Latvia's accession to the European Union meant the fulfilment of foreign policy goals which had been identified in 1995. Accession was the result of very intensive work over a long period of time. The negotiating process was completed, laws were adapted to EU requirements, and a national referendum was held on membership. On May 1, 2005, one year passed since Latvia became a fully fledged member state of the EU. The first year of membership does allow for certain conclusions.
- Latvia's ability to influence the decision making process of the European Union
On April 16, 2003, representatives of the Republic of Latvia became observers in the operations of the European Union, but as soon as Latvia became a fully fledged member of the Union, they received voting rights in the process of formulating and making EU decisions. This applies to all meetings of member states and heads of government, including the European Council, the Council of Ministers, the European Commission, all relevant working groups and committees, as well as the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER).
A system has been established for elaborating and approving Latvia's positions at meetings of the Council of Ministers and the European Council. The relevant ministry drafts the proposed position that is to be taken. It is then debated and approved by the Cabinet of Ministers and sent on to the European Affairs Committee of the Latvian Parliament, the Saeima. A Committee of Senior Officials has been established to deal with European Union issues. It is responsible for co-ordinating the work of various government institutions insofar as Latvia's membership in the European Union is concerned.
- Latvia's ability to participate in shaping EU policy and developments
When Latvia became a member state of the European Union, this opened up unprecedented opportunities for it to influence the EU's decisions and directions of development. Latvia, along with the other member states, takes part in the operations of all of the EU institutions - the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, the European Commission, the European Council, the European Central Bank, the Court of Justice of the European Communities, the Court of First Instance, the European Court of Auditors, as well as consultative bodies such as the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.
Regarding Latvian representatives in the EU institutions, it must be noted that as of May 1, 2004 Latvia has had its own European commissioner, although it is also true that commissioners do not represent the interests of the countries from which they come. The first Latvian commissioner was former Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete, who worked together with Franz Fischler, the commissioner for agriculture and fisheries. In November 2004, when the new composition of the European Commission was assembled, Andris Piebalgs was appointed commissioner who handles the important portfolio of energy matters. His term in office runs from November 22, 2004, until October 31, 2009.
Last year, too, the citizens of Latvia elected their members of the European Parliament for the first time. Nine Euro-MPs were chosen in elections which took place on June 12, 2004, and they began their work at the European Parliament on July 20.
- Broader opportunities to implement out Latvia's foreign policy
In relations with non-community countries, Latvia, as a member state of the European Union, can now count on the support of 24 European partners. It is also true that relations with non-community countries are now shaped through the overall EU prism. This has to do not only with classic matters of foreign policy, but also with economic issues. Trade policy, for instance, is a matter which all member states discuss together, and when the European Union deals with other countries and with international organisations, it expresses a unified and harmonised position. Since accession to the EU, Latvia has begun to develop relations with countries with which contacts had previously been quite minimal, but with which the EU had worked for a long time in the past. Membership in the EU means new obligations, too, for Latvia – the duty to support less developed countries, among other things.
- Access to a more extensive range of EU support instruments
Since its accession to the European Union, Latvia has had access to the financial instruments of the EU's economic and social cohesion policies. The most important ones are the Cohesion Fund and the four structural funds – the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund, the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund, and the Financial Instrument for Fisheries Guidance. Latvia joined the EU in the midst of the budget period which runs from 2000 until 2006, and so overall financing that is available to the country is at a comparatively low level – approximately EUR 1.2 billion through December 31, 2006.
At the beginning of 2005, there was much activity in programmes that cover more than one-half of the available structural fund financing. Many of the programmes had to be suspended or shut down very soon after they began, because all available financing had been used up. The most active applicants for funding have been farmers and small and medium businesses. These activities lay a strong foundation for making better use of the structural funds during the next budgeting period – from 2007 until 2013 when Latvia has access to much more financing than is the case right now. Member states are currently negotiating on the EU's next financial framework, and Latvia is taking part in the discussion.
- Enhancing administrative capacity
If Latvia is to make full and proper use of its opportunities to influence European events, it must have a stable and professional government and parliament, a powerful and viable system of national governance, and a set of highly qualified civil servants. A great deal of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the state and its governing systems, and it is now necessary to adapt to an entirely new situation if Latvia is to take part in the discussion of major EU issues in a full and appropriate way. Civil servants in Latvia must deal with new challenges which are on the EU's everyday agenda. Enhancing administrative capacity is one of the most urgent and vitally important subjects to be encountered by the national government, in addition to the progressively increasing amount of information that has had to be absorbed since the country's accession to the EU.
- Translation and interpreting at EU institutions
Latvia is not satisfied with the accessibility and quality of translation and interpreting services at EU institutions. The number of official languages at the EU has been 20 since the enlargement on May 1, 2004. The institutions of the EU responsible for translating documents and interpreting at meetings were clearly not prepared for the volume of work which this entails.
Sadly, the number of translators and interpreters at the EU who can work in the Latvian language is insufficient. The European Council and the European Commission are preparing bids for tender to find new applicants from the new member states. Latvia has offered to work with experts in the relevant sectors so as to ensure that documents are translated at the highest possible level of quality. Latvia has also asked to allow it to use at European Council meetings the services of an interpreter from Latvia appropriate for each individual case when this is necessary.
- New tasks in the context of the EU
Latvia, as a new member state of the European Union, has many new tasks ahead. The de facto integration of Latvia into the European Union is one job, and another is the need to take full advantage of the opportunities which a member state can enjoy within the EU and in terms of carrying out Latvia's foreign policy interests in relations with non-community countries. Latvia must now make an investment in the ongoing development of the EU, basing its work on the principles of solidarity and a community of equal members. Latvia must also invest in the ability of the EU to become actively and successfully involved in the pursuit of global policies. Many other tasks are also formulated in Latvia's new draft document on its foreign policy directions.
- Ratification of the European Constitution
The drafting and signing of a new Constitutional Treaty were major occurrences in the history of the European Union. The treaty was written to deal with the various issues of a union of 25 member states and 450 million residents. The European Constitution would allow the EU to become more effective through simplification of decision making procedures. It would strengthen the European identity of member state residents, bringing the EU closer to the people. The Constitution would also help strengthen the European Union's influence in the world, and it would allow member states to enjoy greater development in economic growth and in other areas. The European Constitutional Treaty was the first major EU document which Latvia helped to draft, doing so at the European Convention in 2002 and 2003, at the Intergovernmental Conference in 2003 and 2004, and finally at the signing of the treaty in Rome on October 29, 2004. The next challenge for the European Union member states is to ratify the European Constitutional Treaty, and that applies to Latvia as well.