All Quiet on the Eastern Front?
As part of the Government Gazette’s extended feature on the 2015 Latvian Presidency of the Council of the EU, Artis Pabriks MEP analyses the impact of tensions between Russia and the EU in the wake of the escalating conflict in Ukraine.
Amongst other things, the Presidency of the Council of the European Union is a maturity test for Latvia. It is the first time since the accession of Latvia to the EU in 2004 that the country has held the Presidency. To Latvian authorities and its wider public, the EU Presidency is seen as an opportunity to integrate national and regional interests into the EU agenda as well as to end the informal perception of Latvia as a ‘new Member State’.
Obviously, the capacity of any presiding country to influence the EU political agenda is limited due to a number of factors. The EU agenda is dependent on current geopolitical challenges, national agendas, internal discourse among the Member States, the position of the Council and the European Commission including the Office of the EU High Representative. Yet the Presidency is nonetheless an unrivalled opportunity to steer the EU’s political and legislative direction.
Every Member State sets its priorities long before starting the actual Presidency but the country holding the presidency has to be prepared to adapt to unforeseen challenges. When Latvia took over the rotating EU Presidency on 1st January 2015, it was faced with a number of pressing foreign and security issues. Most important is the ongoing tension between the EU, USA and Russia initiated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea which has escalated as a result of Russian military and political support for the irredentist movement in Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s policy in Europe challenges a number of internationally agreed principles and laws in an unprecedented way. Even if some European political figures at the beginning of the Latvian Presidency hinted that sanctions against Russia may be softened in due course, the indiscriminate bombing of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol and hostilities in the rest of Eastern Ukraine makes it unlikely or at least unwise from the EU perspective.
Secondly, the increasing power of ISIS in Iraq and Syria as well as the rise of other terrorist organisations such as Boko Haram are necessitating immediate changes to the European security agenda and require better cooperation not only between the EU Member States, but also between the EU and relevant international players. The recent attack on “Charlie Hebdo” has also reaffirmed the need to develop and modernise European anti-terrorist policy.
“Russia’s policy in Europe challenges a number of internationally agreed principles and laws in an unprecedented way.”
The Latvian Presidency has a chance to take the lead on these two issues in a pragmatic fashion as the next few months will serve as a building block for the EU’s position. As far as Western policies vis-à-vis Russia are concerned, Latvia as a neighbouring country has additional expertise. From the outset, preparations for the Eastern Partnership have been a priority for the Latvian Presidency and later in May Latvia will host the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga.
Anti-terrorism activities and EU policy towards Russia are matters which will define the Presidency of Latvia and give Latvia a chance to play a leading role in their resolution. However, it would be naive to hope that both matters will be resolved within the six month Presidency term. Both will dominate EU and world politics for many years and will require a long term approach.
Apart from these geopolitical challenges, the Presidency of Latvia will additionally be influenced by the EU’s internal discourse. Notably, the rise of Euroscepticism on both right and left of the political spectrum constitutes a threat to European economic growth, political stability and geopolitical influence.
Its expressions are evident in the recent election results in Greece in which the left wing populist party Syriza swept to victory while far right extremist movement Golden Dawn came third. Furthermore there is a fear that Greece may become a ‘Trojan horse’ in the EU-Russia tensions, with photos circulating online linking the new Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs with Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, who was blacklisted by the EU for sponsoring Russian extremists in Eastern Ukraine. The rise of the far right as well as the populist left is a challenge to the fundamentals of the European Union and the values it represents. If not countered properly by mainstream political forces it may become a disruptive force across the continent and may undermine the very existence of the EU.
Yet the European Union is not an isolated actor in world politics. Traditionally, Latvian foreign and security policy has focused not only on the Eastern Partnership but also on the transatlantic partnership with the United States and Canada. The Presidency of Latvia will no doubt support and initiate activities which will strengthen this partnership. Equally, the Latvian Presidency will assist and support efforts to strengthen trade links with North America in the form of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which are both at different stages in their negotiations. These transatlantic trade agreements possess immense economic importance and represent a chance for the EU to set an example for free trade agreements across the world.
How far the Presidency of Latvia will advance these issues remains to be seen. However, it is fair to expect more assertive policies than might initially be assumed from this small EU Member State. Latvia has the knowledge and opportunity to pass this EU test and break the stigma of being a new Member State once and for all.
Dr Artis Pabriks MEP is a former Latvian Minister for Defence and Minister for Foreign Affairs. He is part of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) grouping in the European Parliament. He co-authored Latvia: Challenge of Change, (Routledge, 2001).