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Curious developments in Riga

Posted by Helen Sunday, August 22, 2004

It would be a good idea for political commentators to remember Gresham’s Law: bad money drives out good. The idea that somehow new members of the European Union will use their own possibly more admirable political and economic systems and experience to improve those of the EU is a clear example of hope winning over experience. Was that not one of the arguments for Britain’s membership of a patently undemocratic system? This country with its long democratic tradition would transform the then EEC, we were told. Alas, thirty years on, the opposite is seen to be true. It is the British system that has been largely undermined Britain’s constitutional democracy largely destroyed.

Given all that, it seems odd that there are such high expectations from the new East European members of the EU. These countries have, after all, had but a short experience of democracy and liberal capitalism. Are these going to be strong enough to fight the entrenched system of the European Union?

There are signs already that the development, as some of us have always predicted, may go the other way. Take Latvia, for instance. A plucky little country that has fought doggedly, if intermittently both the Nazi and the Communist system. One of the heroines of the anti-Soviet fight was Sandra Kalniete, who then went on to have a reasonable political career in independent Latvia and as a diplomat in the West. She was nominated to be acting Commissioner, presumably on the grounds that she already knew her way around in the corridors of power of Western Europe.

Then the government that nominated her collapsed and a new one came to power under Indulis Emsis. This is, incidentally, the 11th Latvian government since 1991, so we may be looking at the Italy of Eastern Europe. Mr Emsis decided that Ms Kalniete was not the right person to represent Latvia on the Commission and sent, instead, one of his own allies, Ingrida Udre, the former parliamentary speaker.

Ms Udre has been dismissed as a former basketball player but, in fact, since her emergence as a public figure in 1998, has participated in a number of committees, as well as a very large number of inter-parliamentary groups. Clearly, she likes travelling, so being a Commissioner in Brussels will appeal to her.

There has been a ruckus in Latvia about this last-minute substitution, as a number of newspapers and commentators have not taken well to this kind of patronage. In Brussels, needless to say, not a word was said. The whole place is about patronage and the dumping of second-rate politicians is the rule, not the exception.

Ms Udre will be in charge of Taxation and Customs Union, a thorny issue as more and more of the taxation system is eyed covetously by the Commission and the Council of Ministers. As we have written in a previous blog, harmonization may have been postponed but the lowering of taxes is seen as an illegal state aid.

Meanwhile, the Latvian authorities have arrested one of her bodyguards and charged him with bribing a customs official. At least Ms Udre’s entourage is finding out about the Customs Union at first hand.