By Nick Malkoutzis
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite spent two days in Athens this week as her country prepares to hand the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union over to Greece. Athens has a busy agenda from January as its EU commitments include overseeing the completion of the banking union and dealing with irregular immigration. Balancing this against an always-fraught domestic lineup will be a tall order.
“I am sure that [Greece] will be able to manage this goal,” said Grybauskaite after a meeting with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Wednesday. In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition, she underlined the importance of the EU presidency, the challenges facing the 28-member Union and the economic difficulties faced by Europe and Greece in particular.
You are in Athens as part of the process of handing over the rotating EU presidency. There are many who doubt that the presidency has any real value. How has Lithuania’s experience been over the last six months and what can Greece learn from you?
This presidency was the first one for Lithuania, so it was a really great experience for our diplomacy. It was a chance for Lithuania to take responsibility for many issues and strengthen trust in our country. The presidency also captured our society’s attention and encouraged a bigger interest in the European Union.
All EU member states face many common challenges that should be solved but cannot be solved within a half of a year. That is why most of the agenda is transmitted from one presiding country to another. But of course each presidency has a good opportunity to draw attention to issues which maybe do not get appropriate consideration in the EU. The Eastern Partnership was the case for Lithuania – we were able to get greater attention within the EU and in the world as well.
Greece will take over the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the fifth time. I am sure that your country knows very well what the presidency means. As for every country, it is very important to work responsibly, be innovative, active and do the job to the fullest.
Greece is taking on the presidency at a crucial time for the EU, especially with the European Parliament elections coming up in May. Do you think the EU is in good shape or are you concerned about the implications that economic and political problems will have for the Union’s future?
Europe is in a better shape than several years before. The economy is recovering in most EU countries. Many measures have been taken to ensure financial stability and economic growth and create more jobs. However, we cannot tell yet that the EU is in good shape – economic growth is too slow, many Europeans, especially the young, are unemployed. All these problems and our ability to deal with them in one way or another will shape Europe’s future. They cause great disappointment among our citizens and it could influence the results of the upcoming European Parliament elections.
But in the future it is extremely important to continue the work toward financial stability, economic growth and competitiveness of the EU, and job creation as well.
Do you fear that we will see a rise in support for euroskepticism and the far right at the upcoming Euro elections?
People want changes if they are disappointed. Responsible actions are necessary and it is all about political will and commitment to citizens’ needs. No matter what political power, but politicians must respond to their citizens and work for a better future for the EU too.
Have you been surprised by the reaction in Ukraine to its stalled attempt to join the EU?
The people of Ukraine are clearly showing their European commitment. The EU was ready to sign the agreement and did everything that it could for the signing. Everything was and remains in the hands of the political leadership of Ukraine.
The reaction by a large number of people in Ukraine to its failed bid to become part of the EU is in contrast the rising apathy or mistrust for the Union in a number of existing members. How do you explain this contrast?
Ukrainians go to the streets and fight not for the EU; they fight for better prospects for their country – for a country without corruption, selective justice, for a country that is modern and able to compete in the world, for a country that cherishes democratic values, the rule of law and makes independent decisions.
The rising mistrust among the people in the EU is related to the economic crisis and the lack of jobs. It is natural that people are disappointed and want the political leadership to immediately resolve their problems. But it is first of all the responsibility of each separate member state. It is easier to blame somebody from the outside than to understand that everything is in your own hands.
In 2008, as European commissioner for financial programming and the budget, you spoke about the need for the EU to give more emphasis to growth and job creation. Five years later, we are still having the same discussion in the EU. Where have we gone wrong?
It is a long way and much has already been done. Economic growth and jobs are the drivers of economic prosperity and will be also crucial in the future. Decisions that are taken at the EU level are usually not very quick and this could influence the process of implementing necessary reforms.
It is first of all the responsibility of the political leadership in each EU member state to take decisions on time and implement initiatives properly. We have many measures on the EU level, but everyone should solve their problems first in own backyard. The EU can help to do that, but the driving force must come from inside each country.
Greece is desperate for growth. The Lithuanian economy went through a particularly difficult patch recently due to the financial crisis. Are you convinced Greece can recover as your country has done?
Lithuania understands the challenges that Greece is facing and the burden of austerity measures on your society. We also see the Greek determination and good results. Joint efforts are of course needed as the economies in Europe are interlinked. However, it highly depends on your will to recover. First of all, austerity measures are necessary, but society should know that these measures are temporary and the country is on the way back to normal. It is crucial to explain to people what must be unavoidably done and why. And of course politicians should show a personal example.
Were the austerity-driven programs in the eurozone countries in crisis the right response? And is the troika the right model for the euro area to manage its economic difficulties?
Stability in the EU and eurozone is a key factor for long-term prosperity. Austerity is important; moreover, it is necessary for financial stability. The Lithuanian case shows that austerity-driven policy is the right way out of the crisis, but austerity measures must always be combined with stimulus. It is up to each member state to choose what tactics to use, but if it is not capable of solving its problems by itself, the troika is the right model.