The leaked information that the new head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, intends to further strengthen and centralize the EU, that working groups and discussion groups are being formed for the purpose – this news aroused concern in Riga in many, and overt irritation and discontent in the right-wing nationals.

Moreover, in January the Latvian Parliament held foreign policy debates. And the debates also demonstrated the ambiguous, suspicious attitude of the ruling elite to the prospect of strengthening the role and functions of Brussels, and to everything that will follow from this. What is the matter here and why the political philosophy and strategy Latvia willingly joined 15 years ago, does not evoke previous enthusiasm?

The matter, of course, is not Brexit, which is not an example for us, and leaving the EU is not being seriously contemplated in Latvia (although the European wits have already come up with the name for the eventual process -Lat-Me-Out). Let us leave Brexit alone. History has repeatedly shown that a breakup only leads to the strengthening of the social and political base of an entity, and that the new union is strong if the remaining participants have common goals and interests. Therefore, the negative (as well as the positive!) consequences from the departure of the British should not be exaggerated – we just need to learn how to live with it and look towards the future.

What then prevents Latvia from being at the forefront of Euro-optimism and from applauding the initiatives of Ursula von der Leyen louder than others? The reasons are many, however, there are three main ones, namely: firstly, in Latvia, as it turns out, America is loved very much. It is loved in every way: from all heart and soul, for a friendly pat, and for protection from the “unpredictable neighbour”, and even for open paternalism – but above all because the United States do not immerse too much into those of our affairs that for the time being do not concern them; they perceive our country as it is, with all our national neuroses and tantrums. And what does America have to do with this? That is simple: the European Union was created once as a competitor to the USA (in the positive sense of the word), and in Latvia this is being remembered…

The second reason is that in a certain sense, Latvia is a little afraid of Europe, its scale, strength, experience, its diverse culture, its omnipotent and persistent bureaucracy. Solidarity is being feared – both the one that Europe displays when it is needed, “as a whole,” and the one that it requires from its “parts”. And in the “bouquet” of European values, we prefer to separate those flowers that we like from those, the fragrance of which is unpleasant to us …

Finally, thirdly: in Latvia we are very dissatisfied, when we are not allowed or are being prevented from deciding things and issues in our country, especially those related to power and money. These three reasons have already led the country to a junction, where two directions, two paths clearly diverge – towards “European Latvia” and towards “Latvian Latvia”, but we are embarrassed to say it out loud. The uncertain future of the EU so far allows us to gradually move towards the right path, pretending that we are firmly positioned on the left one…

The weak point, the Latvian “Achilles’s heel”, is not even represented by the unresolved national problems, but the situation in the national economy and the growth of the welfare of the residents. In recent years, the development of Latvia has been funded by the EU money – from 20% to 30% of its budget was covered from European funds, while there is already an understanding that the point of maximum support has been passed, and that one of the Brexit results will be its accelerated reduction.

No one in Brussels has so far told us by how much European funding will decrease, but they make it clear that the losses will be huge. At present, there are practically no internal sources of growth in Latvia. Moreover, the development of the economy and the growth of prosperity have never been clearly identified in our country as strategic priorities. Even if something was declared in this respect, nothing was done. In the best case, hope was expressed for the “invisible hand of the market,” which, given a favourable business climate and good laws, would put everything into place. However, it is unlikely that this hand will place anything anywhere, if it is regularly beaten with a hammer, the way it is being done in Latvia.

Two leading industries, transport and banks, are now in a state of unhealthy shock. Transit through ports and railways is sharply reducing; annual losses as a percentage are expressed in double digits. The banking sector was knocked out during the “overhaul” of the financial sector, carried out in Latvia at the request of “international partners”.

Experts note the low activity and pessimism of the businesses; bankers talk about a chronic shortage of quality projects submitted for funding. As a result, in the last quarter of 2019, the Latvian economy showed a recession for the first time in 10 years, while forecasts of its growth for the current year 2020 are provided within the limits of a statistical error.

And there are also such problems as negative demography, irresponsible policies regarding national minorities, a society split according to the linguistic principle, a crisis in education, in medicine. As a result, we have widespread pessimism, which could not be stopped even by the lush celebrations of the 100th anniversary of statehood. Well, and of course, corruption cannot be avoided anywhere … This is the local branded Spezialität.

The truth of the current period is that Latvia has practically exhausted the internal sources of development: economic, political, spiritual. The main goals declared in the nineties of the twentieth century are as if achieved – new ones are not proclaimed however. And, despite the reports of its authorities, the country is plunged into apathy and stagnation, thereby creating danger not only for itself, but for the entire European Union, because here something like “an internal grey zone” is forming.

Scenarios for overcoming this situation are few. The most realistic and logically understandable one is stepped-up and profound European integration in the course of EU federalization. For Latvia this means further rapprochement with developed countries, the implementation of their best practices, the involvement of their personnel, the unification of anti-corruption standards, transparency and accountability to the EU authorities on a wide range of issues. This will ensure positive stability, and, therefore, the interest of serious private investment capital.

After the transition to European standards for the size of cucumbers and the number of washstands in schools, Latvia also needs to uncompromisingly adopt standards and rules for social and economic life. We have not done this yet, and we would not do this by ourselves, we would not be capable of doing this on our own; unfortunately, we need to be forced to do so. Strengthening the European center and EU federalization, accompanied by the transfer of some important powers from Riga to Brussels, is the easiest, shortest and most evolutionary (in the sense of the most bloodless) path to this.

The logical question is: why can we not cope with our problems ourselves? In an acceptable time frame, within one generation? I see at least three reasons for this: lack of historical experience, national egoism and nepotism. The short and so intermittent history of our statehood has not yet made it possible also to fully develop the ability to see the historical perspective, which is why decisions are often made hastily here – just to “plug a hole”.

National egoism also prevents Latvia from accepting European practice, experience and, sorry, values. Of course, we have accepted all this in words, but in life our attitude is according to the principle “we play here – we don’t play there”, not realizing that these values and rules do not work separately, but, as physicists say, they “play in an orchestrated way”.

As for nepotism, the small size of the country, of course, plays a role here. But even more important is the experience gained in the past, when different circumstances and difficult times taught us to help and support each other, on the one hand, and, on the other, to solve everything amicably, “in our circle” and, as the Russians say: not to bring the quarrel out of the cottage.

There are things that we can do well: maintain our home, take care of our family and next of kin, keep order in the courtyard and on the street, do well in our commune, follow instructions and recommendations. But there is something that we are doing poorly so far. We do not know how to soberly look ahead and predict the future, throwing aside personal interests and selfishness, we do not know how to carefully listen to someone else’s point of view, we do not know how to trust and forgive. And this so far has been a barrier for us. As a historical optimist, I am sure that over time we will cope with this and eliminate all shortcomings. In the meantime, we need help.

The main task for the coming period is to restart the internal development engine in Latvia, returning hope to its people (internal task) and trust in the country in the surrounding world (external task). We can do this by entering the European family even more closely and firmly. Therefore, I welcome the upcoming new stage of strengthening and centralization of the European Union – it will be advantageous of Latvia.



Jānis Urbanovičs