The year 2011 will enter history as a year of surprises and profound changes
that seemed to upend the order of things as we had known it for decades.
South of the Mediterranean, the “Arab spring” burst forth upon an
unsuspecting world, with its sudden affirmation of the power of the people
and its vision of a new hope and a better future for them. North of the same
sea, within the European Union, “the European Fall” set in under the
darkening skies of a tottering Euro, a deepening debt crisis, rising
unemployment rates and stunted prospects for economic growth. When
populations take to the streets, they do so fueled by anger and despair.
Yet in the Arab world, they did so in the firm conviction that it was in their
power to change things for the better. Within the EU, the main object of the
sporadic protests seemed to be to cling at all costs to things as they had
been before. The screams that were heard were in protest at a world that was
changing for the worse and threatening to rob people of long-enjoyed
Within the Arab world, one country after another that had been stagnating for
decades under corrupt, authoritarian, but firmly entrenched rulers, first
erupted in popular protests and then toppled these seemingly immoveable
objects with the sheer force of their will and their courage. The long
winter of their discontent suddenly erupted into a spring of well-organized
demonstrations and clearly stated demands.
The winds of change had fanned their deeply smoldering grievances into
bonfires of open protest and the gathering crowds, finding security in
numbers, developed a common voice for their newfound assertiveness. They
became aware of the strength of their collective will and the power of their
solidarity. They were ready to abandon fear and apathy to stand up for their
rights, and the mighty trembled and fell before them.
2011 was a year when many lost their lives and many more risked them in
asking for social justice, human rights and liberty in countries of the Arab
world that everybody – including themselves – had thought immune to such
The “Arab spring” sprang up with such suddenness and unexpected force, that it
caught everybody by surprise: the European leaders, who for too long did not
know how to respond to it, the local leaders who refused to believe to the
end that such a thing could be happening to them, and of course all those
self-proclaimed pundits and seers who had made previsions at the beginning
of 2011, but none of whom had had the slightest inkling of what was going to
happen. More surprised than anybody, I think, were the people themselves who
made it all happen and who are now watching with anxiety how things will
Yet Europeans should have been the last to be surprised. Had they not seen
the changes brought by the collapse of a once-mighty Empire in 1991, when
mass movements of protest resurrected the freedom of nations long held
captive in the “prison of Nations” (Lenin’s own words!) that had been the
Soviet Union and its Satellites.
Many thought then that “we had come to the end of history”. From now on,
Europe at least would live happily ever after, each generation enjoying a
better life that its predecessors. Now, a mere 20 years later, by the Fall
of 2011, the people in many EU countries were taking to the streets again.
This time it was not in protest of tyranny, but of the crushing burden of
debt on their countries, the distress of unemployment and the fear of
things only getting worse in the future.
As the new year 2012 is starting, Denmark is taking over the EU presidency in
a winter of deep, bitter and record-breaking cold, made more foreboding by
the seeming paralysis of EU institutions and leaders. When watching the
horrifyingly symbolic images of a luxury cruise-ship run aground and sinking
off the coast of Italy, Europeans might be forgiven for thinking of their
countries as a fleet of ships floundering in ever more stormy and dangerous
The passengers feel bereft of leadership, the captains and crew as disoriented
as everybody else. What had seemed safe sailing but a short while ago, is
fast turning into the nightmare voyage of a Ship of the Confused. Waves of
bad news keep washing over the cyberspace and waves of anxiety grip
populations in one country after another. It is a hard blow for Europeans
who had long been confident that they at least were safe, immune from the
kinds of ills that beset the rest of the world.
That is not how we had visualized the future of the EU on the day when the
flags of ten new member countries were hoisted at the residence of the
President of Ireland, while a choir sang Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in the
background. That was not how we had imagined it when the gold-starred blue
flag was raised next to our own national colours in the very heart of Riga.
It was a sunny spring day, May 1, 2004, and the gathered crowds had not felt
such joy and such hope since the mass gathering in 1989, when 100 000
protesters reclaimed the right to their own national symbol with a sea of
forbidden red-white-red flags fluttering in the wind.
We thought then that the worst was behind us. The worst had been bad enough
and it had lasted far longer than it should have. Nevertheless, our time had
come at last, we had regained our land, our flag, our statehood. It had come
at a price, there were still many hardships that would have to be endured,
but we were convinced that the future would be better.
