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4th Dec 2016

Interview

'Baltic candidate' challenges Juncker for EU top job

Conservative parties in the three Baltic states are supporting former Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis to take the pole position for the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) in the EU elections.

Speaking to EUobserver on Saturday (15 February), Dombrovskis said he decided to put his name forward as the EPP top candidate because he believes "there is something from my work experience as a prime minister of Latvia which can be useful also at a European level."

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Dombrovskis, 42 years old, is running again to be an MEP after being elected to the European Parliament in 2004-2009. He became Latvian PM in 2009, just as the financial and economic crisis struck his home country.

Latvia was the first EU country to ask for an international bailout, but later rebounded and managed to meet the strict economic and fiscal criteria for euro membership. It became a member of the single currency on 1 January. Dombrovskis, however, had already resigned a few weeks earlier, following the collapse of a supermarket which killed 54 people.

The EPP has started the process of selecting its top candidate for the EU elections, with a final decision due in three weeks' time at a congress in Dublin.

So far, the other official candidates in the running are ex-eurogroup chief Jean-Claude Juncker (59 years old) and EU internal market commissioner Michel Barnier (63 years old), both veterans of EU politics.

Asked if the need for younger politicians on the EU scene was also a reason for his candidacy, Dombrovskis laughed, saying he would "certainly not like to make age the main issue.”

"I appreciate that the EPP is able to put forward other experienced candidates. Mr. Juncker of course has huge experience in both national govenrment and EU matters, having also led the Eurogroup for a number of years."

"But I decided to put forward my candidacy to propose these ideas about competitiveness. As I am always saying, I am realistic about my chances, but I still think it's worth putting forward my candidacy," he said.

Dombrovskis' main argument is that while Europe has done a lot to boost fiscal discipline and reduce budget deficits it has focused less on increasing competitiveness.

"You cannot sustain higher levels of welfare and prosperity without high levels of competitiveness, particularly in today's environment with the emergence of new economies," Dombrovskis said.

He admitted there is no "miracle solution" to bring Europe out of its current situation of high unemployment and sluggish growth.

But he said things could improve with the creation of a single market for the digital economy, fairer competition in the energy market, and more ambitious investments in research and development "where the US and Japan are outspending the EU."

"Similar to the European Semester co-ordinating our fiscal policies, we would need an instrument to coordinate policies related to competitiveness," Dombrovskis noted, echoing similar calls from Germany, which backs “binding contracts” on competitiveness.

The Latvian politician admitted that discussions on binding contracts are "unclear" because some countries insist on more "solidarity" in return for the accords, amid little clarity on where the money would come from.

Asked if he has received any signals from Berlin - German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the most powerful leader in the EPP family - Dombrovskis said that his candidacy is still a “work in progress."

"Of course we are working with different member states and offices. There are several heads of government I have discussed this matter personally with, there are several which I contacted through their offices, we also work with MEPs. But it's still work in progress," he noted.

Merkel has so far refused to fully endorse any of the candidates. She said she has "great sympathy" for Juncker, but added that the final decision will be taken in Dublin.

Barnier is seen as having few chances to secure the nomination because he has no EPP leader to endorse his bid, coming, as he does, from France’s opposition centre-right UMP party, instead of French President Francois Hollande’s Socialist faction.

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