Juozas Olekas, a Lithuanian MEP from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, and a doctor by profession, spoke to The Baltic Times Magazine in late July not only about vaccine inequality, but also about the necessity for everyone to come together EU-wide and work out uniform principles on vaccination against COVID-19. The former Lithuanian lawmaker and the former Defence minister also addressed the unabating migrant crisis on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border.
The European Union, as the rest of the world, faces a lot of coronavirus pandemic-related challenges. With most of them profoundly discussed, are there any of them that you believe are insufficiently addressed or noted?
Whatever the challenges are, the EU member states need to step up their cooperation and work out uniform policies, for example, on the vaccination against the coronavirus. To remind, health issues are part of national supervision of the member states, hence we see quite different approaches on vaccination and other things pertaining to the coronavirus.
Also, enhancing EU cooperation in the field of science and particularly the efforts to create European coronavirus vaccines should be stepped up EU-wide during this challenging time. Unfortunately, the public health emergency we’re still in has mostly benefited larger pharmaceutical companies – and the bulk of them are outside of the European Union. Sadly, the vaccines are still unavailable for many low-income countries worldwide, so vaccine inequality is a big issue too. As we are living in a pretty tightly-knit world, that creates problems for all of us, regardless of where we are. I believe one of the topics of the Conference on the Future of Europe should namely address affordability of the vaccines and strenghten the competences of the EU in the sphere of health policy-making as well as pandemic-preparedeness.
Are you also worried about possible adverse geopolitical and economic fallout from the pandemic? The blame-game of who is accountable for the outbreak is not over yet.
Indeed, every contingency and emergency like this brings up people who earnestly promulgate plot-theories and who, like in the case of the pandemic, even doubt the existence of the virus itself, negate the ravaging damage it inflicts, the use of the vaccines and so on.
As a doctor myself, I can just state that there have always been people of the kind, especially when it comes to getting vaccinated. We just have to face it – some people are against any vaccine, be it against chickenpox, rabies – you name it. Therefore, media - both mass and social - as well as other public institutions have to do all they can to wage a proper response to so-called vaccine doubters and flouters. Science has to come first as never before.
The other major problem Lithuania is grappling with is the migrant crisis on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border. When in 2016, illegal migrants spilled into the European Union in the thousands through its southernmost borders, the EU hammered out a 6 billion euro deal with Turkey upon which the latter agreed to accept Syrian and other refugees. Now, Brussels has rejected the request of Lithuania to finance the building of a fence on the nearly 700-kilometre Lithuanian-Belarusian border. What do you make of it?
First of all, speaking of the 2016 crisis, I was very disappointed about the decision of the Farmers and Greens Union-led Lithuanian government not to take a single refugee from Greece, even though Athens asked for help. Now we are seeing how that narrow-mindedness is backfiring. When Lithuania’s Interior Minister (Agne Bilotaite) was recently on the EP floor talking to the MEPs about the migrant situation in Lithuania, I was unpleasantly surprised that she refused to take any questions from them after she delivered her speech.
It would be untrue to say that the European Commission is not helping us with the crisis – it has earmarked 10 million euros for that, to remind everyone. As you know, the Estonians are keen to help us with providing the concertina wire to be laid on the border. But the bottom line is this: the world has become much smaller these days. Thus, enjoying the huge benefits from the EU membership – Lithuania was among the first states to receive the vaccines, which are still unavailable or scarcely available for many non-EU countries, Lithuania has to fully assume the responsibilities (arising from the EU membership and the world’s globalisation) and show solidarity with the others.
With some 3 300 migrants who made their way to Lithuania from Belarus this year (the interview was conducted at the end July), the scale of the problem is big but is it tragic and out of control? Some say that the off-and-on-table proposals to declare a national emergency or the exhortations to ramp up local police presence giving in to the calls of frightened local communities to step up security locally, also migrants are nowhere to be seen around, may sound like over-reacting. What is your take on this?
Unfortunately, Lithuania’s ruling Homeland Union -Lithuanian Christian Democrats (known as Conservatives colloquially) are using – and they have always used – aggressive, belligerent rhetoric. This issue is not an exception. Just listen to what words they are using now: a “war”, “a hybrid war”, “tension” and so on. I dare say that is the way they are trying to conceal their inability to make right decisions – their incapability is obvious. It is regretful that they do that, burdening their own citizens and mulling restricting certain human rights – not only those of migrants but their own citizens too. Introducing a national emergency due to the migrant numbers would constitute a breach of the Constitution and would certainly make a dent in our democracy. The Farmers and Greens did that before when announcing a national lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I am not downplaying the migrant issue – not at all, but I am sure the state of Lithuania can handle it on its own, without sending the Mayday call.
With the doors to Minsk shut noisily, do you think the emerging calls to get in touch with authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko would make sense and make any difference?
Again – I personally believe the rhetoric the Conservatives used in dealing with Minsk since the beginning was too harsh, pugnacious, short-sighted and – we see that now – even damaging. It is not the proper time to flip the vinyl the Conservatives have played for the last year – I believe Minsk should be reached out to through the European Union institutions. Look: even during a time of war, the sides retain certain contacts. For example as in the case of Afghanistan. The best mediator between Lithuania and Belarus would certainly be the European Union or the Commission.
You’re a member of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development in the European Parliament. What path is European agriculture taking? Are Lithuania and the Baltics among the standard bearers?
As the EU member states for the last 17 years, Lithuania and the other two Baltic countries, Latvia and Estonia, have made a big leap in the field. Local farms have seen a major technical upgrade and have adapted to the EU requirements.
Yet I would exhort the Lithuanian Ministry of Agriculture to show more willingness and flexibility addressing local farmers’ needs. Unfortunately, I see many redundant orders being imposed on farmers here. Just one example: helping beekeepers, the EU has allowed cut grass to be left in fields, but the Lithuanian minister has ordered not just to mow it, but also stack it and take it away, although there is no demand for it.
Where Baltic agriculture needs to improve is to step up introducing innovations in farming. Indeed, Lithuania has developed agricultural science – to remind, Vilnius University professor Virginijus Siksnys, who helped to develop the so-called gene redaction scissors, was being mentioned among the likely Nobel prize nominees last year – but what I saw recently on my trip to Dotnuva, where Lithuania runs an agricultural institute, seemed to me like annihilation of the potential of our agricultural science.
I was very displeased to find out there that the branch of apiculture is nearly non-existent now and the local fields used for scientific purposes earlier have been abandoned.
You are also a member of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, an inter-parliamentary forum in which members of the European Parliament and the national parliaments of Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia participate and forge closer political and economic ties with the European Union. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has said recently on his visit to Lithuania that Ukraine’s EU membership is clearly a “political” issue. So when will Brussels be up to resolving it favourably to Ukraine and the other EU-aspiring countries?
First of all, the candidate states have to clearly decide that this is what they themselves want.
Lithuania spent 10 years as an EU applicant before it was admitted to the bloc. The EU is supporting the pursuits of the countries mentioned, but they – and Ukraine too – have to do their homework: address corruption, implement changes, respect human rights and so on. I am about to travel to Ukraine myself and see first-hand how the situation is there. Yet having said that, I agree: EU expansion is a political decision, and it will come sooner or later.