One of the most successful Eastern member-states of the Union, Lithuania still exhibits an increasingly rare enthusiasm for the European project. By Matthias Gerl.
Lithuania has an eclectic history and culture that has enriched the shape and identity of Europe over centuries. Located importantly on the edge of the Baltic Sea, and therefore a gateway between the East and West, it became a power in the Middle Ages with borders that extended the Black Sea. The 20th century was marked by both Nazi occupation and, from 1944 onwards, Soviet rule. As the first state to do so, the Republic of Lithuania declared its eventual independence from the USSR in 1990 and orientated itself towards Western Europe from then on.
With its current 2.9 million inhabitants, Lithuania is the largest of the three Baltic states. It was granted EU accession during the 2004 enlargement, which has shown itself to be a significant economic achievement for the country. Lithuania’s economy was for some years one of the fastest growing inside the Union and often referred to as the “Baltic Tiger”, but the global financial crisis has lately dampened growth, and the country still struggles with structural deficits and with curtailing prevalent corruption. Whilst still small compared to most other EU members, the country has nevertheless passed a promising first decade inside the Union.
Since its independence in the 1990s, the country has maintained a stable democratic and semi-presidential system with a slight tendency towards shrinking democratic participation; the last parliamentary election in 2012 saw a voter turnout of 52% compared to a previous 56%. The election led to the defeat the former ruling Conservative Party and bore a loose coalition of Social Democrats, Labour and Order and Justice parties with the Electoral Actions of Poles In Lithuania, which represents the Polish minority. While the latter two parties represent both a more conservative and Eurosceptic program, the former two deemed to be generally more Leftist and Europhilic. On this point they are in agreement with the recent head of state Dalia Grybauskaité, the first woman to hold this position in Lithuania. Considered as rather conservative, she ran on an independent ticket and is nonetheless an outspoken advocate for the common European cause. A former EU budget Commissioner, she was awarded last year with the prestigious Charlemagne Price for her contribution to the integration process.
Interestingly enough, scientists at the Institut Géographique National located the geographical centre of Europe inside Lithuania, just a few kilometers north to its capital Vilnius. Within the European Union the country lies at the Eastern border, and could therefore play quite an important role as a role model and mediator for Europe’s future orientation further East. This could include potential candidate countries as well as diplomatic challenges over Ukraine and Belarus. That Lithuania is indeed willing to take responsibility was demonstrated last year with its Presidency of the European Council and hosting of the Eastern Partnership Summit. An import ban by Moscow of Lithuanian milk products is considered as a hostile political reaction to these ambitions and does reveal that they are taken seriously by its larger neighbour.
With the expected introduction of the euro at the beginning of next year, Lithuania will further foster its economical development and become a fully integrated member of the EU. The Lithuanian people have demonstrated their paramount enthusiasm for the European cause when they approved the joining in a referendum by over 90%. It is to be expected that, due to recent developments, some voters will be more reluctant for the upcoming European parliament election. Nonetheless most Lithuanians still consider a committed European integration of their country as the path for the future.
Image: “Lithuanian Embassy Flag” courtesy to Mr. T in DC via Creative Commons 2.0 share alike.