The big priority for Lithuania is to have a healthy economy, and then maybe later the country will consider joining the eurozone, Audronius Ažubalis, Lithuania's foreign minister, said in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV Germany.
Audronius Ažubalis is Lithuania's foreign minister. He was speaking to EURACTIV Germany's Daniel Tost.
In a recent interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, you stated that Lithuania supported Germany's position on the fiscal treaty and that those criticising the treaty are not offering anything else. Was this directed at François Hollande?
No, it's just a simple observation. I am a politician, and I have been in politics for 22 years. I know that sometimes during election campaigns you use a different kind of rhetoric. When you are in the seat and facing reality it is sometimes quite challenging to act according to your promises. Because reality is a quite cruel one. If someone would tell me how a country which faces an economic crisis could escape from austerity measures and increase its growth, I would be very grateful. Growth is impossible without a responsible fiscal policy.
What is your assessment on the latest developments in Greece?
Greece is facing a real challenge for their future statehood. I wish the political parties would recognise the full scale of this problem and act responsibly. But these are wishes and we cannot interfere. We can propose to pay attention to our humble efforts in struggling with the financial crisis.
I think the most dangerous threat for politicians is to become a hostage of the street. Sometimes you should be strong enough to challenge the street and sometimes even challenge the mainstream.
Lithuania's Prime Minister still names the year 2014 as a strategic goal for a transition to the euro. Lithuania's President stated that she doubted the reality of the plan to join the eurozone by that time. Do you think it is realistic for the situation in the eurozone to stabilise by this date?
I think the strategic goal is to have a healthy economy. The Maastricht criteria are the tools to get such an economy. The first goal in Lithuania is to get closer to not having a budget deficit of over 3%. We have some problems with inflation because of two reasons. One is of course the huge oil prices and the other the global food prices.
I think these are just two sentences from politicians who are thinking about the same thing, but talking from a different angle. The major goal is to have a healthy economy. As consequence of our attempts we could adopt the euro after some time. I still believe in the euro.
You stated that the euro in itself is not so attractive as more the criteria to become member of the eurozone. What is the mood of Lithuanian citizens towards the common currency?
I think Lithuanian citizens are thinking about the future of their children. We should be united and calm and we should be able compromise our short-term well-being for a better future. During all our austerity measures we just had one demonstration. We even found an agreement with the trade unions and pensioners. We cut the pensions for three years. This year we already restored the pensions. Knowing that our pensions are quite small, you could imagine that older people sacrificed a lot. We are very grateful for that and we are very proud of our citizens. I am very satisfied that we kept our promises.
According to recent Eurostat data, youth unemployment rates in Lithuania are particularly high…
I think this is a consequence of the crisis. It's quite difficult especially for young people to get a job. The government treats this issue as a very serious problem. Recently we put forward a four-steps programme of how to encourage employment for young people including short loans, and taxation exemptions. We realise this is a challenge. About 40% of our population has a university education and we want to keep them in Lithuania. We are facing the problem of losing young educated people who are full of energy, who want to stay in the country, but cannot find a job.
I'm not going to criticise the methodology of the statistics. But in this number of young unemployed people, students were included. According to our legislation students are not jobless. We have 200,000 students in Lithuania. This is about 6% of our total population. I'm not going to say that we don't have a problem. We are treating the issue very seriously.
The Lithuanian president said that a high youth unemployment rate is due to the fact that the government does not consider this issue a serious one and has been trying to solve it incoherently. What are your thoughts on her proposal to use EU structural funds for young people's employment?
Not being a minister for social affairs I would say the redirection of existing ESF assistance would be good in some areas such as micro-credits to start youth-owned businesses, vocational training and in drawing up a national programme on volunteer activities to help young people acquire personal and social competencies and thus become better prepared to become integrated in the labour market.
These are all very good partial measures. In general you couldn't create a special economic situation for one social group. Our main goal is to be an attractive country for foreign investments, to get high-tech investors. Lithuania's GDP from high tech products and services is now 12%. We have the ambition to reach about 25% by 2020. We think that nanotechnologies or bio-technologies could give a real prospect for a small nation, which has no natural resources such as oil or gas. That is why we are very proud about IBM setting up laboratories.
Last week Lithuania's government gave its final approval to several plans aimed at reducing its dependency on Russian energy sources, including a new nuclear power plant. What is your response to the concerns of other EU member states considering nuclear safety?
We got a very positive response from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and from Director General Yukiya Amano personally. Our projects are very well screened. An environment impact assessment was done in 2009. There were perfect responses from all surrounding countries.
What worries us are the unclear projects which are developing or will be developed in our neighbourhood in Belarus and Kaliningrad. Here we do not see any clarity. When we ask we get unreliable answers. Participants of the Espoo Convention now officially asked Belarus about their project. There are no responses, just propaganda slogans.
Talking about our nuclear energy safety, we are very happy that we succeed in the EU to include stress tests in Council decisions. Not just for those who are inside the EU (the member states), but also in the neighbouring countries. It is very good that the EU showed the initiative that the stress tests should be implemented.
A Swiss decision to re-impose quotas on workers from eastern European EU states including Lithuania recently angered politicians in Brussels. Would you call the move discriminatory?
It's regrettable. I have full trust in the Commission because it is a matter of the EU and Switzerland. Switzerland acted against certain agreements. I hope both sides will find a way out of this situation. I think this decision was taken for mostly internal political reasons. After some negotiations I think that Switzerland will take back this ban.
Your ministry stated that it believes that the Swiss government will reconsider its decision in the nearest possible future. What is this belief based upon?
Because it violates agreements. Switzerland is part of the Schengen area. I am full of confidence that the EU will take necessary steps. Switzerland wanted to challenge the EU. I don't think this is a good way to deal with the rest of Europe. But the Swiss are very rational and pragmatic people.
You have said that the Belarus' leadership is selling the sovereignty of the country to Russia. What do mean exactly?
Because they are taking loans they are not able to pay back. They are selling shares of their strategic enterprises for example Beltransgas. They sold BelKali which is one of the biggest producers and exporter of fertilisers. They are selling because they are not getting loans from the EU. This is due to certain of their policies regarding human rights. So piece by piece they are selling their countries independence, unfortunately.
What can Lithuania do, as part of the EU, for the human rights situation in Belarus?
We should act together like when we recalled our diplomats from Minsk and together brought them back. Only unity can keep our position of calculated and well targeted sanctions alive.
Considering the case of Yulia Tymoshenko: Does is make sense to link politics, human rights and sports?
In general, yes. We are talking about the destinies of the people. We should be taking double track measures; press Ukraine leadership with all possible means to be more open and more respectful to the civil society and the opposition. On the other hand we shouldn't close the door to Ukraine to get closer to Europe. It would be very good if we could agree among ourselves first of all not to stop the ratification of the Association Agreement but to push it ahead and at the same time give a precondition for visa liberalisation. The people in the Ukraine would like to have this mobility.
Maybe a boycott can work, I don't know. Sports events are one thing but I consider a consistent and united EU policy regarding the Association Agreement, free trade agreement and visa liberalisation to be major tools to influence the situation with Ukraine.