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A recap of the recent Debating Europe lecture by Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga (President of the Republic of Latvia 1999-2007)

Posted on 22 June 2012

EU foreign relations and democracy under threat, says Latvia's former president

Vaira Vika Freiberga

Latvia’s former president told an audience at the EUI that the Eurozone crisis is “a serious threat to the survival of European democracy,” as citizens are increasingly drawn to solutions offered by extremist political parties.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga, now a board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), was speaking as part of the three-day ‘Political Participation in a Globalised World’ seminar, run by the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS).

She said that the economic crisis has thwarted efforts for greater cohesion is areas such as foreign policy, energy and defence, as states struggle to deal with the turmoil that has befallen them. “In countries severely touched by economic difficulties, history shows that the tendency for populist cheap solutions, or worse still – extremist positions – being offered to a desperate or worried popular are increasingly popular,” she explained.

States are protecting their self-interest rather than promoting a pan-European approach to foreign relations, Vike-Freiberga said, such as Germany signing bilateral deals with China and Bulgaria and Hungary taking the same approach with Russia. At the G20 meeting in Mexico earlier this week, a meeting was cancelled between EU leaders and President Obama, a sign according to Vike-Freiberga that the Union is losing its political clout.

As a member of the ECFR, she has been involved in the ‘European Foreign Policy Scorecard’ project which assesses the EU and member states individually on their performance on the international stage. The project reflects on gradual changes in the political sphere such as the rise of the BRICS nations, while also considering more rapid shifts such as the Arab Awakening. Eighty areas are examined, with countries achieving ‘leader’ status or ‘slackers’, such as those which sought to block recognition of Kosovo as an independent state.

“Europe is not about to become a political giant,” Vike-Freiberga said, owing to historical failings in the run-up introduction of the euro in 1999. “The influence that Europe had in the world was diminished by the fact that this collaboration that they had been building up had been truly focused on economic cooperation, according to recipes that had worked quite well for the Europe of six, pretty well for the Europe of 12, and even managed to keep up with a Europe of 15,” she said.

Expansion to 25 states in 2004 – which Vike-Freiberga described as the end of World War II for countries in Eastern Europe – was preoccupied by discourse of power balance, rather than confronting the economic risks of the common currency. Vike-Freiberga criticised the EU for “jumping into a common currency without having a common fiscal policy, and assuming everybody would follow the rules implicitly without fault”. 

Although the ECFR’s Scorecard does highlight some successes in foreign relations, such as Poland and Sweden emerging as leaders, Vike-Freiberga saw little hope of Europe improving its global standing in the short-term.

She scolded European leaders for their lack of foresight, with little room for optimism: “A general that engages in battle without having a sure means of retreat is a bad general. European generals have always charged ahead without ever thinking of a way of retreating, of refusing on principle to have a plan b. This weakness has come back to haunt us now.”

(text by Rosie Scammell) 

 

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