EXCLUSIVE / Against the backdrop of completing the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė invited Europeans to take note of the protests in Kyiv's Maidan Square ahead of the European elections: “The Ukrainian people want what we have achieved,” she said in an exclusive interview with EurActiv.
Lithuania, a country of 3.2 million which joined the EU in 2004,has assumed 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.
This was 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.
“Europe is not a gift, it is responsibility. It takes responsibility to be European. Responsibility to do the reforms which are good for your country. It is fiscal, social responsibility,” she said, adding that it was time to stop taking European peace, prosperity and security for granted.
Lithuania, a country of 3.2 million people, which joined the EU in 2004, assumed its first presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July. It started with a huge number of dossiers and ticked boxes on many difficult legislative files.
Marathon and speedy presidency
The Presidency collided with both the end of the political and institutional cycle and the adoption of the European long-term budget which required the adoption of 74 legislative acts.
“A huge workload was pushed to our presidency, because the next one will have to already prepare for the EU elections,” said Grybauskaitė, who reckoned the workload was two-and-a-half times more than that usually dealt with by previous EU presidencies.
“We made it. We passed 61 of the 74 legislative acts so that the EU budget can be operational as of next year,” she cheered.
But it was not only the EU budget. Many dossiers were left over from previous presidencies: posted workers, the tobacco directive, agriculture, rules for Frontex, CO2 on cars. These and others were all successfully brought to agreement.
The greatest achievement, however, is the banking union, said the Lithuanian president.
“In the recent two years we have been creating a number of instruments to fight the crisis (two-pack, six- pack), but the banking union is the additional tassel in the architecture,” she said. “It is important for economic recovery and financial stability in Europe.”
Even though critics argue the compromise is clearly imperfect and some say too complex to ever work effectively, she points at the positive of having managed to reach a deal on a very sovereign issue such as banking resolution.
“The Single Resolution Mechanism was proposed in September and in three months we have an agreement. We have never worked at such speed,” she said.
“It is a compromise – she stressed – we can later improve it, if necessary steps are needed. But the fact that we were able to reach a compromise should be saluted as an important step. Optimal or not, time will say,” she added, insisting the new instruments must now be properly implemented.
Perfection from the start is only for utopians, hinted the president. “The job is better done by those who stop talking about doing something, but that actually get the job done,” she said.
Ukraine’s turn not a ‘failure’
On the refusal of Ukraine to sign the association agreement with the EU last month, the Lithuanian president argues it is not a failure but rather delivers positive messages.
It was a wake-up call for EU leaders and Europeans at large, but also for the Ukrainian people.
“The Ukrainian political leadership has shown that they are neither committed towards Europe, neither understand what a future in Europe can deliver to its country and what can they gain from it,” she said.
This reality check for everyone was important. The huge anti-government protests in Ukraine’s capital Kiev have shown that the Ukrainian people had woken up, she explained. “They have taken the future of their own life and their own children in their own hand.”
“Now Ukraine and the people of Ukraine have a real choice on whether to come towards Europe and how rapidly they want to do it.”
The Ukrainian rebuttal has also shed light on the success of enlargement for Europe and all member states, insisted Grybauskaitė.
“Compare Poland or Lithuania's GDP per-capita with that of Ukraine today, it is hugely different,” she said.
“The association agreement and then membership with the EU gave us the eagerness to reform faster. Twenty-two years ago we were at the same level with Ukraine. And now we are not comparable by economic development, human rights, legal basis, modernisation—Everything is different.”
Although Lithuania took over 10 years to make the reforms required to join the European Union, Grybauskaitė said, now it has become one of the fastest growing economies in the 28-country bloc, negotiating its entrance to the OECD and seats as a non-permanent member in the United Nations Security Council. “Not bad, I would say,” she said glowing with pride.
The success of countries like Lithuania should give hope to Eastern European countries, she added.
Stand up to Russia?
Asked whether the EU had to reshuffle its strategic ties with Russia and how, Grybauskaitė said the EU had to be open, but ‘very direct’.
She said the EU was deeply concerned by Russian behaviour with third countries both on human rights and the rule of law.
“In recent months, we have seen how Russia is misusing its powers and putting pressure over Eastern partners, including Lithuania. This is unacceptable from a country that has signed obligations with the WTO or European bodies. These cannot be just forgotten. But Russia is still our strategic partner,” Grybauskaitė said, insisting the EU and its values had to be respected.
- 1 January - 30 June 2014: Greek Presidency