As Europe’s tomorrow takes shape, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius face a choice – sit and wait for an uncertain future or become active players in shaping it. Stefano Braghiroli, associate professor at Estonia’s University of Tartu, writes for LRT English.
The Baltics' quest for Europe in the early 1990s was based on a rational choice and on the awareness of what they were escaping from. Nowadays, their commitment to preserve European unity – so key in their success – ought to be proportional to the dangers which threaten it.
Since they regained independence in 1991, the three Baltic states and their leaderships had a clear objective: return to Europe. In practical terms, this meant joining the European Union, NATO, and the Western system of alliances. Today, a new reality is emerging.
Unlike NATO, which is eminently a defence and military alliance, the European integration is chiefly a political project dedicated to creating an ever closer union of its members in order to advance the well-being, socio-economic development, and freedom of its citizens through common institutions, a supranational system of governance, and devolved competences.
This is made possible by the member states accepting to pool their sovereignty in a number of policy areas and transfer it to the supranational level. The idea is that certain policies – from internal trade to regional security – and problems – including climate change and migration – are too large and interconnected to be managed and solved at the national level.
Overall, today’s EU reflects tension between shared objectives and national interests and between the desire to preserve national sovereignty and the need for common action. The union is what its members make of it. As we look at the world’s geopolitical and economic giants, from China and India to Russia, it is hard to doubt Paul-Henri Spaak's remark that “there are only two types of countries in Europe: small countries […] and countries which are small, but don’t yet know that they are”.
Somehow, the Baltic states – given their size and troubled history – have learnt this lesson faster than others. Being at the centre of the process of European (and Euro-Atlantic) integration wasn’t simply a stepping stone toward economic prosperity, open borders, and access to the largest integrated market in the world.
It was also a tangible guarantee of their independence in an increasingly unstable and multi-polar global system.
The very fact of not being alone made Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania more secure and resilient at the centre of a ring of friends – a necessity that the events of 2014 in Ukraine and Russia’s assertiveness along the Union’s Eastern borders have dramatically made manifest.
While the six founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community saw uncontrolled sovereignty of nation states and unrestrained nationalism as the original sins that killed European democracies in the 1930s and, ultimately, triggered the Second World War, the perception was very different in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.
Pooling and transferring sovereignty, after having lost it for more than fifty years, was not seen as an easy or obvious choice, but as the necessary price to pay to achieve greater goals and – ultimately – to secure the countries’ independence against external (and internal) threats.
The Baltic nations knew well what they were escaping from – an oppressive and intrusive state, ubiquitous bureaucracy, a cripplingly centralised economy, and international isolation – and shaped their restored countries in exactly the opposite ways: light, uncomplicated, and open to the world.
Membership in the EU guaranteed the Baltics’ full return to the European family as committed members of the Western community, determined to promote the values of international cooperation and multilateralism.
Since 2004, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have built a reputation in Brussels of being reliable, trusted, and deeply committed members. This has given them the chance to exert influence over EU policy that is much bigger than their physical size. At the same time, EU membership has acted as a key multiplier of the Baltics’ success and has amplified their global voice.
In recent years, the dark clouds of demagogy, national egoisms, and illiberalism have appeared over Europe’s sky. While Covid-19 has accentuated the problem, it didn’t create it. The crisis just made it more visible.
Our failure to reassert the need for common interests and effective solidarity as we shape the future of the union is not just a European issue, but also (and primarily) an issue for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and – ultimately – for all member states.
Given how interrelated our economies, policies, and geo-political fortunes are – Europe's success means Baltics’ success and Europe’s security means Baltics’ security.
In the same fashion, Europe’s failures directly translate into challenges and structural uncertainties for its member states. This is particularly true for small and peripheral countries surrounded by unfriendly powers. The future of Schengen and Europe’s democratic resilience is an example of two all-but-theoretical issues whose management or mismanagement might have very direct consequences for the Baltic states.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how delicate and fragile the openness of our union is. Its fragility was exemplified by the closure of national borders and the general suspension of Schengen rules, the cross-seizure of strategic goods, and eventually an overall threat to the functioning of the single market.
While the fast and effective process of vaccination (eventually made possible by joint EU action) has guaranteed the partial reopening of internal borders through a coordinated system of mutually recognized Digital Covid Certificates, different national standards and entrance procedures among member states make citizens’ freedom of movement much more chaotic.
Crossing the union’s external borders is also now at the mercy of each member state’s laws and legal interpretation of non-binding European recommendation. It’s a triumph of uncertainty and arbitrariness.
The debate on migration and refugee crises didn’t make things easier. As of now, a large number of member states are in open violation of Schengen rules and many governments are asking for a restrictive counter-reformation of the free movement of people – a fundamental right of the EU citizens.
Most of the Baltic people remember the times when a visa was needed to cross the Gulf of Finland and when border inspections were the rule rather than the exception. Brexit and its dreadful consequences show us that irrational choices fuelled by politics of fear cannot be easily undone and might carry consequences for generations.
The pandemic has also provided a good opportunity to aspiring autocrats and demagogues inside the EU to capitalise on public discontent and citizens’ anxieties to deepen a trend of democratic backsliding already experienced by a number of member states in pre-pandemic times.
Take Brussels’ ongoing quarrel with Poland over rule of law and citizens’ fundamental freedoms. Few in the Baltics deny that the problem in Warsaw is real, but even fewer seem ready to antagonise Poland – given its key role in regional security. Warsaw’s democratic decline is not a Polish issue. The recent ruling of the PiS-made-up Supreme Court is a crude reminder of that and an extremely dangerous precedent against the agreed principle of Primacy of EU law.
If the Polish law has prevalence over the EU law, then why not the Hungarian, the Slovenian, or the French law? If each capital claims its law to be above the Union’s law, the whole EU legal system falls like a house of cards. The absence of legal certainty across member states would irreparably undermine the very logic of the single market and might determine an uncontrollable chain effect.
Post-Brexit Britain with its empty shelves, the inability to export and import goods, and driverless lorries are a potent reminder that this is not science fiction. As in the case of Schengen, our union is a complex and interconnected system of actions and reactions and if one fundamental freedom is fatally jeopardised, others – such as the free movement of goods, capital, and services – that make our single market work might soon face the same fate. Even the most successful Estonian unicorn or Lithuanian digital start-up would have very hard time to thrive without the multiplier effect of the EU single market – constrained by national borders.
As Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has reminded us in her recent State of the Union speech, “strengthening [the] European ideal […] is a continuous work. And we should not hide away from our inconsistencies and imperfections. But imperfect as it might be, our Union is both beautifully unique and uniquely beautiful.” It is also the only one that we have.
The alternative is ‘everyone for himself’ and the ticking time-bomb of power politics.
While this is an uncomfortable position for everyone, it would be particularly so for the Baltics.
With all its limits, the EU has guaranteed to its member states more than 50 years of peace and prosperity. While it is fundamental to recognise and address the union’s problems, forgetting its unique intrinsic value exposes us to the dangers of a black and white movie. As post-Brexit Britain and the recent pro-EU protests in Warsaw remind us – let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.
Stefano Braghiroli is Associate Professor of European Studies, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies – University of Tartu, Estonia
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.