Why the new "Mr Europe" could be wearing a dress

By bne IntelliNews November 12, 2009

Mike Collier in Riga -

Among the list of contenders for the new position of president of the European Council to be decided on November 19, one person stands out - and not only because of her flame-red hair.

Among the grey suits of Herman Van Rompuy, Jean-Claude Juncker and half a dozen other mix-and-match euro hopefuls, Latvia's former president Vaira Vike-Freiberga just doesn't fit in. For a start, she's female, but she's also fluent in five languages, has a doctorate in psychology and, most remarkably of all, amongst all the has-beens of domestic politics, she managed to serve two terms and still leave with sky-high poll ratings.

She's also the only name from Central and Eastern Europe to have been seriously suggested for the post - a fact that shows the EU's western bias remains intact. Half-believed rumours of her intention to emerge, Rocky-like, from self-imposed retirement had been circling in Latvia for months before Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis made her nomination official on November 9, describing her as "a charismatic and powerful political thinker, and a gifted multilingual orator who can unite and inspire nations."

While there are plenty of factors mitigting against her, such as Latvia remaining outside the Eurozone and her age - she will be 72 in December - Vike-Freiberga is taking her bid seriously. "I decided to step forward when it became clear that EU heads of states were looking for someone to embody the EU today in an inclusive manner. The fact that I am the only woman considered for the position is not unrelated to this decision," she tells bne in an interview. "I have been a committed European for a long time. During my two mandates at the head of Latvia, I encouraged my fellow citizens to choose the European way most decisively and to take all the necessary steps to ensure a smooth transition to EU membership. I believe that European integration is the greatest success story we have had for centuries on our continent."

Standing firm

During her time in office, much of Vike-Freiberga's popularity stemmed from the perception that she was not afraid to stand up to Latvia's oligarchs, who continue to exercise undue influence in the country. She even bet her presidency on a referendum as she sought to oppose draconian security laws. Both sides claimed victory in the poll: not enough voters turned out to make the result binding (her opponents cleverly called the poll for 07/07/07 - the most popular day for weddings in the country's history), but those that bothered overwhelmingly supported her.

Nevertheless, many old foes are relishing the chance to spike her comeback, with the most disparaging noises coming from the Machiavellian People's Party. "The Latvian prime minister and many friends around Europe have encouraged me greatly. I am very impressed by the number of people, organisations and personalities supporting my candidacy in such a short amount of time," Vike-Freiberga says. "Others have expressed surprise, including in political and diplomatic circles. There are a few others, I fear, who have reacted less positively, perhaps feeling that the job should be reserved for someone who is part of the old boys' network."

She claims to have "support beyond Latvia too," but declined to go into details, saying it would be discourteous to interfere in current debates.

Asked what her priorities as president would be, Vike-Frieberga showed the last two years working as part of the Reflection Group on the future of EU were more than a cosy sinecure. "First, we will need to implement the new institutions established by the Lisbon Treaty," she says, referring to the treaty designed to make the EU work better that has just been ratified by all 27 EU members. "I see my role as one of helping the heads of state make faster and better decisions on a range of urgent matters: financial perspectives, economic crisis, solidarity within the EU27, diplomatic crises."

Business gets a mention, too. "Let us not forget the very core of the EU project is the single market, which needs to be nurtured and reconciled with the social priorities that we share," she says. "We also need to improve and democratise European governance, include the European Parliament better in our deliberations, and improve the relationship between the European Commission and the European Council. We also have to better communicate with European citizens and demonstrate and improve the contribution of the EU to her everyday life."

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