The Lithuanian EU Presidency - ‘A fresh Baltic breeze’
Lithuania, a country of 3.2 million which joined the EU in 2004, will assume its first presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July. Lithuania considers itself one of the most successful countries to overcome the economic and financial crisis and to return to sustained recovery and growth. It is the first Baltic country to take the EU stint.
This is the first presidency for Lithuania, which is also the first Baltic country to take the EU stint. The two other former Soviet-occupied republics, Latvia and Estonia, will assume their presidential duties in the first half of 2015 and in the first half of 2018 respectively.
The Lithuanian Presidency is also the first of a Union with 28 member states. Croatia will join the EU on 1 July, the first day of Lithuania's stint, as the 28th EU member.
Lithuania assumes its presidency in the final period of the mandate of the European Commission and the European Parliament. The next Greek Presidency will have to prepare for European elections, to be held between 22 and 25 May 2014. The small administration of the country will have to deal with an unusually heavy agenda that will also include the “unfinished business” left over from previous presidencies.
Although it has not yet become a eurozone member, Lithuania has been more successful economically than many other EU countries during the eurozone crisis. “Lithuania is a fresh breeze, an innovative and vital voice in the EU family,” the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius recently stated.
The Presidency takes place during the European Year of Citizens, and this explains the motto of the presidency, built around the key words “credible Europe”, “growing Europe” and “open Europe”. Lithuania says it will strive to make progress toward sounder public finances, towards the implementation for the Compact for Growth and Jobs, and towards the strengthening of the EU as a global model of openness and security.
Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the Lithuanian Presidency would be “a period of particularly hard work in the Council and in the European Parliament”.
After the European Parliament and the European Council sealed a compromise deal on the long-term EU budget for 2014-2020, the task of negotiating the distribution of the funds falls on the Lithuanian presidency, which also has to steer the adoption by co-decision of some 80 pieces of legislation needed to implement the budget.
In addition, Lithuania would have to push the implementation of the ‘Compact for Growth and Jobs’, agreed in June 2012 under pressure from the recently elected French President François Hollande. Other priorities are the Banking Union, including the adoption of the proposal on the single resolution mechanism which the Commission will present in June, and pushing the objective of fully completing the internal energy market by 2014.
Lithuania and several other EU countries attach particular importance to the Eastern Partnership summit that will take place in Vilnius on 28-29 November. If successful, the summit could mark the signing of an association agreement with Ukraine, as well as the initialling of association agreements with Armenia, Moldova and Georgia.
The budget of Lithuania’s Presidency of the Council of the EU is €62 million. This figure is smaller than those for previous presidencies, as it includes the funding allocated for all Lithuanian official authorities involved in the process.
The colours of the Lithuanian Presidency logo symbolise Lithuania's close relations with the Baltic and the Nordic regions, while the blue bow of the EU flag represents the universally shared values and activities. The garland of the Lithuanian national flag’s colours – yellow, green, and red – completes the logo circle.
The President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitė, a former EU budget commissioner, is expected to play an important role in running the presidency. Even though Lithuania is a parliamentary republic, Grybauskaitė represents her country at EU summits and is far better known in EU circles than the Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius.
Lithuania swung left in parliamentary elections last October. The Labour Party of Russian-born millionaire Victor Uspaskich emerged as the winner and the Social Democrats of Butkevicius took second place. The latter took the office of Prime Minister in December.
The former coalition of the conservative Homeland party of Andrius Kubilius and the Liberal Movement took office at the end of 2008 and was forced to raise taxes and cut spending to stave off the tiny Baltic nation’s default on its debts.
It is in this difficult period that Grybauskaitė, then EU's commissioner for budget and financial planning in the first Barroso commission, announced that she would run for the Lithuanian presidency. She won the May 2009 election by a landslide, receiving over 68% of the vote.
Largely under Grybauskaitė's influence, on 14 October 2011, the parties represented in Parliament signed a pact, pledging continuity in the preparation for the Lithuanian EU presidency. In the period of the formation of the current government, it was reported that Grybauskaitė had auditioned all ministerial candidates for their English language skills, since most of them would have to chair Council meetings.
The governing coalition and the opposition have different views on Lithuanian-Russia relations and on projects aimed at decreasing the country’s energy dependence on Russia. Nevertheless it is not expected that internal tensions will play a key role during the country’s EU presidency.
Peak of legislative activity
The agenda of the Lithuania Presidency is expected to be busier than usual, as its EU stint coincides with a peak of the legislative activity of the current Parliament and Commission.
