The last of the 10 candidate countries has approved membership in the EU. With 67 percent endorsing entry into the European bloc next year, Latvia joins its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania on the road to Brussels.
The new face in Europe: Latvia's capital Riga.
After Estonia went to the polls last Sunday and gave a resounding "jah" to membership in the European Union, the 10 candidate country countdown was almost complete. Only Latvia still needed to approve entry in a nation-wide referendum. On Friday the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement, Günter Verheugen, was absolutely convinced the third Baltic country would follow suit and vote in favor of joining the soon-to-be 25-member bloc next May.
With a 72 percent voter turnout, the country of 1.3 million voters, held true to all predictions. After the votes were tallied late Saturday evening, the future was clear: 67 percent were in favor of becoming a member in the EU, 32 percent were against entry.
For Prime Minister Einars Repse, who had been a staunch advocate of EU entry, the positive results ranked in importance right alongside gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Speaking to reporters, the prime minister brushed aside fears that the small country would be overlooked amidst the economic and political heavyweights in the bloc. "Latvia will have more influence sitting at the table with its main EU trading partners than as an outsider," he said.
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga casts her ballot in the EU referendum in Riga, Latvia, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2003.
Popular president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who has actively campaigned for her Baltic country to join the EU and NATO and forge closer ties with the West, congratulated the people of Latvia on "a smart decision" before cutting into a large cake for guests at post-election celebrations. "I am very happy about the results," she told reporters. "I’m grateful to the people and I’m confident that there will be no regrets."
Verheugen, who was in charge of negotiating entry terms with the 10 EU hopefuls, hailed the overwhelming support for the EU: "We welcome a country that naturally belongs to us, and we trust that Latvia along with the other future member states, will enrich and strengthen the European Union."
In a statement issued after the election, EU Commission President Romano Prodi said Latvia’s vote for the EU concluded a process in which "citizens from nine candidate countries [Cyprus ratified the accession treaty in parliament] had spoken and voiced a strong ‘yes’ for European integration." Such a clear signal "should encourage all of us to work even harder in uniting the continent," he admonished.
Despite the optimistic words from Brussels, the actual outcome on the Latvian referendum was up in the air for a while. In the run-up to the election, Latvia had been considered one of the most euroskeptic of the 10 candidates and was the last in line to put EU entry up for a referendum.
Sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania and bordering the antagonistic ex-ruler Russia and Belarus to the east and southeast, Latvia is considered the most geographically disadvantaged of the future EU members. Making the situation worse, many in the country were weary of joining another union 13 years after gaining independence, fearing a distant EU leadership in Brussels would be just as unconcerned with Latvian interests as the government in Moscow once was. The country’s large Russian-speaking minority, who make up around one third of the population, were also adamantly opposed to joining the EU, seeing membership in the bloc as a further step away from Russia.
Strong support for membership only poured forth at the last hour after President Vike-Freiberga took to the streets and airwaves in an aggressive campaign to promote the advantages of entering the EU. Of course Estonia’s vote in favor of Brussels last Sunday might also have helped push many fence-sitters over to the yes camp.
As to feared tensions with Russia, Vike-Freiberga told reporters she hoped Latvian membership would improve the relations. "I think we have the prospect of better relations with Russia once this uncertainty on the eastern shores of the Baltic ends," she said.
If all goes according to plans and there are no more hiccups in Brussels’ enlargement negotiations, the Baltic states will join fellow Eastern Europeans, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, and Malta and Cyprus on May 1, 2004 in entering the European Union.