Kęstutis Girnius. Three for the European Union and Lithuania

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

The European Union member states are struggling with three major problems – migration, strengthening the Eurozone and the United Kingdom‘s withdrawal conditions. The first question worries the so-called populists the most, the second – France, while the third – Brussels bureaucrats. What should Lithuania’s position be on these matters?

Let us start with Brexit, or more accurately with the statement by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier from several weeks ago that the United Kingdom will no longer have access to the EU member state police database following its departure. London would like to retain its access to the database because, but according to Barnier, the UK has decided to withdraw from the EU, thus has chosen to become a “third party.”

The EU’s pursuit of strict Brexit conditions is understandable, considering the desire to prevent other countries from being tempted to follow London’s example, but Barnier’s preaching and vengeful position is counterproductive. The UK is not just any “third party” like Afghanistan or Nigeria.

It is a former EU member, a neighbour, one of only two European states with serious armed forces and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. No less important is that its special services have vast experience in combatting terrorism and Russian special services.

If the UK is barred access from EU police databases, London would establish similar restrictions, to the detriment of everyone.

Lithuania should unambiguously stand against Barnier’s proposals and even seek his removal from the position of chief negotiator. Overall the EU needs more flexibility in resolving complex problems, it must rely more on politician’s insights, rather than bureaucrat’s habit to apply imperfectly formulated rules to everyone equally.

During their meeting last week, Macron and Merkel assigned much significance to the Eurozone reform. From the start of his presidency, Macron has sought to strengthen cooperation between Eurozone countries, sought to establish the office of European Minister of Finance, to create a Eurozone budget, turn the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) into the equivalent of the International Monetary Fund, which would provide loans to crisis struck countries.

So far, Germany has opposed or at least disagreed with such plans, being unwilling for the EU to turn into a transfer union and Germany – its treasurer.

This time, Merkel agreed to a Eurozone budget, thus has seemingly conceded, if only a little.

It was not revealed what the size of the budget would be, but the sum will be significantly lower than Macron offered some time back. Both leaders emphasised that the budget will be decided alongside other Eurozone members, who will have to decide, how it will be financed. Macron hopes that the Eurozone budget project will be implemented by 2021.

This is an optimistic scenario. Holland has already announced its disagreement to such plans. It is worth emphasising, as Lithuanian Finance Minister V. Šapoka did, that so far there is no agreement on a common EU budget. The Czech prime minister has already dismissed the European Commission common budget project, Poland and Hungary have also declared that the planned funding cuts are unacceptable to them.

The negotiations will be long and hard because there will be overall less funding. It will be especially hard to agree on a further new Eurozone budget.

Lithuania should oppose the implementation of a Eurozone budget. Its nearest neighbours – the Scandinavian and Visegrad states, bar Slovakia, have not and do not plan to adopt the euro. A more integrated Eurozone would increase the separation from Lithuania’s close neighbours. A strengthening of the Eurozone would be the first step to an EU of several speeds, it would increase the powers of the central bureaucracy and would give a push toward increased federalism. Concerns that the supporters of integration are seeking to turn the EU into the United States of Europe are exaggerated.

But the more integration, the more the inclination will lean to the principle of “one man, one vote.” Lithuania has fewer citizens than Germany or France, thus its influence and power would diminish. Let us remember how important the voice of Pasvalys or Biržai is when discussing the problems of all of Lithuania.

The question of migrants was rushed into the agenda by the new right wing Italian government’s decision to bar a French NGO’s ship with 629 migrants from its port.

The decision displayed that this government will adhere to its electoral pledges to strictly limit migration and has clearly given momentum to other opponents of migration. German Minister of the Interior H. Seehofer gave Chancellor Merkel two weeks to find a European level solution, which would bar the way to a flood of asylum seekers.

Otherwise, he will direct border police officers to return migrants, who were registered as refugees in other European states.

Austrian Chancellor S. Kurz declared that a “catastrophe” would occur, similar to the flood of migrants in 2015, if Europe fails to come to agreement on a joint response. Austria will take over EU chairmanship in early July, which ensures that migration will receive particular attention.

If so far it was the Visegrad states, who were the most prominent opponents of migration, now an anti-migration bloc is forming in the heart of Europe – Austria, Italy and in part – in Germany.

The formation of this bloc is clearly raising concerns. European Commission chairman Jean-Claude Juncker called a meeting on Sunday, where the representatives of an entire 16 states participated, but not the Visegrad countries, who oppose the EU migrant policy.

There will be no rapid actions, but likely a temporary patch on some difficulties will be achieved, such as between Seehofer and Merkel.

Perhaps bilateral or trilateral agreements will be signed. But the essential problems will not be solved easily because the main premises are almost impossible to match. The Visegrad states, Austrian and Italian aim to cease accepting migrants or only an absolute minimum is opposed by Spain, France and other countries, who are convinced that controlled migration can be beneficial and that Western democracies must respect human rights and maintain solidarity with the citizens of the poorest countries.

If it wanted, Lithuania could present itself as an embodiment of openness and liberalism. Most of the refugees sent to Lithuania flee upon arrival, thus migration causes no problems. Having always presented itself as a supporter of moral policy, Vilnius should seemingly remind EU member states that by ratifying the Refugee Convention, they have committed to granting asylum to the persecuted, thus they have to accept them, though not economic migrants.

Such a stance would be equivalent to decrying Warsaw’s migration policy, thus causing the wrath of Poland at an inconvenient time when more than six years of tension are beginning to settle and close cooperation is sought in the face of Russian threats. Certain energy projects could also suffer.

On the other hand, supporting Visegrad states’ migration policy is also not without risk. A number of EU member states are convinced that Poland and Hungary are breaching the norms of the rule of law, that they are overall indifferent to EU values.

The aim to cooperate more closely with Scandinavian states, especially Sweden would likely suffer if the impression were made that Lithuania is closer to the Polish understanding of values and democracy than that of Sweden. Lithuania will likely remain silent on this question and settle for evasive, noncommittal values. This is not the most courageous, but likely the most wary step.

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