Interview with Ingrida Udre, Speaker of the Saeima (Parliament of Latvia) and nominee for the European Commissioner post
As Mr Barroso said...
You have tried to characterise your becoming a candidate for Commissioner as something almost accidental: you were in the right place at the right time to meet with future Commission’s President Barroso; you thought of applying for the post after reading about it in the papers. Why this evasive stance?
Why do you say evasive?! First of all, the Cabinet nominates candidates, because we have defined powers: the legislature, executive power, judicial power and the media power (laughs). The possibility was actually first announced by the media, then it was discussed by the party, the Cabinet, also with me, of course. I don’t see any great evasiveness here.
Do you consider your nomination to be accidental or deliberate?
I would not want to call it accidental, because, after all, there were discussions in the Cabinet, the candidates were discussed, and all the pros and cons. I would call it deliberate.
Do you see any mistakes in your nomination process or in your reactions, including communication with the press, from which you could learn in the future?
Well, I admit that perhaps one particular comment directed at a specific reporter was not appropriate, and I admitted that on television, so….
But in the nomination process?
When the shadow commissioner was nominated, there was not much public discussion. In this case, I think the discussions were very long… the public new about it for a long time, a week or even more. Everyone who wanted to, could express their opinion, so I think that the principles of democracy were recognized. Everything was open, sufficiently transparent, reporters could participate in the Cabinet meeting …. I think that nothing was secretive, and no agreements were made behind closed doors. The process was normal. If someone didn’t like something - there are people who are satisfied and there are people who are not satisfied.
Why are you Latvia’s best candidate for this post?
I don’t want to compare, because there aren’t better and worse people. People are different, they have different experience in life, education, professional and work experience, therefore how can you say who is better and who is worse?! I don’t want to compare.
Politicians, however, compete and they are compared every step of the way. Furthermore, you must take into account that, for example, Ms Kalniete has left a very good impression in Brussels, and many people are already comparing and may continue to compare you with her. How will you compensate your lack of executive experience and in working with EU issues?
I have worked directly with EU issues in the European Affairs Committee and in the end, if someone wants to compare then let them compare. I think that you should let a person work and then after a year we can meet again and discuss what has been done, what hasn’t, what is lacking, what isn’t.
Then what are your strengths, your contribution that you bring to the next European Commission?
I think they are my professional knowledge. With the director of the tax department we discussed preparations for discussions in the European Parliament which could be quite difficult. He also recognised by professional knowledge.
Which sources of information and analysis do you trust to obtain information on EU issues?
There is a lot of information available on the internet, for instance, the European Commission (EC) home page, which has a separate page for tax and customs issues. Basically I view this information. I also receive EC information in book format, as well as direct information from people working in the EC. Those are the main sources for professional purposes. If we are speaking of interpreting opinions and how events are reflected, I read as many publications as possible, because by reading different interpretations about the same event, my own view on what has happened will become clear.
Your area of responsibility in Brussels will be customs and taxes which will include the fight against illegal cash flows. It is interesting to note that the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) has found large amounts of illegal donations in the treasury of the party you head. How will you answer members of the European Parliament (EP), if at the commissioner hearing session they ask you about your willingness and ability to combat illegal cash flows in the EU?
There have been two court cases with verdicts in favour of the Greens and Farmers Union that we are not guilty in this case, and there are problems with the laws. I participated in the working group that drafted amendments for the law on political party funding and on pre-election campaigning, to change the law so that there can be no ambiguity.
But the KNAB wants further court proceedings…
That is their right. But the law is now amended, and we will see how well the amendments work to regulate misunderstanding of the law. You also have to understand that a political party has limited possibilities to check each donor.
How ambitious are your plans for the next five years at the EC? What goals have you set in your field, and what do you hope to contribute to the Commission’s work as a whole and for EU development in the future?
First of all I want to stress what Mr Barroso said - he wants this Commission to work as a team. I was a basketball player and my main position was point guard, so I had to watch if all team plays were coordinated precisely so that everything went well. And at the Commission I also like this team principle which means that first of all we will discuss this Commission’s strategy. What does this Commission really want to do over five years and based on this plan, each commissioner will work in order to carry out this strategy in their own area. Therefore at the moment I can’t say that I want to change something or that my contribution to the EU will radically change people’s lives. When we discuss the main goals of the Commission as a whole, then we will be able to set our hierarchical principles of what are the goals for each area of the union.
Of course, we have to take into account that the Lisbon Strategy has been passed, and it states that within ten years Europe must become one of the most competitive markets in the world. That is a very ambitious plan, because we are speaking both of America, and competing with China, India and so on. There is very much to do to achieve that.
In the Lisbon Strategy the deadline for achieving these goals is 2010. Do you feel that is possible?
