Latvia aiming for early EU accession

  • 2000-09-21
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - Latvia is preparing to be among the first new entrants to the European Union, Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins told a meeting of EU and Latvian parliamentarians in Riga on Sept. 18.

Following last year's EU summit in Helsinki applicant countries are no longer placed in one of two groups for earlier and later entry, so Latvia can and will be among the first wave of entrants, said Berzins, even though it was invited later than countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia.

"The negotiation process has so far been a success," Berzins told the fifth meeting of the EU-Latvia Joint Parliamentary Committee. "Latvia aims to complete accession negotiations by the end of 2002 at the latest. In implementing reforms Latvia's size is to its advantage. Reforms can be implemented more easily in a small country. We've also benefited from Estonia's experience of the accession process."

Despite skepticism towards enlargement in existing EU states, there can be no turning back, said Ber-zins.

"Enormous resources have been invested in the enlargement process," he said.

"We've been quicker to get acquainted with West European countries than Western Europe has with us. Hopefully the line erased from the map of Europe in 1989 will not continue as a wall in people's minds."

The tone of the meeting, the first since Latvia was invited to begin accession negotiations, contrasted with the politically-charged atmosphere of previous meetings. Instead, the focus was on the details of social, economic and political integration.

Latvia has to step up work to solve social problems, said Elizabeth Schroedter, who sits on a number of European Parliament committees.

The Latgale region has recently been the focus of EU concern in this respect.

"When Latvia enters the EU, these will be our problems too," Schroedter said.

But as the EU gives more money for development, there must be more stringent monitoring of how it is used, said Schroedter.

"We need to have control measures in place that are currently not in place," she said.

Latvia's justice system also came in for criticism in the meeting's closing declaration.

"Long delays in court hearings and enforcement of decisions are not compatible with acquis (integration requirements) human rights and the rule of law," the declaration read.

Speaking to The Baltic Times, Gunter Weiss, head of the European Commis-sion's delegation to Latvia expressed broad approval of Latvia's progress towards accession.

"Integration with the totality of EU legislation is progressing fine," said Weiss.

But the commission is concerned about the large number of non-citizens in Latvia, he said.

"The rate of naturalization is still very low. We could help persuade people to take citizenship, but before we do that the naturalization system has to be able to cope with increased demand."

But a definite date for EU expansion cannot be set until EU has carried out its own internal reforms, Weiss said. The results of an intergovernmental conference on reforms are to be presented at the end of the French presidency in December.

"We can't even think of expanding before the inter-governmental conference," said Weiss.

But Latvia's proposed time-scale is realistic, he said.

"2005 is a reasonable working accession date, but you never know whether the drive for accession will be sustained. Latvian governments change quickly."

Weiss is convinced EU membership would benefit Latvia overall.

"Latvia would be a huge beneficiary of the EU's budget which is based on the solidarity of EU's people. The opening of borders benefits everyone but the opportunity to move freely in the EU is a big chance for people in countries where there are few opportunities to develop."

Fears that Latvia might be exploited by EU membership are unfounded, says Weiss.

"Foreign companies taking over in Latvia may be seen as a risk, but they also bring investment which benefits Latvians."

In fact Latvia has advantages over existing EU member states, said Weiss.

"Latvia has a good transport system and good access to the east. Latvians are a front-runner in trade with Russia because of their knowledge of the country, which is a huge market."

But in his speech Berzins downplayed Russia's importance to the Latvian economy.

"Latvia is ready for a positive relationship with Russia, but Latvian reliance on the Russian market is a myth. In the first half of 2000 only 3.7 percent of our exports were to Russia."

Juris Bojars, chairman of the Social Democratic Workers' Party is one of those critical of western Europe's influence in Latvia, which may be increased by EU membership, he believes.

"West Europeans coming here don't know the real situation but are paid fantastic wages. It's a form of discrimination. We have two generations of youths educated to western standards."

Scandinavian "local imperialists" are planning to take over Latvian industry "as a whole," he said.

Immigration to EU should also be restricted to avoid an influx of "central Asian immigrants" to Latvia as living standards increase, says Bojars.

"Immigration restrictions are necessary to avoid a possible conflict of habits," he said.

Such arguments are rejected by Guntars Krasts, Fatherland and Freedom MP and chairman of Latvia's Foreign Affairs Committee.

"Public administration and the political climate will be influenced positively by the liberalization and deregulation occurring in the economies of the EU," he said.

The banking sector, a particular area of concern for Bojars, is benefiting from outside influence, said Krasts.

"Competition from Scandinavian and German banks is good for local banks. Local banks have not helped local businesses in the past decade. They've just tried to make fast money speculating on the Russian market. Foreign competition will push down interest rates."

Outside experts are important if Latvia is to develop, says Krasts. "Some top managers from abroad are essential in marketing, finance and auditing, for example, where we have few locals. This doesn't mean they'll stay forever and take our jobs. This is normal in achieving competitiveness. Foreign experts are needed in fighting corruption."

EU accession does not represent a cultural threat, says Krasts.

"The EU is not about creating one country. It's not like the U.S. melting pot where people don't retain their traditions. Latvia's identity will be more threatened by globalization if it stays out of the EU."

Krasts appears less opposed to immigration to the EU than Bojars, despite Fatherland and Freedom's reputation for nationalism.

"It won't be necessary to import computer programmers from developing countries. They'll stay in their countries and be connected by the Net to our companies," he said.

"Top managers are needed to be here physically but they'll be here whether Latvia is in or out of the EU."