Preparing for Living with Europe: Europeanisation of the Latvian Executive

20. January, 2004


Merete Juhl Vincents Svendsen

Foto: N. Mežiņš

Preparing for living with Europe includes adaptation of national government. For Latvia the set-up has a potential for overlapping co-ordination, which is due to a, probably especially for a new small member state, wise ‘better safe than sorry’ logic.

Preparing for living with Europe includes adaptation of national government. EU policy-making adds an additional layer to national political systems. However, no standard prototype or best practice for ‘europeanisation’, a term used for the impact of the EU on the national government, seems to have been developed. Although some similarities can be identified, every existing or coming member state has developed a unique europeanised national government. In this article characteristics of the europeanisation of the Latvian political system will be described and compared with other strategies for dealing with the europeanisation of public policy.

Studies show that engagement in collective governance does not imply downgrading of national governments. ‘Representing national interests and contributing to shaping the development of the EU requires more, rather than less of national governments’[1].

Comparative analyses show that administrations of the member states have, for the most part, retained their distinctive structures and operating procedures. Therefore, national officials exercise a crucial role in linking national and EU level decision-making[2].

The Latvian way of dealing with Europe at home

Latvian key goals have been to establish a thorough and timely co-ordination system to enable Latvian representatives to speak with one voice at European level, to promote Latvian interests in EU policy-making and to ensure an appropriate information flow between Brussels and Riga, Latvian ministries and civil society.

To pursue these aims, the Latvian set-up has been designed with the following key components: National co-ordination is Prime Minister led with the State Chancellery chairing the national co-ordination body at political level in the Cabinet of Ministers and at administrative level in the Council of Senior Officials. The European Affairs Bureau in the State Chancellery is entitled to co-ordinate and monitor the development and implementation of national EU policies at Prime Minister’s level and propose Latvian EU strategies. Still, the capacity to undertake these tasks is to be developed as employees of the European Affairs Bureau so far mainly serve the Prime Minister directly and therefore are not able to undertake tasks of over all co-ordination and drafting of Latvian EU strategies. Thus, the development of the future role and influence of the European Affairs Bureau in national EU co-ordination remains to be seen.

The Latvian Foreign Ministry will be responsible for co-ordination of day-to-day politics of national positions and will on the basis of input from line ministries send co-ordinated instructions to the Permanent Latvian Representative in Brussels. Also, the Foreign Ministry will be responsible for the information flow between agents involved in the co-ordination process. Line ministries are responsible for handling EU matters within their respective policy areas, and issues that concern several ministries are prepared in consultation with the relevant special committees, which constitute members from ministries and civil society. This illustrates that decentralisation to line ministries and involvement of civil society is also part of the system. However, the future capacity and influence of these players remain to be seen.

The total set-up is thus designed to ensure timely and thorough co-ordination ensured by the Foreign Ministry and development of national interests and strategies under the authority of the Prime Minister. The set-up has a potential for overlapping co-ordination, which is due to a, probably especially for a new small member state, wise ‘better safe than sorry’ logic. Also, the need for compromise between different government interests seems to have played a role in the partition of roles and responsibilities in the national co-ordination process, establishing a balance of interests between key agents.

Different ways of dealing with Europe at home

When comparing national systems, within the heart of the executive, a distinction can be made between Prime Ministerial led systems and Foreign Ministry led systems. The pattern in most of the accession states, like in Latvia, is to create a Prime Minister led co-ordination system. An example of a variant is the Lithuanian Prime Minister led system, which also provides an important role for the president in a check and balance system between different government interests.

As explanation for the predominance of Prime Ministerial led systems in the candidate states, the process of preparing for membership of the Union demanded such a significant degree of domestic change that it had to be led from the heart of the government. Moreover, a Prime Minister led set-up is based on recognition of EU affairs as domestic rather than external affairs, and in many acceding states, bodies under the Prime Minister dealt with horizontal European integration issues prior to accession. In Latvia it was the European Integration Bureau.

Also in a more general sense, arguments for a prime ministerial led system have gained strength the last years as a reflection of the development in European co-operation, where the importance of head of states in EU policy-making has increased substantially. Therefore there is now a big interest of Prime Ministers in keeping track of national strategies, priorities and horizontal co-ordination.

An alternative set-up can be found in the cases of Hungary, Ireland and Denmark, where the Foreign Ministry is the centre of co-ordination. Arguments for a Foreign Ministry led system have been thorough, timely and accurate co-ordination based on the EU capacities of the Foreign Ministry and the traditional diplomatic contacts abroad. However, for example in the case of Denmark, important influence has been gained over the last years by Prime Minister’s office and line ministries in the national co-ordination process.

Co-ordination style

Co-ordination can be achieved by a variety of processes with different degrees of formalisation, centralisation and socialisation (Laffan, 1993).

