Not all EU reforms favorable to the Baltics

  • 2011-11-10
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

While EU strategists scramble to look for new ways to communicate about Europe, Algirdas Saudargas, member of the European Parliament, a Conservative and one of the builders of the Lithuanian Motherland Union, as well as the former minister of Lithuania’s Foreign Affairs from 1990-1992 and 1996-2000, delivers the “European message” to his constituents in his own way – publishing the center-right magazine, Apzvalga (Review), bringing European policies and national issues just a bit closer to everyone. The MEP, who is also a signatory of the 1990 Lithuanian Independence Act, agreed to answer The Baltic Times questions.

In the recent conference on European communication in the European Parliament, some moderators spoke about the communication difficulties the 27 EU members deal with, acknowledging that EU decisions, policies and their backstage peculiarities do not often reach the grassroots, and the ranks of euroskeptics are growing. Do Lithuanian media, national policy makers and MEPs pay enough attention to the European Union and its policies in their own backyard?
I believe that those subjects and issues that are really very important to Lithuania do reach both Lithuanian media and ordinary people. Let’s take a look at our major Web sites and the conventional print media – there is quite a lot of information on what is most important to Lithuania at the moment, i. e. the EU budget and post-2013 financing prospects. As our media has already noticed, in terms of financing, Lithuania may be harmed by a lesser EU budget, therefore, we, the Lithuanian MEPs, still have to do a lot of talking in persuading our colleagues to rethink the budget guidelines.

The increasing euroskepticism, especially in the UK, must be alarming to all EU supporters. Do you not fear that, with the Lithuanian Parliamentary elections coming up (they are set for the fall of 2012), some new political unions, newly formed parties and single political wannabes will preach the ideas of nationalism and anti-globalization? How harmful would it be to Lithuania?
No, I really do not think that it could turn into a political trend and scope that we all should be concerned about. As all national surveys show, support for the European Union is rather high in Lithuania, and I do not see any reasons why it suddenly could go drastically down. The EU assistance is obvious to each and everyone in Lithuania, as it [assistance] is indeed very high, though our financial input into the EU budget, compared to other EU member countries, is relatively small. I still remember the year 2003, when preparing for the national referendum for EU membership I, assigned by the Lithuanian Motherland Union, travelled across the country, visiting hundreds of various Lithuanian towns and settlements and explained the benefits of membership. Today we have another 9 countries knocking at the EU door. However, I have to agree with you, discussions about the EU and its policies are very shallow in Lithuania. There should be more depth and insightfulness into them.

Why is it so?
I do not know. Let Lithuanian political scientists figure that out.

It seems that a larger 2012 EU budget will be approved, despite the fact that many EU countries, including Lithuania, carry out strict austerity measures. A larger EU budget means bigger contributions to it by EU member states. Will that not prompt adversity to the EU in Lithuania?
I do not think that this kind of concern makes any sense. Essentially, the EU budget increase is due to inflation. Being involved in the EU budget preparations in different capacities, I can say very responsibly that the budget is very modest. In fact, the European Commission had sought a larger EU budget, but the agreement over the savings budget has pleased the most.

As you know, one-third of the Lithuanian national budget is EU funding allocations. It is in Lithuania’s key interests to keep up the EU money flow in the new EU budget period during 2014-2020. Can you give us a glimpse at the deliberations over the financing scope after 2013? Is there any initial 2014-2020 EU financing framework for Lithuania?
Indeed, an active discussion over the new financial period has been started. So far the fears of a lesser EU financing to Lithuania are not grounded in any way. Though our GDP is considerably smaller than EU old-timers’, we will continue receiving hefty EU allocations, as allowing us to catch up with the EU old-timers is in the interests of the European Union. We have to take advantage of the financing. In fact, we are doing it quite well.

However, with the 9 EU bids, mostly by the Balkan countries, pending, will the EU financing for Lithuania not peter out, or decrease, with the new EU memberships?
I do not see it that way. I have no doubts that Lithuania will receive hefty EU assistance in the future. On the other hand, I have to admit there are some ongoing reforms and alterations in regards to the criteria of the financing, and serious proposals regarding change of the financing criteria and procedures are being made. Some of them, quite frankly, are not favorable to both Lithuania and the entire Baltic region. Therefore, all Lithuanian europarliamentarians have already voiced concern and disagreement over them.

