Michel Foucher on Riga and the Latvian desert

  • 2004-11-11
  • by Aaron Eglitis
Mr. Michel Foucher has been the French Ambassador to Latvia since October 2002. His academic background in geography and geopolitics, as well as his writings and research, have looked at the borders of Europe and the new-member states. Latvia was his first diplomatic posting, a new-member state where many of his ideas and theories could be examined first hand. Ambassador Foucher sat down with Aaron Eglitis on Nov. 4 to discuss the borders of Europe, the EU referendum in Latvia, and some of the challenges that new member states face with economic development.

You are a professor of geopolitics, also a geographer. You taught at the College of Europe, and in France. Since you are not a career diplomat, how did you happen to become the ambassador to Latvia?

From 1998 to 2002 I was a senior adviser to the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine. I also headed the policy planning staff of the ministry. Before that I started to work as an analyst, consultant and writer on international and European affairs, not only for several ministries, but also at the EC. I began as an academic. I was also more involved, perhaps, in the British or American tradition where you don' t have this clear-cut border between the academic field and more practical issues. After that I was offered several positions. I came to Latvia because, in my view, in the context of EU and NATO enlargement, it was the right place and the right time. And it is a border area. I don't feel intellectual discontinuity. I was having my previous work and books, ready to come to the kind of place where we are observing - and helping - a political and geopoliticaltransition. I was privileged at the offer to come here, and I was ready to face the challenges of a new job.

Some of your academic work looks at borders, maps and cartography. Where do you feel the borders of Europe lie - the idea of Europe and the EU?

If we are referring to the EU, the answer is not in so-called geography, the answer is a political one. We are deciding right now whether we will accept Turkey, and if it is confirmed in 10 year's time by the major countries, public opinion, ect., we will draw the border of the EU, defining political Europe along Turkish external borders. It's a political decision, not a matter of geography. Europe is basically a set of common values and experiences, made up of layers of culture, inventions, innovations, and also what I would call representation perception. There is a very good example of that at the Ural border - the mountain range. In the past the Moscow region was either in Asia or in-between, and when Peter the Great decided to open up Russia to the Baltics and the Gulf of Finland, geographers decided to define the Ural mountains as the eastern part of Europe. This was a way to change the region' s representation from a poorly defined Eurasia to a part of Europe.

What about linguistic affiliations? When Romania joins the EU, Moldova will be on the EU border, yet many of its inhabitants speak a language that is similar or identical to what they speak in Romania.

What is important is the set of criteria, namely the Copenhagen Criteria, the common values, rule of law and democracy, already mentioned but also, as it is clearly written in the constitution, an active commitment by applicant countries to promte them. Linguistic criteria is not a political criteria; but in the specific situation in Moldova, the commonality of language with Romania could be helpful to spread European information. What is crucial is the wish and the capacity of Moldovan society. The door is not closed.

The phrase Riga and the Latvian desert is a term you have used before. It originated in France in the late 1940s when Paris faced a similar problem as Riga today. It is obvious that much of the country's development is happening in Riga. How could Latvia learn from France's history in dealing with this problem?

Yes, this is an expression I have used several times. When you observe that 62 percent of Latvian GDP is produced in Riga, or when you can anticipate that perhaps two-thirds of European funds will go to the Riga region, one has to think about long-term implications in terms of demography, migration, social justice, regional development outside of Riga and, of course, security of the EU's external borders.

During the EU accession referendum it was rather interesting to observe that the most reluctant areas were not only places where you have a majority of minorities, but where you have a combination of social problems, a high number of jobless people and perhaps, from time to time, minority issues. It is a combination. The "no vote" map in the referendum should become an objective for regional planning.

Therefore one may assume, that, for Latvia, European integration, regional integration and social integration are the three sides of the same triangle. There is a unique opportunity for Latvia to use EU money to promote social and regional integration at the same time. This is a prespective I have just presented at the opening of the third Congress of Latvian Geography, which was dedicated to "Latvian geography in the European dimension."

The market economy has to be balanced by more long-term development. Valmiera is a good example with its university, which acts like a motor for development. I am an ambassador, but I have been all over Latvia because I think regional development is crucial in this country. You have a permanent problem with the market economy in Europe, which is a kind of a contradiction between a concentration of activities where the market is, and a need to distribute profit to places where people are. We Europeans need to be both competitive and efficient, but at the same time spread progress everywhere.

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