September 1st, 2013 marks two months after Lithuania started its presidency of the Council of European Union. While advertised as an important achievement by the government to the Lithuanians it is more of a routine procedure. In the European Union, all the member countries rotate in assuming this 6-month presidency.
The Council of the European Union which consists of minister delegates from every member state. The meaning of its presidency, however, has been reduced over the time. The council now convenes in Belgium regardless of which country presides with only some minor events taking place in the presiding nation. After the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon was passed the presiding country has been stripped of much of its powers, having been replaced by permanent EU officials.
Stances towards the European Union in Lithuania
More than 9 years have passed since Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004 so it is now possible to evaluate Lithuanian EU relations, the local stances towards EU and their reasons. Just like in 2004 all the main parties (Homeland Union, Socialdemocrats, Liberals) support EU membership. They tend to swiftly adopt various EU measures. When the European Constitution was proposed in 2004 Lithuanian parliament raced to become the first country to ratify it - without any public discussion or evaluation. Despite this zeal the Constitution was later voted against by the French and Dutch people in referenda.
In Lithuania, however, a referendum on an EU issue would be unimaginable as the establishment would not want a negative answer. The only referendum that took place was for the EU membership itself (as it was required by the Constitution). To ensure a positive result the referendum law has been amended (the lower requirements for number of votes were effectively applicable to that single referendum alone) and the voters were provided free goods in return to voting. What would have been heavily controversial had the referendum been on any other issue passed largely unnoticed by both local and foreign democracy activists as most of them supported the EU enlargement.
Some Lithuanian EU critics even claim this reminds of Soviet occupation when communist functionaries were willing to appease Moscow disregarding the wishes of the local population. Most locals, however, have little understanding of what the Union could and could not do and don't care that much about it. Proceedings of European institutions are largely ignored by media and European parliament elections have a pitiful turnout (~20%). This made Brussels a popular "political refuge" for controversial high-ranking politicians and a good place to develop popularity. After serving a term in some European institution their popularity surge due to perceived importance of their jobs and no public scandals. Dalia Grybauskaitė is the greatest success story: largely unknown before her tenure as a European finance commissioner she was elected Lithuanian president with 68% votes immediately afterwards (in 2009).
Still, the Euroskeptic voices are few and far between and even held "politically incorrect" by much of the establishment (with even Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevičius claiming that politicians who put national interests ahead of EU interests are a problem). The eurosceptics include some signatories of Lithuanian independence declaration and other intellectuals who currently lack any political power or much media attention. Far left "Frontas" party is also Euroskeptic; its pro-Soviet stance made it easy for pro-EU establishment to portray the entire Euroskeptic population as radicals (e.g. xenophobic) or even a "Russian fifth column". The pro-Russian euroskepticism is, however, the smaller one of the several types present. The other one advocates bringing more decisions back home to Lithuania and increasing its sovereignty, at least on political and cultural matters.
The European Union is not a defensive alliance yet some of its supporters believe that the membership may prevent a Russian invasion (as other member-states would be less likely to tolerate an occupation of Lithuania when it is a member-state). As Lithuania has been occupied by Russian states for 166 years out of the recent 220 years, some still see a new Russian occupation as the biggest threat.
European Union influence on Lithuanian economy
With their economy ransacked by a 45-year long Soviet occupation Lithuanians now receive more money through European Union budget than Lithuania pays into it, meaning the membership is profitable on a short term. The exact profitability is hard to measure impartially as some of the EU support goes directly to fund the local EU measures, such as the expensive EU-ordered closure of Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant near Visaginas, while some of the EU-imposed Lithuanian payments go directly to EU programs rather than EU budget (e.g. the European Development Fund).
The Lithuanian economy now grows, as it did both before an after EU membership save for the economic downturn years, so it is expected that eventually, Lithuania would become an overall contributor to the EU budget.
