Mike Collier in Riga -
Lithuania's turn at the EU Presidency waited almost until the final curtain before reaching its melodramatic climax in November 2013, when then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych turned his nose up at a long-negotiated EU free trade and association deal, prompting boos from the expensive seats and a revolution in the stalls.
By contrast, in more of a Samuel Beckett-type setup, Latvia's EU Presidency script was being torn up even as the curtain rose, with the Charlie Hebdo Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris on January 7 casting a huge shadow over the official launch ceremony in Riga on January 8.
It's not for lack of rehearsals. With nearly a tenth of its six-month EU presidency term already past, Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma was still, on January 14, briefing European Parliament President Martin Schulz, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the rest of the invitation-only audience on her presidency's 'Priorities' in a lengthy soliloquy that she now has down pat.
Straujuma has been to Brussels to “introduce the Priorities”, as the official jargon puts it, several times already. Juncker, Schulz and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini have been to Riga (twice each) to be introduced to them. President of the European Council Donald Tusk dropped in to be introduced too. Any head of state, minister, quack or quango passing within a hundred miles of Riga or Brussels has been introduced. But still they must be told.
The fact that the same people are being briefed time and time again suggests either that they aren't listening or that the prospect of actually enacting the priorities is so daunting, the policy is simply to keep briefing until the end of June.
For the record, those priorities are supposed to be: 'Digital Europe', 'Competitive Europe' and 'Engaged Europe' – cosy slogans used to make the nuts and bolts of EU legislation sound more palatable. Essentially, the stated priorities amount to trying to get the €315bn so-called 'Juncker Plan' to revive the European economy actually moving and to re-format the EU's stalled Eastern Partnership programme with Belarus, Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan at the Riga Summit set for May.
Except the real agenda now is rather different and runs: Ukraine, Russia and Islamic terrorism. On the first two, Latvia has experience and the potential to be useful. Of the third, Latvia has little experience and less understanding of the nature of the problem.
The net result on January 14 was that a couple of hours after introducing the three priorities to the European Parliament, Straujuma revealed in the subsequent press conference that there is now a fourth: “Recently, as an additional priority, we have formulated internal security of the European Union and other issues related to that.”
Meanwhile, the signs are growing that some EU member states such as France, Italy and Hungary are weakening in their resolve to maintain sanctions against Russia, which threatens to become the major tug-of-war during Latvia's Presidency.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics was sent to Kyiv and Moscow at the behest of EU foreign policy supremo Mogherini on what he called a “reconnaissance mission” to evaluate the chances of reviving the Minsk peace agreement. The results were not encouraging, with Rinkevics describing the exchange as “frank” and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov calling them “businesslike” – both of which are diplomat-speak for “awkward.”
Following a frosty 45-minute press conference the Russian Foreign Ministry said it “drew attention to some factors obstructing the bilateral dialogue, including Latvia’s unfriendly moves towards some Russian cultural figures and politicians, as well as the unfavourable situation affecting the rights of ethnic Russians.”
In response, the Latvian side lectured Russia about “an unfortunate and significant” deterioration of the security environment in the Baltic Sea region. “Russia’s stepped up military activity, including with the flights of military aircraft that have been posing threats to civilian airliners, are indeed hard to explain. NATO has been forced to respond and reinforce its presence. The spirit of trust must be restored,” it said.
It doesn't augur well, and perhaps makes Latvia's choice of logo – a grindstone – more appropriate even than intended.
But with EU presidencies, as with Wagnerian operas, most people are only interested in the Overture and the Finale. The Overture has been successfully negotiated, admittedly with a bit of improvisation, and now it's largely a matter of sticking it out until the music swells for the Eastern Partnership Summit on May 21-22.
And as Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans recalled in what was by far the best speech of the Strasbourg session on January 14, the mere fact that Latvia has the rotating Presidency at all is an achievement of sorts. “Violence was used in the streets of Riga 24 years ago – I was there, I witnessed it,” Timmermans said, recalling a visit to the Latvian capital during its independence struggles from the Soviet Union.
“If you had told me in that cold January in 1991 that this was going to happen in 2015, I would probably have called medical services to have you committed,” he said.
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