Baltoscandia: a utopia, an ambition, or just a polite neighbourhood

The newly stressed priority of our foreign policy and economy – the Nordic countries – is beneficial for Lithuania only as regional cooperation alongside, but not instead of, active integration into the EU core.

 Vilnius became the capital of Baltoscandia for a year: this year Lithuania is the coordinator of the Nordic Baltic 8 (NB8) (three Baltic and five Nordic countries) activities.

The northward direction has also been accented by the strategists of our country’s foreign policy and businesses over the past few years. This idea, as the guarantee for success, is included in the long-term strategy Lietuva 2030 (Lithuania 2030). Is this an aspiration to become something like the United States of the Nordic and Baltic countries, Baltoscandia, as suggested by the interwar geopolitician and geographer Kazys Pakštas, who motivated the proposal by stating that it was difficult to find another region in the world with so many small countries that get along so well with one another?

The latest period in our country’s history is also full of vivid Nordic tones: Iceland was the first to acknowledge Lithuania’s independence; the Swedish were quick to rush in with their help to increase the safety of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, taught us democracy, provided support for educational, cultural, and social projects; the Danish army trained our troops in the fields of soldiership and peacekeeping. The Nordic countries were our lawyers and mentors when preparing for membership in NATO and the EU.

But when Lithuania became member of those elite clubs, the relations with the Nordic countries and the neighbours Latvia and Estonia were a little bit chilly. The Baltic countries thought that the goal that united us had been achieved and that we would be able to meet the high standards of the old democratic countries independently. But common infrastructure projects, business expansion, as well as the economic crisis forced to remember closer cooperation and fuelled discussions on their perspectives.

The most perspective format – NB6

There are numerous cooperation scenarios for Lithuania in a changing Europe. Associate Professor Dr Gintaras Aleknonis of Mykolas Romeris University thinks that we’ve already missed some opportunities: 3B – the union of the three Baltic countries, something similar to a Baltic Benelux, should have been founded 22 years ago. According to the expert, the most perspective formula is the NB6 (three Baltic countries and Sweden, Finland, and Denmark). By the way, this six is quite active now from a political point of view, for example, harmonizing its position before every EU summit or meeting of the Ministers of Foreign affairs. The NB8 format has a disadvantage – Island and Norway are not members of the EU.

The list of possible cooperation formats does not end here: why should we leave aside Germany and Poland that are also near the Baltic Sea? The strategists of foreign affairs are repeating that these two are also among the many priority vectors of our foreign policy. But according to Aleknonis, the most successful cooperation is possible among more or less equal partners, and Germany and Poland surpass as greatly both in size and influence.

One more combination – NB8+2+1, adding Russia to the lot. This is the format of the Council of the Baltic Sea states but, as Aleknonis admits, it is the most problematic one since it involves cooperation with a non-democratic country. Surely, such regional relations in any format are only possible alongside, not instead of, subsequent intensive integration into the EU core though scientists and political scientists in the euro crisis-stricken EU are modelling various shifts of power in the cooperation field.

Lithuania would be a province in the region of the Nordic and Baltic countries

During the international conference in Tallinn, dedicated to the analysis of the development of the three Baltic States in their years of independence, scientists and politicians also discussed ardently the scenario of the common region of the Nordic and Baltic countries.

Currently, the disappointment of Northern Europeans in the financial indiscipline of the Southern European countries increases their consolidation and solidarity. What is more, the situation in Southern Europe degrades confidence in the EU brand and this in turn could open the paths for the development of more reliable Nordic countries’ brand. There have been discussions that should the euro and the EU crisis get worse, the matter of the single currency of the Nordic countries – the crone – would be open for consideration. But the Nordic countries region may look too small for the growing markets of Asia and the USA, thus in order to gain more weight the Northerners would be more than happy to expand the region by including the three Baltic States.

Such a scenario was analysed by Erik Terk, director of the University of Tallinn Institute for Future Studies. He thinks that Lithuania would hesitate the most regarding the closer cooperation between the Nordic and Baltic States because it would fear the possible worsening of relations with Germany and Poland, but would agree eventually, if the EU crisis got worse. Such an outcome would be more beneficial for Estonia, which is already closely integrated into Finland’s energy and business; Latvia’s role would increase because from a geographical point of view the country would find itself at the central axis of the Nordic and Baltic countries. And for Lithuania a threat of becoming a Western province of this formation (when it comes to economic projects) would arise.