The next four years after our country’s accession in 2004 were spent in hard
work, rapid progress and growing self-confidence. Our GDP kept growing, our
salaries rising, construction was booming and optimism ruled the day. True,
the economy was overheating, but no political party would dare to be the one
to take steps that would be unpopular with the population. After 50 years of
living in collective apartments, people naturally wanted to acquire their
own apartment or make a down payment on their own home.
Every day on television commercials, Scandinavian banks were enticing people
to take out easy credit for new homes, new furniture, new clothes and even
vacations to warmer climates. The banks were making very handsome profits on
their loans and the borrowers were happy to start enjoying a “normal
European” quality of life.
Then came the financial crisis in the USA, while at first the pundits in
Europe kept saying that this was a purely American problem that had nothing
to do with Europe. As time went on, and it became clear that it had a great
deal to do with Europe, Europeans still clung to the idea that it was just
the fault of mistakes made in this country, or that, or the other. There was
a lot of finger pointing at others and self-congratulatory patting oneself
one the back. But as the number of countries affected kept growing, the very
fabric of European unity started fraying at the edges. The motto of the
Three Musketeers – One for all and all for one – became less and less
While absorbed in the technicalities of resolving the banking crisis, managing
the global economic crisis that followed, and responding to the startling
discovery that many European countries were sinking into a debt spiral that
had become a death spiral for their economy, Europeans discovered how thin
had been the veneer of solidarity, common purpose and cooperation that had
been plastered over the underlying patchwork of conflicting interests,
selfish deals and narrow nationalism. The very concept of a united Europe
was sorely tested and ultimately – found wanting.
The year 2011 went by in Europe in mounting horror at the size of the Greek
debt and the increasingly dangerous tottering of the Euro. It went by with
few signs of economic recovery, many signs of economic slow-down, drops in
the credit ratings of major EU countries and severe doubts about the
survival of what had been so long considered as “the European project”.
Apart from the obvious causes of world financial and economic crises, the main
thing that seemed at the root of EU ills was the sudden retrenchment of
every country into its own narrowly defined national interests and a turning
away from the basic goals of concerted action and deep solidarity.
Reproaches have been hurled by one country at another, each accusing the
other of lack of solidarity, but seldom questioning their own ability to
show solidarity toward others.
There has been continued and pompous debate about the need for a two-speed
Europe, except that it was not clear which part of Europe – if any – was
moving fast in any direction but trouble. That France and Germany had long
been taking the important decisions was known to all and not worth arguing
about. The Summits of EU leaders were becoming the place where important
decisions were announced, not the place where they were taken.
When it came to analyzing the causes of European decline, it was astonishing
to see how many newspaper articles in Western Europe still revived the old
chestnut about the wave of enlargements since 2004 being the root cause of
all Europe’s ills. How happy the old member nations had been until that
tragic disappearance of the good old Iron Curtain! How comfortable they had
been in their old ways, how chummy in taking their back-room decisions!
Where the 19th Century Viennese had suffered from hysteria, poor Old Europe
was now suffering from Enlargement Fatigue.
I fear Monnet and Schuman would turn over in their graves if they saw what
their dream of a united Europe of justice and solidarity had come to. Even
I, who have been an ardent supporter of the European dream for so long, am
beginning to feel that my ardour is cooling. And I am truly saddened that so
many of the principles and values that I had thought to be European to the
core, instead of guiding us through the trials and tribulations of a
changing world order, are breaking down under the stress of economic
I truly believed that Europe was a beacon of justice and democracy in the
world. I worked very hard to ensure that my country did all that was needed
to become a member. But I am forced to wonder whether all the beautiful
principles that the EU claims to stand for are nothing but superficial
veneer, ready to crack and peel off when truly put to the test.
If the EU is to maintain its role as a world power, I think it must start by
practicing what it preaches and being consistent in the principles it
applies. If not, its rules, laws and regulations, when selectively, unevenly
and unfairly applied, will remain a monument to institutional arrogance,
political cronyism and moral hypocrisy.
