Divided Latvia goes with the flow on refugee policies

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Tatjana Muravska
Tatjana Muravska

Professor of Regional and European integration studies at the University of Latvia (LU)

Latvia has inherited a high stock of migrants from Soviet times, and belongs to a group of “immigration legacy countries” in the EU. And today, Latvian political parties are divided on the immigration crisis, and on the issue of solidarity with older EU member states that support immigration. Two of the three government coalition partners – the nationalist-conservative ‘National Alliance’ and the centrist ‘Union of Greens and Farmers’ – are not in favour of welcoming refugees, whereas the leading party of the coalition, the centre-right ‘Unity’, is conscious that refusing to admit refugees could have negative implications for Latvia’s economic future and its security.

Liga Mengelsone, Director-General of the Latvian Employers Confederation, spoke for many businesses by calling for the urgent abolition of bureaucratic barriers preventing access to the labour market by refugees. But the prevailing public view is for more restriction, despite the possible economic gains. Protests in the capital show that many are against the EU’s resettlement scheme, and the risks of an ethnic underclass being created are widely discussed. An opinion survey by “Latvian facts” in September backed by the Union of Greens and Farmers showed that slightly over two-thirds of Latvia’s residents oppose accommodating refugees from North Africa and the Middle East; Latvians are more opposed to refugees than non-Latvians – 71.9% and 64.9% respectively. Residents of 55-64 years old were the most sceptical, and the highest support for refugees was voiced by respondents aged 18-24.

Latvia’s foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics is aware that “Latvia has the most negative attitude towards refugees in the whole European Union”, and has warned that Latvia could end up isolated if it disagrees with the European Commission and other member states on resettlement. National Alliance MP Raivis Dzintars has responded, saying “I don’t feel that EU institutions are listening to our concerns about taking in refugees from very different cultures”. This view is supported strongly by the Union of Greens and Farmers. Prime minister Laimdota Straujuma, of Unity, since confirmed that Latvia “cannot avoid solidarity” and will voluntarily welcome 250 refugees. Latvia has since agreed to take refugees from front-line countries like Italy, Greece and possibly Hungary.

Latvia’s influence on EU migration policy is not very strong. The Interior minister Rihards Kozlovskis  of the National Alliance says that although he is unlikely to agree with the EU Commission’s plan, “Latvia will follow the Regulation if such a mechanism will be accepted by the EU member states”.

The need for coherent policies on solving the immigration crisis has now been recognised, discussed and agreed between key EU member states; but its practical implementation continues to be the object of intense negotiation.

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