James Wilson, head of the Brussels-based International Foundation for Better Governance (IFBG) attended 3rd Session of the Latvian Parliament of the Unrepresented in Riga, January 25. We contacted Mr. Wilson and asked him about the event.
- What impressions did you have from the session?
I was learning more about the issue of non-citizens in Latvia. There were many things that I didn't know. I had some awareness of the problem generally but I was struck by a number of things. So first of all, Latvia just introduced the euro this month so everybody is paying taxes in euros, but not everybody who pays their taxes has a right to vote.
I believe very strongly in the principle of no taxation without representation. Which means, if you pay your taxes you should be given the right to vote.
But in here we have the case of some 300.000 people living in Latvia, who've lived there for a very-very long time, paying taxes in euros and some of those taxes pay for the salaries of the officials in the European Parliament and in the European Commission. But they don't have the right to vote, which I find quite wrong. And it goes against the principles laid down n the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
The second thing that struck me in listening to the debate at the Parliament of the Unrepresented was that it was very structured, intellectual and civilized dialogue.
So this impressed me a lot because at the same time that we were having the debates, I was conscious of terrible demonstrations and struggles going on in other parts of the world - in Egypt, Syria, Thailand and other countries, where the idea of peaceful dialogue has been forgotten. I was very impressed with the Parliament as an organization and how they go about representing their views in a democratic and civilized way.
- Do you think that the Parliament of the Unrepresented and the Non-Citizens' Congress are efficient in resolving the problems of non-citizens in Latvia?
I'll put in this way - it's ten years now. So it can be 10th anniversary of the accession of Latvia to the EU. A lot has been done. So things have improved. But let's look ahead for the next ten years. I think we should not be complaisant or self-congratulatory. We should set some targets in order to improve the situation for residents, who at the moment aren't enjoying full citizens' rights. It's not for me to say what the targets should be but I think that a very important first step is to recognize that there is a problem and come up with ideas addressing the problem. For example, there is a report which was produced by the European Economic and Social Committee in October 2013 which suggest some steps that could be taken in order to gradually extend and implement the rights of the Charter, so that they'd be enjoyed by the more people. The steps also should be taken by the European Commission. It can make recommendations for changes to be undertaken either at the EU level or at national level.
Likewise many little steps can be taken. For example, allowing non-citizens in Latvia to vote in local elections.
I would like to see much more progress but gradually we can bring changes, provided that everybody concerned realizes and admits that there is a problem. Part of the that in Latvia is that the issue of non-citizens is not that well-known outside the country.
- So the rest of Europe doesn't know about Latvian policies? Brussels isn't aware of massive non-citizenship in Latvia?
Not enough is known about it. One or two people may be aware but they would probably be political specialists. Ordinary people in other parts of Europe don't realize it.
- How did they manage to accept Latvia in the EU then?
I think, the treatment of the residents at the time of accession was different in different countries that joined then. Don't forget - this was a big bang of ten new members joining at the same time. Therefore there were differences which crept in the accession agreements. It's not for me to criticize what people did back then, I think we need to look at what the situation is today. We need to work towards the recognition that there are 300.000 people in Latvia who deserve to have full citizens' rights awarded to them. Just like any other citizens in other EU member states. I don't think it's fair or right to deprive this group of people from having to vote. Like I said, no taxation without representation. It's a fundamental principle of the American constitution.
As a European I would be ashamed if anyone was to say to me that Europe is less democratic than the United States. It's very important. And Latvia has shown it's European credentials by implementing the euro. So why not to take a look at what we can do to make Latvia even greater?
- Latvian Parliament of the Unrepresented has adopted a resolution that said that the continuing problem of non-citizenship by itself lowers EU standards of democracy. Do you agree with this statement?
Yes, I do. Like I said, as a European I would be ashamed if we had lower standards of democracy than in USA. That happens if in Europe we are taxing our residents but not giving them votes. In Latvia we're talking about long-term residents, about people who had been born in the country or who's parents and grandparents had been born in the country. They're not people who just arrived off the boat. They're paying taxes. They're good, honest residents. And they should be offered the right to vote.
- Why didn't the EU pay attention to them before?
I can only speculate. This would've been looked at back in the early 1990's in the negotiations process for the accession of Latvia [in the EU]. That time the European Commission was negotiating with the Latvian government. I don't think, it's helpful to look backwards and try to pin blame on anybody. I believe, it's more constructive to look forward and to promote a positive agenda in order to make sure this error is corrected.
- Doesn't it seem that Latvia and Estonia appear to be somewhat untouchable within EU? European politicians and officials spend quite some time criticizing Ukraine, which isn't part on the EU, and aren't applying the same view to the Baltic states.
I would broaden your question to cover all of the EU member states. We have a saying in English - the pot shouldn't call the kettle black.
You know, in many EU member states there are bad practices in respect of human rights. And what I would like to see is an admission on the part of European institutions that Europe is not perfect.
Before criticizing countries too heavily who're outside the EU we need a program to improve our own record in respect of delivering solid human rights and freedoms within the EU.
- Can the EU somehow influence, convince or force states like Latvia to adopt better practices of human rights?
I don't think, it's helpful to concentrate on a small number of countries within EU. We need a general admission that there is room for improvement and to look at issues in all of the member states which have problems. If you look at Poland, there's a problem with regard to pre-trial detention of suspects. Someone can be arrested and put to prison without charges for a very long time. It seems to be a normal practice in Poland. I just gave this as an example of another member state where improvements can be made in human rights policy. In Latvia for me the main thing is the issue of the vote. You pay taxes - you should be able to vote. It's as simple as that.
- And what can be done in EU so Latvian authorities would admit that right?
Raising awareness of the issue. So that people would understand that this is what is happening today. We're all about to go to vote for the member of the European Parliament in all of the member states in May. It is a good time for the next three to four months for the Non-Citizens' Congress in Latvia to raise awareness in other European member states of why the people are excluded from voting for MEP of their choice there.
If you look at the history of Latvia, it always had a liberal tradition.
In the center of Riga you have a beautiful statue of Town Musicians of Bremen. It's from a fairy tale written by Germans Brothers Grimm. It's about four animals who found their freedom by travelling to Bremen. I believe that in Germany people would be interested to know what's happening in Latvia and they would probably share he same view, that people who pay taxes also deserve a vote.