Dr. Ramunas Vilpisauskas, Director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University, comments on the forthcoming half-year of Lithuania’s EU Presidency, which is to start on July 1, and other related issues on the agenda in Vilnius.
What will be the priority issues put on the agenda in the frames of Lithuania’s EU Presidency? There will probably arise questions of national importance that Lithuania will attempt to lobby during the upcoming six month. What would they be?
Of course, the majority of the issues which will dominate Lithuania’s EU Presidency agenda will be EU wide issues, inherited from the previous (Irish) Presidency. There are, however, priorities which have a national “flavor” and these are the Eastern partnership, energy security, the Baltic Sea strategy and border management. For example, the Eastern Partnership summit planned for November 2013 is seen as the key event of the Presidency and an ambitious agenda is planned for it in terms of advancemet of relationships between the EU and countries including Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia. Lithuania will also be stressing the advancement of energy integration inside the EU in order to establish a truly functioning common market. But of course, most of the Presidency work will be on the daily routine issues of regulation, plus those items currently on the EU agenda icluding discussing draft norms on the next financial perspective, banking union and others.
Regarding energy, why do Lithuanian parliamentarians fail to reach consensus over its future? Is it the shale gas debate that impedes the development of a common energy strategy?
The debate on shale gas in Lithuania is very similar to debates in other EU countries. In some countries, such as France, it resulted in restrictions to developing the shale gas industry, in others like Poland, the political elites are more positive towards this source of energy. It is a matter of national choice, like a decision of developing nuclear energy, and should not impede the development of EU energy strategy. In Lithuania we now have a similar debate, and some members of parliament are concerned about environmental issues, especially after lobbying from local communities. Some fears are justified, some are a result of a lack of information. But it seems that the Government is determined to proceed with explorations and if this is done properly and people are better informed they might become more positive about this source of energy. The example of the US shows that it can change significantly the state of energy and exert strong downward pressure on prices.
Is there any pressure from the outside – say, Russia, for instance – to impose promotion of specific issues during the Presidency?
No, Russia is not part of the EU and therefore it does not participate in discussing EU priorities. Of course, Russia has its interests, such as visa liberalization or trade in energy resources, but they are not targeted towards the EU Presidency but rather towards various EU member states, often preferring a bilateral approach instead of dealing with EU institutions.
Considering visa liberalization, are there any developments in relation to Belarusians? The latter are enthusiastically looking forward to it.
There are debates about reducing the price of visas for citizens of Belarus. This would make sense and would increase the possibilities of socialization with their neighbors. But since the political situation and related issues which are identified by the EU have not changed in Belarus, this is still a matter of debate.
All in all, when it comes to the ‘Belarus problem,’ President Dalia Grybauskaite seems to fight, so to say, a two-front war, constantly balancing somewhere in the middle between the united Europe, on the one hand, and Belarus/Russia, on the other. What, basically, drives Ms. Grybauskaite in this political game?
I am not sure I agree with this description. But the main factors which inform her position are first of all the neighborhood and proximity, which also matters economically, to Belarus and Lithuania, and the need to take into account the common position of the EU. But the main issue is how to facilitate the establishment of freedoms and rights which are observed in the EU when experience shows that both approaches of isolation and inclusiveness did not bring change in the regime. So, Lithuania has to remain an advocate of the principles of free society and at the same time take into account that it is linked by trade and people to people contacts with Belarus. Socializing population while isolating leaders of the regime seems to be a preferred route at the moment.
As we touched the question of neighbors, what is the status of current Polish-Lithuanian relations?
If we look into daily relations between business and other people, our relations are very good and intense. Poland is one of the key trade partners of Lithuania. Both countries are members of EU and NATO among other alliances, and therefore are cooperating intensely also on a political level. Both share similar interests and goals in their Eastern neighborhood. But there are issues which are unsolved and are often manipulated by politicians in both countries.
What would you suggest as a solution?
First of all, they should not be manipulated by local politicians, and this kind of manipulation should not be encouraged from another country. Also, I think sometimes there is also simply too little communication at the highest political bilateral level. If these conditions are fulfilled, then it might become easier to solve issues which have been stuck for a long time, like spelling the names in original letters in official documents and others.
Rhetoric apart, what real changes can the European Presidency bring? What could Lithuania gain from it?
The main gain is the increase in the capacity of Lithuanian public administration, especially skills and networks of people who work with European issues in Lithuanian institutions. This is likely to be much more tangible than any economic benefits, and increase in tourism. There might also be benefits in terms of the Lithuanian public becoming more aware of European issues, and the public in other EU countries becoming more aware of Lithuania as an EU partner. But these changes are difficult to track. But Lithuania, its public administration and political elites, can really gain in terms of their capacities.
Is the new government likely to re-shape Lithuania’s course in terms of the Presidency?
No, except for some personality changes there are the same policy priorities and continuity. The key issue is how quickly newly appointed ministers and vice ministers will be able to get a grasp of the European agenda and specific Presidency issues to become effective mediators in the Council and working groups.
While Lithuania will be taking the helm of the EU, Croatia will be joining the club as the 28th member state. How does Lithuania, basically, feel about the enlargement as a tendency?
The basic general feeling is positive. Lithuania supports both enlargement of the EU and closer relations of the EU with its Eastern partners. Unfortunately, aside from Croatia there will probably be no major good news on enlargement during these six months, though Lithuanian elites would be more than delighted to oversee the significant advancement of, for example, the negotiations with Iceland and the EU.
Lithuania’s endeavor to adopt the euro is rather serious. Is it not a frightening step in the light of the ongoing euro zone crisis? How do people generally perceive such a perspective?
Lithuania, like other Baltic States, went through several difficult periods of changes starting from the early 1990s, then in 1998 after the Russian crisis, and then again in 2008-2009. Wages and pensions have been reduced and after these adjustments, growth has been restored quite quickly. Much of what has been done is actually very much in line with how countries restore their competitiveness being in the eurozone. Besides, all three Baltic countries had their monetary policy based on a fixed exchange with respect to euro. Therefore, for the Baltic States joining the eurozone becomes an element of the exit from crisis strategy. But this time it coincided with serious problems in some eurozone countries, and these problems are associated with the whole eurozone. The current state of the eurozone definitely causes concern for people, and discussing them should become part of the national debate on introducing euro. The government has publicly announced the intention to introduce the euro in 2015, which gives at least a year for debate and for assessing how eurozone itself is coping with the lack of competitiveness, problems with public finances and the banking sector and the politically difficult reforms. Besides, many people are concerned about how this might affect their purchasing power and some are generally suspicious about the monetary reform and whether politicians can do it properly. Addressing these concerns is a huge task for the Government of Lithuania.