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Small Is Beautiful, But Is Beautiful Effective?

July 1st 2013 marks a milestone for integration. Not only is it the first day of Croatia’s full membership into European Union structures, but it is also the first day of Lithuania’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

July 1, 2013 - Iwona Reichardt - Articles and Commentary

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These seemingly unrelated events bring light to a nevertheless crucial issue: namely how much can small states, as Croatia and Lithuania are, achieve in the club of bigger (read more influential) players? And while it will take some time before we know the answer based on Croatia’s experience, in six months time Lithuania should offer some evidence to the question – does size really matter?

It does not take a deep knowledge of European affairs to know that Lithuania is a small country located in a region of other small countries, and some big ones too. But it is also a country with big aspirations; especially when it comes to economy, energy issues and a leadership position in the Baltic Sea Region (BSR). Being already proud of its successes with managing the financial crisis, Lithuania is now willing to share its valuable lessons with other countries by means of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The current government is particularly interested in fostering BSR cooperation and strengthening the country’s ties with other Nordic countries. All these ambitious goals make up the framework of the strategy behind Lithuania’s presidency.

As a small country, Lithuania’s budget for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union is also rather small: 214 million litas (62 million euros) for the period of two years (2012-2014) isn’t what we could call a dream budget. It is primarily for this reason that Lithuania has opted for a Brussels-based presidency. To understand what this means, compare the 300 planned events that will take place in Lithuania with the 1500 events they plan to organise in Brussels and Luxembourg.

However, 30,000 guests are expected to visit Lithuania during this time; attending events at the National Gallery of Arts, the Vilnius LITEXPO conference centre, and the galas at the Palace of the Grand Duke of Lithuania. For all those guests, the Lithuanian government has a clear message: “We are well-prepared,” and “We are right on track,” – the declarations from both the staff of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the main coordinator of the EU Presidency.

Focus Europe!

Enjoying the status of a star pupil in crisis management, the Lithuanian authorities clearly want to reap the benefits of their reputation, especially in the area of energy. With an ambition to preside over European institutions as an “honest broker”, energy security is the area Lithuania wants to primarily focus on. A rational choice for a state which, because of limited connections with the EU grids and gas system, is still called an “energy island”, and whose government is still in a deadlock when it comes to its national energy policy.

Willing or not, the government will certainly have no choice but to make a decision about the fate of some priority energy projects. This includes the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Visaginas, and reductions in gas prices. Because of the latter, Lithuania, which pays one of the highest gas prices in the region, is currently in talks with Gazprom over a new long-term contract.

Believing that the EU is moving towards recovery, Lithuanian officials want to focus the presidency on Europe. The official slogan “Focus Europe!” is built around three phrases: Credible Europe, Growing Europe, Open Europe, which, together mean more financial discipline and expansion, especially in terms of the Eastern Partnership.

Taking the example of the Polish Presidency in 2011, Lithuania also prides itself on being an outspoken supporter of the EU’s greater cooperation with its Eastern neighbours. Being a direct neighbour of Ukraine and Belarus, it aspires to take a leadership role in reaching out towards these countries. And as Vilnius officials have often clarified, this position is not only the result of its shared Soviet past, but also because of its strong economic ties with the former Soviet republics. Despite the official EU sanctions policy towards Belarus, trade between Lithuania and Belarus has been growing steadily. Between 2004-2012, Lithuania’s exports to Belarus increased fourfold, while Belarus-to-Lithuania trade tripled.

Less for less, more for more

Without a doubt, the flagship project of the presidency is the Eastern Partnership Summit scheduled to take place in Vilnius on November 28th-29th 2013. It is expected to gather representatives of all EU member states as well as the EaP countries. Or will it? The question on everybody’s lips remains who will represent Belarus? Its leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is officially on the EU visa ban list. As of today it is expected that the Republic of Belarus will be represented (there are talks under way) not by its head of state, but by the Minister of Foreign Affairs – Uladzimir Makei who will be granted an EU visa for the entire period of his office. Another big uncertainty is the signing of the Association Agreement with Ukraine, which, if it happens, would make the Vilnius summit a true success; for Europe and Lithuania.

More importantly, regardless of the final outcome of the November summit, it is evident that Lithuania’s actions in regards to the EaP are fully in line with the official EU policy. This is why Vilnius officials, when asked what would the measure of Lithuania’s success be if neither Belarus joins the summit, nor an Association Agreement is signed with Ukraine, are quick to refer to the laudable, yet somewhat problematic, policy of “less for less, more for more” (countries who do less receive less from the EU, and vice versa). In other words, it would not be the fault of Lithuania nor the EU should the summit produce mixed results.

Clearly, given the tensions that arise from the unpredictability of the course of events and, hence, the results of the EaP Summit, this event will most likely receive the greatest attention in the Western media. Seeking sensation, it will be mostly focusing its lenses on Ukraine, somewhat on Belarus, and a bit on Moldova (and Georgia as well). But the truth is that with the presidency being based in Brussels, it is justified to have some doubts about possible breakthroughs, especially in regards to the East.

Having said that, it would yet be a mistake to omit two facts: the first being that the beauty of politics lies in its unpredictability (the wise men and women teach us that you can’t predict future based on past events), and the second that long-term change tends to come with small steps rather than big leaps. For this reason much will probably depend on the many small initiatives that Lithuania will, or will not, take. And this, more than anything, might decide the way we judge this presidency.

And just to prove the point that small things do indeed matter, it is worth pointing out that all of the promotional materials and gadgets for the presidency have been made by one of Lithuania’s most excluded groups: the handicapped.

Kinga Dudzińska is an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) specialising in Baltic states.

Iwona Reichardt is an editor and the lead translator for New Eastern Europe

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