Common interests and redefined comparative advantages create favourable conditions for stronger cooperation among Poland and the Baltic States.
A window of opportunity 4
The conflict in Ukraine has questioned the existing system of alliances in Eastern Europe, with Poland - usually more oriented towards the Visegrad group and central EU member states - now looking at the Baltic States as key allies sharing a similar outlook on the current international challenges. This represents a window of opportunity to strengthen the Polish-Baltic cooperation. This was one of the conclusions of experts from the Baltic States and Poland that gathered in a seminar in Riga on November 25, 2015 discussing the results of a study exploring opinions of the four societies on current international and regional affairs.
The goal of the study was to explore how these four countries perceive each other and international issues, such as the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, sanctions against Russia and the EU eastern policy regarding the refugee crisis. Based on the study, experts debated:
• the cooperation between the Baltic states and Poland in theory (on paper) and in reality (in practice),
• the impact of Polish-Baltic cooperation within the EU and the main challenges the EU faces. Among these, particular attention was devoted to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, ways to support neighbouring Ukraine (ranging from advocacy about EU and NATO membership of Ukraine to economic and military aid), and the refugee crisis.
The need for evidence-based policy making run like a thread through the entire debate. As building evidence-based policy requires cooperation within and beyond national communities, both representatives of the supporters of the study stressed that multilateral contact between Poland and the Baltic States are insufficient in the business and governmental sectors alike. The seminar gave some space to presenting the role of the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBS) and the priorities of the Polish Presidency in this cooperation mechanism. But the absence of an in-depth assessment of this mechanism in the study was an illustration of the limited impact it has on regional and international cooperation, despite its potential.
The findings of the representative polls suggest that overall mutual relations are perceived as positive and a common way of thinking can be identified among the four countries, especially when it comes to foreign policy: policies towards the EU, NATO and Russia. However, there are some divisions concerning the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which can be attributed to the influence of the Russian-speaking minority in Estonian and Latvia:
• In case of an aggression by Russia, 62% of Poles would send troops to the Baltic States as part of NATO operations;
• 44% of respondents in Latvia and 29% in Estonia would ease sanctions against Russia in comparison to 8% in Poland and 9% in Lithuania;
• 80% of the Poles and 60% of Lithuanians consider Russia as a military threat, as opposed to 43% in Latvia and 59% in Estonia. However, if we isolate the Russian-speaking minority from the polls in Latvia and Estonia, the proportion of population seeing Russia as a military threat rises considerably — 69% in Latvia and 80% in Estonia;
• Support for sending weapons in Ukraine ranges between 27% in Latvia and 43% in Lithuania, with more people supporting the idea of providing economic help to Ukraine—ranging between 37% in Latvia and 50% in Lithuania;
• Opposition to receiving refugees from the Middle East and North Africa prevails across the four countries — on average 53%.
These thought-provoking findings suggest that the positions of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are more similar than what their rhetoric would suggest. The populations of these countries are quite united in their perception of Russia as a military threat, as well as in their moderate support towards economic aid for Ukraine and welcoming refugees.
What can be done to reinforce regional cooperation?
Creating a positive space for regional and international integration is even more challenging when the urgency of hard security matters dominates public debates. For instance, CBS annual encounters with the EU to discuss regional strategies for the future have been on hold for the past two years due to the Ukrainian crisis. On the other hand, experts agreed that the key to shaping successful regional and EU cooperation is being active at home. On security, it was suggested that more can be done to acquire military equipment via common procurements and shared intelligence.
Another important aspect is opposing Russian propaganda in Estonia and Latvia, as the Russian media content in these countries is readily available and well-funded.
What should be the regional response to the refugee crisis?
The refugee crisis has been a particularly hot topic, with all four countries united in their negative attitudes towards immigration. Aside from being uncomplimentary to humanitarian standards of solidarity, this stance is also exacerbating divisions among EU partners. A common characteristic in all countries is the role of media dramatizing the issues of migration. The lack of fact-based information, tightly connected to the strong criticism addressed to the media, emerged as a key factor in the discussion of this issue.
There is very limited awareness of migrants’ needs and the benefits migration could bring to countries which in fact need more people for sectors of their economies to survive. All experts called for a more objective and realistic perspective of immigration issues. Existing institutions, like the CBS, must be used more effectively to prevent the most negative scenarios, focusing on the prevention of uncontrolled migration and systematic investments in integration.
What about EU integration?
A general disaffection with Europe can be identified, especially in Latvia, even though research indicates EU integration has entailed more benefits than disadvantages. The experts argued that, once again, lack of knowledge considerably affected the respondent’s answers about EU policies, but there are also other root causes for the low trust in the EU:
• more needs to be done to promote democratic participation and open society values instead of building policies on public fears,
• there is a need for more self-criticism on these matters, where the example of other EU members should be followed.
The Polish and Baltic societies tend to underestimate their potential and look-inward. Enduring common historical adversities has made the Baltic States and Poland resilient to instability, which is an invaluable resource in the present time of uncertainty. By capitalising on their heritage the Baltic Sea region has the potential to engage more actively with leading EU members. This is a unique advantage over other EU members, and this rediscovered unity of the Baltic Sea region provides these countries with good bargaining ground with other EU member states.
Despite some challenges, there are favourable conditions for cooperation among Poland and the Baltic States, as interests overlap in important policy areas and the countries look at each other as new key policy partners. Data also reveal that the recent international events - the Ukrainian-Russian conflict and the refugee crisis - have created new challenges for EU integration, but they have also had an integrating effect on mutual relations, especially between Poland and Lithuania.
Here is also the role of think tanks - providing fact-based analysis to the policy makers and to the public. The mottos “evidence-based policy making” and “being active at home” were the key words of the concluding contributions, with several experts emphasizing them as keys to finding solutions to international challenges. Evidence-based policies and cooperation with all stakeholders is rather useless without addressing the structural causes of international security challenges, such as the refugee crisis and terrorism attacks in Paris.
All in all, far from being a narrow-focused discussion on regional cooperation strategies, this thought-provoking seminar was a good opportunity for building bridges between public opinion and expert’s analysis on regional, European and international issues that are too often misinterpreted.