As discussions have started about the EU budget for 2014-2020, I hate to sound
churlish, but I simply cannot comprehend the kind of financial prospects
that are being offered to Latvia, nor the extraordinary lack of logic on
which these prospects are built. From what I can see, the principle seems to
be: The first shall remain the first and the last shall remain the last.
Since Latvia has the misfortune of being the worst in the EU on a number of
quantitative indicators, then the main concern of the Commission will be to
ensure that it remains firmly in that place for the next seven years and
After all – how could it move to any other place in the rankings without
displacing somebody who is already there and who would surely not be happy
about it? The idea that more and more countries should be concentrating
around the mean and that the deviations from the mean should become smaller
and smaller does not seem to be the order of the day. “To those that have
shall be given and from those that have not will be taken away even the
little that they have”.
I realize that some Europeans would rather discuss their sex life in public
than disclose their opinions about the Common Agricultural policy. But, at
this time of the Danish presidency of the EU, I cannot keep silent after
reading what the Danish Minister for Agriculture told about it to
representatives from Latvia. Their demands for change, she warned, were
totally unrealistic. They should nourish no hopes for leveling out the
grotesque inequalities in the size of EU agricultural subsidies to different
If for the past seven years Latvia had received shockingly small subsidies in
comparison to all other member countries, then how dare they want to change
this for the next seven years and beyond? They must remember to humbly keep
their place and be grateful to be given 20 or 30 Euros more.
We hear much about the need for closer integration in Europe and what a
mistake it had been to establish a common currency without a common fiscal
policy. We hear of further delegation of national sovereignty in the
financial sphere, but very little of what has become of the original dream
of the truly common market.
When are we going to have a common market not just for goods, but also for
services? When are we going to have a level playing field for agricultural
products, not a market distorted by obscenely different levels of support in
different member countries? What can be the logic (never mind the moral
justification) for farmers of older member countries getting 500, 600 or
even 700 Euros in subsides per acre, while Latvia gets only 90 Euros? What
can be the logic of such decisions for a country of poor glacial soils and a
harsh Northern climate, devastated by half a century of enforced Soviet
collectivization? Do not the Latvian farmers pay the same prices for fuel,
seed, fertilizer, and farm machinery as anybody else? They (unlike others)
are not asking for unfair privileges. They only ask for fair treatment.
When pundits ponder the reasons why popular support for the EU has been
sinking year by year, they forget that the reasons for it are as plain as
the nose on your face. People respond to what they see. They react to what
they experience. They do not read the Lisbon Treaty. They look at what is
happening in their lives.
Take a small thing, like the price of sugar. The smaller your income, the more
keenly you will feel the impact of changes in it. Just after we recovered
our independence, Latvia had three sugar factories and a whole Southern
region where thousands of farmers were doing well by growing sugar beets.
Then came the proposal to dismantle it all, with the promise of cheap sugar
from the third world (which, by the way, the EU was generously subsidizing).
The new owners who had privatized our factories pocketed the EU compensation,
the farmers went bankrupt or started growing something else, and Latvians
now buy their sugar imported from Denmark. Meanwhile the price of sugar has
been rising steadily, to the point of tripling within the past year alone.
Within the distorted internal markets of the EU, Latvian farmers in
increasing numbers find it impossible to survive. They leave the country in
droves to provide cheap labour for older member countries, while vast tracts
of Latvian land either lie fallow or are bought up cheaply by enterprising
Danes, who build huge pig farms on them (and some of whom still benefit from
the so-called “historical support” back home).
The whole of 2012, we are told, will be devoted to debates about the 2014-2020
budget. A good start in waking up European citizens to what is in store for
them would be to start publishing, in plain language, the full logic,
reasoning and justifications on which the various formulae for distribution
of EU funds have been developed. Let us hear all the justifications, in
their full glory, for practices concerning the CAC as well as all other EU
funds. And then let the larger masses of EU citizens (not just the narrow
teams of negotiators) see and judge for themselves just how it is done and
That would be a fine acid test for the cohesion of Europe, for its
understanding of logical arguments and its ingrained sense of justice. What
is the EU after all – a place for back-room exchanges of favours, sweetheart
deals and shady lobbying, or the dignified meeting place of sovereign
nations committed to the same principles of openness, fairness and justice?
We shall wait and see.