Why Vilnius Still Matters
The Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit in Vilnius on November 28 and 29 is the cornerstone of the Lithuanian presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Last week, optimistic proponents of the entire European project were dismayed by Ukraine’s decision to abandon closer integration with the EU, and this decision has threatened to overshadow Vilnius.
Yet, the Vilnius Summit still matters. By itself, it represents the success of Euro-Atlantic integration and, perchance, still offers hope for the future.
At Vilnius, Lithuania must first take the opportunity to display the rewards of their hard-earned achievements. By doing so, the Vilnius Summit will represent Lithuania and other Baltic states’ demonstrable success built upon their continued integration into Euro-Atlantic structures.
Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC on November 18th, the Lithuanian Ambassador to the United States, Zygimantas Pavilionis, pointedly did this by entwining his country’s successes with signing an association agreement in 1995. The facts back him up: since 1995 Lithuania has had 15 years of growth and the country’s ability to implement necessary reforms using Brussels’ assistance has been vital. Moreover, the advantages Lithuania has gained becoming part of the large rules-bound European market and its choice to empower citizens in a democratic community have both been critical to its progress.
Beyond Lithuania, other Baltic countries’ success has been built upon their integration. Thinking of Latvia, Anders Aslund recently heralded the country in Foreign Policy as it moved past its financial crisis by “carrying out a draconian fiscal adjustment, which quickly restored confidence and prompted plenty of structural reforms, [and] is now the fastest growing economy in Europe.” Moreover, the country has ascended to 25th in the World Bank’s Doing Business index and has instituted a national industry policy that will help finance start-up businesses and improve the role of manufacturing. Further symbolising this success is Latvia’s choice to integrate further and join the euro zone on January 1st.
Transparent and technological Estonia ranks as one of the freest economies in the world in indices produced by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation (13th) as well as by the Fraser Institute (14th). This complements the fact that the country’s GDP is expected to grow at more than 3 per cent every year until 2017. Estonia has also proven itself as a responsible NATO member, meeting the organization’s 2 per cent GDP spending requirements and hosting the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre on Excellence in Tallinn.
Though not traditionally a “Baltic,” Poland has also shown a similar Euro-Atlantic devotion to its defensive responsibilities with a record-breaking 43 billion US dollar increase in spending over the next decade. Economically, Poland admirably remains the only EU country to have avoided recession since the financial crisis. Moreover, despite sluggish growth this year, Poland’s economy is expected to grow near 3 per cent over the next few years.
Despite Ukraine’s decision, all of this evidence will continue to provide a rationale to build mutually beneficial partnerships on the EU borders in the future. While agreements with Georgia and Moldova should be celebrated at Vilnius, they should also signal intentions for the future. After all, with the Baltics’ success increasingly apparent-and a rarity in a slow-growing Europe-the summit remains the opportune moment to reaffirm the merits and benefits of Euro-Atlantic integration for all parties.
Following the end of Lithuania’s presidency in December, the next two presidencies of the European Union will be Greece and Italy. Neither is likely to focus on expansion, nor in a believable position to market their success as a reforming economy. However, plans are already being discussed for Latvia’s presidency beginning in January 2015.
With that in mind, discussions in Vilnius must serve as the step forward to 2015.
EU members must learn lessons from how Russian pressure, occasional reticence among certain EU members, and a selfish reluctance from Ukraine’s government derailed the country’s path towards Europe. Before 2015, the EU must plan to show how its strong support and solidarity not only trump Russian intimidation, but also advance its own growth prospects. This message should be explicitly clear by the time of Ukraine’s presidential election in early 2015.
Sometimes international and domestic stars simply do not align for the rotating presidency. In 2010, Belgium took the position without an elected government, nationalists topping domestic polls, and a burgeoning euro zone crisis. Lithuania is not in the position at Vilnius, and must not present a defeatist attitude.
From now until the end of the Vilnius conference, Lithuania’s presidency will send a message that the Baltics’ are a remarkable story of success and promise built upon their integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. If that message is not continually delivered to bordering nations, or worse it is forgotten, then Vilnius really does not matter.
Ian Hansen is a recent International Affairs graduate of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He has lived and worked in Poland, the Republic of Georgia and Ukraine.