It's a small Baltic country with a population of only 3 million. But when Lithuania took the reigns for its six-month presidency of the European Union in July, it came to the job with ambitions to punch far above its weight in Brussels.
At the top of its agenda are energy security and improved economic ties with the "eastern partners," former Soviet states looking to strike a balance between their growing partnerships with the EU and their longstanding relationships with Russia.
As the first former Soviet republic to hold the EU presidency, Lithuania is especially well suited to deal with the EU's relationship to these eastern European nations. And Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite is seen as a formidable politician with the right background to earn widespread respect in Brussels.
“She’s a strong leader, a bit of an iron lady,” says Andres Kasekamp, a professor of Baltic politics at the University of Tartu in Estonia. “Grybauskaite was an EU budget commissioner for five years, so she’s very familiar with how Brussels works. She speaks her mind and is very popular in Lithuania.”
Russia to the east, the EU to the west
Ms. Grybauskaite's leadership will be put to the test in November, when former Soviet states gather for a summit in Vilnius – the most high stakes event of Lithuania's EU presidency. The goal is the signing of a broad-ranging free trade area agreement with Ukraine and the initialing of this agreement with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius stated recently in Brussels that the summit is a potentially momentous milestone. “These agreements do have a huge transformative potential. They will bring concrete results for the people, but also will serve as the instruments to reform, to modernize, and to get as close to the EU as partner countries wish themselves," he said.
However, there is one major stumbling block to the signing of the agreement: Russia has recently launched a drive of its own to expand a customs union of post-Soviet states, which currently counts Belarus and Kazakhstan as its only members.
A Ukrainian agreement with the EU is incompatible with membership in the Russian-sponsored customs union, which Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has expressed tepid interest in joining.
“Ukraine enjoys its role of playing off both sides,” says Professor Kasekamp. “But the benefits of an EU agreement are vastly greater. Still, Ukraine may opt not to make a choice. The status quo suits them. I give the summit no greater than a 50-50 chance of success.”
Another stumbling block is the prosecution and conviction of former Ukrainian President Yulia Tymoshenko on corruption charges, which is widely viewed as selective and politically motivated in the West. Ukraine’s lack of commitment to the rule of law is a problem, especially for “old Europe” states like France, Germany, and the Netherlands, which wish to see action on human rights issues before the EU makes closer ties.
Grybauskaite, on the other hand, takes a pragmatic view, calling for these concerns to be put aside for a greater good.
“For the new eastern states in the EU, this is in a sense their doorstep," Kasekamp says of the former Soviet states. "These countries believe strongly that greater cooperation and economic integration suits their interests and are a buffer to harmful influences.... But old Europe is more ambivalent. They see the costs. To them it’s a risk and an expense.”
The question of energy security
Lithuania is also well positioned in its presidency to tackle the issue of energy security. The NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence is headquartered in Vilnius. and it has become the Lithuanian government’s signature project as an EU and NATO partner.
That's in large part because the need for reliable and diversified sources of energy is a priority that hits very close to home for Lithuania, a country with virtually no energy resources of its own. It has largely relied upon Russian natural gas behemoth Gazprom – which it cites for unfair contracts and monopoly status – for its needs.
However, like the Ukranian trade agreement, the goal to decouple from the Gazprom spigot and its attendant political influence put Lithuania’s EU presidency directly at odds with Russia and its ambitions.
“Lithuania should pay a market price, not a political price, for imported natural gas," says Laurynas Jonavičius, a foreign policy adviser to Grybauskaite's government. "To that end we are moving forward with creating alternative routes for natural gas supplies, building the liquid natural gas terminal in Klaipeda [on Lithuania’s Baltic Sea coast], strengthening connections with Latvia and working on projected pipeline connections with Poland.” As for Gazprom, he says, negotiations are ongoing.
Others note that there is yet another way that Lithuania brings a new perspective to the EU presidency.
“The current Great Recession gives a platform to these newcomers,” says Jonas Cicinskas, head of the European studies department at Lithuania’s Vilnius University, in respect to Baltic nations choosing the path of balanced budgets.
“The strongest influence Lithuania may have is in its financial austerity and rigorous economic policy as a way to address the economic crisis. Such a stance could widen the North-South divide in EU macroeconomic policies and philosophy. The Lithuanian presidency may have a real impact on this process.”
Michael Amundsen is co-editor at TallinnArts.com.