Referendum on the European Union in Latvia, september 20th 2003


Corinne Deloy,  

Fondation Robert Schuman,  

Helen Levy


20 September 2003

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Deloy Corinne

Corinne Deloy

Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Robert Schuman Fondation

Fondation Robert Schuman

Levy Helen

Helen Levy

In a referendum on September 20th, the Latvians will need to reply to the following question : "Do you support Latvia joining the European Union ?". On May 8th, the Saeima (monocameral parliament) has voted several amendments to the Constitution in order to allow this electoral consultation, the Constitution of 1922, readopted in 1991, did not authorise referendums on international matters. The referendum on membership of Latvia to the European Union will only be valid if at least half of the electors that voted at the last national elections, which is the general election on October 5th 2002, where 497 543 people went to the polls. Latvia's membership to the European Union thus will have to be approved by at least 250 000 electors to be effective.

One month away from the vote, according to a recent opinion poll by the Latvian institute fakti, 52,3% of the Latvians intend to accept their country's membership to the European Union on September 20th and 31,7% declare to be against it. Further 69% of the population declare to be sure of voting on the referendum.

The candidature of Latvia

In recent years, Latvia has known exceptional growth : 6,8% in 2000, 7,6% in 2001 and 5% in 2002. Privatisations have followed with accelerated pace and foreign investment is significant. Inflation has established itself around 2,5% but unemployment, which has experienced a drawback, remains high : 12% in 2002. The country also shows a significant backwardness in salary levels, which remains one of the weakest among candidate countries and represents merely 33% of European Union average. Finally, the European Commission has asked Latvia, whose current public deficit is considerable, to survey its budget policy.

Concerning the agriculture, Latvians have obtained a rise in productivity rate and, as many other candidate countries, the possibility to protect their grounds by preventing them, during seven years following after the country's entrance into the European Union, that is until may 1st 2011, from being bought by foreigners or European citizens unable to prove agricultural activity in the country during the last three years. Further has Latvia modernised its administrative structures, by creating a veterinary as well as an alimentary service and is thus ready to introduce the common agricultural policies.

The country is also ready to integrate the common legislation into its internal law. Although public administration has been profoundly reformed, difficulties subsist especially in the areas of the tax system and the management of structural funds. Otherwise the judiciary system still needs to be improved, its independence and its efficiency are not yet satisfactory with regard to the European Union requirements.

Independent between the two World Wars, Latvia has witnessed strong economic growth during this period as well as cultural enlightenment that was important throughout Europe. Occupied by the Soviets, the Nazis and again the Soviets, the Baltic Republic has suffered more than their Lithuanian and Estonian neighbours from the battle fought over its control by the occupying forces. In the same way, of among the three Baltic states, Latvia was the one who's demographic structures had been changed most by the Soviet annexation. At the time of its independence in 1991, the Latvian nationality was granted to all Russian, Byelorussian and Ukrainian settlers able to prove that their ancestors were born in the country before 1940. In 1994, a first law authorised certain of them to ask for Latvian nationality, a process that required good knowledge of the language (only 1,4 million inhabitants of the country speak Latvian) but also of its history, its culture and of the country's constitution. Since 1995, naturalisation procedures have been simplified and, in 1998, the citizenship law was amended to favour people who wanted to obtain the Latvian nationality. 52 000 "non citizens" have obtained the nationality over the last seven years, 11 000 in 2001 only, where a governmental program was installed to help minorities, especially with learning the Latvian language. According to recent official numbers (2002), Latvia counts 58,2% Latvians and 41,8% inhabitants of different origin or nationality (Russian, Byelorussian and Ukrainian). The Russian speaking make up to 34% of the country's population (42,2% of these are nevertheless Latvian citizens). Up until today, around 22% of the population, thus 530 000 people, have not yet obtained Latvian nationality. At the general elections on October 5th, "For human rights in a united Latvia" (FHRUL), that assembles three left wing parties defending the interests of the Russian speaking minority and in favour of the country's entering the European Union, has become the second party to the Saeima by collecting 18,86% of votes winning 24 seats.

