The “Baltic Fresh Breeze”Ends: A Review of Lithuania’s EU Presidency

Lithuania’s first term of rotating six months Presidency of the Council of European Union (EU)that began from1 July 2013 is coming to a close on 31 December 2013. When Lithuania took up EU Presidencyamidst several challenges, Lithuanian Foreign Minister, LinasLinkevičiusremarked, “Lithuania is a fresh breeze, an innovative and vital voice in the EU family” which can add value to the common European objectives. President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who has recently been awarded the Charlemagne Prize for her outstanding merits in European politics, viewed the Presidency as an opportunity for Lithuania to “work for a stronger, open and deeper economically and politically integrated European Union”. Now when the Lithuanian President handed over responsibilities to Greece intimating the end of the caress of “Baltic fresh breeze” on EU,it is interesting to look into what this tiny country could achieve out of the Presidency against the set priorities, goals and expectations.

For Lithuania, a country of merely less than three million people bordering Russia’s Kaliningrad, Poland, Latvia and Belarus,the EU Presidency is a prestigious position and an opportunity to show that the country is a reliable member, to be deeply integrated as “an old EU member state”, and free the country from the legacy of nearly 55 years of Soviet occupation. Lithuania is the first country to host European Union of 28 members with Croatia joining as a new member with effect from 1 July 2013. Another significant thing about 2013 is that it was the European Year of Citizens providing opportunity to debate about Europe with citizens in the member states. Lithuania is the first among the three tiny Baltic states (Estonia and Latvia being the other two) to hold EU Presidency.

The presidency required much preparation work. Preparations began well in advance when the Lithuanian Government approved a preparation plan in August 2008. Parliament, Seimas, passed its resolution on the political priorities on 10 November 2011.By thenLithuania was ready for Presidency with the necessary political, diplomatic, administrative and logistical arrangements,website, logoand flag, House of Europe, sponsors, volunteers and cultural events.Approximately 3000 meetings were tobe organized in Brussels, Luxemburg and Vilnius. Around 40,000 people including 500 ministers, EU commissioners and other high-ranking officials and others were visiting Lithuania.

Key Priorities

Lithuania defined its priorities towards the goal of “credible, growing and open Europe”. In terms of credible Europe, the presidency hadto deal with Europe’s economy, financial and social challenges. Financial stability, better employment opportunities for youth and EU’sstable growth and competitiveness weremost pressing issues. Towards the end of growing Europe the emphasis is to deepen integration to the internal market, energy policy including more investments in technology and research. Single market policy, banking union, etc.were supposed tobe paid particular attention to increase competitiveness. Though EU institutions have reached a political agreement on EU budget for next seven years (2014-2020),it will remain as a hot issue. Lithuania hadto face difficult tasks of coordinating large number of legislations allocating funds for individual members,and negotiations on banking reforms. The aim of open Europe prioritises the strengthening of Eastern Partnership with the post-Soviet states of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. This included the signing of Association and Free Trade Agreements between some of these states and EU.

Strengthening the EU’s common security and defence policy is a major priority. Developing the multinational rapid crisis response capabilities of EU and activating EU Battle Groups as military units were on the agenda, besidesenergy security andimplementation of Baltic Sea strategy.

Challenges

Against the backdrop the above mentioned priorities Lithuania set Presidency agenda amidst a lot of challenges. Lithuania tookup the manifold responsibilities of EU presidency ata time when Europe wasbecoming an epicentre of unprecedented economic, political and social crises. The European Union is currently encountering financial crisis, banking crisis, unemployment and social unreston an unprecedented scale since its establishment, and is unable to find common solutions for the problems. Scepticism is emerging about the effectiveness of a pan-European approach for addressing local and national problems. UK has even announced a referendum for people to decide if UK wants to quit the Union. Commentators expressed concern about even the existence of EU and stability of Euro. Many issues and crises facing the European Union are proving that now EU is not a heaven or solution for Europe’s problems. It could be assumed that the political decisions of member governments this year wouldbe a significant determinant of the future shape of European Union itself.

Lithuania survived several economic shocks in two decades. Lithuania’s public debt indicator shows it is among the six least indebted EU countries. However, when Lithuania tookup the manifold responsibilities of the EU Presidency it was expected to face many challenges.

A limited budget of 62 million Euros (214 million Litas) has been approved for the Presidency. Apparently, compared to previous presidencies, Lithuania’s was a low budget presidency signalling a modest spending, which wasa challenging task to hold innumerable meetings. Lithuania hadto work on a record number of approximately 563 legal dossiers of the EU. “Since the Lisbon Treaty was adopted, no EU presidency has had that many dossiers on their table …” saidLithuanian deputy foreign minister VytautasLeskevicius. Since the European Parliamentelections are due in May 2014,Lithuania was facing time constraint compelling it to move fast with legislations.

Achievements

Despite several challenges during presidency Lithuania has a lot of achievements to its credit. At the levels of economy, energy security, eastern partnership, trade and membership talks, Lithuania could achieve considerable cooperation though many things are yet to be achieved.

Economy and Financial Sector

Among the key priorities, the agreement reached on the EU budget for the period 2014-2020 is one of the major achievements. They could make progress in creatingthe Banking Union andreaching agreement on a single supervisory mechanism for preventing financial and debt crises. The European Council progressed towards an agreement on general provisions of the resolution mechanism which will help address bank insolvency problems. Lithuanian political leadership views that an effectively functioning Banking Union will ensure the responsible financial policy, contribute to preventing future financial crises, and provide mechanisms to assist member countries in times of hardship.

