Being ambitious: the EU and our Eastern neighbours

A speech delivered by Minister for Europe, David Lidington, in Vilnius, Lithuania

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Lidington CBE

It is twenty years ago that Lithuania’s elected representatives made their historic declaration of restored sovereignty, which set the country on its path to full independence once again, to international recognition, and membership today of both the European Union and of NATO.

I worked in the Foreign Office at that time- not as an MP, but as a Political Adviser to our British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. I remember watching TV news bulletins and telegrams coming in from British Ambassadors reporting first hand the changes sweeping across Central and Eastern Europe. I remember being moved and impressed by the courage of the Lithuanian people and your elected leaders. I remember the siege of the TV tower and Parliament and an unlikely figure, a Professor of Music emerging as the voice of the people at that time. I had a real sense of the continent of Europe coming together again after the fracture of 1914, made worse by the events of World War II and the Cold War.

For people here in Lithuania the impressions - and emotions - were far more vivid as your struggle for freedom reached its climax. Patriotic people died in the cause.

At that time the artificial political barriers between East and West in Europe were swept away because that is what the people wanted. The peoples of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Baltic States and others shared the values and aspirations of their Western neighbours and they demanded the same democratic and political freedoms.

It was the solidarity and the ardent patriotism of the Lithuanian people that won them their freedom. But when I compare the history of Central and Eastern Europe since 1989 with that of the continent in 1920’s and 30’s what is striking is that this time round freedom, democracy and the rule of law have been sustained and strengthened.

Now I would be the first to acknowledge the EU has many faults, but against that in the balance should be set its historic achievement in establishing a model in Europe for a community of nations governing relations amongst themselves according to the rule of law. That is a model of political development that has enabled the EU, through its policy of enlargement, to entrench democracy and human rights in parts of our continent where those traditions were crushed for most of the 20th Century.

Could we have predicted back in 1989 that just 15 years later - within a single generation - these countries of Central and Eastern Europe would be transformed into full and equal members of the EU? I suspect not. The differences seemed too great; the speed of change required seemed impossible to achieve. And yet, here we are.

Today, the EU has different countries on its eastern border - countries which were either not able, or not ready to change as quickly as Lithuania did.

The British Government believes that EU membership should be open to all European countries that want to join and can meet the necessary criteria. We believe that the EU should renew its commitment to keeping open the door to possible enlargement. No-one has the right to deny that opportunity, that choice, to a country which wishes to apply.

And we have seen the positive impact of a clear EU membership perspective in the Western Balkans. As I saw for myself just a few weeks ago in Macedonia and Kosovo , the prospect of EU (and indeed NATO) membership are the key drivers of the reforms needed to bring stability and prosperity to that entire region.

Now I don’t want to put an arbitrary timescale on the future enlargement of the EU to the east. But I am convinced it will happen. The UK Government rejects the idea of some sort of pause after Croatia. Lithuania has consistently held to this vision - to bring our partners into the same European family. It is an inspiring vision, which recalls the optimism of the first wave of enlargement to the east and I believe we should work together to keep that spirit alive

Why? Because what happens in neighbouring countries has a direct impact on the EU itself. It’s in our all interests to have secure, prosperous neighbours. We want to help build strong democracies, the rule of law and vibrant market economies in these countries, and success in that task will serve to strengthen the EU itself.

This is a difficult process; one that requires a combination of real political leadership in the partner countries, plus support, encouragement, and technical expertise from the EU. Our Neighbourhood Policy,and the Eastern Partnership are the structures that we use to develop this.

In 2004 the EU launched its Neighbourhood Policy to foster political and economic co-operation and to ensure that enlargement did not create new divisions. Trade with the Eastern Neighbourhood has subsequently increased at double digit rates, aided by steady progress in reducing barriers and the adoption of common rules and practices. Political engagement has increased both in profile and intensity.

Then in 2009 the EU launched an Eastern Partnership to mark a step increase in the EU’s commitment to closer economic integration and political cooperation.

That Partnership is a commitment by the EU to six countries - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - to help them to move closer to EU standards and values. It builds stronger trading links through deep and comprehensive Free Trade Agreements that include substantial adoption of common standards and steps towards creation of a single economic space. We have launched negotiations on Association Agreements with five of the partner countries. These agreements are based on shared values. They cover a huge range of areas from justice, democracy and security, to the domestic reforms needed to create real economic opportunities. In return, the EU looks to these countries to align themselves more closely with the standards - whether political, economic, social - that they will need to meet if they aspire to join the EU as full members.

The EU has clearly signalled its commitment to help some of these countries in resolving their protracted conflicts. The Partnership provides an opportunity for enhanced regional cooperation, and also for greater EU effort to work with Georgia and Russia to resolve their conflict, with Armenia and Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh and in the OSCE’s 5+2 discussions on Transnistria. And of course next year when you take over the chair of the OSCE Lithuania will have an important leading role in that organisation in trying to tackle these three unresolved conflicts.

Some in Russia have been concerned by our outreach to those six partners. But it’s not a case of choosing between the West or Moscow. Stronger democracy and better economic management are good for the whole region and that includes good for Russia. Our partners are free to develop the relationships that will bring them closer to their own goals and the European Union is free to promote its values to aspirant members.

