Only Rip van Winkle wouldn't know that there are less than two months to EU en-largement.
Yet for years the new member states have struggled to meet the three Copenhagen criteria agreed upon at the European Council meeting in the Danish capital in June 1993 - a development that culminated nearly a decade later in the landmark December 2002 meeting of the European Council, also in Copenhagen, where 10 countries were invited to join the economic bloc by May 1, 2004.
The EU Commission's regular reports on progress made by the Baltic countries have generally been encouraging - they are devoid of any major obstacles that would need to be overcome in the run-up to accession. There is, however, one exception: administrative capacity. Indeed, worries of a lack of qualified civil servants to implement the vast amounts of EU legislation (the infamous acquis communautaire and its circa 80,000 pages of legislation) have repeatedly been expressed.
But "lack of administrative capacity" is a rather fuzzy concept. How many people does this "lack" signify? Which ministries are impacted most? Such questions are not easy to answer, which may explain why this issue never seems to have been given proper attention - certainly not on a local basis.
With the help of some recent statistics, however, it is possible to obtain some quantitative insight into the scope of the problem; in fact, statistics provide a fairly dismal reading for the two "usual suspects" in the Baltics when compared to the other Eastern candidate states.
Preselection tests for a host of EU civil service jobs were held in late 2003, and the results were recently published on the European Personnel Selection Office homepage. The main categories of jobs were European public administration, law, economics and audit. For each country a target number of laureates is set - a number partly reflecting the country's size. At preselection tests in existing EU countries, the number of persons passing these tests usually - and significantly - exceeds the target. But not so with the enlargement countries.
Whereas none of the new member states, barring Malta (!), could meet the target for auditors, all the Eastern countries exceeded the targets for the three other fields, pointing at a sufficient number of qualified future civil servants. An exception is economics, where two countries failed to meet the target, and anyone with some experience in the Baltics will not find it hard to point them out: Latvia and Lithuania. Of 68 participants in the economics preselection test only seven passed in Latvia (thus falling short of the target of 10). For Lithuania 100 participated, but only 19 passed (target was 20), while for Estonia the corresponding numbers were 87 - 12 - 10.
Is this a raw indicator of a lack of administrative capacity? Regardless, it is revealing: the two poorest countries in the enlarged EU25 failed the target. Estonia, which scores better than its Baltic cousins in virtually all economic development statistics, also exceeds in terms of administrative capacity (including education in economics and understanding of the EU economy).
Politicians, especially in Latvia and Lithuania, should take notice of these numbers and finally admit that standards set by the European Union are not being met on the level of local education. More improvement is needed.
Test data provides another interesting piece of evidence - namely, the total number of persons present at the four different tests: 330 for Estonia, 278 for Latvia and 474 for Lithuania. Thus, when compared to population size, Estonia is far above its Baltic neighbors in terms of interest in EU jobs - and perhaps in the EU project itself. This observation, to be sure, may be extrapolated to include the other new member states. Are Latvians and Lithuanians simply less interested in the EU? It is a hard conclusion to draw, but the test results certainly do not refute it.
My hope is that this will serve as a wake up call: Education in economics, and in EU economics in particular, needs to be strengthened. Perhaps Latvia and Lithuania should seriously ask themselves how great an interest in the EU there actually is.
is a EuroFaculty economics lecturer
at the University of Latvia
and the Stockholm School
of Economics in Riga.