Are Lithuania and the EU ready for each other?

  • 2002-10-24
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas

Last week the powers in Brussels announced all candidates for EU membership minus Rumania and Bulgaria were officially slated to become EU members, with Lithuania in the top three.

The news was greeted with a healthy mixture of enthusiasm and hard-boiled sobriety in Vilnius, with the recognition that chapters in the EU membership agreement remain to be worked out, and that Russia is playing geopolitical hardball using Kaliningrad as a bargaining chip.

Not lost on the Lithuanian public either were statements from leading politicians that the EU hasn't made any firm financial commitments on aid for shutting down the Ignalina nuclear power plant, although Lithuania has all but acquiesced to the EU's schedule for closure.

And despite those problems, the thought that Lithuania could become an EU member in 2004 was something of a shot in the arm for morale in the country as the first snows of winter set in.

Lithuania seems committed to a course that will lead to EU membership, if not in 2004, then perhaps in 2007 or 2014. In good old-fashioned Soviet style Lithuanian negotiators and functionaries at the highest levels have rubber-stamped their approval on each and every broadsheet Brussels has sent their way. That has earned Lithuania's bureaucrat-politicians praise from their colleagues in the union and put the country among the leaders of the membership process after initially being left out of the first tier.

Lithuania, like a meteor hurtling toward a much larger, much more affluent EU planet, seems happily resigned to its fate, with little anticipation that a cultural explosion is about to take place.

It's one thing to adopt EU law, another thing to implement it on the ground, and still quite another thing to fling the doors wide open to the EU as a whole.

What happens, for instance, when 5,000 angry protesters arrive to heckle the Chinese leader instead of Lithuania's well-behaved and compliant 12 Tibetan protesters, who were arrested earlier this year for waving Tibetan flags as Zhiang Zemin drove by, his limousine curtains pulled tight?

Or what will Lithuanian State Security do when a thousand anti-NATO protestors show up and refuse to stand down? Will the State Security Department track them all down, besmirch them in the European press as Soviet agents and talk their bosses into firing them?

Lithuania seems happy to take a low profile internationally, following the EU's lead. In all likelihood once NATO and EU membership is attained, Vilnius won't need to play host to NATO parliamentary assemblies and the like and will get along fine without inviting the WTO to hold a round of talks here.

Also in Lithuania's favor is the global tendency to use Bush's war on terrorism to introduce draconian legislation to curtail civil rights - EU countries are no exception there.

But on the more basic, every-day level, differing cultural assumptions are bound to at least lead to misunderstandings between EU citizens and locals.

Lithuania doesn't offer great quality of life, and once EU membership is effected prices are likely to be the same as elsewhere in the EU, meaning Lithuania shouldn't expect a flood of immigrants from Western Europe. All the same, what will the EU investor or citizen make of frequent power outages, dysfunctional infrastructure, long winters without running hot water?

If the past is any indicator, the Lithuanian allergy to foreigners, already in its fifth century, will make the country an unattractive destination for wanderers from the West. Lithuania might just keep its splendid isolation even as part of the EU. The more likely scenario, if the country doesn't burn up during reentry, is that two powerful and large bureaucracies will collide, with general and localized chaos as the result.

The EU is bigger, but Lithuania's time-line trajectory is significantly longer, stretching back through the Soviet occupation to the Middle Ages. The current momentum makes collision unavoidable, but the EU is itself a moving target, and there's every reason to suspect the target of 2004 is being offered by Brussels in full knowledge and perhaps even in the hope that the Irish won't back down and settle for less than full rights in the nascent United States of Europe.