European Affairs

The Baltic Will Be Europe's New Growth Area     Print Email

A promising future is shaping up for the Baltic Sea region after NATO and the European Union are enlarged to include new members in the area. Thanks to the perseverance of politicians, diplomats, academics and the Baltic people, the idea of enlargement has been accepted both in our minds and in our political agendas. The time has come to embrace new opportunities in the Baltic Sea region and to shape our policies accordingly.

The Baltic Sea area is expected to become the fastest-growing region of Europe in the coming years. Already markets in the region are wide and open, the population is well-educated and hard-working and the will for international cooperation is strong and growing stronger. An enlarged European Union and NATO, hopefully including the three Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, will only reinforce these factors.

I have no reason to doubt that we are heading for a big increase in prosperity. A decade ago, when our borders had just started to open, Lithuania's trade with the Nordic countries barely amounted to $200 million. Last year, this figure exceeded $1 billion. Obviously, across the Baltic Sea region, the growth of economic activities should be even more overwhelming.

The rapid expansion of trade illustrates the potential of our cooperation. At the same time, it reveals some existing problems. Challenge Number One is infrastructure. At present, our region suffers from the bottlenecks created by the underdeveloped infrastructure of the Eastern Baltic coastline.

For 50 years the Baltic countries, and to a large extent Poland, were not considered to be major economic thoroughfares. They were on the fringe of East-West confrontation during the Cold War. Now this former confrontation should turn into cooperation between Western and Eastern European markets.

This is not a new idea. In our preoccupation with enlargement issues, however, we have neglected its true importance. Infrastructure development has not been considered an important means to increase the security of the Baltic Sea area.

During the last decade, for instance, the Baltic countries and Poland have made remarkable progress in upgrading their own infrastructures individually. Yet little has been done to improve interconnection and integration of the Baltic Sea networks. During the past ten years, no major project has addressed this issue, except for the Via Baltica highway, which is not yet completed.

At the beginning of the 21st century, it still takes seven to eight hours by train to travel the 300 kilometers between Vilnius and Riga. It takes as long as ten hours to travel from Vilnius to Warsaw. Before World War II it took three hours less to cover the same distance!

This situation is absolutely intolerable. The issues of infrastructure must be addressed now, and we should realize their crucial importance to the Baltic Sea region. Networks are vital to the development of trade, commerce, transit and, not least, defense cooperation. Our countries need networks that are interconnected and facilitate communication between our people.

Lithuania and Poland have recently come up with an initiative to connect their two capitals, Vilnius and Warsaw, with a modern highway and a railway line. I am glad that Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski has strongly supported this initiative.

But active involvement of the other countries of the region is equally important. Since 1999, Baltic Sea projects have been included in the European Union's TINA aid program. However, at the time that they were drawn up, nobody expected that enlargement would proceed so rapidly. Today my question is: can we afford to wait until 2015, when these projects are due to be completed?

The European Commission and EU member countries must appreciate the priority of our proposals. They should see a regional interest in what are now widely believed to be national problems. It is critical to connect Northern and Central Europe, first of all because a well-developed infrastructure in our countries will serve the interests of all EU citizens.

It is important to understand that Russia's active participation will continue to be of great importance to the success of the Baltic Sea region. With this country we share interest in, and hopes of, the growth and prosperity of our nations. Thus, in the next decade, expanding cooperation with Russia will be Challenge Number Two for our region.

It is significant that after EU and NATO enlargement, the list of dividing issues in the Baltic Sea region will shrink and will be replaced by unique new opportunities for closer cooperation.

We can already distinguish the blueprint of the emerging model. Recently, Russia's cooperation with the West has advanced on all fronts, including the European Union, the United States and, not the least, NATO. Lithuania welcomes this development and hopes that it will lead to Russia's further consolidation as a robust and cooperative democracy.

In the past decade, our countries were repeatedly alerted of the use of our region as a transit route for illegal trade and migration. Expanding security, prosperity, and partnership across the Baltic Sea area will make our countries even more vulnerable to these so-called "modern" threats. In this field, cooperation with Russia is especially promising.

I fail to grasp the argument that expansion of the security and stability area in Europe may create new dividing lines. How can enlargement that opens up new possibilities for a dialogue and cooperation create new walls? The truth is that enlargement of the European Union and NATO will bring change to the Baltic Sea region. But these changes should not be considered as final.

Enlargement, we hope, is a dynamic process with no set limits. It should lead to new forms of cooperation with neighboring countries and regions. Lithuania now seeks to reinforce its cooperation with Ukraine, a country which was important to us in past history and which will definitely be important to Europe in the future. Our initiatives should serve a broader scheme, which President George Bush has defined as a free and united Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

In fact, Challenge Number Three is to reinforce America's cooperation with our continent. Until recently, enlargement was a major issue that kept America's focus on Europe. But emerging challenges to global security, such as terrorism, should encourage us to think of the Transatlantic relationship as a two-way street. I believe that it is now our turn to demonstrate a bold and unwavering commitment to America.

Our region can serve as a catalyst to further U.S. engagement in Europe. It is here, on the shores of the Baltic, that the borders of the European Union, NATO and Russia meet. There is hardly another region on the continent where membership commitments are so plentiful and overlapping. The Baltic Three, the Nordic Five and the Council of the Baltic Sea States are just a few of the many regional organizations.

I also note the unique psychological attachment to America that exists in the Baltic and the Scandinavian countries, as well as in Poland. Many of our citizens have family ties with U.S. émigré communities, and many of our nations have benefited from America's support in the past.

Now the Baltic Sea region has a historic chance to seize these opening opportunities and to expand its role in an enlarged Euro-Atlantic area - a role of enhancing stability and prosperity here, in the Baltic Sea area, and also in other regions and continents.

There are numerous historical examples of our region exerting influence beyond its borders: the Hanseatic League, the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, and now the European Union and NATO. They all show that solidarity and cooperation are our most effective instruments to increase participation in European and global affairs.

It is essential to continue on this basis. In the past decade, we have made much headway in dismantling artificial barriers around the Baltic Sea. Now, when new technologies and new opportunities bring us even closer, it is our common duty to reinforce our cooperation with new initiatives. So let's do it!


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2002.

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