Public opinion and European integration

"I believe that when the moment to take a decision comes, the Latvian electors will look at the other candidate countries and will ask themselves whether they shall remain the only ones to stay behind" declared the President Vaira Vike-Freiberga on the occasion of his re-election as head of state by the parliament on June 20th . Latvian authorities have placed a bet that the vote of the eight other states in favour of European Union membership will have a positive effect on the Latvians' final decision, considered along with their neighbour Estonia as the most eurosceptic population among the candidate countries. A wise bet, as, even though some may be worried about the Latvians true desire for Europe, it seems nevertheless more than probable that they will on September 20th decide to join the Fifteen. Since October 2002, the number of people in support of the European integration has never been lower than 50% of the population.

According to an opinion poll realised last June by the SKDS institute, 55,6% of Latvians intend to vote in favour of their country's membership to the European Union on September 20th, 28,5% are against it and 15,9% of the population have not yet made their choice. Among those asked, 85% affirmed to be sure to go to the polls for the referendum and 77% estimated it unlikely that they change their point of view. The number of those supporting European integration has slightly risen (+3,7 points) compared to previous months since a survey realised by the same institute revealed that 51,9% of Latvians approved of their country's membership to the European Union, for 29,5% were opposed to it while 18,8% still were indecisive.

The electoral campaign

The President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has made her country's membership to the European Union a priority and that already since her first mandate (1999-2003). "We need to make sure Latvia can participate to decisions taken outside its boundaries, that Latvia is capable of defending its interests, that Latvia can make itself heard" she declared on June 20th. The reunification of Europe is, not only to the President, a guarantee for a better future but also a chance to get even with its painful past : "A truly reunified Europe may become a sort of a chance to get even with all the injustice and humiliation that tens of millions of Europeans had to suffer from during half a century of communist oppression" she declared on October 2nd. Meanwhile, the President has not stopped reminding that the Latvian vote in the referendum is not taken for granted. "Our government will have to work seriously in order to present the Latvians a clear explanation of the benefits and the costs of the membership" she affirmed September 18th 2002. On May 29th, Vaira Vike-Freiberga also reminded the members of the Saiema it was needed to do educational work for the population : "Politicians have the difficult responsibility of explaining the necessity of European Union membership to the people".

Latvia's entire political class has been mobilised for the referendum on September 20th. The Prime Minister Einars Repse (New Era) has asked the members of Saeima to "engage in the preparation of the referendum and to participate actively to informing the Latvians of the changements that may come to their lives with the entry to the European Union". The six political formations represented in the parliament – New Era (JL), For human rights in united Latvia (FHRUL), the People's party (TP), Farmers' union and the Greens (ZSS), First for Latvia and Union for the nation and liberty (TB/LNNK) – are in favour of the country's European integration. The Farmers' union and the Greens, that had expressed reserves before the general elections on October 5th 2002, finally have engaged themselves in favour of the membership.

"No to the European Union", also known as "Independence outside the European Union", is the principal opposition movement to the integration. According to its leader Janis Sils, there are alternatives to the membership. His movement is composed of the Latvian teacher's syndicate, the farmer syndicate of the Bauska region and the club 415, a organisation of students, teachers and certain businessmen, and gathers, according to his leader, about 3 000 people.

The government has allocated one million lats (1,59 million euros) for the electoral campaign. "This is the first time Latvia spends that much money on communication with the population before a referendum" has affirmed the spokeswoman to the Minister of finance Baiba Melnace. "Your choice, our future" is the official slogan to the Latvian campaign. The government even got the players of the Latvian national ice-hockey team, a national sport in Latvia, to wear shirts showing the symbols chosen by the government for the campaign. "This is an extraordinary opportunity to show everyone that Latvia has a place in Europe that it is already European" affirms Ieva Stare, spokesperson to the referendum information group.

The campaign will take place in summer, a period much more favourable to holidays than to political debate, the government has decided to organise several festive events to inform the population and to increase public awareness of the stakes of European Union membership. During this year, six "European weeks", in which political authorities jointly participated, the non governmental organisation and the European Union delegation for Latvia, have taken place throughout the country. Further debates were organised in schools, several political figures went to different regions of the country and to companies to debate on the European Union with the population. Finally, the composer and pianist Raimonds Pauls has organised several free concerts throughout the country, an occasion for him to mobilise the audience for the integration of Latvia.

Three weeks away from the referendum, the "yes" benefits from a slight advance, but the dices are not yet cast. The President Vaira Vike-Freiberga is well aware, until September 20th, not to miss one opportunity to convince the Latvians and so the campaign is at full battle.

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