Latvia in the EU
The year 2004 marked a new start for Latvia. It first became member of the NATO, then joined the EU on May 1st. At the time of joining, it was the EU`s poorest country, but it has shown the highest growth figures ever since. A large share of that may be considered a result, direct or indirect, of the EU membership. Today, I am trying to find out how the EU membership has affected people`s lives and whether they are happy to be in the EU.
As it seems from my interviews, nobody remembers any partying on the 1st of May 2004. `Maybe something in Riga`, is all I hear. The only way they see it in real life is in two ways: the prices of food and fuel which are catching up with European standards, much unlike the salaries which they claim are not - and secondly the fact that travelling `to Europe` has become much easier. The travel issue for many seems to be even a necessity.
`I want to go to Berlin to work in software development`
Nikita (22, photo) tells me about his plans to go to Berlin next summer to find a job in software development. He does not speak German, but he has been to Berlin before and thinks he has a fair chance of finding a job there once the German government lifts the quota on immigrants from new EU-countries. Going abroad seems to play in many people`s minds. Some do it, some don`t, but it has been considered by a vast majority of young people. Uldis (21) works in an internet cafe in Liepaja and will try to find a temporary job in Ireland, while Daria (23) has spent two summers in the UK: one picking strawberries, one working in a department store in Sheffield. Daria is worried about so many people leaving Latvia. The population has been decreasing for years in a row. And if the complete workforce moves abroad, who will pay the pensions of the elderly who are forced to stay behind? With whole families emigrating the country, Daria thinks this will grow to be a severe problem in the years to come.
Kristine (23), who works at Liepaja`s tourist office, tells me about the rising prices, which are of great concern. Fuel and food are effected most severely. For food, she especially blames the EU for the increases. Farmers have to comply with EU directives which make the production of food more expensive. Along with the professional agricultural sector, open air markets also raise prices of home-grown products. Kristine says the food itself also changes. Vegetables are produced further away from the places where they get sold. They need to be prepared for that, and Kristine claims that the `new` vegetables have the same taste, but not the same smell as the products she was used to before. On the positive side of the story, Kristine is happy that there are at least more different types of food to choose from. She also mentions that tourism has been picking up, already since the mid-1990s but even more so after 2004. Most visitors come from Germany, Italy and France. Surprisingly, hardly any visitors from the UK or Ireland are registered, while these countries are targets number 1 and 2 for both Lithuanians and Latvians emigrants.
When I ask people what Latvian issues the EU should pay more attention to, Artis (21) says that black money is a serious problem. Many people get only part of their salary paid in the official way. Taxes are only calculated on the basis of the small amount while the remainder is payed in cash. Free of tax and easy to spend, but not of help to the Latvian society as a whole. Sandra (23), a student in business administration, is explaining me that the EU mainly supplies funds for specific projects that have to be submitted in the way entrepreneurs submit files to a bank when they want to finance their new projects. The EU has special attention for education, infrastructure and regional development. She also knows the reason that prices become inflated: with the expectation of further economic growth, people spend more money. More even than what they have access to, so a lot of investments are taking place on credit.
A long way to Brussels
From what I hear today, the EU membership is some distant idea to most people. They seem modestly happy with the improving economic situation in Latvia. And as is often the case: when things go well, no questions are asked. The fact that the Latvian standard of life is improving is more important than where the increased wealth comes from: a way of thinking that may cause Latvia some problems when the growth starts to slow down.
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