EU and the Baltics by Pertti Torstila on 2 March 2000

EU AND THE BALTICS By Pertti Torstila, Director General for Political Affairs Second Annual Conference on Atlanticism Hungarian Atlantic Council Budapest, 3-4 March 2000

Much of the recent discussion concerning security in the Baltic region has focused on the membership decisions by both NATO and the EU. This question of membership is and will remain central not only to regional stability but also to the wider European security.

Simultaneously, there have emerged several non-institutional, multilateral policy initiatives directed at the entire region or at individual states. These initiatives are designed to strengthen stability and security in the region through building of a web of ties that bind Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the European institutions. They range from efforts to improve the military capabilities of the three Baltic states to initiatives with the purpose to intensify economic ties between EU Member States, EU candidates and Russia. Of particular importance in this regard are the activities of the CBSS (the Council of the Baltic Sea States).

Finland, while remaining cautious to any attempts to regionalize security policy in the Baltic Sea area, has been an active participant and initiator in the debate. Supported by our Nordic EU neighbours Sweden and Denmark, we have been in the forefront of efforts to develop EU’s new approach in the North, the policy of Northern Dimension.

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EU enlargement was a central theme of the Finnish EU Presidency and important decisions in this respect were made at the Helsinki Summit last December. Their effects will reach far into the new millennium. The eastward enlargement of the European Union is a huge endeavour without equal. Enlargement amounts to a major stability factor. The enlargement is a unique challenge both for the Union itself and the countries seeking membership. We are happy to see all three Baltic states now fully engaged in the negotiation process.

The European Union has undergone remarkable changes in the course of its history. It has admitted new members in several stages and its powers have expanded to encompass ever wider sectors. The Union has until now been successful in responding to external challenges and internal needs.

When Sweden and Finland joined the Union in 1995, the EU expanded across the Baltic Sea and beyond the Arctic Circle and acquired a frontier 1,300 kilometres long with the Russian Federation. This development made the Union an important and influential actor in the North. With Finland and Sweden as members the EU effectively got a new "northern dimension".

The present expansion process, in which all three Baltic States and Poland are taking part, further accentuates the importance of northern Europe for the Union’s external relations. It will inevitably increase the amount of attention that the Union and its more southern member states are devoting to the north of Europe and its special features. The accession of these countries will extend the border between the EU, Russia and other CIS countries, a good deal southwards. This borderline will work as a positive cooperation filter precisely as the Finnish-Russian EU-border has done.

Last October the Commission published its assessment on the progress of the candidates. The reports concerning Baltic countries were positive and encouraging: democracy has been consolidated, macroeconomic stability maintained and the market economy strengthened in preparation for future competition. Although much still remains to be done – as is the case with all the candidates - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can be proud of their achievements. The invitation extended to Latvia and Lithuania in Helsinki summit to open the membership negotiations demonstrate that the two Baltic neighbours have caught up with Estonia and run parallel for an early membership.

The three Baltic States have done much to carry through economic reforms. Thanks to their efforts and reforms they have achieved macro-economic stability and a promising upswing. We can derive special optimism from the high educational standard in the candidate countries of the Baltic region, from their strong work motivation and from the fact that mutual investments between the countries of northern Europe are growing.

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The Northern Dimension initiative that Finland officially presented three years later has developed rapidly into a part of Union policy. Member states and partner countries met in Helsinki last November to deliberate the content of the Northern Dimension and its practical implementation.

The Northern Dimension has already promoted and will continue to promote the EU’s eastward enlargement, increasing the likelihood that the applicant countries in the North will gain membership. The Northern Dimension will help Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to adapt to their new role, which will make them a central actor in developing cooperation between the EU, Russia and the nearby CIS countries. Although the northern initiative is comprehensive - it involves also Poland, Norway and Iceland - the EU relations with Russia and the Baltic states make up its core. The Northern Dimension will support cooperation in the Baltic Sea region and give a boost to many of the concrete projects undertaken by the countries there in a variety of spheres.

