Sandra Kalniete on Latvian independence, her time as foreign minister and battling foreign interference in democratic processes

With the war in Ukraine recalibrating practically every policy field, it has become paramount to identify and counter disinformation and foreign malign influence in Europe, Sandra Kalniete tells Parliament Magazine
Sandra Kalniete MEP | Photo: Andrejs Strokins for Parliament Magazine

By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a senior journalist at the Parliament Magazine

11 Apr 2022

The desperate struggle of the Ukrainian nation for survival and independence currently unfolding resonates deeply with an MEP who, in a former life, was dubbed one of the “mothers” of Latvian independence.

Like many of her peers from the countries that used to be part of or under the supervision of the Soviet Union, and unlike many of those who were not, Sandra Kalniete has never held any illusions about Russian geopolitics. 

She is now among those MEPs calling to extend the sanctions against Russia to energy: “We are still paying for Russian gas, and with prices shooting up, [Vladimir] Putin is getting more and more revenue from gas with which to finance his war machine.” 

[A compromised digital environment] can destroy. It’s a threat to financial systems, it’s a threat to the economy. It could create threats to security, to everything

Aware that some Member States would initially find it difficult to wean themselves off Russian energy supplies, she nevertheless insists it is imperative to do so: “Taking a medium and larger perspective, European politicians have to understand that, if this conflict grows bigger and escalates, there could be a much higher price to pay than just cutting Russian gas entirely for a certain period.” 

To those in the European Union arguing that energy sanctions should be reserved as an option to react to further escalation, Kalniete says to look to Mariupol and “all those people who are living without water, electricity, without food, and where corpses are scattered on streets. I can’t think what else the Commission and some Member States need to consider [when it comes to] cutting Russian gas.”

Noting that bigger Member States with a high dependency on Russian gas are also the ones expressing doubts about the prospect of Ukraine joining the European Union in the foreseeable future, Kalniete warns that not offering Ukraine a European perspective would be a possibly fatal blow for that country.

“We have to grant candidate status [to Ukraine], notwithstanding that they are in the war, for their morale, for their feeling of political importance. But also for negotiations with Russia, it’s extremely important.”

Kalniete’s first foray into EU politics ended in farce, very much not of her own doing. Together with politicians from the other nine countries about to join the Union in 2004, she entered the Berlaymont building and became a shadow commissioner, in her case with Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries Franz Fischler.

Photo: Andrejs Strokins for Parliament Magazine

She had moved to Brussels after 14 months as Latvia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, having served her country as ambassador to the UN, France and Unesco over the 10 previous years. She was widely expected to become the first Latvian commissioner after the six-month shadow stint. 

However, the government in Riga, having changed in the interim, had other plans. It nominated a faithful supporter of the new governing coalition, Ingrīda Ūdre, then speaker of the Latvian Parliament.

But Ūdre was found wanting in expertise and integrity by the European Parliament during her hearings, and, forestalling a rejection, the government withdrew her candidacy. 

In an ironic twist, Kalniete’s former head of cabinet as shadow commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, went on to fill the role of the Baltic nation’s first commissioner in the end, responsible for energy. So, does she have regrets about missing out on this?

“Of course, there are regrets”, Kalniete admits. “But what does it change? Nothing. You have to look what you can do next, and this is exactly what I did.”

After a short break, Kalniete entered politics as a legislator. In 2006 she was elected to the Latvian Parliament, and in 2009 to the European Parliament, where she has been re-elected twice.

Kalniete was one of the co-founders and leaders of the Popular Front, the biggest movement fighting for the restoration of Latvian independence in the late 80s, and she is the only one of her fellow activists of the time to still be active in politics. She says she has no intention of retiring soon.

“You just have to be consistent, and you have to have a backbone, you have to be able to say ‘no, this I will not accept’ sometimes”, she explains. “If you have no backbone, then you cannot survive as long as I have survived.”

The European Parliament is the ideal place for her, Kalniete believes, because here she can bring her diplomatic experience into play, notably in the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET).

In her latest high-profile role, she drafted the final report of the Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation (INGE), which was adopted by Parliament during this year’s March Strasbourg plenary session.

We have to think about the financing of political interferences of different sorts, not only political advertisements but also the numerous covert funding ways which also have to be checked out, brought to light. And that’s why we need a toolbox to deal with that

Like everything else, the INGE committee’s work has been put into sharp focus by the war in Ukraine because, as Kalniete says, it made the democratic world “understand how important disinformation is as an instrument for brainwashing, for preparing an entire nation to accept war as the only instrument of, I don’t know, international action”.

She describes her report as “one-third diagnosis and two-thirds recommendations”, and the former makes it very clear that so far, disinformation and other forms of malign interference have not been taken as seriously as they should be. 

The diagnostic work of INGE has shown that “we are not observing the most elementary security requirements when we are dealing with digital actions”, Kalniete argues. Again, the war has changed awareness radically, and she hopes that this will have consequences not only for digital practice but also in terms of legislation.

“I also hope that the Commission and the Council will not look at that as something which is marginal, because this is one of the central elements as it influences everything. [A compromised digital environment] can destroy. It’s a threat to financial systems, it’s a threat to the economy. It could create threats to security, to everything.”

With the twin legislations of the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act currently being negotiated between the co-legislators, a lot can be achieved, Kalniete believes, especially when it comes to forcing platforms to stop acting unethically.

But when it comes to elite capture, now starkly exposed in the Russian case, fewer means are available to counter it. But that has to change, Kalniete says.

“We have to think about the financing of political interferences of different sorts, not only political advertisements but also the numerous covert funding ways which also have to be checked out, brought to light. And that’s why we need a toolbox to deal with that.”

Photo: Andrejs Strokins for Parliament Magazine

When I tell her that several MEPs who have recently joined this legislature have impressed me with their dynamism, among them the chair of the first INGE edition, and suggest that Parliament has become more effective, she is sceptical. 

“Parliament is not about dynamics. Parliament is about persistent legislative work. And legislative work in this, my third mandate, has become more difficult”, Kalniete says. She blames it on the ground gained by the far right and a shrinking political centre, which together mean that it takes much longer to find an agreement.

“We are very vocal on the political side with all sorts of declarations, but we have to be very detailed and profound when we are legislating, for instance in the framework of the Fit for 55 package”, referencing a set of proposals to revise and update the EU’s climate, energy and transport-related legislation. 

“There, it’s not enough to have political conviction. You need to also have an understanding of how to implement that.”  

INGE’s mandate comes to an end this month, but Parliament has decided that working against malign interference merits a renewed mandate for the second half of the legislature. Kalniete has applied to join the special committee again. The Brussels mini-plenary at the end of this month should see its members confirmed.