-Freiberga choose not to make the contents public, initially denying there would be a change.

The 47-year-old former Minister for finance and education Andris Piebalgs, has spent nearly a decade working as a diplomat for Latvia and the European Union.

Amidst the card shuffling, Latvia and Hungary swapped portfolios, exchanging tax and customs for energy due to the poor performance of Hungarian nominee Laszlo Kovacs and the dismissal of Ingrida Udre. Kovacs was initially believed to be another commissioner designate that would face removal, but survived only to change his position.

Working with the energy sector means negotiating with Latvia's giant neighbor Russia, which exports copious amounts of oil and provides alternative energy sources to the EU each year.

One question sure to be raised at Piebalgs' hearing is the Banka Baltija crisis that occurred during his tenure as finance minister in 1995. The bank, which had been growing dramatically, suddenly crumbled, wiping out thousands of people's savings in Latvia and setting off a crisis in banking. Piebalgs said in a recent radio interview that the questions were expected, and that he was not concerned by the possibility.

Piebalgs has replaced Ingrida Udre, whose hearing was so rife with intrigue over her party's alleged corruption, that committee members asked Barroso to personally investigate the party's financial irregularities.

Udre, for her part, has blamed the fiasco on "big European politics," citing a conspiracy, and even claiming that there was "possible political scheming" involved. Despite this, she said the event was "a great experience."

Udre has since returned to her position as speaker of Parliament, although that too may change after a new government is formed.

Meanwhile, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has said that talks for a new government will begin after the nation's Independence day celebration on Nov. 18.