The Baltic States and Their Region: New Europe or Old?

By David J. Smith | Go to book overview

Estonia and Latvia:
A “new” Europe challenges the “old”?

Marko Lehti

The enlargement of the European Union (EU) and NATO to the Baltic States has marked the end of a long period of transition following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whether this means the final end of the discourse on transition, however, is still very much open to question. The logic of transition has been integral to the post-communist era. Cherished in the West but also adopted and adapted in the East in the form of the “return to Europe” discourse, it has kept symbolic divisions of Europe alive and well. In this respect, the former eastern bloc countries which in May 2004 became full members of the EU have been comprehended as countries lagging far behind the former western countries in terms of their development. The West has retained its image as a forerunner and originator of new ideas and initiatives, while the East is still associated with backwardness and depicted as an incomplete copy of a West which it must still aspire to follow. As Merje Kuus has argued, the attainment of EU- and NATOmembership will not necessarily erase this image of the East, which could continue to shape the opinions and views of the “old core Europeans” within the framework of a Europe of twenty-five.1 The Balts themselves are now intent on shedding the image of “nations in transition,” insisting that in a new united Europe all are equal.2 The East has been needed for so long in order to define western superiority that it will certainly prove hard to abandon and replace. However, it may be that the newly self-assertive voice of the Balts, accompanied by the new tones of US foreign policy, have also forced the old core members to change their view of Europe as whole.

In this chapter, I will endeavour to show how double enlargement – and, in particular, EU-membership – is influencing the national identities of the Estonians and Latvians3. How will these new nation-states eventually manage to find their place in Europe? An examination of the influence of EU membership on the Estonian and Latvian national discourses necessarily also requires an analysis of the Estonian and Latvian outlook on Europe. In this respect, I will argue that Europe and, in particular, the EU have been nodal points of these national identities since 1991 but that at the beginning of the 21st century the relation towards Europe began to change from passive to active. From here on, the question is not just about the influence of the EU on Estonian and Latvian identities, since the two nations will in turn also make their own contribution to the whole of Europe.

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