Larger EU integration is in Lithuania’s core interests

  • 2012-03-28
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Though she has MEP status, the name Vilija Blinkeviciute does not pop up in the media as often as before, when she, for eight consecutive years, headed the Ministry of Social Security and Labor. The strategists of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party, however, are to make her a key figure again for the Party in the upcoming parliamentary elections. This is for one sole reason: Blinkeviciute is seen as the best representative for its social program. Reminded of her moniker “pensioners’ mother,” which she was tagged with for a generosity to the needy while at the wheel of the Ministry, she spontaneously bursts into a laugh, then quickly regains a matter-of-fact composure and quips: “However, the incumbent government still hammers me for the maternity…” The 58-year-old politician is a graduate of Vilnius University, where she obtained a degree in law. Having started her career at the Ministry in 1983 as auditor, she swiftly climbed the ladder, and led the Ministry from 2000 to 2008. Blinkeviciute was elected to the European Parliament in 2009 as a representative of the Social Democratic Party and has been actively involved in EP social policies thereafter. The euro parliamentarian agreed to meet The Baltic Times correspondent in her tiny Brussels office.

You have to agree that the Lithuanian media is a lot more focused on the claims of the Lithuanian MEPs Rolandas Paksas, Viktoras Uspaskichas and Voldemaras Tomasevskis against Lithuania than on their parliamentary work. Are you aware of any other EU country in which a quarter of euro-parliamentarians would file complaints against their state?
I agree that the Lithuanian representatives you mentioned are perhaps more known because of the press’ focus on their pretensions than the EP work. That is also partially due the fact that two of them are chairmen of their parties. Frankly, what puts me off particularly is the activity Tomasevskis is engaged in, which I could describe tersely so: a well thought-out striving to stir up animosity between the Polish and Lithuanian populaces that have lived together and, most often, peacefully for centuries. I assess this activity he exuberantly endeavors in, in Brussels, very negatively. Waging war doesn’t require a lot of smartness and knowledge. Sadly, he tends to think otherwise.

You were a very vivid public figure in the 2000-2008 Social Democrat-led governments, but your EP work has put you in Brussels’ shadow. Is it good for an ambitious politician like you?
I don’t look at it this way. I am not attention-hungry. And, to tell the truth, I have never wanted to be in the limelight, which, for politicians, is inevitable. Media that seeks some information on the EU and my work in Brussels always finds me.

What are your biggest achievements and disappointments of your work as MEP?
I’ve been in the European Parliament half of the time and, I have to admit, there has been quite a lot of everything. Honestly, the very beginning of the move was very tough, just because of dealing with a new environment and people. Nevertheless, let me tell you from the bottom of my heart: I have no regrets whatsoever for the decision to temporarily switch Lithuania for Brussels. I think I am capable of euro-parliamentary work. And there is a lot to do for the interests of Lithuania in the European Union. I want all Lithuanian people to grasp that EU decisions and policies affect a half billion people across the entire European Union, Lithuania included. Maybe someone still reckons that Brussels is too far away and its decisions do not concern Lithuanians. In recent years, however, I see less and less people with this kind of obsolete mentality. With globalization increasing, people realize the Union’s decisions do matter in our daily lives.

With the euro troubles unsolved, the EU lions, the UK on one side and France and Germany on the other, have proposed quite different approaches in tackling the issue, which ramps up the positions of euro skeptics, especially in the UK. Don’t you believe they will be a force before the 2012 parliamentary elections in Lithuania?
I believe we will see a lot before them. No doubt, we will see what you are speaking of as well. Just for one reason: the situation of the European Union, in terms of austerity measures and fiscal constraints, is still tense, and some people want to blame the EU for everything. To those who feel like speaking out against the EU, often driven by nationalistic slogans, I’d remind them of one thing. When we expressed our EU membership bid, we agreed to share not only the benefits of the membership, but also the Union’s difficulties. Disregarding the current hardships and setbacks, the EU pursuit remains clear: increasing standards of living for all EU members, providing the populace with job and business opportunities, as well as making traveling easier, etc. These common values of all EU member states are the driving force of the Union. And you have to be in total denial to prove that Lithuania would do much better in pursuing the goals on its own. Obviously, during the crisis all EU citizens have become a lot more socially vulnerable. And, therefore, susceptibility to the deteriorated economies has triggered euro skeptics. Not only in the UK, traditionally known for its euro skepticism, but also in Austria and Finland. The bottom line is this: democratic expression of views is the quintessential attribute of the European Union, but no one has a right to deliberately harm the EU or European interests of an EU member state.

