On Nov. 16, Justina Vitkauskaite Bernard, 35, became a new Lithuanian member of the European Parliament. In 2009, this young politician, who was born in the western Lithuanian town of Kretinga, came fifth on the Labor Party list in the European Parliament elections. After the EP elections of 2009, the Lithuanian Labor Party received just one seat in the European Parliament which, since then, has been occupied by Viktor Uspaskich, the leader of the Labor Party, while Vitkauskaite was his Brussels-based assistant. Now, after the recent Lithuanian parliament elections, her boss decided to move from the European Parliament to Vilnius to take a seat in the Lithuanian parliament. Kestutis Dauksys, Vydas Gedvilas and Sarunas Birutis, who came ahead of Vitkauskaite in the Labor Party list in 2009, also now decided to be Lithuanian MPs of the new ruling coalition in Lithuania and, therefore, decided against going to Brussels.
This is how Vitkauskaite rather unexpectedly became a member of the European Parliament. The Labor Party is now in the focus of Lithuanian media because, after the recent parliamentary elections in October, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite expressed her opinion straightforwardly: she was not happy seeing this political party in the new ruling coalition due to the Labor Party’s legal problems in courts. However, the approval ratings of the Labor Party keep growing.
During the media turmoil surrounding the Labor Party, Vitkauskaite, who now represents the Uspaskich-led political party in the European Parliament, agreed to answer to questions from The Baltic Times.
You are rather a new person in the Lithuanian political elite - please, tell us more about yourself.
This is true, on the one hand, I am new to what you call the political elite. On the other hand, I am not so new to politics in general. Neither with regard to Lithuania, nor to [politics of] the EU. My path into politics started quite early. I was still a student when I did a traineeship in one of the political parties of Lithuania [the New Union (Social Liberals)]. After this party won the national elections in 2000 [the Social Liberals came second after the Social Democrats in the parliamentary elections of 2000, but then President Valdas Adamkus initiated the creation of short-lived ruling coalition made out of liberal political parties without participation of the Social Democrats], I was invited to work in the office of the chairman of the Lithuanian parliament [in the office of Arturas Paulauskas, who then was also the leader of the New Union / Social Liberals – recently the latter political party merged with the Labor Party and Paulauskas is now a Labor MP]. In 2002, I joined the team of the Lithuanian Small and Medium-size Enterprises Confederation where I was in charge of public and foreign affairs. A lot of trust was placed in me, and I had to prove my worth with regards to high expectations accompanying the position. I think this was also a point from which my active introduction to EU affairs started. When the new political organization, the Darbo [“Labor” in Lithuanian] Party was established in 2004, I was invited to join it.
So I have actively been taking part in the life of this party from its very beginning until now. During those years I was also always closely related to the youth organization DARBAS, and, actually, it was this organization that delegated me to the list of the Labor Party for the European Parliament elections in 2009. For several years I was the secretary general for the Young Democrats for Europe. For many years I was in charge of the relations of our party in its European umbrella political party. So my activities were always related to both Lithuanian and EU political affairs. And yes, I am also not new to the European Parliament. I have almost eight years of experience working as an assistant to our Lithuanian MEPs from the Labor Party.
Talking in general about my education, I graduated with a Bachelor in Philosophy from Vilnius University and with a Master’s degree in public affairs from the Law University (which is now called the Mykolas Romeris University). I also finished special studies in journalism at Vilnius University and the Open Society Fund Lithuania. My work and activities, though, were always more or less related to public and media relations, foreign affairs and politics. I speak English, French, Russian and I am a true team player - skills that also helped to build my recent career. This new step of my life first of all means for me a big responsibility, a challenge and a chance to grow - as a person, as a Lithuanian and as a politician.
On the last day of the parliamentary election campaign before the second round of Lithuanian parliamentary elections, Saulius Verseckas, prosecutor from the Prosecutor General’s Office, charged the Labor Party and its members -Viktor Uspaskich, Vytautas Gapsys and Vitalija Vonzutaite (now all of them are MPs of the newly elected Lithuanian parliament), as well as the party’s former accountant Marina Liutkeviciene with fraud in this political party’s allegedly fraudulent bookkeeping case. They were previously charged with providing false data about income, profits, and assets to state institutions in order to avoid taxes as well as misinforming about activities of the party. Verseckas announced tougher charges. All the independent political analysts say that these tougher charges on the eve of elections have a political smell. What do you think?
I am not sure if all of the independent political analysts do, but those who do, I believe, are right and have their strong arguments in telling so. It looks like everything in politics, and especially in Lithuania, as you mentioned, usually has a certain smell. And we all know that this especially concerns the case of the Labor Party. Tougher charges against the party and its leaders were made just before the second round of the national elections. And I think I do not have to repeat all those independent political analysts who claim it is a purely political step in order to weaken the winning opposition party [after the first round, the Labor Party came first, but finally, after the second round, it took third place, according to its number of MP seats].