Lithuania's Presidency will be the last full-time Presidency before the May 2014 European elections and will have the largest workload compared to the other presidencies of the 'Trio' - the former Irish Presidency and the future Greek Presidency.
Lithuania takes the view that in spite of some statements, the eurozone crisis is far from over and much remains to be done to move forward with Economic and Monetary Union and Banking Union and reinforcing economic governance and fiscal surveillance. These issues rank high on the agenda of the Union and of the Lithuanian Presidency.
The Lithuania Presidency also aims at progress on the Single Market Act and reinforcement of the Services Directive. Other priorities include measures for the Digital Single Market and the completion of the internal energy market, improving infrastructure and transport links. To encourage job creation, the Lithuanian Presidency will focus on legislation to fight youth unemployment and increase labour market flexibility.
Undoubtedly, the 2014-2020 EU budget, also called Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF), is the most daunting task for the Union and for the Lithuanian Presidency, which is committed to ensure that its implementation will start by 1 January 2014.
It is still unclear whether the current Irish presidency will be able to close the EU budget for 2014-2020 by the end of its term. But even in this optimistic scenario, it would be up to Lithuania to steer the adoption by co-decision of 75 pieces of legislation designed to implement it and allow the disbursement of EU funds. Of those 75 regulations, 56 need to be adopted before the end of the Lithuanian Presidency, otherwise there will be legal vacuum for the MFF, according to diplomats.
The summit of the Eastern Partnership to be held in Vilnius on 28-29 November is a key priority for Lithuania, which has been more supportive than others of rapprochement between the EU and those other countries covered by the initiative: Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Linas Linkevičius, said that his country would do its utmost to contribute to further development of the Eastern Partnership policy. Lithuania hopes that this third such summit will see the signing of the Association Agreement, including a so-called "deep and comprehensive free trade agreement", with Ukraine, that similar agreements will be finalised with Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, and that progress will be made with Azerbaijan. Lithuania also hopes that the Vilnius Summit will serve as an opportunity to make progress in the field of visa liberalisation.
However, it remains uncertain if such an ambitious agenda can be fulfilled. With respect to Ukraine, the largest country covered by the Eastern partnership, EU officials say that progress is lacking in key areas of concern. These include the situation of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence, seen by many in the EU as politically motivated.
Energy issues are expected to be given a high priority during the Lithuanian Presidency. At their summit on 22 May, EU leaders adopted guidelines in four areas, including on the completion of the internal energy market, launched more than 10 years ago amid much resistance from wary member states.
According to the summit conclusions, EU leaders reaffirmed their objective of completing the internal energy market by 2014 and developing interconnections, so as to put an end to the isolation of Member States from European gas and electricity networks by 2015.
In this context, the Lithuanian Presidency has been tasked to present a report on equal market conditions for internal and external energy suppliers, to work on nuclear safety in the EU neighbourhood and, in general, to reflect how to better coordinate the external dimension of the EU energy policy.
Lithuania is a country that could be seen as an “energy island”, since it is still part of the Soviet grid. The country plans to synchronise its transmission system with that of the Union’s ENTSO-E system by 2016.
Lithuania has stated that it would seek completion of the internal EU energy market, as the only way to ensure secure energy supplies and competitiveness, and provide affordable prices for European citizens. Lithuania will also seek to strengthen the external dimension of the EU energy policy.
At their 14-15 March summit, EU leaders decided to hold a series of thematic discussions on sectoral and structural issues key to economic growth and European competitiveness. Accordingly, the 24-25 October summit will be dedicated to innovation and digital and other services.
Although the organisation of the summit falls within the competence of Council President Herman Van Rompuy, Lithuania will strive to bring to life some “deliverables” ahead of the summit, diplomats said.
The Lithuanian Presidency will seek to reach agreement on trans-European telecommunication networks regulation as a means of boosting investments in the ICT sector. An important aim of the Presidency is to develop secure, trustworthy and easy online transactions, as an important element of the European digital single market. The proposed regulation on electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions in the internal market is seen as a priority for the Lithuanian Presidency.
An important highlight of the Lithuanian Presidency will be the ICT conference in to be held in Vilnius on 6-8 November with 3,000 participants, which is expected to be the largest Presidency event.
Effective management of EU external borders will be one of Lithuania’s priorities during its EU stint. According to officials, special attention will be given to the discussion on the Smart Borders package as well as proposal on Frontex joint operations at sea.
Another key area is cyber security, an issue which Lithuania plans to address in the informal meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs ministers on 18-19 July in Vilnius.
