In her autobiography, Kalniete recalled her family’s deportation to Siberia by the USSR’s secret police. She was born in a Russian gulag, which she left at the age of four and a half to return to her parent’s home country, Latvia, in 1957. However, she acknowledges that her first few years of life in the gulag profoundly influenced her outlook on life: the isolation she felt in the small Siberian village and realisation that her life could have stopped there left her with a certain clarity of moral and political principles, and a deep commitment to the idea of a strong Europe. After being nominated as Latvia’s first commissioner to the European Union (EU), she recalled, “I don’t like all the Byzantine elements in European politics because for 50 years we were victims of that”.
Kalniete studied at the Riga Academy of Arts and became one of the founding members of the Latvian Popular Front opposition movement, which led Latvia to its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. After independence, Kalniete was appointed Deputy Foreign Minister. At the time, complete independence from the Soviet Union was still a challenge because many communists still occupied top positions, and Soviet troops remained on the streets of Latvia’s capital city. “All of us were prepared to die”, she explained. “When the Soviets began their assault, I prepared a small bag with bare necessities to sustain me if I was arrested. Day and night I slept in the foreign ministry”.
From 1993 to 1997, Kalniete was Latvia’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. From 1997 to 2002, she was her country’s top diplomat in France and UNESCO. In 2002, she was named foreign minister of Latvia, at a crucial moment where its accession to the EU and NATO was being finalised. She then was appointed as the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Fisheries, a post she was wary of accepting as she was not sure to be able to make a difference.
Between 2006 and 2007, Kalniete served as a member of the Amato Group. The group counted a number of high-level European politicians who were unofficially rewriting the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (what would become known as the Treaty of Lisbon) following its rejection by French and Dutch voters. In 2006, Kalniete was elected to the Saeima, the Latvian National Parliament. In the 2009 European Parliamentary election, she was elected as Member of the European Parliament, a position she was re-elected for in the 2014 and 2019 European Parliamentary elections in Latvia.
As a European Parliament member, Kalniete works on the Committees on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, as well as in the Subcommittee on Security and Defence. Since 2014, she has been serving as Vice President for External Affairs of the European People’s Party group.