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Latvia: Euroskepticism On The Rise

  • Valentinas Mite

As European Union candidate countries move toward the first wave of entry, expected in 2004, not all of their citizens are happy about the change. One example is the Baltic nation of Latvia, where the number of people in favor of the country's EU bid is dropping and where a referendum on the issue may be held next year. Recent polls show just 36 percent of Latvians support entering the union. Politicians and sociologists say the reason for the waning enthusiasm may be disappointment over anticipated EU agricultural subsidies and also distrust of their own country's political elite.

Prague, 7 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Andrew Rasbash, the head of the European Commission delegation to Latvia, last week called on Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins to convince Latvia's residents to vote in favor of EU accession during the referendum.

Polls conducted in February by the Latvias Fakti market and opinion research company show that only 36 percent of Latvian residents would support EU membership if the referendum took place today. Some 43 percent said they would vote against EU membership, and the remainder were undecided.

In past polls, the number of Latvians supporting and opposing EU entry fell roughly into a 40-40 split, with 20 percent undecided. So while the recent poll does not represent a sharp drop in support, it is considered by some EU proponents to be a worrying trend.

Latvias Fakti director Aigars Freimanis tells RFE/RL that the poll results do not fall along demographic lines, and that Latvians and non-Latvians, citizens and noncitizens show no major differences on the EU issue. However, the poll does indicate it is Latvia's large Russian-speaking minority who are increasingly Euroskeptic.

Several years ago, Freimanis says, Russian speakers were among the country's most vocal supporters of the EU, believing the change would bring them better employment opportunities abroad and force the Latvian government to soften its policy on resident minorities. Now, however, that optimism appears to have faded and replaced with a growing sense of doubt.

Freimanis says Latvian politicians blame the EU's agricultural policy for the drop in support. The EU announced earlier this year that candidate countries would initially receive just a quarter of the agricultural subsidies received by current members, gradually working up to full payment over the course of 11 years. The plan was roundly criticized by the candidate countries, who called it discriminatory and patronizing.

Edvards Kusners is the director of the Latvian European Integration Bureau. He tells RFE/RL that the decision received an especially cool reception in Latvia. "We have a very strong sentiment among Latvian citizens toward the farming sector and people looked at this [subsidy] offer as unfair."

Kusners said many Latvians feel the country is being treated as a second-class member state. Although only 15 percent of Latvia's population will be directly affected by the subsidies, nearly every Latvian family has members living in rural areas and feels a strong romantic association with the countryside. "It isn't an economic but a psychological problem," Kusner says. "I see no other reason [to explain] why Euroskepticism has increased."

But despite the public disappointment over the subsidy plan, Freimanis says it is simplistic to hold agricultural policy wholly responsible for the rise of Euroskepticism in Latvia. He says a wider explanation lies in the fact that nearly all Latvian politicians use the EU as a convenient scapegoat for Latvia's economic and political difficulties.

"The European Union has become a kind of explanation for [Latvian] politicians to use when they want to justify unpopular decisions which are approved by the government or by the parliament."

Freimanis says this tactic has been used frequently to justify higher gasoline prices and other unwelcome initiatives, which politicians describe not as vital to Latvia's interests, but simply as a step to help harmonize Latvian laws and price scales with EU standards. And at the same time they lament the costs of EU membership, says Freimanis, politicians do very little to publicize the personal benefits of entering the union. Very few Latvians have a sense of how joining the EU will affect their individual lives.

"The politicians say that everything will be better for everyone [in the EU], but this statement doesn't get results because people don't trust the politicians themselves and don't trust what they are saying."

Freimanis says Latvia's political elite, including most political parties and the parliament, is widely unpopular, with President Vaira-Vike Freiberga the only notable exception.

Kusners of the Latvian European Integration Bureau says EU membership will be a key issue when Latvia holds presidential and parliamentary elections this October. He says his organization has developed a special information campaign to increase voter awareness of EU issues, but that the government has yet to approve the campaign.

Latvia is not the only candidate country to suffer from lack of information about the EU. A recent poll of candidate-country businessmen by the Association of European Chambers indicated that only 9 percent of respondents feel they are well-informed about the EU. But some 35 percent say they know nothing about the EU and are not very interested in the issue.