EU countries gave the European Commission a mandate on 14 June for negotiations with the USA to forge a comprehensive transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP). Brussels and Washington hope to deliver on their promise by the end of the Commission’s mandate in October 2014.
Although no major breakthroughs are expected in the short term, the Lithuanian Presidency is expected to help advance the negotiations, seen as one of the Union’s boldest projects in recent years. A comprehensive EU-US deal could over time boost EU GDP by 0.5% annually and help create approximately 400,000 jobs in the EU, according to the European Commission.
Speaking at a public event dedicated to the agenda of the Lithuanian Presidency, MEP Markus Ferber (EPP, Germany) said that Lithuania had set “an example for reform” for the other EU countries. When in 2009 the economy in Germany shrank by 5.9%, in Lithuania this percentage was three times higher, he said. Nevertheless the country implemented courageous reform and is achieving growth in the last years, which he said many EU countries were “envious of”.
“Lithuania is well-positioned to suggest new ideas to its EU partners, and I hope this is what is going to happen,” Ferber said.
Asked about his country’s relations with Russia, Lithuanian Permanent Representative to the EU Ambassador Raimundas Karoblis said it took “two to tango”, but unfortunately Russia in his words didn’t always respond to EU’s readiness to do the dance.
He said the situation with Russia was “not the best”, mentioning the country’s human rights record, its recent NGO legislation, its “unwillingness” to implement its WTO commitments, as well on energy issues, apparently alluding at the Third Energy package.
He said that in spite of this, the Lithuanian Presidency hoped to go for harmonious relations, for “balance between concrete files” and for the use of the concrete instruments to discuss issues, which he described as “normal tango”.
Asked by EurActiv if the Lithuanian Presidency was planning to make some progress with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU’s Schengen borderless space, Karoblis made it clear that this was a difficult issue and that his country didn’t want to make promises in this respect.
He said that the issue of “benefit tourism” had further complicated the issue and that he was “not too optimistic” that an agreement could be reached in December.
“Frankly, we haven’t seen much improvement in the atmosphere,” the diplomat said.
On 20 June, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania Linas Linkevičius had a telephone conversation with Romania’s Foreign Minister Titus Corlăţean and noted that Lithuania had consistently supported Bulgaria and Romania’s aspirations to join the Schengen area and for the next six months the Lithuanian EU Presidency would continue to constructively address this issue, aiming to reach a consensus among all the EU Member States.
9 July: ECOFIN Council
15 July: AGRIFISH Council
18-19 July: Informal Justice and Home Affairs Council in Vilnius
22 July: Foreign Affairs Council
23 July: General Affairs Council
29-30 Aug.: Informal General Affairs Council in Lithuania
5 Sept.: Informal Defense Ministers Council in Lithuania
6-7 Sept: Gymnich-type Informal Foreign Affairs Council in Lithuania
13-14 Sept.: Informal ECOFIN Council, Lithuania
15-16 Sept.: Informal Transport Council, Lithuania
19-20 Sept.: Informal Transport and Energy Council in Lithuania
23 Sept.: General Affairs Council
23 Sept.: AGRIFISH Council
26-27 Sept.: Competitiveness Council
1 Oct.: Informal Culture and Sports Council, Lithuania
7-8 Oct.: Justice and Home Affairs Council, Luxembourg
10 Oct.: Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council (Transport), Luxembourg
14 Oct.: Environment Council, Luxembourg
15 Oct.: ECOFIN Council, Luxembourg
15 Oct.: Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council, Luxembourg
17-18 Oct.: AGRIFISH Council, Luxembourg
18 Oct.: Foreign Affairs Council (Trade), Luxembourg
21 Oct.: Foreign Affairs Council, Luxembourg
22 Oct.: General Affairs Council, Luxembourg
24-25 Oct: EU summit, Brussels
6-8 Nov.: ICT Conference, Vilnius
8 Nov.: ECOFIN (Budget) Council
12 Nov.: ECOFIN Council
18-19 Nov.: AGRIFISH Council
19 Nov.: General Affairs Council
19 Nov.: Foreign Affairs Council (Defense)
25-26 Nov.: Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council
28-29 Nov: Eastern Partnership meeting in Vilnius
2-3 Dec.: Competitiveness Council
5-6 Dec.: Justice and Home Affairs Council, Brussels
9-10 Dec.: Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council
12 Dec.: Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council (Energy)
13 Dec.: Environment Council
16 Dec.: Foreign Affairs Council (Development)
16-17 Dec.: AGRIFISH Council
17 Dec.: General Affairs Council
19-20 Dec.: EU summit (Brussels)