Do you think Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite would like to see your political party liquidated? If yes, why?
I still believe that Lithuania is a democracy. I also believe that our country’s president is the true acting leader of it. The Labor Party has been eight years active in Lithuanian political life. The people of Lithuania put a lot of trust into it - the recent national elections served as proof for that once again. And we all know that, namely, the trust of the people is the essential core of and condition for democracy.
Your political opponents constantly suggest that the Labor Party is somewhat pro-Russian. What could you say about such suggestions?
The political opponents also have the same opinion about our partners in the government – the political party Order and Justice, also about the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party. It looks more like a political game than political reality. To be honest, I think this question should be better addressed to those who suggest such ideas, as I have nothing to comment on this.
How would you describe the Lithuanian Labor Party? Is it liberal? Center-right? Center-left? The Lithuanian Labor Party, like the Lithuanian Liberal Movement [which, after the recent parliamentary elections, decided to be part of the center-right opposition in the Lithuanian parliament] and the Lithuanian Union of Liberals and Centrists [the latter got no seats in the new Lithuanian parliament], is part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party. Do you think the Lithuanian Labor Party has some ideological disagreement with Lithuania’s Liberal Movement, another Lithuanian liberal party which got seats in the Lithuanian parliament after the elections?
The Labor Party is a member of the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe [the former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt-led political group in the European Parliament – the Lithuanian Liberal Movement is also part of this EP’s parliamentary group]. Of course, it shares common values and ideas about EU politics and life. Talking about national politics, the Labor Party always claimed it is first of all a political organization with a pragmatic attitude - ready to work with everyone who would accept working on the basis of its program and would cooperate for the common goals of a prospering state and the people of Lithuania. Therefore, I do not think the Labor Party has some deep ideological disagreements with any of the political players if they share the common values and aims for the good of our country. This point was clearly emphasized by the Labor Party, as we remember, after the recent national elections.
How will Lithuania’s new ruling coalition deal with President Grybauskaite? Your forecast, please.
As far as I see, and as far as I know, the position of the Labor Party and the new ruling coalition is to deal with the president with high respect and a strong will for constructive cooperation for the sake of our country and its people. I would rather switch places of the two subjects in this question.
What will be the outcome of discussions over the EU budget? European Parliament President Martin Schulz and the European Parliament as a whole seem to be very supportive towards the ‘new’ EU member states in their contradiction against too much cutting of the EU budget.
In this time of crisis nobody can predict the outcome of discussions over the EU budget, but I hope a solution will be found. And this solution will be based on core values and principles of the EU that should rely on a deepening integration, and also on enlargement. Yes, indeed the European Parliament is supportive towards the new member states because enlargement was, and stays, a core value of the EU. For the past 50 years, the EU has pursued integration and enlargement, increasing from six to 27 member states. And nowadays nine other European countries are willing to join the EU. Of course, in a time of economic crisis the enlargement policy must be better adjusted to the challenges that the EU is facing now. But I hope we are on the way to these reforms for deepening integration, economic recovery and strengthening the EU’s competitiveness. And I truly believe that despite all these internal difficulties that the EU has today, we shouldn’t forget the EU’s strategic interests and we shouldn’t undermine an important proof of the confidence and belief in the EU from those European states who strive to join it.
Are you a euro-federalist? Do you believe in the United States of Europe?
Nowadays the EU is facing a difficult period of economic crisis and new forms of deepening of EU integration have to be found. I hope that one of the solutions to overcome the economic crisis will be the process of closer integration that will create a degree of interdependence between the member states, which then will be difficult to reverse. But this process is controversial. On the one hand, I know that probably the strict supervision of the EU, its political union and strong economic integration would be the most efficient way of helping member states to overcome the crisis. On the other hand, the EU has to act with one voice and to act according to its values and principles without undermining the national interests of each member state. I believe it to be feasible because, no matter how difficult this process can be, the EU shouldn’t forget its long-term objective and long-term vision that the EU is strong only in its unity and solidarity.
Do you enjoy your life and work in Brussels? What do you like the most in Brussels?
I do. I do love every place where I feel happy, where I have an opportunity to work in a good team, where I manage to handle the challenges of life, where I am surrounded by true friends and loving people. Brussels is a special place in terms of its liveliness, diversity, different nationalities, mixed cultures and customs. Being a Lithuanian, I never really felt a stranger. This is only possible in Brussels. As I say: if you want to be bored you can be it everywhere - it is a state of mind, not of localization. What I like most in Brussels? Beer and chocolate! Seriously, it’s a unique spirit. I cannot explain it, one has to come and feel it!