Baltics greet green light from EU

  • 2000-12-14
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - Leaders of the Baltic states welcomed agreements made at the European Union's summit in Nice, which bring their hopes of accession to the EU one step closer to realization - despite fears that the summit treaty will make the union more cumbersome than ever. Estonian and Latvian leaders downplayed criticisms that their countries have been allocated too few votes on the EU's Council of Ministers.

Speaking at a news conference in Tallinn, Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves expressed relief at the summit's hard-fought outcome. The prospect of more-successful candidate countries joining the EU in early 2003 is now significantly more realistic, he said.

"We are very happy at the results of the Nice summit," said Ilves, quoted by the Baltic News Service.

"Looking at the different positions of the member countries, we were worried that no achievements would be made, which would have caused a slowdown in enlargement."

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga also called the summit a "considerable step forward." The onus is on Latvia to meet accession criteria, she said. "There is still a lot to do."

Vike-Freiberga also welcomed the decision to allow the EU's executive body, the European Commission to comprise up to 27 commissioners - one of a number of decisions which has raised concerns about the efficiency of the expanded union.

"For us it's crucial to have a commissioner to legitimize the expansion process," said Vike-Freiberga.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis also welcomed the agreement, under which Lithuania looks set to receive seven votes at the Council of Ministers, compared with four each for Latvia and Estonia. "The doors to the EU are open," BNS reported Valionis as saying.

"Lithuania will find opportunities for representation there."

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus contributed to Lithuanian lobbying for votes at the Council of Ministers, sending a telegram to French President Jacques Chirac on the subject.

The head of the European Commission's delegation to Latvia, Gunter Weiss, echoed criticisms of the summit's outcome made by EU leaders such as Commission President Romano Prodi, who said the summit had fallen short of achieving its aim of enabling the EU to function effectively when it is enlarged.

"While some essentials were resolved in Nice, the EU was not sufficiently streamlined at the level of the commission or the Council of Ministers," said Weiss.

"The unprecedented nature of nearly doubling the size of the EU has to be recognized. Everyone agreed that the efficiency of decision-making was at stake when the entry of Spain and Portugal brought the number of members to 12. Now with 15 members from the Mediterranean to the North Pole, all with diverging interests, efficiency is much worse. The EU will continue to live, but it will continue to have difficulties."

Vike-Freiberga described the decision to give Latvia and Estonia only four votes each on the Council of Ministers as a "political compromise, not tightly linked to population size." All countries should be "equal members of the club," she said.

Weiss said he was taken aback by the distribution of votes, which is provisional, he said, and could not be part of the Treaty of Nice.

"The member states can't impose a rule on countries without explanation. The gap between Lithuania's seven votes and Estonia and Latvia's four votes is much too big. Luxembourg has the same number of votes as Latvia, despite its population being a fifth of the size of Latvia's. I don't know to what degree the list of votes is official, but each country has to undergo the process of ratifying its membership first."

Juris Bojars, chairman of Latvia's Social Democratic Workers' Party, blamed Latvia's representatives at the summit for the lack of votes.

"Either Latvian diplomats were inactive or probably the prime minister has an insufficient command of English," said Bojars.

The mood among Lithuanian officials was dampened by criticism of measures taken to restructure the team negotiating accession to the EU. Chief negotiator Vygaudas Usackas had resigned earlier, having not been offered the job of deputy foreign minister.

Former Foreign Affairs Minister Algirdas Saudargas said he was unconvinced by explanations given at a meeting of the foreign affairs committee on Dec. 11.

"It makes no sense to change the chief negotiator," said Saudargas.

"Usackas was efficient, highly competent and had established beneficial contacts in Europe."

Meanwhile Latvia's chief negotiator Andris Kesteris acknowledged that understanding of the implications of EU membership among Latvia's residents is insufficient. His comments followed publication of poll results by the European Integration Bureau which indicate that 53.5 percent of Latvia's residents wouldn't know where to find information about the EU.

"We have to address people's concerns, which are complex in the case of accession," said Kesteris.

"We're concentrating on the hardware of society's integration, on laws and regulations, but we have to organize information flows so that the right information reaches the people who need it. We tell people accession means more security and stability internationally, but everyone wants to know concretely what EU membership will mean for them in their particular role in society."

If EU member states don't agree to extend farming subsidies to new member states under a common agricultural policy, Latvia will have to reconsider its negotiating position, said Kesteris. Bojars' Social Democratic Workers' Party is thought to derive much of its political strength from the impact of government policy on the countryside.

"How the EU's common agricultural policy will develop is very hard to predict," said Kesteris.

"Very strong political interests in the member states are involved. We're only asking to increase agricultural production in Latvia just a bit, as local consumption grows and the Russian market recovers. We want to export to the EU market, but only niche products such as milk."

Kesteris denied that a lack of progress in privatizing state enterprises and utilities would hinder the accession process.

"We have no problems with privatization," he said.

"We're talking about one big state company, Latvia Shipping, which is highly profitable and whose privatization next year won't have a significant social impact. Restructuring in Latvia won't increase unemployment as it will in other candidate countries.

"For the time being there is no intention of privatizing Latvenergo (the state power company). The government's opted for other methods of liberalizing the market and restructuring the company. It would be more disastrous to have an unrestructured private monopoly."

The European Integration Bureau's poll, conducted in November indicated that 58.3 percent of Latvia's residents have a positive attitude toward the EU, while 34.3 percent have a negative attitude. Attitudes to the EU have fluctuated far less in the course of 2000 than in 1999, said the bureau.