Prodi, European Commission president, and Guenter Verheugen, EC commissioner for European Union enlargement, visited Lithuania on Feb. 10 and 11.
Speaking in the Parliament, Prodi exploded with enthusiasm in noting Lithuania's progress. He promised Lithuanians seats in the "common European Parliament." He gave special compliments to Lithuania for its stability and democracy.
At the same time, Prodi said in Lithuanian, "Skubek letai," which means "keep moving but go carefully too." He urged Lithuania to implement all the EU laws and to prepare the Lithuanian economy's capacity to cope with the competitive pressure of EU countries.
Prodi welcomed Parliament's decision to start closing the Ignalina nuclear plant early.
"EU will help Lithuania to cope with the social and economic consequences [of the plant's closure]. You have shown an example to Slovakia, Bulgaria and other candidate countries of how to deal with nuclear security issues," Prodi said.
He said that the EU is an organization where big and small countries have equal rights.
"In the not too-distant future, Lithuania will be a full member of the EU, with equal obligations and equal rights. Let us work towards that goal as partners, hand in hand," Prodi said.
Prodi's exuberance hit rough waters during a question period in Parliament.
"Our food products are from 30 percent to 40 percent cheaper than in the EU. They are of better quality. We use less chemicals, preservatives, and fertilizers. But the EU introduced quotas and tax barriers for these products. Why is the EU ignoring principles of free trade?" Ceslovas Jursenas, leader of Democratic Labor Party, asked. Prodi answered that these problems will cease when Lithuania becomes an EU member.
Still, trade ties between Lithuania and the EU have grown each year. In 1994, trade with EU countries accounted for a quarter of Lithuania's total foreign trade, and in 1999 it rose to 50 percent.
Rimantas Smetona, National Democratic Party leader and the only Eurosceptic MP, wondered why nobody asks the Lithuanian nation whether it wants to join EU. Prodi said that the EU's doors will be open in 2003, but it is up to Lithuanians to join or not.
"It is your problem. The UK doesn't agree with many EU decisions, and it is their problem. Malta was already almost in the EU, but their government changed its mind and they decided not to enter the EU. The newest Malta government again decided to join the EU. So my message is, if you'll decide to come to the EU, we'll be happy," Prodi said.
Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said that Lithuania's plans are to finish EU entry negotiations by 2002 and to become a full member of the EU on Jan. 1, 2004. Verheugen said that he greets such "ambitious plans" although he avoided mentioning any dates for Lithuania's entry to the EU.
Prodi promised Lithuania 120 million euros support from the EU this year. Ten million euros from this aid will go to closure of the first reactor of Ignalina nuclear plant. Next year Ignalina will receive 20 million euros from the EU.
Prodi said that the EU would not protest if Lithuania decides to build a new nuclear plant. At the same time, he said that no kind of nuclear energy plant is popular in Europe after the Chernobyl catastrophe.
Kubilius said that it is symbolic that EU entry talks start on Feb. 15, the eve of Feb. 16, Lithuanian Independence Day.
Smetona said, "the start of talks will mean real inclusion of Lithuania into the EU." He called it madness, because the Lithuanian economy is not ready to compete with those of EU countries. Verheugen said that Lithuania would be accepted to the EU when Lithuania's economy will be ready to withstand economic competition with the rest of the EU.
At a meeting with Vilnius University students, Prodi reassured them that Lithuania would preserve its national identity in the EU.
On Feb. 11 Prodi met with President Valdas Adamkus who proposed to the EC president that he take a walk in the old city of Vilnius.
"It will be more benefit than a formal conversation and the exchange of phrases which have been reiterated and heard many times," Adamkus said.
Prodi seemed to agree. He said that he had been interested in Lithuanian history for a long time. Prodi mentioned close ties between the lands of current Italy and the Lithuanian state in the Middle Ages.
"I have the impression I'm in a Western European city. I have not seen anything more European than Vilnius. During the entire millennium our history was common. We must stay together," Prodi said.