Can you be more specific?
I can mention just one example – the direct payouts to farmers. As you know, when we joined the EU, our farmers were not entitled to them. Later, with the payouts being made, there were serious promises that they will match those of Western European farmers. However, it is seemingly obvious now that Lithuanian farmers will keep receiving less direct payouts than their counterparts in the West. It means that not all the pledges that we have received from the European Union will be fulfilled. In protest, Baltic MEPs have recently signed a common letter expressing our strong disagreement with the approach to our farmers.

Is it clear whether the EU assistance during 2014-2020 will be more oriented to specific projects on municipal levels instead of state levels? That is something many speculate in the Lithuanian government.
I reckon to say that the assistance structure will remain the same. Sure, some details are likely to change. For example, the European Union is to make an emphasis on scientific research during 2014-2020; therefore, matching EU financing will be projected in that direction. I would say scientific research, innovations and technological advancements make up the core of the EU strategy and, therefore, matching financing will follow. Alas, to rely on statistics, Lithuanian scientists, until now, took little advantage of the science-oriented financing. Unfortunately, we do not have scientific research centers that could be on par with those in the West. In addition, we do not have sufficient integration in the field of scientific research with other countries’ scientists. It seems that significant changes will take place in the structure of the Regional Fund due to the new regions in Eastern Europe and Finland. Therefore, there will be some changes in the financing of other regions as well. It appears, unfortunately, that with the financing “ceiling” set, the three Baltic States and Hungary will be harmed the most. For us, the MEPs from the regions, there is much to negotiate for and argue about.

Dealing with your EP colleagues is a part of your job. What kind of news about Lithuania reaches them? Is Lithuania noticeable in Brussels?
Probably most assume that basketball news reaches europarliamentarians most often. Well, I have to disappoint you - this kind of news is not very trendy in Brussels, even when the European basketball championship was under way in Lithuania. However, I know several MEPs from Spain who are very interested in basketball and they were very keen on the basketball news from Lithuania. Frankly, most of my colleagues take interest in football. Alas, Lithuanians cannot boast of their achievements in this sport. In general, MEPs from Eastern Europe are best aware of what is happening in our part of the world. I am not aware of many of my Western European colleagues who have ever visited Lithuania. Thank God that bad news usually does not reach Brussels
We are fortunate not to have big natural disasters and social calamities in Lithuania, the kinds of events that gain everyone’s attention. On the other hand, Lithuania manages quite well not to draw Brussels’ attention. It is a good sign.

You have to agree that the Motherland Union –Lithuanian Christian Democrat Party (MU-LCDP), with less than one year to go to the 2012 Seimas (Parliament) elections and 8 percent of the population ready to cast their ballots for the party, cannot exude optimism. What is the way to turn things around and see the public support growing? Does it not make sense to let its highly unpopular leader and Lithuanian PM, Kubilius, go?
It is hard to say what would be in the best interests of the party today. I am not in a position to decide what and how [to do so]. I just want to stress that no one in the inner circles of the party ponders removing its current leader and search for a new one. Moreover, no one does so with less than one year left till the elections.

You are the former Foreign Affairs minister. Are the current Lithuanian foreign policies always clear to you? How would you describe the foreign policy directions today?
If I were to get deeply into it, we could devote a separate interview for this. I want to answer succinctly: when I lead the ministry in 1990-1992 and 1996-2000, to pave the path in foreign affairs was much easier and clearer. Back then, the goals of the Foreign Affairs ministry were distinctly expressed: NATO and EU memberships. Back then, we just needed to pursue the goals along the clear paths. Having been granted the desired memberships, we have ended up in a state of shock for some time. I call it a conceptual vacuum. Therefore, in the last five years, we have been through a search of regional leadership. However, speaking of today, I think that our foreign policy is optimal, being carried out not through single issues, but along the main EU guidelines. Chairing OSCE, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Lithuania has already proved it can work on such a high level as well. With the EU presidency nearing, I am sure Lithuania will use all its knowledge and skills to try out the domestic and foreign policy mechanism. I hope it will work successfully.