Thursday, December 22, 2005

European Union Realities - Baltic, Ireland, United Kingdom

Did you know that the world's first decorated Christmas tree was made in Riga, Latvia? in the year 1510.

And what about now? As stated at InspirationRiga.com: "Today Riga is one of Europe’s most dynamic and rapidly developing cities."

What about the rest of Latvia and the Modern Baltic?

Mark Landler in Tallinn, Estonia, (hat tip to CaryGEE) sends us a December 21, 2005 Letter From Estonia to the New York Times titled A Land of Northern Lights, Cybercafes and the Flat Tax which touches upon many of the difficult issues currently facing the Baltic, and also the European Union.

As Landler writes about neighboring Estonia: "Estonia, one realizes after a few days in the abiding twilight of a Baltic winter, is not like other European countries".

Landler writes further that "Estonia's economic growth was nearly 11 percent in the last quarter - the second fastest in Europe, after Latvia, and an increase more reminiscent of China or India than Germany or France."

The Old Europe vs. The New Europe

In Europe, we sometimes find two previously opposed worlds, the now increasingly dynamic "New Europe" of the East (predominantly in urban areas) and the sometimes all too encrusted "Old Europe" of the West (often in rural areas).

Part of the problem in the European Union is that some of the established nations of Western Europe do not want to move forward, whereas the economic demands of the times, driven by the globalization of the world, really give them no choice. In the longer term, they must move forward if they want to survive. This is a basic rule of life, "grow or die".

The Model of Ireland

The country of Ireland is the outstanding example of a country which is adapting well to the ever-changing demands of the world. A December 20, 2005 article by Teresa K├╝chler at EUobserver.com is titled "Irish most happy, Brits most unhappy with EU" and reports on a recent "Eurobarometer" poll taken by the European Commission, in which 86% of the Irish think that they have benefitted from EU membership, as compared to only 37% in Britain.

Ireland and the UK

So what distinguishes Ireland from the United Kingdom as far as the EU is concerned? Are these differences real - or merely differences in the way things are viewed?

Ireland, as far as we have been able to determine from news reports and analyses, has moved unfailingly toward modernity and toward European integration. See e.g. The Celtic Tiger. Take a look at Ireland's ComReg website. Fast, Comprehensive, Intuitive. Remarkably good. There you find an immediate link, e.g. to the "New EU Framework". Ireland is on the move.

By comparison, when I went to the UK telecommunications site, I was confronted with the statement that "The Oftel website is now closed" and was redirected, but not automatically, from Oftel to Ofcom. Try to find something at that website about the telecommunications framework of the European Union.

Indeed, compare both websites for the amount of informational content contained on all kinds of issues. The Irish website wins hands down, both in content and design. Why is that?

In November 2004, according to the BBC, the Economist judged Ireland the best country in the world to live in, followed by Switzerland, Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden, Australia, Iceland, Italy, Denmark and Spain. The United Kingdom ranked 29th. As the BBC writes:

"The researchers said although the UK achieved high income per head, it had high levels of social and family breakdown."

Does anyone really think that this high level of social and family breakdown has anything to do with the European Union? Or are there other factors of the past which have not been satisfactorily resolved? There is surely no sense in blaming the EU for these problems, which would exist even if the UK were not a member of the EU. Indeed, it might be suggested here that eurosceptics in the UK try to remove such non-EU-related problems from their political equation. Perhaps the role of the EU might then look different in their eyes.

Insularity is No Solution

One common denominator for those unhappy with the EU seems to be the desire for insularity, i.e. the attempt to reject the economic and political realities of the modern world and to live in the past, a past long gone. As suggested by Phil Kirk: "Forget the past and look to the future."

The possibility that EU problems are more ones of attitude and less problems of substance is manifested by two nations at opposite geographic ends of the EU, the United Kingdom and Latvia. The citizens of both nations are among the unhappiest with the EU (this in spite of the fact that Latvia currently has the fastest growing economy in Europe).

Latvian Rural Areas Emptying

In order not to offend the people in the UK, I will talk about my own ancestral nation. I was in Latvia last month and was again - as I was last year - as amazed at the dynamism in Riga as I was amazed at the lack of dynamism in rural areas, and, it is precisely from these rural areas that most of the opposition to the EU comes, just as in the French "no" vote to the Constitution, which was centered around farmers and workers.

Yet, while the eurosceptics in Latvia laud the good old days and the blessings of rural life, the younger generations continue to stream to Riga and elsewhere (particularly as workers to Ireland) to seek the blessings and wages of "modern life", leaving behind an impoverished "rural paradise" populated by the elderly. As my father (otherwise a great patriot who married on the Latvian Day of Independence) used to say about the good old days in Latvia, his teeth hurt down on the farm when he was a boy in Latvia and there were no dentists around to correct the problem nor money to pay them had they been there. Romanticism should not replace reality in politics.

My father left the Latvian countryside for Riga as a boy to support his family and ultimately emigrated to the United States after WWII to - rightly - seek his fortune. What has changed? Apparently very little.

See e.g.:
OECD Agriculture and Rural Development in Baltic Countries: Seminar held in Tallinn, Estonia, 10-12 June 2003
Basic skills in Latvia - A pessimistic outlook
Baltic Blacks among Celts (this title is provocative because "Balt" in Latvian means "white" and there is some indication that the "Baltic" name derived from that appellation)
Dan Bilefsky, Migration's flip side: All roads lead out, International Herald Tribune

As Slugger O'Toole writes:

"While there has been much talk about how Ireland has had to adjust to the more than 130,000 East Europeans from the new EU member states who registered to work here from May 2004 to date, Dan Bilefsky in the International Herald Tribune (paper copy only) reports how Latvia is emptying, where now “there is hardly a family left who hasn’t lost a son or daughter or mother or father to the mushroom farms of Ireland”."

That is the reality. Those who wish to perpetuate an antiquated traditional rural culture which is being abandonded by those who live there simply do not see the writing on the wall.

The Great Divide

The problems facing the UK are of course different, but, as in Latvia, there is still a great divide between economic realities and the utopian politico-economic theories of the eurosceptics and traditionalists, who long for some romantic perfect world in the past, which never existed.

The European Union may have its faults, but it is far better than any alternative that otherwise exists to guarantee the economic and political survival of Europe and its nations. Without the EU, the future of Europe would be fairly bleak, because relatively small, independent and individually weak nations would face global competition at all levels - and, more significantly - from bigger and stronger competitors. Indeed, the political dominance of large political unions such as the United States, Russia or China is comparable to the economic dominance exerted on the world economy by large multi-national corporations. One can either be dominated - or not wishing to be dominated - can form competing dominant political and economic unions. There is no other alternative in the long term.
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