Ilze Juhansone: “The EU, a choice of values for Latvia”

, by Lucas Buthion

Ilze Juhansone: “The EU, a choice of values for Latvia”

Ilze Juhansone is Permanent Representative of Latvia to the European Union. She enlightens for us various burning and topical issues at the European level and depicts her country, ten years after joining the EU.

What is your government reaction to the evolution of the situation in Ukraine? [the interview was recorded on 28 February] Would you point a lack of reaction from EU institutions?

First of all the situation in Ukraine is evolving on an hourly basis, it therefore requires a lot of attention from EU Member States and EU institutions. I would not agree with the idea of a lack of reaction from EU institutions, since this topic has been tackled on a very daily basis in their agenda in the last few days. European Heads of State are definitely aware of the seriousness of the situation, and it will be discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council taking place in March.

From a Latvian perspective, we strongly believe that from EU side we have to send a strong signal that the association agreement is there, whenever the Ukrainian government will be happy to sign it. We have to think also of short and medium term financial assistance to the country. Bilaterally we are already providing medical assistance; several people from Ukraine are receiving medical care in Latvia. We are also sending different medical equipments in order to assist people who do need such kind of care.

Then we also have to think how to bring assistance to help undertaking structural reforms and get back to stability. The most important thing coming along with this stability is the territorial integrity of the country. What we have seen in the last hours and the signals from Crimea not so encouraging but we truly believe that the international community will find ways to deal with the situation.

We also have to see the situation in a longer term perspective, meaning how to bring assistance to ordinary Ukrainian people, not to the political elite, with some liberalization actions, visa action plan…The political message has to be that Europe has recognized Ukrainians’ European choice. To me, it is an admirable thing that people are ready to stand for several months during the winter time under -5,-10°c fighting for their choice. It is a huge trust to the EU and European values and we have to think on the European side of how we can encourage this one to continue.

Valdis Dombrovskis is officially running for being the EPP candidate to the presidency of the European Commission. What would be his added value at such a position given his past political experience as Prime Minister of Latvia?

The government official position is that we believe Valdis Dombrovskis definitely will be Latvia candidate for the position of Commissioner and, of course, the government strongly supports his aim to become EPP candidate to for the position of Commission President.

His previous experience is very valuable, dealing with difficult financial situation and then bringing the country back to growth, as Latvia is having now one of the highest growth of GDP within the European Union. All that is not just a coincidence: it is a matter of how hard political choices were done and also the result of structural reforms. His biggest experience is that he is very aware of importance of structural reforms and their substance. He knows about social problems, educational system reforms needs, the issue of youth unemployment…His credo is that we need to bring back growth and competitiveness in Europe, not only in the EU as such but also in each and every Member State that all together, create a stronger European Union on the global arena.

His previous experience is a good starting point for Europe in the few years to come. The challenges Latvia did face during Dombrovskis’ terms are still present elsewhere in Europe. Of course there is no one-size- fits-all solution but policy tendency and policy trend are there.

This candidacy is giving the EU more visibility in Latvia. It is broadly mentioned in the media, people know European elections are coming. As a small nation we are proud our former Prime Minister applies for such kind of position. It is a huge step.

Many polls showed that Latvians were very little enthusiastic about joining the Eurozone…Is this feeling evolving?

The general public support to Latvia adopting Euro was indeed very low until the very end of 2013, with a support up to 30%. Since January 1st, it has been raising all the time: polls show around 60% of support now. It is very much due to a typical Latvian approach, on several issues, that “if you don’t know something you are quite cautious”. In the same first polls I mentioned, people against represented also about 30%, the rest did not have any concrete opinion.

Previous experiences of currency exchange in the past forty years also make people cautious. It happened three or four times and people remember they lost their money. Even if the government claims that this time people will not lose anything, it is difficult but it is also a question of confidence.

After January 1st, people realized that everything went quite smoothly as announced, and saw that their amount of money was still on their bank account, it gave additional guarantees to Latvian citizens. It raised the awareness about euro and the figures in the polls.

What do you respond to those who consider this membership as a threat for the Eurozone, considering Latvia as a new “Cyprus”?

First of all we believe that Latvia joining the Eurozone is also a signal of stability for the Eurozone. If you remember a few years ago, it was pictured to be on the verge of collapse and people were more willing of leaving than joining it.

