Latvian ambassador: ‘Brexit was big news in our country because nobody was expecting it’

Dr Gerard O'Hare CBE, the Honorary Consul of Latvia for Northern Ireland, and H.E. Ms Baiba Braze, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Latvia to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, at the News Letter Belfast office. Pic by Ben Lowry
Dr Gerard O'Hare CBE, the Honorary Consul of Latvia for Northern Ireland, and H.E. Ms Baiba Braze, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Latvia to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, at the News Letter Belfast office. Pic by Ben Lowry

On a visit to Northern Ireland, Latvia’s UK ambassador Baiba Braže talks to BEN LOWRY about her country’s warm relations with Britain, but how they want more of their citizens to come home:

Latvia is not that much bigger than Northern Ireland in terms of population.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, left, and UK representative to the EU Tim Barrow arrive for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels on June 22, 2017. What will be the relationship between Britain and the EU, Latvians were wondering after Brexit? (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

British Prime Minister Theresa May, left, and UK representative to the EU Tim Barrow arrive for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels on June 22, 2017. What will be the relationship between Britain and the EU, Latvians were wondering after Brexit? (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

With just under two million people living in the country, it has around 100,000 more inhabitants than the Province.

In terms of area, Latvia is far bigger – almost as big as the island of Ireland.

There are other Irish parallels – a small country that lived for decades was part of a much bigger one (the Soviet Union) and which is now cementing its relationship with the European Union.

On a recent visit to the News Letter Belfast office, Latvia’s ambassador to the UK, Baiba Braže, explained the country’s history with Britain: “For the Baltic States, Britain was important from the beginning, from establishment of the country in 1918, because the British government recognised the Latvian temporary government a week before proclamation of independence [from Russia], and the British soldiers were fighting on our soil and in our seas together with the Latvians. ”

Ms Baiba Braze, Latvian ambassador to UK, at the News Letter Belfast office

Ms Baiba Braze, Latvian ambassador to UK, at the News Letter Belfast office

“In the Hanseatic times [during Middle Ages] the Scots came to trade because it was easier for them to come to the Baltic shores than to go into the Thames against the winds.”

More recently, the UK and Baltic states within the EU and Nato were “like-minded on economic policy, pretty liberal, pretty open economies, trade, modern.”

Latvia has built up is digital skills, with one of the fastest internets and one of the highest number of multi-lingual people in the world.

“Britain kind of embraced it so we saw each other as like-minded states within the EU.”

Brexit, she says, “was big news because nobody expected it, even though there were people who were saying that yes, it’s quite likely”.

“The reaction was regret,” Ms Braze says, “but respect because have people have voted.”

Such political upheaval was also striking to Latvians because they have “clear rules on how referendums can be organised, what majorities you need for which issue.

“For example, the constitution provides that on taxes, international agreements, tariffs, there is no referendum possibility ... and that for certain articles of the parliament you can only have referendum if majority of all citizens participate.”

She says: “Those were the reflections – what will be the relationship between Britain and the EU? How will it impact the relationship between Latvia and Britain, because of the importance of the partnership that we have had? What will be EU’s future?”

Latvia does not have much of a Eurosceptic political movement, Ms Braže says. “There was one party who tried to form their party programme on the basis of Euroscepticism. I think they got 0.5% or even less.”

Ms Braže was visiting Belfast after eight months as ambassador because she wanted “to see with my own eyes how the constituent parts of the United Kingdom is doing”.

With tens of thousands of citizens on either side of the Irish border (4 to 12,000 in Northern Ireland, around 100,000 in the Republic), Latvia has a consular office in Newry, where it has been issuing passports to its citizens.

The country has been taking a close interest in how Brexit will affect that frontier.

Dr Gerald O’Hare CBE, the honorary consul of Latvia for NI, who sits in on this interview, says: “We’ve a lot of migration across the border. A lot of Latvians who live in the North will work in Monaghan. A lot of them who live south of the border will work up in factories up here in the North, so even on a daily basis there’s quite a migration.”

Ms Braže’s visit helps her understand the importance of freedom of movement for Northern Ireland in particular across border, Dr O’Hare says: “The freedom of foreign nationals to be able to come and go to work here. Moy Park are crying out, they need thousands of foreign nationals to work there, as do many of our employers.”

Latvians have been returning from the UK and Ireland. Asked if she wants more to do so, Ms Braže says: “Of course, we need our people home.”

Latvia is now a country of immigrants, not just emigrants. Being well to the north of Europe, it has been less exposed to the migrant influx than other eastern European countries where there has been hostility to incomers.

“Some of the Latvian political parties tried to create anti-EU feeling on the basis of the migration crisis, that the EU is unable to deal with it. It didn’t get much traction ...

“The government clearly said that we will do our duties, that we have 800 migrants that we have to take.”

Meanwhile, Latvia has its own border concern.

Of the three Baltic states, it and Estonia have a land border with Russia, and so would be more vulnerable than Lithuania if Moscow was to behave in an expansionist way.

“If you look militarily there are all kinds of scenarios if Russia tries some military actions that we all are pretty vulnerable, but the two with the open border would be more vulnerable,” Ms Braže says.

But she emphasises that the Baltic states “are members of Nato and the EU, that there is Article 5 commitments [collective defence], we have British, German, Canadian, American troops, in addition to our troops.

“We are a member of the strongest defence alliance.”

Current relations with Russia are “pragmatic”.

“We still trade with Russia, we still have our contacts, we have cultural relations, but at the same time our values are different.”

She adds: “There is no question about us not being aggressive towards Russia, so Russia shouldn’t be aggressive towards us.”

There are, though, economic vulnerabilities.

“In the Soviet times we were fully integrated in the Russian energy system so the last 10-15 years have been very much about making decisions and separating ourselves, opening the markets.

“Luckily, half of our electricity supply is hydro ...”

Looking to the future, she says Latvians are “pretty self-confident”.

“After Russia invaded Ukraine and before that it showed with Georgia what it can do in a short while ... so we remember the First World War started with a single shot in Sarajevo and few years later there was almost a million dead.”

• Latvia had a huge property boom and then a huge bust

In a further similarity with both Northern Ireland and the Republic, Latvia experienced a property boom which burst in spectacular fashion in the financial crisis.

“When we regained independence [from the Soviet Union] at the beginning of 1990s, people had nothing, there were no property rules, we couldn’t own literally anything, there were no banks, you couldn’t own land or house or anything,” says Ms Braže.

“So people tried to save money and in the 90s they worked hard and they built something, businesses opening up, all kinds of opportunities ... and when we joined the EU in 2004, the loans became cheaper and the banks were giving a lot of loans to people.

“They didn’t have that experience, what it means, what is the real value of the property, how can you pay it back? Just kind of basic skills. There was a property boom ... and then it all crashed and that was pretty harsh.

“We lost serious amount of GDP income. There were lots of people who went to work in Britain and Ireland.”

Dr O’Hare adds: “The recovery was amazing because the Latvian government in 2009 immediately introduced austerity measures, long before we heard about it here in the UK or Ireland, and in the top public sector there were 30% cuts in real wages.

“By 2012, Latvia was one of the first economies to be recovering back to a very strong position and has continued with reasonable growth.”

The country joined the euro in 2014, and had been committed to join it from much earlier than that. Asked if there has been any rethink on membership of the single currency, Ms Braže replies: “No. If anything Brexit has made the EU more popular.”

• This interview was to be published before the election but was delayed by the London bridge attack, election result and Grenfell fire