Putting Europe first and homeland second

  • 2004-04-22
Latvia's commissioner-designate to the EU, Sandra Kalniete, has had a long career at the forefront of national politics, beginning with her active participation in the independence movement and later in the Foreign Ministry. But now she is getting ready to spend the next five years in the service of a united Europe. Last week she had her initial confirmation hearing in Brussels before the European Parliament, where she had to speak first among all 10 proposed commissioners. She met with Aaron Eglitis the following day in the Belgian capital to share her impressions.

You spoke yesterday [April 13] as Latvia's first commissioner to Europe. What does that mean for the state, for the people of Latvia and for you?

The political meaning of yesterday's hearing was pretty clear. This was another step that Latvia is taking to accomplish full integration in the European Union. For me personally, it was very important because I represent not only me but I also represent Latvia. Those that were listening to me will make their judgement on Latvia by how I perform. For me it was a very important dimension not to let my country down.

After your initial statement you spoke in English for the rest of the time. Why did you choose to do that?

We discussed it a lot beforehand. Of course, for me it would be a lot easier to speak in Latvian. But I was not 100 percent sure [about doing this] because it wasn't easy to speak Latvian in the intergovernmental conference negotiations. And that's why, after discussions with my colleagues and also people from [EU Commissioner for Fisheries and Agriculture Franz] Fischler's [group] we decided that I would deliver my introductory statement in Latvian, and then I would speak English. Initially I had intended to speak both English and French, but after watching another commissioner it appeared the translators were not able to switch fast enough from one language to another. We decided that I would stick to English.
But can you imagine if I were to speak in Latvian, and then from Latvian it would be translated into English, and then into all the other languages-what a confusion could occur!

Will you continue to use English predominately? It was interesting that [Latvia's EP observer] Paulis Klavins spoke in English to you. A similar thing occurred with the Lithuanian commissioner designate, Dalia Grybauskaite.
We all have the same fears-I believe Klavins does too. First of all, in the commission there are three languages-English, French and German. In the European Parliament there is a rule to answer in a national language. And in Parliament I will certainly speak in Latvian, because then it's not so important, and if I feel that the translation is not good then I can clarify in English.

How difficult was it yesterday?

It was very difficult. Because no one had any idea what kind of questioning it would be. We received mixed signals until [April 9]. I was preparing for questions on general politics, and suddenly on [April 9] I heard that the hearing would be specific, which means that in two days time I needed to understand as much as I could. It was an enormous amount of work, and in a few days' time you cannot do that. The questions which were put were very detailed-like on sugar, the WTO, trade negotiations, the fisheries regime in the Mediterranean. Fortunately I had knowledge of [these aspects].

Will it be difficult to represent Europe and not Latvia? Yesterday, for instance, a question was asked about Latvia's Russian minority.

I don't think that this is a difficulty. In the beginning the main difficulty will be the unclear status of the 10 new commissioners. We are "shadows"; we have no clear political responsibility. The hearing was an example of that because we had to answer on the portfolios.
The difficulty for me will probably be in Latvia, because it will take longer [for Latvians] to understand that I don't represent Latvia. In all my interviews I have already underlined whom I represent. As a commissioner on particular questions I'm not supposed to even answer as a Latvian. Yesterday, [however], I was asked as a Latvian.

Were you disappointed that you were placed in agriculture and fisheries and not in foreign policy?

Disappointed is too strong of a word. It was so unexpected because I have never had any connection with this field, and it was a complete surprise. I also saw the positive side, the experience of Mr. Fischler, and that this was the most important portfolio. And that was the first reaction in the media in Latvia. I think that this is a challenge to learn profoundly about an area that I would have never normally had an opportunity to do so.

Is there a danger that people in East European countries could turn more Euroskeptic given the inequality within CAP?
When [Latvia] regained independence people also became disappointed-because the reality did not correspond to their expectations. Probably the same phenomenon will repeat itself after accession to the EU. If we look back to the last enlargement, which included Sweden, Austria and Finland, it is exactly what happened. In Sweden people even talked about leaving the EU, but after a few years people's attitudes changed.
It will be the same with us. Some of the questions yesterday touched very sensitive aspects. Europeans have to be aware of psychological nuances. No one wants to have the impression that they are treated as second-class citizens. This is what happened with CAP. In reality it's a good deal because I doubt if we would be able to digest more money.

Another aspect of possible Euroskepticism is the limitation on the free movement of labor coming from Eastern Europe.

That's also a part of the deal that we have. This is mostly a problem of communication because all the studies made do not indicate a danger of a massive organized inflow of workers from Eastern Europe. If there were proper communication explaining how this would work and showing how it worked in Spain and Portugal, [people would see that] the situation is exactly the same. Nothing like this happened.

The environment has always been important to Latvians, even fueling the independence movement. But not all is good. For instance, we have recently seen a steep decline in salmon stocks in Latvia. Is this an area where your department will make an impact?
Salmon is not the only fish stock in danger. Cod is also declining. The problem of declining stocks is not a new one. Scientists have repeatedly warned of this problem. There was not enough political will to adopt the necessary measures, and finally, when it was almost too late, there was reform in the necessary policy to promote a regime that is environmentally more friendly [and that will] protect fisheries' stocks.
The Baltic Sea probably needs to have a special status. But the fact is that there are provisions now in the Common Fisheries Policy to preserve the stocks and also to resort to other forms of production, like aqua culture production-of which salmon is a good example.
There is also a socioeconomic aspect. What should we do with the inhabitants of the coastal areas affected by these policies? That's why yesterday I proposed that we needed to make a study of the best practices of EU countries, to provide training to open up new opportunities for those affected by these policies.

Yesterday it seemed like the hearing moderator and others took pains to tell the MEPs that you do not have background in fisheries or agriculture and that they should not ask you difficult questions. Next time, however, it will be a different story.
Yes, but it will be an absolutely different situation. I don't see any difficulty learning about agriculture or fisheries. But receiving the mixed signals that I received after my nomination-that made it difficult. As soon as I learn which portfolio I have, I will have it for five years, and I will need to know it very well.
Even when I became foreign minister, I had already been in diplomacy since 1990, and I still had to learn an astonishing amount of work.

You have an MA in art history. Will you evaluate former Prime Minister Einars Repse's artwork?
I am very curious, because art tells me a lot about character, even if I have known Mr. Repse for years-since the independence movement. I would like to know if he has that special characteristic that makes a person an artist, or if he is a kind of repetitive image-maker.

Sandra Kalniete
1952, born in Siberia after
her family was deported
1988-1990, leader in the national
front and the independence
1993-1997, Ambassador
to the U.N. in Geneva
1996 MA in art history
1997-2002 Ambassador to France
2002-2004 Foreign Minister
Languages: Latvian, Russian, English, French