Recently the EU has been actively preaching a more unified EU energy policy, which effectively means larger EU integration. Does that mean that the EU strategists are more actively pursuing a European Confederation rather than Federation? What would that mean to Lithuania?
I don’t see things the way you do. Where integration is in Lithuania’s core interests – like energy – we have to seek bigger EU integration, just for the sake of having a common European energy space and independence from the gigantic and sometimes unfriendly neighbor in the East. There are many fields, like transport, human rights, freedom of the press, where bigger integration also plays into the hands of Lithuania. However, what is, upon mutual agreement, in the framework of national legislation, the European Union has to respect and not try to overpower us.

Speaking of the larger EU energy integration, how is it possible to reconcile the EU energy strategy prioritizing renewable energy sources against the Lithuanian government’s prioritization of the Visaginas nuclear power plant project?
Well, both sides have to employ the language of arguments in dealing with each other. And, sure, Lithuania should heed the EU energy policies. I am not saying it has to unquestionably comply with them, but we all have to answer one question forever: do we really want to connect the future of Lithuania to nuclear power? Especially in a time when even EU old member states are getting rid of their nuclear programs. I personally believe that Lithuania should think how to eventually scrap it, not pursue it, particularly at such a staggering cost. A huge responsibility weighs on the government in pursuing the Visaginas nuclear project. However, the authorities cannot guarantee whether the power plant won’t cause some trouble in future. No one can. And, therefore, there is much to think of.

In a recent Council of Ministers meeting, the emphasis was on fiscal austerity and spurring economic growth simultaneously. Can the two be reconciled? How does Lithuania cope with this?
No austerity measure can get over a crisis. In laying out the strategy, the European Union urges its member states to think of new jobs, tackle social issues, promote small- and medium-size enterprises, in a word, to take actions spurring economic growth. Lithuania, however, has gone other way - making huge budget cuts, sometimes employing very drastic means. Thus our country is the only EU member state to have slashed pensions for retirees. Unfortunately, the government has not thought of economic incentives while making the budget cuts. As a result, Lithuania is plagued with rapidly increasing poverty and social exclusion. This is something Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite has recently brought attention to.

Nevertheless, she has praised the government for controlling the crisis on numerous occasions.
But how was it done? By carrying out an overnight tax reform, without giving a thought about what the EU stresses: austerity is Ok only along with the encouragement of economic growth. Don’t regard my words as [part of] the election campaign, but the Social Democrats would have acted quite differently upon these adverse circumstances. And take my word, as former Social Security minister, that we would have not slashed the pensions.

However, this is something Greece, approved by the EU, is to take on now. Wouldn’t the plight in Lithuania have been a lot worse if the government had not done the cuts?
Greece and Lithuania are two non-comparable states. Let’s compare the average social payouts and wages in Greece and Lithuania, and the difference is huge. The bottom line is Greece possesses reserves to make the cuts, Lithuania didn’t.

Is there any more clarity to the 2014-2020 EU budget? And what kind of EU financing can Lithuania expect?
The European Commission has laid out only the initial draft of it, with draft deliberations ongoing in all member states. Looking at the draft, it is obvious that some financial provisions in the agricultural sector are discriminatory to the Baltic States. Therefore, all 26 Baltic MEPs have appealed to the EC and Commissioner of Agriculture, requesting him to revise the provisions. As not everything is in the power of the euro-parliamentarians, it is crucial for Lithuania to engage in very active lobbying efforts to lift the financing quotas, which are discriminatorily too little now. It is also very important for Lithuania to benefit as much as possible from the European Social Fund, which finances creation of new jobs, reduction of social exclusion and other social programs. Lithuania may itself be entitled to pass very important decisions in that regard, as we are to chair the Council in the second-half of 2013. If adoption of the decisions will drag until then, it won’t be very easy for us to benefit from the presidency, as all EU member states are and will be fighting for the money until the end.

Is the party intending to engage in the parliament election campaign?
Since I am deputy chairwoman of the party and since I love mingling with people, I will be delighted to contribute to the campaign. Sure, I will speak about social issues most. I believe people still remember the work I’ve done in the field.

The Conservatives, however, blame the Social Democrat government that you were a part of for irresponsibly hiking pensions before the 2008 Seimas elections, with the crisis already setting in. Didn’t you do it in a bid to secure larger support for your party?
No, that is not true. Every stride beneficial to people could be considered a flattery to the voters. This was not the case, as the economy during the rule of the Social Democrats, from 2000 to 2008, was doing really well. We did speak of a soft descent of the economy in the wake of the worldwide downturn, and we were preparing for it. I’m sure we would have fulfilled our pledge if we had been given the opportunity.

With the unpopularity of the incumbent Conservative-led government, many expect your party to have considerably higher ratings in the polls. Don’t you see a certain crisis of leadership in your party after the demise of Brazauskas, the former long-term chairman of the party?
I had opportunities to work with several prime ministers. None could match Brazauskas, though. During his prime ministership, it felt like standing behind a wall. He has been a man of words that would always be turned into deeds. Our party is the biggest in the country, and we have many real leaders, but, certainly, it is very hard to stand up against Brazauskas.