By Paul Goble
Many have speculated that the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union will have negative consequences for the countries of Eastern Europe in general and the Baltic States in particular because London—hitherto one of the most outspoken defenders of those countries—will no longer be a participant in European forums. That may ultimately be the most serious consequence of Brexit for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. But there is a more immediate danger, one that at least some in Moscow hope will harm the three, simultaneously isolating them from the West and making their governments more susceptible to Russian pressure.
At present, there are nearly a third of a million Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian citizens working in the UK. Negotiations on the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU have not yet started. But if the final deal compels the 200,000 Lithuanians, 100,000 Latvians and 20,000 Estonians in the UK to go home, their arrival en masse could create serious economic and thus political problems for Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. Such a sudden wide-scale return of Balts to their home countries would directly raise the issue of finding work for the returnees and indirectly call into question how Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians will view Europe in the future.
In a discussion of this prospect, Moscow commentator Sergey Orlov points out that Lithuanians are among the European nations most liable to seek work abroad; and they are especially likely to find it in the UK. Indeed, at the present time, almost 1 out of every 14 Lithuanians is working there. Not surprisingly, he says, Lithuanian officials are worried about what will happen if all or even most of these are suddenly required to go home. The Lithuanian ambassador in London, for example, has called on Lithuanians working there to protest any such decision and to complain vigorously to the authorities about any cases of anti-Lithuanian incidents on the British Isles (Svpressa.ru, July 15).
The situation with regard to Estonians and Latvians now working in the UK is similar—there are reports of anti-Baltic sentiment among Brits as well as growing anger among all Balts that some in the UK are treating them as less than fully European. But the reactions of Tallinn and Riga have been more muted, not only because the numbers of people involved are smaller—and in the case of Estonia, much smaller—but also because their size relative to their domestic labor forces or populations are smaller as well.
Nevertheless, the Russian commentator says that in the coming weeks, the impact of the problems of returning workers in all three countries are likely to intensify, raising questions about the relationship between the Baltic States and Europe and, thus, about whether these countries should begin to go their own way and come to some kind of better understanding with their eastern neighbor, the Russian Federation. That is unlikely. Much more likely would be a retreat into some kind of hyperbolic nationalism of the kind that has already affected some other Central and Eastern European states. But that will work to Moscow’s advantage as well by isolating these countries further from the West and reducing the willingness of the West to defend them.