Some cuts to the EU's long-term budget for the period 2014-2020 may be necessary given current financial realities, but severe cuts would reduce the European Union's capacity to act as a global player, Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Audronius Ažubalis told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Audronius Ažubalis received a degree in journalism in 1989. He later studied politics and economics in the USA. In 2004 he was elected to the Lithuanian parliament, where he chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee. He became foreign minister in February 2010.
He was speaking to Georgi Gotev, EURACTIV's senior editor.
Mr. Minister: It appears that the EU budget for 2011 will be approved. Now the next battle is over the long-term EU budget, for the period 2014-2020. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has made clear his intention to ask for big cuts to this budget, the logic being that since the country is making sacrifices at home, the same should apply to the EU budget. What is your country's position in this respect?
The main issues for us are the following: financing of the cohesion policy and the Common Agricultural Policy [and] financing of cross-border energy infrastructure, which is vital for us. And of course, reforming the EU budget. We are a little bit cautious on introducing new 'own resources'. We need time to discuss this.
When we talk about the EU energy security instrument, we also have some hesitations. We want this instrument, but we don't want the resources for it to be taken from the cohesion funds.
It's the same for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). On one hand, we all understand that this policy should be reformed, but we are also aware that this is a centrepiece of the European economy. We believe that the CAP should be reformed by introducing the most modern technologies to agriculture.
It is understandable that your country has preferences for certain sectors. But would you agree to substantial cuts to the long-term EU budget?
I would say that if the EU wants to remain a more or less united entity, acting in a more or less coordinated way, the budget should not be cut dramatically.
But you're not ruling out cuts of some kind, due to the crisis and the internal situation in some member states?
Yes, some cuts may be necessary, as we did in our budget, because it's a financial reality. But I will repeat: if the budget undergoes severe cuts, I would say it reduces the possibilities for the EU to act as a global player. Without the means, without the common programmes, without the common coordinated resources, who are you?
Is the EU now stronger with the Lisbon Treaty?
I'm not going to speculate. If we take the example of setting up the European External Action Service, we can see it is not an easy task. Also, some critics say that the new EU presidency is not efficient. At least for myself, I am not going to criticise immediately. Just have a look back, see how much time was needed to take the decisions. Now it takes time to implement.
You mentioned critics. The British press is the most critical, and as a former journalist, you know that British Euroscepticism is nothing new. Seen from a Central European perspective, does the picture perhaps look better?
Indeed. And it's good that there is a process, that the ministers are in the process. There was an initial period when ministers of foreign affairs were afraid that they would lose their job. But what we see now, from our daily practice, is that national ministers are involved, that member countries make their voices heard. This is good, and thanks to the fact that we have now a High Representative, we can react quicker in many situations.
Does your country have difficulties with the treaty change required to put in place a permanent mechanism to deal with crisis situations?
We have parliamentary reservations at present. This reservation means that the government should discuss the issue in more depth with our parliament. And this is normal, I think the parliament and society should know more about the possible impact of such a treaty change.
What will be, for example, the role of non-eurozone members in this financial mechanism? What kind of new obstacles could be created for those who are to join the eurozone? Those are the questions raised by our parliament and that's why they have this parliament reservation.
What's the next step?
I think we will need to take a decision and I hope this will be a positive decision, before the EU Council [16-17 December]. Because we need to have our mandate confirmed before any Council meeting.
So you will have to speak in parliament before that?
Indeed, it's a procedure which we borrowed from Finland, and it's more or less the same in Denmark and some other countries, mostly in Scandinavia.
I presume those are the countries with which you coordinate more closely.
It's the Nordic-Baltic format. We have such a format today [13 December] ahead of the Foreign Affairs Council. We hold such meetings before each Council and we discuss the agenda, our positions, and so on. This is our club.
Is this also a format in which you raise your country's concerns over energy security? We hear that Belarus is building a nuclear power plant next to your country's border…
Absolutely. Any country would do so, if it were unable to find the proper answers to its concerns according to the Espoo convention [the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context] and according to IAEA requirements. You would worry as well if someone announced that the nuclear power plant would be built 50 kilometres from your state capital.
We are not against, we are not denying the right of any country, but as we are developing our nuclear project [to replace Ignalina, closed under EU pressure in 2009] in a very open, very transparent way, we expect the same from our neighbours. That's why we have strong objections on that.
The paradox is that your country was closed Ignalina, but a similar power plant could be built just next to your border.
Yes, but I hope that the international community and our partners will act in a rational way and will convince our neighbours to follow international good practice.
Russia is planning to develop nuclear power plants in areas close to the EU, so it can supply more electricity to EU member states. One such plant is planned in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, bordering Lithuania and Poland. There are even Russian plans to build floating nuclear power plants.