The Northern Dimension has received widespread support from countries outside the Union. Estonia´s, Latvia´s and Lithuania´s support and their own ideas have been very important in developing the concept. The work of the Council of Baltic Sea States has benefited greatly from their contribution.

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The Council of Baltic Sea States is acquiring a new role as an instrument for facilitating interaction between the Baltic states and the EU institutions and for developing relations between an enlarging Union and Russia. The Council can play an important part in the development of the Northern Dimension by prioritising and coordinating existing projects and giving concrete form to new ideas that will create added value.

In its capacity as a promoter of cooperation between Russia and its neighbours in the Baltic Sea region, the Council can benefit everyone. Border regions face challenges of infrastructural character, countering pollution and handling border controls.

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The security policy situation in the region is generally recognised as stable. There are no military threats disrupting the stability. And yet not all pieces in the Baltic puzzle are in their places. All three countries are convinced that NATO is the only organisation capable of guaranteeing their hard security needs. NATO’s answer has been clear : membership doors are not closed. Russia’s position is equally clear : NATO membership of the Baltic countries is from Moscow’s point of view out of the question. The internal and external debate for and against NATO affects the climate of cooperation in the region. As a militarily non-allied country, Finland is not in a position to speak in favour or against other countries’ membership in an military alliance. But let me also in this context recall the important OSCE principle, reconfirmed last year at the Istanbul summit, that countries are free to choose and change their security arrangements.

It is important to underline that the security problems in the Baltic Sea region today are not of military character. Therefore security and stability in the region should be approached by emphasizing non-military means. Transboundary problems such as environmental concerns, border controls, organised crime, refugees or drug smuggling are receiving increased attention. There are already numerous examples of successful cooperation between the Nordics, the EU and the Baltics in these fields. The search for better security can significantly be enhanced by economic and other integration.

The relationship between Russia and the Baltic states constitutes, without doubt, the key to the regional stability. There is a strong interdependance between the Baltic states and Russia in infrastructure, transport and energy. The most challenging issue is the question of how to cope with the issues related to the Soviet past. The presence of the large Russian speaking population in Estonia and Latvia in particular presents an enormous challenge not only to the process of state building in the Baltics - the naturalisation and societal integration processes of non-citizens being the most crucial ones - but also continues to create a highly disturbing factor in the Russian-Baltic relations.

This wrangle has weakened the possibilities to settle issues originating in the break up of the Soviet Union, including the border issue. Russia refuses to sign the border agreements claiming that the protection of the rights of the Russian speaking minority is insufficient. The European Union does not view the lack of border agreements as an obstacle in the membership process of the Baltic states. It does, however, require from all of its members full respect for the rights of national minorities and calls for the candidate states to line their legislation and its implementation with international standards. In the case of Estonia and Latvia, integration of society has become a matter of urgent necessity.

Achieving truly integrated societies through naturalisation and societal integration in Estonia and Latvia will continue to demand great efforts from the two countries in the years to come. It is clear that successful integration of non-citizens will figure highly in assessments of their maturity for the EU. Many in the Russian speaking communitites - and particularly the young people - see their best future in the European Union with unrestricted movement through the EU area and access to employment opportunities in their labour markets. A succesful integration of non-citizens has both political, social and security implications to the benefit of the Baltic countries in their internal and external relations.

In conclusion, one can say that the enlargement of the European Union is the most powerful single factor in promoting practical cooperation between the Baltic States and the Nordic countries. Together with regional cooperation, it offers great opportunities for countries in the Baltic Sea region to become involved and to engage themselves in adapting to the rapidly changing environment. It also makes the task easier to identify their specific place in the international community. In short, the absence of any immediate crisis in the Baltic Sea region should continue to be seen as a chance to engage all of the states in the region, including Russia, in a fruitful cooperation to enhance this development.