Russia too is a partner, and an important one. We should seek close cooperation and continue a constructive dialogue with Moscow and the suggestion to create a “Group of Friends” of the Eastern Partnership, which would aim to improve the exchange of information and to coordinate donor activity amongst partners, Member States and non-EU countries, is one way in which we might foster greater involvement by Russia and other major players in the region.


Now of course, one of the EU’s greatest strengths is the single market based on free movement of goods, services, capital and people and in the development of the necessary common standards and procedures. I can take some pride in the fact that the Single Market was very much a UK initiative championed by Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. This has increased trade and investment and economic growth. I want the countries of our Eastern Partnership to be able to join this venture, to have an unparalleled opportunity for closer economic integration, the adoption of common standards and access to European markets. I believe that this is in the interests of the UK, the EU and our Eastern neighbours.

The Eastern Partnership offers partner countries the tools they need to develop this trade relationship. If they are willing to make the structural reforms necessary for deeper engagement, they will gain gradual integration into the EU economy. If you look at the last 5 years, exports to the EU’s neighbours rose by 63%, and imports from those neighbouring countries rose by 91%. Opening up markets benefits both sides - both the EU and its neighbouring partners..


Energy security and action on energy efficiency in support of the move to a low carbon future are other important strands of Eastern Partnership. And both the EU and our partners could benefit from progress. And the opportunities here are many -in energy savings, in creating more effective markets, commercial opportunities and in addressing the challenge of climate change. Reducing energy intensity, improving efficiency, building stable and transparent markets and moving to EU norms and standards will help to match and open up the energy markets of the neighbourhood with those of the EU. Reducing energy consumption should bring economic, environmental and security benefits to both our Eastern partners, and the EU. There are many opportunities to share experience and best practice in this field. So, it is in all our interests that we work together, build capacity and share best practice.

Our partners in the neighbourhood also have the potential to exploit significant natural resources to improve both their and our energy security. An issue that I know is a central concern of Lithuania’s leadership. As well as oil and gas, including potentially unconventional gas, there is potential to diversify into lower carbon sources of energy generation, for example developing hydro and wind power perhaps most likely in the east, and solar in the southern neighbourhood. As well as increasing energy security and helping these countries to tackle the challenges of climate change, that kind of investment clearly also has the potential to reap economic benefits. If we think about the emerging economies around the world and the demand this is likely to make for low-carbon technologies we can see incredible opportunities for Europe to become the supplier of low-carbon technologies to the rest of the world.

The drive towards energy efficiency and low carbon energy generation is of course part of a much greater effort which will be needed to ensure a smooth and successful transition to a low carbon economy in the EU and globally. The UK believes that the EU should deliver a 30% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020. This will help to bolster the EU carbon price, stimulate investment in low carbon technology, and help the EU take the lead in the race to a low carbon economy. Moving to greater climate ambitions will deliver jobs and growth, will improve energy security, as well as helping to address the dangers of climate change.

The Eastern Partnership and other groupings such as the Energy Community Treaty are also working towards the reform of energy markets and improving the investment climate in the EU’s neighbourhood and again, this should bring mutual benefits in terms of consumers, the economy and energy security as a whole.


A third important focus for the Eastern Partnership is democracy and good governance. The EU is a values-based organisation. Closer integration depends on having those shared values. We are therefore supporting partners to deepen their commitment to the rule of law and to democracy. We see this in its widest sense - not just meeting international standards on elections, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly but also through building an effective and independent judiciary, having an accountable state administration and encouraging a free press and lively civil society independent of government. These are long term challenges. But we do expect partners to commit to real and practical progress.

For a number of years, we have had serious concerns about human rights and democracy in Belarus. This is still a country where being a human rights activist can mean that you lose your job; that your parents lose their jobs; that you are harassed in various ways by the authorities. Disappearances of opposition figures in the past have still not been satisfactorily explained. I know that a significant number of young Belarusians come here to Lithuania to study at the European Humanities University that relocated here from Minsk precisely to ensure that it could maintain its freedom and independence.

The British Government want Belarus to know that the door to Europe is open but that closer economic relations need to go hand in hand with progress on democracy, good governance and human rights. This is not just a moral issue: it is also a practical one. If I am an EU company looking for a place to invest, I want to know that the court and judicial system is independent and that it will treat me fairly, governed by the rule of law and not by arbitrary decisions of Government Ministers and their friends. I want to know that corruption is tackled seriously. I want to know my staff will be free to study and travel.

People to people contacts are a vital way of spreading EU values. The UK does not take part in EU Agreements on visa facilitation and visa liberalisation - we’re not part of the Schengen Agreement. But I hope the progress that the partner countries make on document security and border security, as well as on corruption and wider criminal activity, will also make it easier for their citizens to travel to the UK.


The European Council agreed in July this year to review EU policy towards its neighbourhood and a Ministerial meeting is planned for January 2011. This will be a chance for us to set a clear direction. I want to see Europe commit itself to an ambitious vision, and an active and activist set of policies in order to make that vision a reality. We need to keep our eyes on the big strategic objective: A continent of Europe reunited; confident, prosperous, and resolute its commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

Still 20 years on from the Lithuanian revolution this is unfinished business. We cannot now say with certainty when we will get to our destination. But if partners are prepared to follow the example of Lithuania, we may indeed succeed faster than any of us here today has previously thought possible.

Updates to this page

Published 8 September 2010