Usackas promotes Lithuania's need for EU

  • 2000-11-23
  • Darius James Ross
VILNIUS – Hot on the heels of the European Commission's recent report on Lithuanian accession progress, Vygaudas Usackas, vice-minister of foreign affairs and the country's chief negotiator with the European Union, was plugging the importance of EU membership to his fellow Lithuanians.

Speaking to reporters at a press conference, Usackas stressed the guarantees of territorial integrity, economic and political stability and increased foreign investment that membership would bring.

"The EU is a market of 370 million people that will grow to 540 million after expansion. We need to learn from small countries like Finland and Ireland which have succeeded in taking advantage of this huge market," he said.

Usackas is a perennial optimist about Lithuania's EU hopes. "We have the ability right now to catch up to countries that have a two-year lead," he said.

Usackas has been putting a lot of pressure on government and interest groups to agree on bargaining positions in each of the remaining areas of negotiation.

"Seventy percent of the negotiating we do is with Lithuanian ministries and officials so that we have a unified response. I would rather be able to say that the EU was late in making their positions clearer than we were," he said.

Lithuania and the EU have reached preliminary agreements in seven areas, including education, small- and medium-sized business and security. Negotiations in culture and competition policy are ongoing and Lithuania has already stated its positions in seven other areas, including transport and telecommunications.

Negotiations in the 13 remaining areas are slated to begin in 2001.

Lithuania has already asked for extended transitional periods in three areas: freedom to provide services, environmental policy and the free movement of capital. "Environmental policy is the most expensive area for us, and also one of the ones the EU pays most attention to," said Usackas.

To meet EU standards for drinking water alone it will cost Lithuania 800 million litas ($200 million). Other environmentally related municipal infrastructure projects could cost as much as 2 billion litas over a 15-year period.

Usackas received support from Kestutis Petrauskis, assistant editor at theVeidas weekly who also spoke strongly for EU membership for Lithuania.

"Lithuanians need to look at themselves the way the West looks at us," he said. "The EU is throwing a lot of money our way because they know that Lithuania along with many other Central and East European countries are future economic tigers," he said.

Petrauskis said that the progress made in going from a command to a market economy in the past 10 years is phenomenal. "We have recently weathered the Russian recession. It was not easy, but we did it with relatively little pain. I wonder what would happen if [hypothetically] Germany's largest trading partner, France, were suddenly to become insolvent. Would the Germans be able to survive such a shock as well as we did?" he asked rhetorically.

Lithuania has nothing to fear from future economic tigers in other parts of the world, Petrauskis said. "S o-me Latin and South American economies are doing well, but Lithuania is politically more stable and has a better education system. And why invest there when Lithuania is so much closer," he said.

Lithuania's recent accession report card c om-plimented the country for correcting its fiscal deficit, continuing the large-scale privatization of state companies and restructuring the banking sector. The EC also stated that Lithuania could be viewed as a market economy for the first time. Some minor criticisms regarding a lack of bankruptcy legislation and probl ems in agricultural policy were noted.