The Finnish system is based on formalised processes married to an ease of informal personal contact throughout the system. In comparison, the Irish co-ordination is characterised by centralisation in selective areas combined with informal norms for co-ordination. The French system has both a formal and centralised set-up leaving little room for influence of other institutions than the general co-ordination secretariat (S.G.C.I.). On the contrary, the Greek system deals with national EU co-ordination in an informal way with ad hoc contacts for present EU policy issues. This has led to a weak Greek co-ordination capacity with key issues being pushed up in a centralised manner to key political appointees and ministers.

In the case of Denmark, processes are formalised with an emphasis on timely co-ordination to maximise influence of a small member states. Regarding degree of centralisation, the formal set-up suggests a central co-ordination style managed by the Foreign Ministry. At the same time, the set-up is decentralised in the sense that line ministries substantially influence the process, also involving civil society.

Regarding new member states, the day-to-day co-ordination style of course to some extent remains to be seen. However, the choice of set-up already reflects some characteristics with a general tendency to relatively formalised systems tailored to ensure effective co-ordination.

Slovenia has highly formalised and centralised procedures, attempting to approach the Finnish level of formalisation. The Estonian system combines formalisation, decentralisation and an ease of personal contact within the system in this small state. The Hungarian system is largely centralised around the Foreign Ministry.

The Latvian system is also formalised, focusing on timely and accurate co-ordination combined with elements of decentralisation with involvement of line ministries and civil society. The Latvian decentralisation of responsibility to line ministries is a parallel to for example the Danish EU co-ordination system, where line ministries now play an important role and involve civil society. In comparison, Latvian line ministries have not yet developed positions to influence Latvian EU policy-making vis-à-vis the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister led co-ordination. Latvian line ministries and civil society are still in the process of developing EU expertise and might therefore only in a long term perspective have opportunities to benefit from the decentralised set-up and strongly influence EU policy-making, like it is now the case in Denmark.

The link to Parliament

Executive-Parliament relations have developed substantially in several member states. In Ireland this was caused by the rejection of the Nice Treaty in June 2001 which resulted in a complete transformation of the Irish Executive-Parliament relations. In Finland change was characterised by a gradual parliamentarisation of the Finnish system with the changing balance between presidential and prime ministerial power.

In the case of Latvia, Saeima is informed on current issues on the agenda of the Council of Ministers. The Saeima European Affairs Committe ‘shall examine the official positions and shall rule on them before they are communicated to European Union institutions’(Saeimas kārtības rullis). So far Saeima has supported government positions in EU matters. Still, it remains to be seen if Saeima will use it’s right to ‘rule’ and develop own positions not necessarily in line with those of the government. Saeima’s role and demand for influence seems to depend on satisfaction with the government positions as well as the possibilities for parliamentarians and Saeima civil servants to allocate sufficient time and resources to look into the often complex nature of concrete EU legislation.

In comparison, unlike other acceding countries, the Slovenian Parliament played an important role already in the accession process and in the case of Denmark, government now from time to time is not able to get approval of it’s proposed EU position.

As these examples show, the national parliament can turn out to be a key player in EU policy-making and should therefore also be assessed to understand the full functioning of national EU policy-making.

Conclusion: No standard road to europeanisation

There is evidence of both convergence across systems and continuing diversity. In managing Europe from home, states appear to choose from a menu of possible models. The two dominant models are Prime Ministerial or Foreign Ministry led systems. Convergence of structures has at the same time not led to standards or best practice of national styles for managing European affairs.

Regarding europeanisation of the Latvian executive, a number of similarities with other new comers as well as existing member states can be identified. These comprise a Prime Minister led set-up complemented by co-ordination and information flow responsibilities of the Foreign Ministry as well as input from EU co-ordination units in line ministries.

Distinctive Latvian characteristics are the specific split of roles in the Latvian EU co-ordination set-up and the Latvian way of combining formalised and decentralised elements as co-ordination style. Regarding Saeima, it remains to be seen, whether it will develop a stronger role in Latvian EU policy-making.

To conclude, a Latvian set-up seems designed to deal with challenges of timely co-ordination, ensuring Latvia to speak with one voice in EU negotiations.

The challenge now is to develop the necessary capacity to make the system work effectively in practice.

The recommendation is then to not consider the co-ordination set-up a once off adjustment to the demands of membership as old member states like for example Denmark has done. Time has shown that the European co-operation develops fast and therefore requires national system adjustments from time to time. Thus, once Latvia has lived with Europe for some years, the Latvian EU co-ordination model should have a ‘service check’ and the appropriate adjustments should be made accordingly. This will allow Latvian officials to further develop the linkage between society interests and EU level decision-making to the benefit of Latvian interests at EU level and legitimacy at home.


The author would like to thank Ivo Rollis, Esmeralda Balode and Elīna Melngaile for valuable information related to this article.


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[1] Laffan, Brigid (2003), Managing Europe from home. Impact of the EU on Executive Government A Comparative Analysis, OEUE PHASE I Occasional Paper 0.1-08.03

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