Interview with Latvian Prime Minister "Putin Is On His Own Trajectory Regardless of What the EU Does"

Should Ukraine be granted candidate status for the European Union? Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš says that Putin's war means there is no longer a middle path for Eastern Europe. Either countries join the EU or they become part of the Russian empire.
Interview Conducted by Markus Becker in Brussels
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on June 16.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on June 16.

Foto: SERGEY DOLZHENKO / EPA

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, this week’s European Union summit will focus on whether Ukraine should become an official EU accession candidate. Some member states are skeptical, despite Russia’s aggression. Do you have understanding for their concerns?

Kariņš: It is sometimes difficult, because this is not about Ukraine joining the EU today or tomorrow. What we are discussing is a purely political decision: Whether we want Ukraine to join eventually, if we see them as part of the European Union. And in all the discussions we have had with our European partners, I have never heard anyone argue that Ukraine does not belong in the EU.

DER SPIEGEL: Is there is too much fuss being made about naming Ukraine a candidate for accession?

Kariņš: Legally speaking, granting candidate status is indeed only a symbol. It means giving Ukraine the green light to go ahead and try to fulfill the requirements that all of us had to fulfill when we joined the EU. However, a positive decision from the European Council would be a very important morale booster to Ukraine, which is literally struggling for its physical and cultural existence. And it would also show how we, as the European Union, view ourselves in geostrategic terms.

DER SPIEGEL: How so?

Kariņš: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war has shown that at least in Eastern Europe, there is no longer an in-between. Russia is not going to allow countries any kind of neutral status. It seems to be hell-bent on attacking potentially vulnerable neighbors. This means: Either you are democratic, in which case you should have a path to the European Union, or you will become a part of some Russian empire Putin is trying to re-create.

DER SPIEGEL: Even the staunchest advocates of giving Ukraine a clear accession perspective admit that it would take years, or even decades, for Ukraine to become a full member. Would the EU not run the risk of disappointing the Ukrainians, just as it has disappointed candidate countries in the Western Balkans?

Kariņš: How long it would take to become an EU member would be up to the Ukrainians. They can undertake reforms to be able to join the European Union or not do anything. But if we give them candidate status, they receive a clear signal that they can one day become members. Such an outcome would also be in our own interest. Our collective prosperity and security are based on a large and strong union of rules-based democracies.

DER SPIEGEL: Speaking of rules: Critics argue that corruption and deficiencies in the rule of law are far too widespread in Ukraine to grant it candidate status just yet.

Kariņš: I find these questions about Ukraine’s shortcomings a little puzzling. Here is a country which is struggling for its very existence. And those questions assume that the war will end relatively quickly and positively. Also, these concerns are nothing new: Latvia also had lots of challenges. But we addressed them 20, 30 years ago. We made some massive changes, which were to the extreme benefit of our citizens. For Ukraine, it would be no different.

DER SPIEGEL: Several Western Balkan countries have been working hard towards joining the EU for years. Now, they are being forced to stand by and watch as they are overtaken by Ukraine. Does the EU run the risk of frustrating them even more?

Kariņš: Joining the European Union is not a race, it’s a process. In my view, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and the Western Balkan countries all have a place in the European Union. It would be good to give them a clear enough signal that if they go through the same process we all have completed, they will end up as part of the European Union, too.

DER SPIEGEL: In important policy fields such as foreign affairs, security and finances, the EU still must decide unanimously. Would the EU be equipped to handle eight new members, or would it then be completely paralyzed?

A German Gepard anti-aircraft tank: "In a sense, Scholz has decided to rearm Germany."

A German Gepard anti-aircraft tank: "In a sense, Scholz has decided to rearm Germany."

Foto: Maurizio Gambarini / dpa

Kariņš: If we take on new members, we would indeed have to have a debate about how we could decide more efficiently.

DER SPIEGEL: In concrete terms, would you be prepared to jettison the unanimity principle – thus sacrificing your country’s veto – to make the EU nimbler and more decisive?

Kariņš: I would be open to this discussion, but it would have to be clear how the majorities would work in practice. Given the current size of the union, we as a country are quite wary of changing the EU’s decision-making process, because as a small member state, there is always the concern that other member states simply decide and we are forced to follow, even if we disagree.

DER SPIEGEL: Only a few weeks ago, many in the EU warned that giving Ukraine candidate status could further provoke Putin. That debate now seems to be over. Why?

Kariņš: People seem to have realized that there is nothing we in Europe can do or not do to provoke Putin. He is on his own trajectory regardless of what we do. He views himself as Peter the Great, fighting to create an empire and trying to take back what he thinks belongs to him. So we have to think about what we want, how we see the situation and how we can strengthen our own defenses. If we give in to blackmail, we will end up losing our freedom in a very fundamental way.

DER SPIEGEL: Germany has been criticized for not providing Ukraine with enough weapons and for failing to show leadership in the crisis. Are you satisfied with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s policies thus far?

Kariņš: The German government has undertaken a tectonic shift in policy, something unimaginable six months ago. Before Russia’s aggression started, Berlin even blocked the re-export of howitzers from the former East German to Estonia. But less than a week into the war, Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government decided to release European funds to buy weapons, to spend 100 billion euro on the military and to permanently raise Germany’s defense budget to 2 percent of GDP. In a sense, Scholz has decided to rearm Germany. This is a tremendous shift in a very short time.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you also aware of the German government’s plan to freeze the defense budget at 50 billion euros per year? This would mean that in 2027, once the 100-billion-euro special fund has been spent, the defense budget will shrink back to a measly 1.25 percent of GDP.

Kariņš: Yes, I know that. But we have four years between now and 2026. Given the vastness of the changes in German policy over the past three months, I would not be surprised if the German government in power in 2026 rethinks this decision when the time comes.