First of all, congratulations to all participants on having the forum, and a very lively debate despite the current circumstances. Given the circumstances, it is very important right now for all of us, the government and civic society, to keep going.
Almost all of the world is experiencing an unprecedented crisis we have never seen in the history of mankind. For the first time in history almost half of our planet’s 8 billion population is under movement restrictions of varying degrees. Everyone in the world, here in Europe and Latvia, is looking for ways to overcome this crisis.
Health and economy are the two main challenges of this crisis. Challenges that are closely linked together. People cannot produce goods as many goods or provide services from home as efficiently as when working from their offices and manufacturing sites. But we must stay home. We cannot meet together as we did. We have to avoid the virus.
But, if you look at the map tracking the global spread of the virus, you will see that Latvia is one of ‘islands’ – countries where the magnitude of the pandemic is rather small compared to other European Union (EU) member states, especially members states in Central, Southern and Western Europe.
We are better off than other countries because we have well-disciplined society. At first it was, of course, difficult to get used to not shaking hands and keeping the necessary distance, but we quickly adapted to this departure from centuries-old behaviour model. That is an exciting fact from a sociological perspective.
We are better off because our government’s policies were efficient and well-considered. Instead of emotion and guesswork, government consistently implemented all recommendations of experts and virologists.
European Union has been heavily criticised for lack of crisis management during the outbreak of virus. However, those who criticise the EU are forgetting the actual competences of the Union. EU has very little competence over national health and social sectors, as well as border management, which are primarily handled by member states themselves. EU remains a union of independent nation states. Member states have their own competences, and EU has its responsibilities. Health and social protection, and border control (closing of borders) is still a prerogative of individual member states.
And member states did act. Unfortunately, the response was uncoordinated. Coordination between 27 member states was weak as many countries unilaterally decided to close their borders and impose other measures. But I do not think we should blame the EU for that. I think the fact that member states rushed head over heels to close their border at the outset of the crisis without even asking their neighbours, let alone other EU member states, shows that our European awareness, sense of being a part of the common system, was probably drowned out by crisis. That is why I think that European Union does not deserve the harsh criticism it is been getting.
As far as the other challenge of the pandemic, the economic impact of virus, is concerned, I would like to stress that the response of EU was adequately swift and strong.
We are in the process of agreeing on the multiannual financial framework. And, I assume, Foreign Minister has already told you about the EU’s plan to offer member states financial aid package worth at least EUR 500 billion through European Union Recovery Fund, a plan that will be announced soon.
EU is ready to provide member states enormous amounts of financial resources to help them slow down the economic recession, to make sure the crisis is not as deep and recovery in its aftermath is as swift as possible.
I believe that the European Union, which is indeed responsible for the Union’s economy, is handling the economic side of the crisis quite well.
Member states still have to agree on how European Union Recovery Fund will be rolled out: either through loans to member states (as suggested by the richer net contributors) or grants (as suggested by Southern member states). The decision will be made in the coming weeks. I believe that we will have mixed model of both grants and loans.
This crisis will certainly be a ‘big push’ for the global economy and may also change the way we build our social interactions. As the world changes, we can definitely expect faster digital transformation.
For example, this forum. It has moved online. Although we would, of course, prefer a full-format forum, thanks to online technology we can still have our debate. Such shift will definitely have a lasting impact on our life as many activities will move online, but sooner than later it will no longer surprise us. When it comes to economy, we are most probably going to change the way we buy things. Online shopping has gone up and various services are actively adapted for online users, outlining the future trajectory of the economy.
Online world and digital transformation have downsides, as well. I believe that Latvia needs to formulate its national policies in way that minimises the negative effects.
One of the most common and probably trivial examples of such effect is that we often find ourselves in a helpless situation when using a service or communication platform that has no offline alternatives and error message pops up on the screen but we can do nothing about it. Systems are built by different coders and not all of them are the best at what they do. On top of that, there is also the shift to algorithmic decision-making. If your problem does not fit the algorithm, you are in trouble. It has, of course, changed the way we are used to solve problems where you have ‘live’ organisation or company with ‘live’ people and problems get solved quickly by finding ‘common language’ or possible paths to solution.
Further ‘algorithmisation’ of our lives may lead to even greater challenges to our freedom, self-determination and communication.
The other big issue is the risk of growing surveillance and profiling apparatus, and thus potential to control and manipulate people.
Therefore, to ensure the democracy and the rule of law, also prioritised by the EU, we need to make sure that never happens.
Rapid digital transformation will also have impact on the democracy and how it works. On the one hand, online solutions strengthen democracy which thrives on participation. People are much more engaged in debate on Facebook and other social media where various social issues are discussed. On the other hand, these platforms have become more susceptible to various kinds of manipulation, including covert, than, for example, events where people gather to discuss various political issues, or sources that quote opinions of known experts. Social media are much more ‘convenient’ for disguising white noise as democracy to turn it all into a big wave of populism.
Let me underline: European Movement – Latvia, which, of course, has its own political vision, should be very careful about such naive interpretation – the more people talk (usually without checking facts, using one-sided views, opinions that can be easily manipulated), the better for the political process, the better for democracy. We should also be sceptical about the claim that everyone should comment everything. Opinion (easily and quickly formulated) cannot replace rational argumentation (formulated with time and examination). Current crisis will, of course, only amplify this trend, but I am certain – to ensure that democratic decisions meet certain quality criteria, we will need to think critically, with a healthy scepticism.
It would be naive to think that online democracy will automatically make freedom aspirations stronger at an individual level. That may be the case in some instances. However, more often we see the opposite happening. Online democracy, which, as I already mentioned, can be easily manipulated, is being used to promote authoritarian rule and intolerance. This is another concern that we should consider. We cannot let this crisis be used to further authoritarian ideas. This applies to EU member states as well.
In conclusion, I would like to remind you that we intended to hold different Europe and democracy-related events on the first week of May, from 1 May – 9 May. I am happy that the idea to celebrate democracy and have Democracy festival, proposed during the solidarity public conversation series launched on 29 November 2019, has caught on and is still relevant.
9 May, of course, is the Europe Day. Together with European Movement – Latvia we will all celebrate it as much as we can in current circumstances. Let me thank European Movement – Latvia, Representation of the European Commission in Latvia, European Parliament Liaison Office in Latvia and everyone who helped put this forum together. I would also like to thank all EU information providers.
This is the time when we need to think about the actual significance of Europe. It would be naive to think that Latvia can handle this crisis alone. We are not an isolated island. We need Europe and Europe needs us.
Thank you for having me!