July 1st will mark the start of Lithuania’s chairmanship of the Council of the European Union. Lithuania will take over the presidency from Ireland which is about to conclude its rotating six-month EU presidency term.
Lithuania will assume the presidency for the first time in its nine years long EU membership history.
But it’s even more important to recognize that the presidency of EU by Lithuania, once a captive nation, will mark an important milestone not only in Lithuania’s achievements, but also towards the fulfilling the vision of a Europe whole and free.
There is no doubt that Lithuania’s performance will be carefully scrutinized by EU institutions, other EU member states and, perhaps, a former master.
Naturally, Lithuanians will be eager to make a good impression on the political stage as a reliable partner who can expertly manage European affairs despite its Soviet past, small size and limited financial and human resources.
It won’t be easy.
The Lithuanian presidency gets under way amid many serious economic and social challenges that have been facing the EU for the last five years.
For instance, latest macroeconomic figures, released by the European Commission, indicate that the eurozone's economy will contract more than expected in 2013, the first ever two-year slump for the single currency area.
Lithuania will try to give its response to this and other challenges promoting deeper integration of EU markets, a financial stability and competitiveness.
Lithuanian officials at the helm of the country’s presidency believe that these actions will translate into resumed economic growth and more jobs.
They realize (rightly so) that the state of the union is in Lithuania’s own interest not only because the European Union provides a substantial financial assistance for the modernization of the country and is Lithuania’s main export market for its export driven economy and balances the political influence of Russia, but also because the Lithuanian government has set the goal to adopt the euro at the first opportunity.
There are also other areas in which Lithuania hopes to “tweak” the EU agenda according to its own national interests and priorities.
To begin with, Lithuania hopes to take the vision of a Europe whole and free further east by assisting some European neighboring countries, first and foremost Ukraine, with implementation of political, economic and social reforms, while at the same time building a political will and consensus inside of the EU for offering a membership perspective (perhaps as early as November 2013, at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius).
Another issue that Lithuania will focus on is energy security. The aim is to move forward with solutions both procedural and infrastructure-related that could help to eliminate energy dependency on a single external energy supplier (Russia) and ensure competitive energy pricing.
The implementation of these and other objectives of Lithuania during its EU presidency will require a support and understanding from the EU institutions and member-states. At least at the rhetorical level this should not be a problem as Lithuanian presidency priorities are not controversial.
But Vilnius isn't just trying to win over Europe: the political establishment has also appealed to its own people to consider the half-year presidency as a unique opportunity for the country that will help to enhance Lithuania’s visibility on the world stage and to promote Lithuania as a tourist, business and academic center.
Above all, though, the best legacy of Lithuania’s first presidency would be increased self-esteem and self-confidence, stronger European identity and more active participation in European affairs, both as a nation and as individual European citizens.