I haven't heard about that. Not flying, but floating? Not bad, not bad [laughs].
How do you feel about Russian plans to increase your country's energy dependence on Russia?
I think that those are purely political projects. For the time being, we hear slogans, 'we are going to build' and 'we are building'. But until this time, we don't have the environmental impact assessments. The same as in Belarus.
You say it's politicised, but wasn't your country's position vis-à-vis the Nord Stream project also politicised? You opposed that project, which got Germany's blessing and is now being built.
No, because we were based on the scientific data, which were presented to all sides concerned, including Russia and Germany. Are you aware that this pipeline goes trough Natura 2000-protected areas in Germany? Where the Green movement is so strong? But now the Greens didn't oppose that.
And there is another aspect. We still have to see what price German customers will pay for this gas.
Does your country take energy security very seriously?
Our strategic goal is normal. We are members of the EU and we should belong to the Union's electricity network. By using Russian electricity we could never become members of the club. If we want real integration into European energy networks, we should have our own nuclear energy. I'm not talking only about Lithuania, but regionally, and to become one day members of ENTSO [the European Network of Transmission System Operators]. All this is vital for us.
Public opinion in your country is in favour of nuclear energy. Is this an asset for you?
Yes, this is an asset. Of course there are some sceptics who advocate green energy, which we are not excluding, by the way. But we understand that green energy cannot replace nuclear energy.
Your country was part of the Soviet Union from WWII until the early nineties. Does the EU listen the voice of Vilnius regarding Russia?
It's difficult to say. When we insisted that the mandate for the post-PCA agreement with Russia [Moscow and Brussels are negotiating a new EU-Russia basic treaty, replacing an antiquated Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed in 1994] should include some additional articles and annexes, like energy security, like condemnation of crimes based on ideology, it showed that we were able to convince our partners.
But it's not a secret that some countries have a different experience in Russia and a different attitude. It's normal that Luxembourg, for example, should have a different attitude. That's why we are working very hard, pushing for the evaluation at EU level of crimes under totalitarian regimes. And we are moving quite well, we expect a Commission report on this, and we'll see if we need a legal instrument for dealing with those who deny the crimes of totalitarian regimes.
This is the policy of the European People's Party group, of which you are a member – I mean to which your party, Homeland Union, is affiliated. But I don't think the Socialists & Democrats group want to go in that direction. Their political group has another initiative on a firmer reaction to any racist, nationalist and xenophobic statements. This is party politics, isn't it?
No. I think that unfortunately, the Western part of Europe doesn't know well our history, the history of the nations who were until recently under totalitarian regimes. Through education, we should move towards better understanding that the EU should have legal instruments on the same level as there are now against Nazi ideology and totalitarian regimes of a Stalinist type.
You are probably aware of the fact that in some Eastern countries former communist leaders have to some extent been rehabilitated…
In some countries maybe, not in our country!
But this happens even if those countries are governed by centre-right governments. Recently the Bulgarian prime minister, who is EPP-affiliated, made statements seen as a tribute to communist dictator Todod Zhivkov.
It's difficult for me to judge every country. Some politicians tend to say: leave history to historians. But the result is that by doing this, sooner or later we have echoes. I would also add that Nazism and Communism are brother ideologies.
Perhaps the European political families should simply be more selective when taking on board new members.
I agree absolutely on that. Because sometimes political groups seem to be more interested in quantity than in quality. But the competition between the centre-right and the centre-left makes each one of them take on board sometimes some strange collaborators.
By the way, you have just returned from the OSCE summit in Astana. What's new with this organisation, which was so vital from 1975 when it was established as the Helsinki Process and the three 'baskets', including human rights?
The EU in general passed the exam in Astana, by re-stating very strongly the main principles of democracy, human rights and territorial integrity. It was a big clash, but we confirmed our positions, and summit or no summit, we are not going to sacrifice any of the pillars of our values and existence.
So the OSCE should not be discarded as an organisation?
One should look at the way as democrats in some of the countries to our East look to ODIHR [the OSCE Office for Democratic institutions and Human Rights, based in Warsaw]. Because ODIHR is the only organisation with a real name as a honest broker in observing the elections. This is a big asset to the OSCE.
But if you will allow me, Mr. Minister, the OSCE was successful until the fall of the Berlin Wall thanks to US leadership. And the US was motivated by the fight against communism. Now, with respect to the Central Asian countries to which you refer, there are other types of relations. It's not ideology, it's about business ruining smoothly…
I could agree. But let me say that there are always ups and downs and we have to prepare the next phase of the human phase development block. We cannot be selfish and say: we are already in, we may have problems, but we are handling them somehow, and what happens on the other side of the fence is not our business. The people in Central Asia have exactly the same inspirations as we did not so long ago.