“Cautious optimism” is how Lithuania views the recently elected leadership of the European Union. In an interview with LRT.lt, the country’s permanent representative to the EU Jovita Neliupšienė discusses Brussels politics from the Baltic perspective.
A month ago, the European Council agreed on appointments to the EU’s top posts, but the talks weren’t easy.
What are we to make of the agreement? As for the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen as the European Commission’s president, her knowledge, understanding of our region are beyond any doubt. She has visited Lithuania on several occasions. She was even awarded one of the highest state decorations [The Grand Cross of the Order for Merits to Lithuania – LRT.lt].
Granted, it was when she was the German defence minister, but she is very well aware of the challenges we are facing.
Isn’t there any resentment among Central-Eastern Europeans and Nordic countries that a German, a Belgian and a Spaniard secured the top jobs?
One always wants to get more, but, for instance, [Danish Commissioner] Margrethe Vestager will be one of the vice-presidents of the Commission. She’ll be the senior or first vice-president, so there is an effort to ensure balance.
One hopes, moreover, that Central-Eastern European and Nordic countries will get some important Commission positions. I’ve no doubt that Nordic diplomats will go after key economic portfolios.
Lithuania has yet to pick its candidate for the European Commission. Is it true that the sooner countries present their candidates, the better their chances to land a better portfolio?
There are different possibilities. A letter from the elected president of the European Commission came quite recently, setting the deadline for nominating commissioner candidates. There are also talks with the Commission president – all countries are telling her what they want and what they expect. They use different tactics.
However, nominating a commissioner candidate is a national political decision.
What does the EU Commission president look for in candidates?
In her introduction speech to the European Parliament, and after her election, von der Leyen underlined several times that she wants the candidates to be qualified and able to work in an international environment. Another important factor that she stressed in her campaign is the gender balance.
But it’s up to every member-state to what extent they’ll heed these general principles.
Which portfolio would Lithuania be seeking?
Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis has said Lithuania would like to have an economic portfolio – something to do with energy, economy, innovation, finance. It’s a rather wide range of areas and I think that the elected EC president will listen to it.
What are Lithuania’s priorities for the new Commission?
The most important thing is the unity of the EU, something that von der Leyen herself has stressed. There have been talks for some time now about multi-speed Europe and it’s important to avoid that – making decisions is becoming increasingly difficult.
The long discussions over the EU leadership reflects the need to include all the member states. Sometimes less speed and more quality is better than quick decisions that leave everyone resentful and with a bad aftertaste.
Is it correct to say that Lithuania opposes multi-speed Europe?
What speed does Lithuania want then: quicker integration, as advocated by France and Germany, or to move slower, as, say, Poland wants?
It is not as simple as that. EU integration moves in different areas and at different speeds. It is very important not to leave any countries behind in these processes.
Our goal is a stronger Europe, a deeper and firmer monetary union. We are part of all the strengthened areas of cooperation, except, I think, two. We are in Schengen and the eurozone. This shows that we are already more integrated than some other member states.
But there are areas that, we believe, require more talks and discussions and that shouldn’t be rushed. For example, unification of taxes. Or security and foreign policy. These relate directly to security issues and we shouldn’t expect that more integration in this area, like making decision by a qualified majority, would make anything better.
Does our position always coincide with that of France or Germany? No. Does it always match that of Poland? It doesn’t either. On some issues, our positions differ.
Our principle goal is to be in the EU and use our membership to further our interests, for instance, in areas like energy, Eastern neighbourhood, [fight against] disinformation, cyber security.
As for the coming five years of the new European Commission, let’s first recall von der Leyen’s political declaration in the European Parliament: a Europe that is secure, green, stronger, also, the issues of legal discipline and the rule of law. I can’t think of anything we could disagree with here.
We, of course, support secure Europe – both internal and external security. Same goes for climate change – it is undeniable, we must cut pollution and that requires appropriate measures. True, the question remains of how to do it. In our opinion, we need to take into account each country’s starting position and social situation.
Moreover, we need to settle the issue of energy networks. Much has been done already, but we need to finish, for instance, the synchronization [of Baltic electricity grids with Western European networks]. One of the security questions is military mobility, an essential issue for us, we’ve been working a lot on this with Germans and the Dutch and will continue to do so.
What will be the main issues on the Brussels agenda once everyone’s back from holidays? Is Brexit going to be the main topic this autumn?
There are more issues than Brexit. First, negotiating the financial perspective, the EU’s seven-year budget. We also have to agree on goals and measures in our fight against cliamte change. It’s a big and expensive question. The European Union must show leadership to the world.
What is Lithuania’s position on that?
A few weeks ago, decision taken in a government meeting said we understand the need for ambitious goals, but countries’ starting positions and economic situations must be taken into account.
What is Lithuania’s view about the new top leaders of EU institutions?
As the prime minister of Belgium, Charles Michel is also a member of the European Council, an insider in this club. So no wonder that he became the European Council president. How well he’ll do, we’ll see. I think he won’t be short on energy or ideas. Hard to judge early in the day. Unlike the European Commission president, the European Council president does not have to be approved in the European Parliament and he will not need to present his programme.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who will be the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, is seen as a highly educated, intelligent man who has been in politics for a long time, as a minister and an MEP. He’s a foreign policy giant.
How well his actions will align with our interests – we have our own specific regional circumstances, develop Eastern partnership – remains to be seen. I think, there will be some balancing.