Lithuania’s leadership in the region: opportunities of small EU Member States

By Benas Brunalas

To have a clear goal or a vision is important not only for humans but also for a state. Well-defined goals are the most effective tools facilitating the achievement of the desired results; therefore, the states should have a clear future vision.   More than five years have passed since Lithuania has set a controversial vision - the ambition to become a regional political leader.  Were  the ambitions defined by the Lithuanian foreign policy-makers realized in reality?

Since Lithuania is a small state the above ambition might look like utopia.  There are much larger states than Lithuania in the Eastern Partnership Initiative (EPI), e.g. Ukraine or Belarus. Although Lithuania’s leadership is perceived through the dissemination of EU values toward the countries which are not yet EU members, the power of the state should play an important role. Besides, there is Russia with its huge influence in the region.

The Lithuanian leadership goals are developed within the European Neighborhood Policy; thus the EU becomes one of the major factors affecting not only the emergence of the above vision but also its realization. The European Security Strategy stipulates the necessity of ensuring the ring of security around the EU. The question is: can the EU give the responsibility for the enhancement of this ring?
Lithuania Map
The small EU Member States have consolidated their positions within the EU. This was due to the EU’s supra-national power, and commonly recognized norms and rules. The EU governance system allows even small states to run an EU presidency and be in the centre of the decision-making process.  And though political figures like the EU President or foreign policy chief which were created after signing the Lisbon Treaty reduced the influence of presidency, it still plays an important role.

The image of a state, its reputation and other aspects also increase the influence of smaller states. This “capital” is also enhanced by a consistent and pro-European national policy and the ability of a state to export the acquired practice as best practice examples. All the above promotes the image of a country and makes its voice heard in the EU. The ambition of Lithuania to become the leader in the region might be evaluated as a search for the niche in the EU. Specialization in the sphere of democratization of Eastern neighbors could bring dividends to the country, but at the same time it is an obligation imposing certain requirements. EPI’s unique features also contribute to the above: the influence of oligarchs, instability of governments, corruption, fragmentation of the society, economic, cultural and political dependence on Russia.

Lithuania’s smallness in this case is not an obstacle but an advantage reducing the fear and discontent of less “Europized” states.

It seems during the five recent years Lithuania’s ambition to become the leader in the region lacked consistency and harmony.  There is little connection between the national policy, EU strategic documents and the vision of leadership presented in the agreements of Lithuanian parties on foreign policy goals, the resolution of Lithuanian parties adopted in 2004 on foreign policy objectives and other strategic aims.

Lithuania perceives democracy differently from the old European states and this is probably the main obstacle in realizing Lithuanian goals. Lithuanians are the least satisfied with their national democracy among all member states in the enlarged EU, and there is only one step toward an absolute distrust of the Government and the Seimas. Our attitude is related to a geopolitical motive which is illustrated by the statement that democratization and europisation of Eastern Partnership countries is a means of pushing Russia away from own borders. It could be the reason of doubts of the old EU Members States in Lithuania’s intentions, and without the mandate of all EU members the ambition of leadership is left hanging in the air.

Since its membership in the EU Lithuania implemented few successful and lots of unsuccessful projects (the reform of health and education system, Vilnius – European Capital of Culture (2009), the national stadium, establishment and liquidation of LEO LT, failure to introduce Euro in 2007 etc.  All these are major obstacles preventing from the efficient exchange of experience of EPI countries in reforming the old state public apparatus, establishing European companies and managing other problems of the above countries.

We can take lessons from our neighbors Estonians who managed to set clear regional leadership objectives. A small country has already earned the respect of EU Member States. Due to its consistent and rational policy Estonia has already become the leader of the Baltic States in the sphere of economy, finance and successful reforms.  In the future Estonia might take the leading position in the field of “European transformation”.