An exclusive interview of the Senior editor of Pirmais Biznesa radio (First Business Radio) in Riga, Latvia Mr. Aris Jansons.
How did Latvia survive its recent parliamentary elections and what will be new in its foreign policy?
The easiest is to give an answer to the second part of the question. No particular changes are expected in Latvia's foreign policy as the new government sees itself as a heiress and continuator of the previous cabinet's pro-EU and pro-NATO foreign policy line. The most vivid evidence of this is the re-appointment of Edgars Rinkevics as foreign minister, although his party faction is the smallest in the parliament.
The election in autumn 2018 gave a fragmented Latvian parliament and this peculiarity will be marked by contradictions in specific foreign policy issues. There are parties that support the reception of new refugees, if certain prerequisites provided, and parties that categorically oppose additional numbers of refugees. A similar divide is also about the EU's armed forces and the ratification of Istanbul Convention. In the EU, reducing socio-economic disparities between member states will remain Latvia's logical priority in the near future. Security is also of great importance to Latvia's interests - a common border guard within the extended Forex, the interoperability of the EU's armed foreces, cyberspying, terrorism and the fight against the propaganda of lies to mention the main points.
The new Latvian government was approved after more three months of talks and this is a new record of that kind. The cabinet headed by Krisjanis Karins included ministers representing five political parties. After failures of two previous PM nominees Karins succeeded, to a great extent thanks to the compromise seeker's skills he developed in a decade in the European Parliament. The pro-Russia Harmony party which won most votes in the election has again remained in the opposition, as most other parties had drawn up the so-called "red line" against it. Now the voters should urge the coalition partners to fulfill their election promises.
The elections to the European Parliament will take place soon. Can their results and how to influence EU policy?
The catchphrase here is 'populism'. As concerns Latvia, the upcoming European Parliament elections will show whether Latvian society has overcome the fascination with populism, which manifested itself in an unprecedented intensity in the 2018 parliamentary election.
In recent years, economic inequalities and the immigration issue have greatly increased the gaps between the EU member states and will most likely be reflected in the outcome of the elections. The balance of power will not change radically in general, but the parliament will become more fragmented, according to the latest research by the Kantar Public.
We can see from the media that the so-called populists are convinced of their success in the elections, while the currently ruling parties are concerned that the next composition of the European Parliament would be incapable because it will not be able to agree on anything. The political grouping will not only determine the European Parliament's future agenda and policy, but will also set the course for the "European Cabinet" - the European Commission.
The EU citizens should understand that these are not second-class elections, but these elections will set many things that will be very significant in the coming years.
Latvians should also not believe those who claim that vote in the European Parliament elections "makes no sense, because European Parliament's decisions will not improve life" in Latvia, - it is not true, as up to 80 per cent of laws in Latvia are based on the EU decisions, so the work of the European Parliament members is essential.
How do You feel about the idea of creating a European army?
I have mixed emotions about the idea of an European army. On the one hand, I agree that Europeans can no longer unenquivocally rely on the United States to defend them and can not solely depend on the US in defence issues. On the other hand, the floor must be given to military professionals to expand on the subject, till now those were mostly politicians who spoke on this topic.
In my opinion, the biggest confusion, at least in the minds of the population, can be caused by the idea of a European army operating alongside NATO, whether there would be risky chaos and confusion instead of more swift decision-making and fast response, which would threaten with inability to act. If it could be "a good complement to NATO", as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put it, the European army has its right and reason to exist. Again I am citing Merkel who had clearly said that it was a long-term project, with the first act being to “develop a vision” to “someday” bring about a “real European army.”
Such an army cannot be established in a couple of years. Counter-reaction to intensified military cooperation does exist in the EU even without the idea of creating a single army. As we know, in the EU Council, composed of the representatives of the governments of all member countries, decisions are made on the basis of unanimity in areas of particular importance and each country has a veto right. This principle moves the prospects of the EU army even further away. The European Commission has already explicitly stated that closer defence co-operation “is not about creating an EU army”. Consequently, the prospects that all of the national armies will be merged into a single one at the level of NATO or the European Union in the visible future look utopian, however much I should like it or not.
Are the different positions of EU member states closer today to the Nord Stream 2 project?
The new gas directive has been adopted recently suggesting that EU rules should apply to all gas pipelines. Linas Linkevičius, Lithuanian Foreign Minister, considers the new rules of the EU gas pipeline directive will complicate the implementation of the Russian-planned Nord Stream project.
Further on the Nord Stream 2 will be in the legal field of the EU with all the consequences, so that the principles of competition and non-discrimination are applied, and enterprises connected with Russia's Gazprom could not be gas pipeline operators. The directive should reportedly come into force in the middle of the year, while Nord Stream 2 is scheduled for completion at the end of the year.
In fact, the above mentioned directive has brought the different positions of the EU member states closer, but it still regards the legal status of the pipeline, getting nowhere with the pipeline's operation.
The three Baltic countries, together with Poland, object to the development of the Nord Stream 2, however, it has appeared impossible to completely block it. The EU has no leverage to prohibit the construction and operation of such facilities, however the EU can regulate and make them more transparent. The Baltic states consider that maximum compromise has been reached.
Poland and the Baltic countries say that the offshore natural gas pipeline from the Russian Federation to Germany will increase the EU’s dependence on Russia. The supporters of Nord Stream 2, including Germany, say that the project will make gas cheaper.
What is Your assessment of the prospects for cooperation between the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and China in the "16 + 1" format?
I would call the 16+1 format a constituent part of China’s Charm Offensive in Eastern Europe. This format is an initiative by the People’s Republic of China aimed at intensifying and expanding cooperation with 11 EU member states and 5 Balkan countries. The claims that 16+1 challenges EU cohesion is nothing new and have been raised multiple times since the platform’s establishment; while they should not be underestimated, they do not need to be exaggerated as well.
In my opinion, there is sense to deepen cooperation at the local level within the framework of the 16+1 mechanism. The 16+1 Association of Provincial Governors has adopted more than 50 regions from China and CEEC, and they have deepened their cooperation. More than 160 pairs of sister provinces/states and cities have been established between China and CEEC. Local governments of the 16+1 countries have actively participated in pragmatic cooperation and made positive progress in such fields as park construction, trade, economy, science and technology as well as in education and cultural and people-to-people exchanges, much is still to be done.
Beijing’s promises of investments in infrastructure projects across Eurasia and beyond have undoubtedly managed to capture the world’s attention. However, the CEEC have to try to understand what the initiatives and projects within the 16+1 framework are all about in order to assess whether and how cooperating with China would serve their own national interests. It is very important to find one's own niche to act successfully.
For instance, Beijing has been vigorously promoting the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) within the 16+1, and there is an emerging awareness that the impact of these projects (highways, bridges, acquisition of enterprises by Chinese companies) will be felt far beyond the realm of infrastructure construction.
At the same time, the already existing cases of business deals and political cooperation between China and some individuals or groups within CEEC should be considered with more scrutiny. This is also a question of collaboration with companies, whose reputation in some EU and NATO member states is being questioned in connection with suspected unauthorized data acquisition or threats to public security. Latvia's communications provider Bite Latvija has recently stated it will continue building its 5G infrastructure in partnership with China's Huawei, as Bite Latvija has "no reasons to suspect Huawei of any ill intentions".
The 16+1 format can be widely used for cooperation between the CEEC and China, though this does not imply accepting Chinese investment and engagement without critical assessment. The latest developments show that a more fact-based approach to managing the region’s relations with Beijing is needed.