Energy Security

Energy securitynot only involves economic development and prosperity, but also relates to national security and geopolitics. The Baltic Statesview their situationas EU’s“energy islands” depending on unfriendly Russiaas the single energy supplier as a national security threat. Enhancing energy security through a single domestic market and integrating this into EU infrastructure is their national priority. The implementation of Baltic Sea strategy, for developing the Baltic Sea macro-region in EU is yet to be materialised. As this cannot be achieved without involving Russia,it remainsa key challenge for the strategy.

A budget for strategic interconnection projects was for the first time provided in the EU’s seven-year financial framework. This aims to promote a single European energy market. A list of EU Projects of Common Interest was adopted. Fifteen projects from the Baltic States are prioritised on the list, including six Lithuanian projects.

Eastern Partnership

Mr.LinasLinkevicius, Foreign Minister of Lithuania, in his speech on 13 November 2013 at Jawaharlal Nehru University,New Delhi highlighted that Eastern Partnership (EaP) is one the key priorities of Lithuanian EU Presidency. This is part of strengthening EU as global model of openness, security and credibility. He asserted that the EaP is not a zero sum game but for generating a win-win situation for all partners. He expressed that the third Eastern Partnership summit of European Union under the presidency of Lithuania held in Vilnius in 28-29 November 2013 would be a landmark event in terms of signing Association and Free trade Agreements with partnership countries,Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The Heads of State or Government and the representatives of the Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Republic of Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, the representatives of the European Union and the Heads of State or Government and representatives of its Member States have met in Vilnius on 28-29 November 2013. The President of the European Parliament and representatives of the Committee of the Regions, the European Economic and Social Committee, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) the Conference of Regional and Local Authorities of the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP) and the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly were also present at the Summit.But Armenia changed its decision to integrate with Russian-led Customs Union on the eve of the Vilnius summit. The Vilnius meet remained a partial success as Ukraine suspended its move to sign association and free trade agreements. This caused political crisis in Ukraine.

Russia has been alleged as playing a zero-sum game to prevent EU’s eastern enlargementto its “strategic and privileged sphere of influence in the neighbourhood”. The EU policy of EaP involves a risk of creating a potential rift with Russia which is a big challenge for the future of EaP as evident in recent Russian resistance against EU expansion. While the Vilnius summit was approaching, Russia’s response to EU’s expansion by halting diary import from EU President Lithuania and imposing strict customs checking on trucks from Lithuania and EU’s extension of sanction on Belarus caused a dilemma to EU on the way of promoting Eastern Partnership.

In the light of Russia’s attempts to integrate post-Soviet space excluding Baltic States by establishing Eurasian Union by 2015, EU cannot ignore its eastern neighbourhood. Europe and the US view Russian integration efforts as a geopolitical offensive harmful to their interests in the region. The EU’s and Russia’s geopolitical goals and interests in the shared neighbourhood make the context as one of “geopolitical competition over the contested neighbourhood”.

Eastern partnership is based on a perspective of more cooperative and enlarged Europe for which Lithuania is a major player as bridge to East. The EaP neither promises nor precludes the prospect of EU membership to the partner states. It offers deeper integration with the EU structures by encouraging and supporting them in their political, institutional and economic reforms based on EU standards, as well as facilitating trade and increasing mobility between the EU and the partner states.

The basic goal of EaP is to ensure “security, stability and prosperity” in the Eastern neighbourhood of EU. However, several factors characterized by the region restrict the role of EU as a security actor in the east. The risk factors include political instability, economic crisis, weak governance, transnational criminal activity, terrorism, corruption, illegal immigration, unsettled ethnic conflicts, etc., which call into question the efficacy of EU as a security actor in the region. Moreover, Russia as a contested actor in its post-Soviet sphere of influence also makes the EU actions bring stability in the region more constraining.

According Dalia Grybauskaitė, the Vilnius Summit of Eastern Partnership programme gained a new momentum.In order to build a strong partnership,Strategic EU agreements were signed with Eastern partners, and association agreements signed with Moldova and Georgia. Progress in visa liberalization is important. It was agreed to introduce a visa-free regime for the citizens of Moldova from 2014. The EU signed a visa facilitation agreement with Azerbaijan.

Trade Negotiations

The EU-U.S. talks on a free trade agreementwere launched during the Lithuanian EU Presidency. This is one of the largest trade agreements in the world.Since July 2013 two rounds of negotiations have taken place.

Conclusion

Lithuania proclaimed first independence on 16 February 1918. However, after two decades, the country lost independent statehood in 1940s when it was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union based on the secret protocols of 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Lithuania remained under Soviet occupation until the successful independence (Sajudi) movement following the historic political opportunity provided by Mikhail Gorbachev’sreforms. Lithuania declared independence on 11 March 1990. Soviet Union recognized it on 6 September 1991. After independence their main priority was to “return to Europe”. This goal is achieved when they joined NATO and EU in 2004.At present when its EU Presidency is drawing a close it can be concluded that this tiny country in the European periphery shows its capability and lived up to the expectations with almost 80 percent success, if not full in their motto of achieving a “credible, growing and open” Europe.

Dr.KB Usha is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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