Lithuania and the European Union
- Ramūnas VilpišauskasRamūnas VilpišauskasInstitute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University
For Lithuania, the geopolitical motive to join the European Union (EU) in order to prevent a repetition of the 1940s occupation has been as important as a motive to “return to Europe.” This motivation to become part of the West led the country’s political elites to conceptualize accession into the EU as an important part of the transition reforms which were expected to modernize Lithuania’s economy, public administration, and governance as well as contribute to the country’s security and create conditions for economic catching up. Membership in the EU, accession into NATO, and good neighborly relations became the three cornerstones of Lithuania’s foreign policy since the early 1990s and enjoyed broad political support. It was this support that arguably allowed for the maintenance of political and administrative mobilization and consistency of preparations for the membership during the pre-accession process. Public support for the EU membership remained above the EU average since accession in 2004.
Around the time of accession, a new concept of Lithuania as “a regional leader” was formulated by the core of the nation’s foreign policy makers.
The concept of a regional leader implied active efforts of mediating between Eastern neighbors and the EU, often in coordination with Poland, which was driven by the desire to stabilize the Eastern neighborhood and advance relations between Eastern neighbors and the EU and NATO. Although coalition building within the EU has been fluctuating between a strategic partnership with Poland and Baltic-Nordic cooperation, also most recently the New Hanseatic league, attention to the Eastern neighborhood and geopolitical concerns originating from perceived aggressive Russian policies remained a defining characteristic of the country’s European policy independent of personalities and political parties, which have been at the forefront of policy making.
Completion of integration into the EU, in particular in the fields of energy and transport, as well as dealing with “leftovers” from accession into the EU, such as joining the Schengen area and the euro zone, became the other priorities since 2004.
Lithuania has been one of the fastest converging countries in the EU in terms of GDP per capita since its accession. However, membership in the EU Single Market also had controversial side effects. Relatively large flows of emigrants to other EU member states generated political debates about the quality of governance in Lithuania and its long-term demographic trends such as a decreasing and aging population. Introduction of the euro in 2015 was perceived by the public as the main factor behind price rises, making inflation the most important public issue in 2016–2018. High per capita income growth rates as well as the prospect of the United Kingdom exiting the EU triggered discussions about excessive dependency on EU funding, the potential effects of its decline after 2020, and sources of economic growth. There are increasingly divergent opinions regarding further deepening of integration within the EU, especially in regard to alignment of member states’ foreign and security policies as well as tax harmonization. Still, membership in the EU is rarely questioned, even by those who oppose further integration and advocate a “Europe of nations.”