Lithuania’s pandemic: The power of regional cooperation

Russia and the eastern neighbourhood are Lithuania’s top foreign policy priorities, even in a global pandemic

Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs CC BY-NC-SA

In unprecedented times, Vilnius has stuck close to precedent when it comes to its foreign policy. In managing the health crisis, the Lithuanian government has pursued policy coordination with its Baltic peers, selective cooperation at the EU level, and sought to demonstrate leadership in the eastern neighbourhood. When negotiating the European Union’s recovery fund, Vilnius maintained its traditional commitment to fiscal responsibility while embracing the European Commission’s leading role in coordinating the response. With the fundamentals of Lithuania’s approach to European politics seemingly immutable, Vilnius is likely to remain a passive if permissive actor in the EU’s post-pandemic politics.

There are two reasons for the stability of Lithuania’s EU policy. Firstly, Vilnius’s preferences are subject to tight structural constraints. As a small and open economy, Lithuania strongly supports a strict single market policy that limits economic interventionism by other member states. Further, Lithuania’s small size and limited resources incentivise specialisation at the EU level, which it has pursued by focusing on issues relating to Russia and the eastern neighbourhood. Second, Lithuania was relatively successful in containing the pandemic and was therefore able to avoid compromising its long-standing interests in exchange for short-term support. Despite a recent uptick in infections, Lithuania remains among the best performers in the EU in terms of both cases and deaths per capita.

Lithuania responded to the health crisis early by starting to test travellers from affected countries on 24 February. While widespread testing was rolled out only gradually due to resource constraints, by late April Lithuania had become a global leader in tests per capita. By 16 March – three days before the first case of community transmission – it had introduced quarantine requirements. Many hospitals faced supply shortages in the early weeks of the pandemic, but rapid mobilisation of the business community and civil society cushioned the supply shortage.

Lithuanian experts consider Poland to be their country’s most disappointing partner in managing the public health crisis

To tackle the economic fallout from the pandemic, the government approved a domestic €5 billion stimulus plan on 16 March, which equated to about 10 per cent of GDP. The programme includes support for business liquidity, subsidies for employee retention programmes, and redirection of EU funds to public health and employment. Its relatively low public debt (36.3 per cent of GDP) and reputation for fiscal responsibility meant that Lithuania was able to borrow on favourable terms; public debt is not expected to exceed 50 per cent of GDP even with the additional financing. Thus, although the implementation of the stimulus plan was dogged by delays and criticism for poorly targeted measures, Vilnius managed to shore up a robust stimulus programme without having to make special accommodation at the EU level beyond temporarily suspending state aid rules.

Consequently, Lithuania faced no real pressure to revise its EU policy and was even able to assist other member states that were hit harder by the coronavirus. ECFR’s European Solidarity Tracker research reveals that in late April Lithuania sent humanitarian aid to Spain and Italy. These decisions were consistent with Vilnius’s commitment to be a “responsible” EU member, though they were not particularly costly in absolute terms (the joint sum equalled €100,000) and were implemented only after the infection rate had subsided at home. At the same time, Lithuania actively assisted its eastern partners, sending €150,000 worth of supplies to Armenia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

Facing no obstacles to cooperation, Vilnius was mostly engaged in coordination activities with its partners. Here, it benefitted from the availability of established frameworks with the Baltic and Nordic governments. The ‘Nordic-Baltic Eight’ committed to information-sharing and mutual assistance on citizen repatriation as early as 16 March. The Baltic travel bubble, launched in mid-May, should also be seen in this light: as infection rates had subsided by late April in all three Baltic states, opening borders posed few problems and was facilitated by efficient access to information. Only Poland, which refused to allow Lithuanian citizens to cross its territory from Germany in private cars, presented a problem despite a provisional grace period for returning citizens. With Poland insisting on a bilateral solution, Lithuania moved quickly to de-escalate the situation by arranging for travel caravans and collective repatriation.

These experiences have had a lingering effect. According to ECFR’s EU Coalition Explorer Coronavirus Special, Lithuanian experts ranked Estonia and Latvia as their country’s most helpful partners in managing the public health crisis. They considered Poland the most disappointing.

However, neither the success of the Baltic travel bubble nor the border troubles with Poland are likely to have a significant effect on Vilnius’s relations with its partners. Tellingly, when Vilnius failed to secure Riga’s commitment to not import energy produced by the Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant in Belarus, Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, refused to participate in a meeting of the three Baltic presidents planned for June. And, despite the disappointment with Warsaw, Vilnius hosted a historic joint meeting of the Lithuanian and Polish governments on 17 September, in which Lithuania’s prime minister pledged to support Poland’s economic plan for Belarus, as well as to back Warsaw in its conflict with the EU regarding the rule of law.

This should not be surprising. While solidarity and effective cooperation are important, Lithuania’s EU policy and partner preferences are defined by stable issue-specific interests – in the cases above, eastern policy and energy security – that have been largely unaffected by the pandemic. If anything, Lithuania’s successful handling of the pandemic enabled it to react swiftly and actively to the fallout of the Belarusian presidential elections in August, with Vilnius leading the call for a shared European response.

More broadly, Lithuania’s experience with the coronavirus crisis confirms the expectation that EU politics tend to follow issue-specific cooperation among flexible coalitions of member states closely guarding their key interests. As long as the issues structuring such cooperation remain, the effect of unrelated external shocks, such as the pandemic, is unlikely to be significant or lasting. This outlook can hardly promise any qualitative breakthroughs in European integration – but nor does it threaten collapse.

Justinas Mickus is an associate researcher of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This is the first of three commentaries in a series focusing on the Baltic countries’ experiences of and cooperation during the coronavirus crisis.

Latvia  —  Estonia

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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