Europe, meet Lithuania

  • 2002-07-04
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
According to draft conclusions of the recent European Union summit in Seville last week, the EU "reaffirms that if the present rate of progress in negotiations and reforms is maintained, the European Union is determined to enlarge by the end of 2002."

That is a great challenge both for Lithuania and the EU.

Lithuania has sometimes been referred to as the twin country of Ireland. It's about the same size, both are predominately Catholic and both have an unabashed love of beer. Another similarity is that they are both pro-American nations in Europe. The main emigration route from both countries has always been to the United States.

During five decades of Soviet occupation, America was much closer to the average Lithuanian than Europe.

Most Lithuanians have relatives in the United States. Letters and parcels were coming from America, not Europe. Back then the average Lithuanian referred to America when he or she spoke of the good life.

Not many people mentioned Europe in this context. Lithuania has a president who spent most of his life in Chicago. His wife is still a U.S. citizen.

Now, however, the situation is changing. Lithuanians for several years have been able to travel visa-free within the EU. It is now hard to find a Lithuanian who hasn't been to an EU country. Consequently, the country's attitude toward Europe is changing.

The number of Lithuanians supporting EU membership increased in June, while the number of those undecided on the issue has fallen.

Lithuanians seem eager to be part of a greater Europe, but it seems that Europeans are less thrilled about making the acquaintance.

The EU itself seems to have great difficulties in crossing over the spiritual threshold of the Cold War and getting past its prejudices against the continent's fringes.

Citizens of the EU member states say they are badly informed about enlargement and show little interest in EU candidate countries according to the results of a recent Eurobarometer poll conducted by the European Commission.

Only 1 percent of Europeans polled said they felt very well informed about enlargement. Twelve percent of respondents said they felt well informed about the process. As many as 47 percent said they did not feel very well informed and 36 percent claimed they were not informed at all.

A vast majority of Europeans do not know which countries are official candidates. According to the poll, around one-third of respondents recognize Poland, Turkey, Hungary and the Czech Republic as the official candidate states and one in six respondents identify Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

In addition, 41 percent of respondents do not wish to know more about candidate countries, and 76 percent do not wish either to work or live in the candidate countries.

It sometimes seems that some intellectuals and politicians in the so-called West were more comfortable in the clear structure of a Europe divided by the Iron Curtain. Now they seem scared, left without comfortable stereotypes.

Indeed, it is fear without reason. The Baltics have always been part of the West. During the Soviet era Muscovites went to the Lithuanian towns of Palanga and Nida to enjoy "the West," as they called it. The problem is that the average EU citizen vaguely understands that there are huge differences between, for example, Lithuania, Rumania and Azerbai-jan.

Lithuanian diplomats still remember the visiting Danish queen expressing her disappointment that Lithuanian churches did not have Russian-style onion domes.

Events like the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair, where Lithuania will be featured, will help to deal with the problem. Some 300,000 visitors are expected there. It will be another opportunity to say "hello" to the EU.