Courtesy of Kate Weiland

The President of Latvia, his Excellency Egils Levits, discussed several key issues regarding foreign and domestic policy at an event hosted by the ​​University of Michigan Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia and the University of Michigan Law School on Thursday.

The talk included Geneviève Zubrzycki, WCEE director and professor of sociology, and Daniel Halberstam, Eric Stein Collegiate Professor of Law and director of the European Legal Studies Program, as moderators.

Levits has held office since July 2019. He previously served as vice prime minister, minister for justice and Latvia’s ambassador to Hungary, Austria and Switzerland. Levits was also the first Latvian judge at the European Court of Human Rights from 1995 to 2004 and a judge of the European Court of Justice from 2004 to 2019.

Next year will be the 100-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and Latvia. Frederick Coleman, the first ambassador of the United States to Latvia from 1922 to 1931, obtained his bachelor’s and law degree from the University of Michigan.

The event began with Levits discussing the history of Latvia and its road to independence. The Soviet Union occupied Latvia during World War II until 1990 when the state was restored.

“Democratic movements were very important, not only in regards to the restoration of (Latvian) independence but also in changing the European political map,” Levits said. “The Soviet Union broke up as a result of the independent movements of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.”

Levits also addressed the current situation between Russia and Belarus, where there has been a repression of democratic movements since World War II. He said Latvia supports demands for new, free and fair elections in Belarus.

Levits talked about current events, including Latvia’s involvement in the European Union. Levits said he would like to see more effective European policy with the “no harm principle,” in which every country is taken into consideration when taking political action.

“We are for further development and deepening of the European Union, of the common market,” Levits said. “We are also for more visible European foreign policy.”

According to Levits, Latvia is working with Estonia and Lithuania to ensure a strong community and address the issues in Belarus.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Aiva Rozenberga, a public relations advisor to Levits, said transparency in the European Union is especially vital for small countries like Latvia, which has a population of less than 2 million people.

“Transparency is very important because being a smaller country, as Latvia is, it’s important that all the 27 member countries have the same voice so that everybody can participate in this process where you make decisions about the whole continent,” Rozenberga said.

Halberstam asked Levits to speak on the relationship between the European Union and the United States, citing President Biden’s recent decision to stop consulting European allies on Afghanistan and the Australian Submarine Agreement as well as his meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the White House Wednesday.

Levits explained the importance of collaboration between Western countries to maintain power and democratic values, especially as China continues to grow both economically and politically.

“The United States and Europe are based on the same democratic values, and this is very important when we have so few centers of power in the world,” Levits said. “We should work together in order to defend the threats to our fundamental beliefs — for democracy and for rule of law.”

Rozenberga talked about the importance of good relations between the United States and Europe, regardless of changes in the administration.

“It’s very important for the Baltic States, not just for Latvia, but for the whole region to have very strong transatlantic ties,” Rozenberga said. “It means very active political dialogue, and it means active contact in the economic sphere and in the military as part of NATO. When the situation changes geopolitically still, we know that we are one family.”

Rackham student Anna Tanalski, a second-year student in the Masters of International Regional Studies program, said she was honored to be able to attend the event and found Levits’s focus on democratic values to be impactful.

“I think the most impactful subject that he touched upon was maintaining allyships and relationships with neighboring countries and their unity in the face of collective difficulties, whether it be the crisis of refugees or whether it be kind of this general resistance to a feeling of some people wanting a return to Soviet values,” Tanalski said.

During the open Q&A section of the event, an audience member asked Levits about the state of Latvia’s judicial system, which he referred to as “one of the weakest institutions” due to the inefficiency of the courts.

Levits responded, explaining that over the past 10 years, the judicial system in Latvia has become much more efficient. He plans to continue this growth by introducing a change in criminal procedure law that allows judges to deliver judgement. Levits said this change will contribute to further developing an efficient court system in the country.

Rozenberga said Latvia had to build its legal system from scratch following its restoration of independence from the Soviet Union.

“It has been a very hard job, and as the President stated today, we have a very strong legal system, except a few technical things that we still have to fix and he’s currently working on that,” Rozenberga said. “Being a lawyer and judge in his previous professions, he really knows what needs to be done.”

A previous version of this article misattributed a question to Stein. The article has been update to reflect Halberstam had asked the question.

Daily Staff Reporter Kate Weiland can be reached at kmwblue@umich.edu.