Unexpected alliances forged in Europe: France and the Baltics

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

French President Emmanuel Macron adjusts his protective face mask during a statement in the courtyard at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, 04 February 2021. [EPA-EFE/IAN LANGSDON]

The newly forged Franco-Baltic friendship stands as an addition to the multilateral security and cooperation structures and does not mean the Baltics are trading Brussels for Paris just yet, but their revamped cooperation, particularly on cybersecurity and disinformation, is set to continue, writes Monika Bickauskaite.

Monika Bickauskaite is a program assistant at the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office.

When Emmanuel Macron visited Lithuania and Latvia last September, the Baltics were hoping for increased bilateral dialogue and cooperation.

Instead, NATO’s Eastern Flank felt blindsided as the Elysee declared what could be called France first policy, marked by the call for a revamped dialogue with Russia and a decreased dependency on American security guarantees—propositions unacceptable for the Baltic Three.

Yet, last week, the fear of being forgotten on European leaders’ policy agenda started to fade as Paris organized the first 3+1 meeting between the three Baltic Ministers of Foreign Affairs and their French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

3+1 Meeting: More than a Symbol

Mr Le Drian’s invitation for the Baltic Three to come to Paris marked the centenary of the de jure recognition of Baltic States by France, and yet, presented more than a symbol. It signalled France’s inclination to have a Franco-Baltic dialogue that was absent from Macron’s visit in Vilnius.

During the meeting in Paris, the four ministers discussed an array of common interests, including development around the pandemic, the European Recovery Plan, the upcoming French EU Presidency, the unlawful arrest of Alexey Navalny in Russia, the situation in Belarus, Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Sahel, as well as relations with the U.S., China and Turkey.

Importantly, the discussion omitted the idea of the dialogue with Russia, and instead focused on condemning the Kremlin for Navalny’s unlawful and politically motivated arrest, calling for his immediate release—a policy line much appreciated by the Baltics.

Undoubtedly, France’s change in posture comes at an important political moment as the world is denouncing Moscow’s brutal treatment of protesters demonstrating for the release of Navalny.

Yet, no matter if France’s cease of the push for a dialogue with Russia is intentional or circumstantial, this development opens a window of opportunity for new and better Franco-Baltic relations.

A Powerful Message of a United Europe

France confirmed its willingness to forge a stronger Franco-Baltic bond by focusing on the 3+1 meeting and the following ministerial visits on the most pressing issues for the Baltics.

Alongside the in-depth discussion on the situation in Russia, Lithuania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabrielius Landsbergis was invited to take part in a conference focused on the future of Belarus, together with his counterparts from France, Poland and Romania, as well as the leader of Democratic Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

The event discussed ways in which the EU can keep Belarus on its policy agenda and provide more political support for Belarusian civil society. Importantly, Le Drian reiterated his and Macron’s take on the illegitimacy of the Lukashenko regime and France’s support for the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people.

Meanwhile, Lithuanian Foreign Minister pleaded for strengthening sanctions against both Belarusian and Russian leaders.

Having such an event organized in Paris rather than in Brussels or one of the CEE capitals sends a powerful message: that of a united Europe, and France trying to engage with Europeans across the board, rather than among like-minded countries only.

This policy focus is especially appreciated by Lithuania, which, emerging as a leader during the Belarus crisis, has been trying to attract attention from the European capitals for developments taking place in its neighbouring country. 

A New Page in Franco–Baltic Relations

Hence, unsurprisingly, Lithuania has thanked France for its support for the country’s and region’s security and expressed its readiness to increase cooperation in the field of defence, including cyber.

Currently, France is already contributing to NATO’s enhanced presence in the Baltic States and Poland, with 300 French soldiers deployed as part of a battlegroup in Rukla, Lithuania. Yet, unlike other leading NATO members, France has neither taken a command role nor has it a high military profile in countries neighbouring Russia—a stance that the Baltic Three would like to see changing.

Alongside the increase of cooperation in defence and security, Landsbergis and French Minister of State for European Affairs Clement Beaune have agreed that the two countries should strengthen their cooperation in energy and digital innovations.

The increased and truly bilateral dialogue, as well as numerous agreements for future cooperation, opens a new page in the Franco-Baltic relations: one in which countries that are based on opposite axes of Europe are trying to merge their interests into an equilibrium.

Yet, the Baltics are not trading Brussels for Paris just yet. The beginning of the Franco-Baltic dialogue does not mean that the Baltics have been convinced in the French stance demanding for European strategic sovereignty or limitation of American weapons on European soil.

Rather, from a Baltic perspective, the new Franco-Baltic friendship stands as an addition to the multilateral security and cooperation structures. Simultaneously, it shows that in a world of uncertainty, the Baltics are starting to understand the need for bilateral relations and stronger ties in Europe as championed by France.

Hence, in the future, the 3+1 cooperation is likely to continue, especially in the areas of cybersecurity and disinformation. During his Baltic tour last September, Macron already signed a joint statement with Lithuania and Latvia calling for stronger EU legislation to counter election manipulation and disinformation.

The countries are likely to work in this field together in the future.

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