Many Latvians have made Britain their new home. The Latvian diaspora generally works hard and contributes to the British economy and society.
A popular Latvian children’s rhyme goes, roughly translated, ‘’One little Turkish bean went to England. England was locked, the lock was broken, eeny meeny miny mo, you are free to go’’.
While the origins of this old rhyme are unknown, it is clear that in recent years many Latvian ‘beans’ have made Britain their new home. Although precise figures are not available, we estimate that up to 100,000 Latvians now live in the UK.
Some of them settled here after fleeing the Soviet occupation of Latvia in WWII, but most have arrived since 2004, when Latvia joined the European Union and the UK immediately opened its labour market to the newcomers. For a country of 2 million, this is a large diaspora, keeping the Latvian Embassy in London busy not only with consular services, but also support to weekend schools and cultural activities.
Of course, Anglo-Latvian connections go back centuries. Trade links have been active already since the Hanseatic League. In 1859 British merchants built an Anglican church in Riga on soil specially shipped from England, and an Englishman, George Armistead, served as the mayor of Riga in the boom years 1901-1912.
In 1919, the Royal Navy suffered losses while defending Latvia’s newly-established independence – a sacrifice we still remember and honour each year with a moving ceremony. The support of the British government, notably Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, was instrumental in the Paris Peace Conference, which led to Latvia’s de iure recognition in 1921.
The Latvian Embassy in London is the oldest of Latvia’s embassies, as it has been open continuously since 1919. Even during the years of Soviet occupation, the Embassy remained open, thanks to the Western non-recognition of Soviet rule.
With the restoration of independence in 1991, Latvia was able to renew and build on its historical ties with the UK. Our bilateral relationship is based on a wide variety of instruments, from exchanges of visits by our heads of state to everyday activities.
Even before Latvia’s accession to the EU in 2004, the UK was one of Latvia’s key partners in trade and investment. Our economic relationship is still growing – the UK is currently Latvia’s 7th biggest export market (2/3 timber and timber products) and the source of 385.5 million euro worth of investments.
Latvia’s accession to the EU opened the way for free movement of people to the UK. From factory workers to City bankers to Oxbridge students, the Latvian diaspora generally works hard and contributes to the British economy and society. The Latvian Embassy regularly hosts networking meetings for our students and entrepreneurs, in the hope that some will eventually return to Latvia with their British knowhow.
In all these efforts we rely on the help of Latvia’s honorary consuls in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Guernsey and Newcastle-uponTyne, with Liverpool, Birmingham and other key cities in the pipeline.
NATO enlargement in 2004 gave a new dimension to our defence cooperation. The UK has contributed to NATO air policing over Latvia and recently announced that about 100 British military personnel are to be sent to the Baltic States. Latvia has procured British military equipment for its armed forces.
UK contacts with Latvia also take place at a regional level. In 2011 Prime Minister David Cameron hosted a NordicBaltic summit in London. This initiative has become the annual Northern Future Forum, where prime ministers can informally exchange ideas with entrepreneurs and NGOs on a wide variety of long-term issues. For example, the themes at the Riga forum in 2013 were the green economy and the digital divide.
Speaking of long-term issues, the UK will soon hold a referendum on its future in the EU. While the decision is solely for British voters, in Latvia we believe that continued UK membership in the EU is in our mutual best interest. We find it hard to imagine a strong, influential and secure EU without the UK.
Looming beyond the referendum is the year 2018, the centenary of declaration of independence. Latvians all over the world, including the UK, will celebrate. Our history shows the resilience of our people and their love of democracy and freedom. That quality we certainly have in common with the British.
by Andris Teikmanis, Ambassador of Latvia in the United Kingdom,
a Latvian lawyer, politician, and diplomat. He served as Mayor of Riga from 1990 to 1994