Versus those who trie to compare to Cyprus, we outline several differences. The size of the countries may be similar but there are lot more small countries in the Eurozone than only Latvia and Cyprus, that is a first thing. Second thing is about our respective “banking sectors”: you cannot compare their amount, values and volumes. The third aspect, on which we have always paid a lot of attention, consists of requirements to non-residents banking sector and the supervision of this sector. In Latvia they are facing higher quota requirements, rules are more stringent, and it was in place already before we started negotiations to join the Eurozone.

We know a part of our banking sector is more complicated than other ones but we have been doing efforts in order to meet all the preconditions required on the European side to manage this part of our banking system. Practice showed that it worked.

2014 is the tenth anniversary of Latvia joining the EU: what are the main successes of European integration and how has the “pro-European feeling” evolved in this period of time?

2014 is also the tenth anniversary of Latvia being member of NATO. This membership has provided us security and stability, while EU membership is providing more about democracy and its values. The most important thing is that it was a definite choice already a long time ago. The main benefit is that it is a geopolitical choice, a choice a values, which can be all the more understood at the light of the events in Ukraine.

The possibility for young people to study all around Europe thanks to Erasmus, all the benefits of the internal market, now the single currency, all this has reduced barriers for our business community.

Of course there are side effects as well: some people are leaving the country to find a job outside and, similarly to other countries, we are also facing a “brain drain”. However nobody questions the added value of the European Union because as I said, it is a discussion about values and geopolitical choice.

Interestingly enough, when you look at the opinion polls, we are in those countries where support to the EU has remained stable, but not really in a positive way: 20-25% of the population is in favour, the proportion against is the same while 50% does not have an exact opinion; if you put the question as “should Latvia leave the EU?”, then the result is completely different and about 80% of the population is willing to stay, so it depends very much on how you ask the question and the alternatives proposed.

Where does Latvian society stand regarding the relations between the Russian/ Russian-speaking community and Latvian citizens?

First thing to bear in mind, Latvia is not only composed of Latvians and Russians. There are Latvians citizens, Russian citizens, Ukrainian citizens, Georgian citizens and so on. It is a consequence of Latvia being part of USSR, when these people or their family were sent at work in big factories in Latvia.

Second thing important to take into account is how political parties are playing on this issue. The division of political parties between “left” and “right” is very much based on language issues whereas, when you are looking at their political programmes, for instance in economics, they are not very different. In the same time, when speaking on a daily basis to ordinary people, you have mixed communities, where you are never asked what your nationality is. Generally speaking, people are not making a big issue of that.

What we call in Latvia “non-citizens” are actually part and parcel of the latvian society: they have the same rights except that they cannot participate in elections. They have a Latvian passport and can benefit from the latvian protection whenever they go abroad. The naturalization process of these non-citizens is getting slower and slower since there are not so many incentives for older generations which still have strong connections to Russia, while babies can be registered as Latvians when they were born.

This situation is quite unique…

In the Estonian case, you find that only in one part of the country really close to the Russian border. Lithuania was less concerned by transfers of populations in soviet times.

In our case, historically Latvia has always been a multiethnic country, with different minorities. In the national parliament, during the first and second world war, there were at least three or four nationalist or minority parties: Latvian-german party, Latvian-jewish party, Latvian-Russian party, so we have been experiencing this phenomenon of living together already for a long while. Right now we are still having schools with several languages according to national minorities: Russian schools, Ukrainian schools, polish schools, which are all State-funded schools.

What do you expect from Riga being European capital of culture this year? Was it part of a broader strategy to show that Latvia is part and parcel of the “European stage”, just before the Latvian presidency of the EU Council in the first semester 2015?

Of course when we did apply for Riga to become European capital of culture we were looking to intertwine these two events. Getting this “label” is always a competition, so there was nothing sure and we are very glad to have achieved our aim.

Concretely, we expect work to be developed so to promote Latvian culture abroad; we are obviously working to attract tourists in Riga but not only, since there are also cultural events in other cities of the country. We are already noticing a huge interest in the different events organized so far, you have to spread the word!

In the last few years, Latvia did experience difficult time and it was mostly mentioned negatively. The trend has changed thanks to the hard work of the government and diplomats and it is now an occasion to give a positive impression. I suppose we will manage to keep this positive trend, notably with our former Prime Minister applying for top job at the European level, our sportsmen winning over in Sotchi, almost beating Canada in Ice hockey, our famous operas being brought and played in Brussels... We have all the reasons to be proud of great personalities, great Latvians who are giving their best to succeed.

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