Obviously, greater integration with the Nordic countries would be a historical chance for the Baltic States to modernize their economies and become part of the Nordic countries’ state-of-the-art technology cluster. But such a version is only subject to consideration in case of a crisis in the EU. If Lithuania aimed its main vector in the EU without a crisis only towards the Nordic countries, it would risk dooming Rail Baltica, Via Baltica, and energy projects because the interest in them would decrease together with financing, making their implementation impossible. For the Nordic countries these transport corridors are not priorities and the new NPP project in Lithuania doesn’t meet their philosophy of renewable energy sources. Terk’s analysis summary for Lithuania is as follows: the most perspective scenario – very close integration into the EU while developing regional cooperation in the process.

The NB8 is becoming a major player

Obviously, being a member of the NB8 is a great advantage for Lithuania. Today, it’s a region with 32 million people and USD1.5trln GDP, the fifth largest European economy and the 12th largest world’s economy. The NB8 ranks eighth in the world according to export size and sixth according to accumulated investment.

Lithuania’s main goals of energy independence are projects with the Nordic countries: establishing electricity links with Sweden and joining the electricity markets of these countries. Lithuania has ambitions to develop business relations, become the leader in the service market of the Nordic and Baltic region in 2015. The contracts regarding the increase of studying the Nordic languages and the creation of a common space for scientific research and technology development have been signed; the countries also cooperate in the field of defence. No matter how angry we are at the Scandinavian banks for the real estate bubble, nevertheless, as Nijolė Žambaitė, Ambassador, Coordinator of the Nordic and Baltic cooperation, stresses, we should also not forget the fact that during the crisis they didn’t run away like some foreign banks did in other countries.

The informal NB8 ‘wiseguy group’, founded a few years ago, suggests intensifying the partnership: making common political statements in the international arena, nominating common candidates at international institutions and jointly representing the entire region, sharing the premises of diplomatic offices, jointly organizing military and crisis control exercises, creating a common digital market and a common information space of the Nordic and Baltic region.

By the way, the NB8 formation is starting to receive international recognition: having been invited twice by the UK to discuss common decisions, NB8 + UK is becoming a somewhat counterbalance for the informal union of Germany, France, and the Benelux in the EU.

A caprice, but no actual decisions yet

“I saw Finland as a model to follow when implementing reforms in Lithuania,” recalls the first Lithuanian ambassador to Finland, now a member of the Seimas, Petras Auštrevičius. He is certain that the Lithuanian foreign policy has to consist of many vectors, but the Nordic countries is one of the most important and ambitious directions because this region is the benchmark of economic welfare, technological innovation, harmonious society, and harmonious coexistence with the nature.

And yet having an orientation towards these countries doesn’t automatically guarantee success: the Nordic countries worked for a long time, worked consistently to achieve such results, implemented fundamental changes, for example, reaching the agreement of the society regarding social solidarity, which meant huge taxes but was vital for such progress. “Here’s a question for us: are we ready to support our orientation towards Northern Europe with similar decisions? For the meantime, it’s superficial: we may have more visits, meetings, and trade relations, bet we can’t transpose their model of life if the entire attempt is just political declarations, a caprice unsupported by social, economic, and other decisions. Today, it’s just an interesting proposition with numerous benefits because we want to aim for the top 10 countries in the world,” assesses Auštrevičius.

“We aren’t trying to become a Nordic country, we are what we are, and our ambition is to draw on the experience of the world’s most advanced countries, obviously, without withdrawing other priorities because these activities aren’t crossing one another,” explains Žambaitė.

The ambassador assures that more attention to the Nordic countries is no revolution in Lithuania’s foreign policy. The current cooperation of the NB8 is the result of natural, not artificial, relations between the neighbouring countries and one of the directions of the long-term future strategy. Drawing on the experience of the Nordic countries that helped them top the list of the best countries in the world is much more important for Lithuania than materializing the idea of Baltoscandia.