You know, as Mr Barroso also said to me - I want to agree with his words - these deadlines may need to be reviewed, because they have really been overly ambitious. At any rate, I think that the commission will decide on a future course.
What is your opinion about a specific issue - the harmonisation of corporate tax?
The present EC is working on the question of harmonising a tax basis, which, so far, has created problems for businessmen, and a joint decision has not been made. Different countries have different taxes, but we need to analyze what Europe wants to achieve with this tax basis harmonisation. Do they want to raise the general level of competiveness, or to help various EU countries that are at different levels of development, to develop more quickly, or to use this tax harmonisation to achieve more investments in one or another EU country? This question has not yet fully been discussed, therefore it is too early to say that we will make all rates equal and that we will make the tax basis equal. There will be many discussions on this topic and many opinions, especially among the representatives of the large countries. Therefore one of my first tasks after becoming commissioner will be to meet with the finance ministers of all countries who make the decisions on these issues.
In a recent interview for NRA (Independent Morning Newsaper) you said you would like to achieve a better EU agricultural policy because many countries of the world have a negative attitude towards subsidised EU farming. What would be a “good” EU agricultural policy?
At present, the majority of the world feels that Europe should give up subsidised farming, because, as they say, it ruins competition in the agricultural product market. These issues have to be resolved, of course, at global continent levels, and I believe that here the EU will have to fight more than one battle. I have personally participated in inter-parliament union forums, where these issues were discussed, and people from South America and Africa were very adamant about completely stopping all subsidies in the EU.
Do you support that?
I have personally spoken, and said that Latvia cannot support this attitude, taking into consideration our experience for 50 years when agriculture was restructured so that in some cases people have forgotten how to farm or they have not had the opportunity to do so. At present, our people cannot survive in rural areas without subsidies.
From the EU point of view, and also from the point of view of the older countries, I think that there needs to be equal policy in regard to all people working in the field of agriculture.
So, 100% direct payments for all farmers in the 25 EU countries?
I believe, that at present, if we think realistically, it cannot be achieved, because the budget has been passed, but thinking of the next and the future budgets - definitely, taking into consideration what goals the Commission wants to achieve and in general, what Europe want to achieve over the next five or ten years. We must definitely consider it. We should have this approach - equality for the farmers of different countries. Actually (laughs), for everybody.
What do you think of the EU Constitution? What pros and cons do you see in it?
Its biggest strength, I think is that… more significance has been given to national parliaments and, despite the fact that I will now be working in the European Commission, I think that the role of national parliaments must not be decreased. That is a great strength.
Actually we can speak of strengths and weaknesses for every piece of legislation or document, when this document comes into force, because when it comes to life, we can see the strengths and weaknesses. But basically I think that the agreement has been well thought out and our representatives also participated in the Convention, where lengthy discussions of the European Constitution took place. So I believe that everyone has put in work, so that the constitution is acceptable for absolutely all EU citizens.
In the press you have called yourself a "healthy Euro-sceptic". In your definition, how does a healthy Euro-sceptic differ from a healthy Euro-optimist?
The fact that in the pre-election campaign we looked critically at many…. not many, but actually at the agricultural policy in the EU in relation to the new countries, I think that is very normal. It is not sceptical, but critical. The fact that the Agricultural Union parliamentarians and party members went to rural Latvian areas before the referendum and urged people to participate in the referendum, because Latvia has no other choice but to join the EU, shows that there is little scepticism involved; it is more of a critical attitude to several issues. A critical approach, in my opinion, is normal, because then you can evaluate different things with a cool head.
In its pre-election advertisements, the Greens and Farmers Union promised to support Latvia’s participation in the EU on “equal terms”. This equality was not achieved (not in the area of agriculture and not in regard to labour movement), but as I understand, in the referendum you voted “yes”?
Yes, of course (laughs), of course. As they say, it can’t be proved, because it happened behind the curtain, but I participated in the referendum and now I can say, that I voted “yes”, in favour of the EU, and I urged my colleagues and constituents to vote “yes”.
The present European Commission has experienced that its members play an active role in their national politics as well. Do you plan to maintain close ties with Latvian politics, for instance, will you remain as leader of your party?
With a healthy attitude, that cannot be done parallel to the commissioner’s work, therefore I will step down. But I will not lose contact with my party, of course. There will be a mission of the European Commission in Latvia with which I will work closely. When I come to Latvia, I will definitely meet with citizens, voters, also other political parties, if anybody is interested in discussing issues related to EC work. Of course, I will not lose close political ties, because I will remain a member of the party, but I can’t consider assuming high posts.
Are you planning to return to Latvian politics after working in the Commission? Maybe run in the Saeima elections in 2006 or maybe for president?
You know, there is so much to be done right now to work in the EC, to properly work in this position, so I can’t think of the future so far ahead (smiles).
The interview took place on 23.08.04.