Ideas on Europe

20 years of Lithuania in the EU - Ramūnas Vilpišauskas

©European Union 20 years of Lithuania in the EU - Ramūnas Vilpišauskas
©European Union

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research on euradio.

Bonjour, Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, you are Jean Monnet Professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science of Vilnius University, in the capital of Lithuania.

How old were you when your country became a member of the European Union, twenty years ago, on the 1st of May 2004?

In 2004, I was 32 years old, working as an associate professor at Vilnius University, teaching and researching EU-related subjects. Actually, I also remember quite well how I spent that day. I took part in a couple of official ceremonies organised on this occasion by our state institutions and then went to a party at a friend’s place to celebrate in private.

For me it was more than just another official event because I had been actively involved in the accession process since late 1990s. In additional to researching European integration as a scholar, I also worked with the government on the accession negotiations and analysis of the future effects of EU membership.

How did you become a counselor of the government?

In those times I was reading every available book or article on what EU accession implied, also on the previous EU enlargements, and those were usually xeroxed paper copies, since our universities did not yet have access to academic databases on the internet. But we were used to retrieving such documents since the early 1990s when our universities went through significant changes by opening themselves to the outside world and reintroducing social sciences as they were studied in the West.

So, when we started preparing for the negotiations, I provided my input into Lithuania’s reports on adoption of EU norms and alignment with the Copenhagen criteria. And besides academic research, I conducted studies about the impact of adopting EU norms. These studies then became very useful in informing the population in the run up to the referendum in 2003 about what membership in the EU meant.

Also, after completing accession negotiations, together with a group of officials who took part in those processes and who were, for some of them, alumni of our institute, we wrote a book on the processes and outcomes of EU accession negotiations and this ‘big bang’ enlargement. A s far as I know it was one of the few comprehensive studies prepared on the subject.

In other words: you accompanied actively the entire process! What is your perspective today on expectations and outcomes?

Looking back on those days, I first recall that there was a lot of experimenting going on. EU accession became an extension of those systemic political, economic and institutional changes which started after the end of the Cold War, and which brought independence. So, for us, joining the EU was an exercise in consolidating our statehood. Although I agreed with the statements of our political elites that EU accession was an act of modernisation for Lithuania, I had some reservations related to EU regulatory burdens or protectionist policies in some policy areas like agriculture or transport.

Ironically, I remember protests in France, Belgium, and some other countries against the Services Directive which, unfortunately, coincided with EU enlargement, the referendum on the Constitution on Europe in 2005 in France – remember the image of the “Polish plumber”? Today, I have a sense of déjà vu when I see farmers and truckers in Poland protesting against competition from Ukraine and how this now becomes a toxic subject in election contexts.

What is your assessment, twenty years later?

I am disappointed by the short-termism of politicians in the member states when they deal with EU wide issues. But I am glad that the Baltic States joined both the EU and NATO 20 years ago – as soon as the geopolitical window of opportunity opened for us.

EU membership has been important in itself due to those freedoms of the common market which, although incomplete, brought important benefits to our economy and society. This is reflected in opinion surveys, with Lithuanians consistently expressing relatively high support for EU membership. It also helped to better manage those external shocks such as global financial crisis of 2008-2009, the COVID-19 pandemic and now Russia’s aggression. Yes, EU decision making is often rightly described as producing “too little too late” but it is definitely better than the world of “spheres of influence” that authoritarian Russia is trying to impose on our continent.

Thank you very much, Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, for your first-hand testimony. I recall you are Jean Monnet Professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science of Vilnius University.

Entretien réalisé par Laurence Aubron.