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  Vol.11, No 6, 2003
One of the best prepared

The European Commission praises the country’s preparations to join the EU

Ramūnas Vilpišauskas

On 5 November 2003, the European Commission presented its Comprehensive Monitoring Reports on the preparedness of candidate countries to join the European Union next year.
The main message was that all ten countries which completed accession negotiations in December 2002 are expected to be ready for accession by May of 2004.

While the Commission described the overall progress as satisfactory, according to the individual evaluations of each country, Lithuania stood out as the second Central European applicant, after Slovenia, in terms of the lowest number of issues which still cause serious concern. The commission concluded that Lithuania has reached a high level of alignment with EU norms in most policy areas.

Continuing the Impressive Economic Growth

The Report on Lithuania reviewed progress in the economic, administrative and legal steps undertaken in order to meet membership requirements. Although it underlined the importance of fiscal, structural and pension reforms, it noted the particularly strong macroeconomic performance. The growth in GDP, and other indicators such as foreign trade, is especially outstanding in the context of the continuing economic slowdown in current member states.

Economic growth in Lithuania is expected to continue in coming years as well. According to the most recent forecasts by the European Commission, released in the autumn of 2003, the country’s macroeconomic indicators are expected to be more favourable than in other acceding countries, and even in some current member states.

The favourable economic trends should provide a good basis for the continuation of the pension reform and the other steps required to create a long-term sustainability of public finances. It is, however, up to the current and succeeding governments to use this opportunity to the advantage of the people.

Progress in Administrative and Legal Matters

This year’s Report was devoted mostly to administrative functions and the legal transposition of EU norms in Lithuania, aiming to ensure the implementation of membership commitments. The Commission stressed the high level of alignment reached.

Two issues which still require immediate action are preparations for the mutual recognition of qualifications, and inspection and control in managing fisheries. These are issues of mostly administrative concern, and should be solved by the time of accession.

It should be noted that most EU legal norms are already in force in Lithuania. There are several issues, such as rules for indirect taxation, which will be aligned in 2004 before the actual accession. There are also around 20 transition periods, which were agreed during the accession negotiations, during which the most costly EU norms will be implemented. Most of the transition periods are in the agriculture, environment and transport sectors.

Practising at Being Insiders

With the administrative and legal preparations for accession approaching completion, Lithuania, together with other current and prospective member states, is currently taking part in the EU Intergovernmental Conference which is debating the draft EU Constitutional Treaty. This is another important learning exercise for Lithuanian representatives in the run-up to the start of routine negotiations inside EU institutions.

Although these negotiations, due to the complexity of institutional issues, have been relatively ignored by the wider public in Lithuania, their importance for the future trajectories of EU development cannot be underestimated. Much more attention at home is given to the issue of EU funds that Lithuania will start to receive from the first year of its membership.

Debates on the use of EU funds, in particular structural funds, started earlier this year, after the preparation of the Single Programming Document. The Document sets out the priorities of the government for the use of EU structural funds, and still has to be approved by the European Commission. However, it is unlikely that there will be significant changes to it, and we can already see the priorities as they have been incorporated into the national budget for the year 2004.

Overall, Lithuania is expected to receive about 2,677 million euros between 2004 and 2006. About one third of EU financial support will be directed to the agricultural sector, in the form of support measures for rural development, market intervention and direct support instruments. Another significant share will be used for the development of transport, energy and other infrastructure projects.

Some experts forecast that the absorption of EU funds, together with participation in the Single Market, will contribute to the growth of Lithuania’s GDP by 1.14% annually from 2002 to 2009. Although it is becoming obvious that there are too high expectations in the market regarding the benefits of EU funding, it is clear that certain sectors and professions will take advantage of the new funding sources.

Approaching the Time of Accession

The year 2004 will be an important year for both the country and its citizens. By then it will have completed more than a decade of integration processes into the two main organisations of the transatlantic community, the EU and Nato. It will become a member of both, thereby undergoing a new transformation and facing a new challenge to contribute to the goals of these clubs.

The fact that accession is taking place at a time of change in the EU and Nato, and at a time of rethinking of important security and economic policy issues, makes it all the more important for the country’s institutions to be ready to take part as fully fledged members in the activities of these organisations.

It is very likely that several issues will dominate the debate in Lithuania, with “double accession” taking place.
Besides the highly symbolic matters, there will be equally important administrative work taking place to ensure that institutions are ready to work with their partners in EU and Nato institutions. There will also be matters of political representation, such as elections to the European Parliament (though more important as a publicity exercise for the country’s politicians ahead of the national elections to the Seimas next autumn).

There will also be debates about financial issues, in particular the next accounting period of the EU, which will attract a lot of attention. There will be welcome efforts to use the EU as a forum for closer relations with Eastern neighbours.

And there will be a lot of dull and technical work in continuing the process of enforcing EU legal norms. Altogether, this will mark a new stage in the country’s development and, hopefully, the strengthening of its statehood during these times of globalisation.

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