Who receives the EU money is however frequently criticized by both EU supporters and detractors as many projects suffer from embezzlement. The usual scheme is simple: unfaithful developers of EU-sponsored projects pay artificially inflated prices for various project-related services; a large part of this money is then secretly returned by the service provider (part of it may be used to bribe the state officials to turn a blind eye). While "professional EU applicants" get large-scale funding through the aforementioned schemes, ordinary businessmen lack the experience to successfully pass the application bureaucracy. Such situation leads EU critics to claim that the political establishment is pro-EU precisely because EU gives them access to large amounts of "free money".
Furthermore, the Lithuanian farmers claim discrimination as they are paid only 28% of what Greek farmers are paid for the same land area and 52% of EU average, yet they must be competitive in the same market as the EU had abolished duties. This is not a small deal as agriculture funding makes up 41% of total EU expenditures. Then again this does not make the farmers eurosceptic as prior to the EU membership most were even less well off.
The most profound EU influence, however, has been the rapid emigration. Any EU member-state citizen may freely settle and work in another member-state. Before 2004 expansion all EU members had relatively similar developed economies this posed little problems. But for an Eastern European a job in the West may provide salary several times those at home. Some 12% Lithuania's people, most of them young and many of them skilled, left for good in the recent decade - leaving their homeland stretched infrastructure and aging population as well as putting further growth at stake.
Are European cultures equal in the Union?
In addition to using objective economic criteria, the European Union increasingly influences local culture and political opinions by sponsoring local organizations that support various EU agendas (e.g. the scientifically disproven theory that men and women have no inborn psychological differences).
Another key EU agenda is promoting the European identity over either global, national or regional ones. Proponents (among them a disproportional number of Western European elite) see this as a measure to avoid wars; detractors point that the previous regional unification attempts (e.g. Germany in the 19th century) only replaced internal wars by external ones. Some showcase "European identity" measures (e.g. a single-design car licence plates) make the Union member-states even less independent in particular spheres than the USA states.
All of the above are heavily controversial and lead to a belief that the European Union is about transplanting ideas and values from the Western core to the newly-joined East rather than about exchanging ideas and respecting values of each other.
Lack of respect for Lithuanian and other Eastern European victims of the Soviet genocides is another controversial issue. Looking through a Western European prism World War 2 was fought between totalitarian Germany vs. democratic nations. In the Eastern Europe, however, everything was different with not one but two totalitarian powers (the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany) occupying weaker states and committing genocides. Soviets murdered several times the number of people Nazis did. Much of their actions were ethnically-based and some ethnicities (e.g. Kalmyks) had 50%+ people killed and their culture largely destroyed (through expulsion to GULAGs/Siberia of the entire population where most died). 7 million Ukrainians murdered in Holodomor mean that there were more Ukrainian victims of the Soviet genocide alone than Jews murdered by Nazis. While total expulsion of Lithuanians was not done (although deliberated), Lithuania still lost over 30% population under the Soviet rule. Therefore it is painful for Lithuanians and many other non-Russian Eastern Europeans to hear some European Union officials not regarding their murderers the same way as the murderers who also ravaged the West (i.e. the Nazis).
When will Lithuania adopt the Euro?
The next major EU-related issue for Lithuania is the adoption of Euro as its currency. Prime minister Algirdas Butkevičius claimed there is no place for discussion nor referendum as Euro was already accepted by the 2004 referendum (it was not directly mentioned in the referendum question though). However with the recent Euro-related economic downturn in Greece and Portugal public opinions on Euro are more negative than ever (55% oppose it). Unlike much of the EU work which falls outside the scope of interest of an average Lithuanian, the currency change will influence everybody. In response to the unfavorable public opinion A. Butkevičius claimed that "an informational campaign will be necessary", likely meaning a large state-funded PR campaign to make the nation more pro-Euro. Until now such campaigns have been successful (including the one before EU membership referendum), but the introduction of Euro may be the toughest issue the pro-EU establishment faced to date. The government hopes to introduce Euro by 2015.