Members gathered at the Watermill Inn near Dorking for another of our popular lunches on August 28th. Our guest was the Lithuanian Ambassador to the UK, Mrs Asta Skaisgirytė-Liauškienė, and she gave us a most informative, relaxed and extremely enjoyable talk on her country and the work they are doing while holding the six-month Presidency of the EU Council.
After EU membership of nine years, Lithuania took over the Presidency on 1 July 2013. This coincided with the entry of Croatia as the EU’s 28th member. The six months of a Presidency add considerably to the work load of the relevant embassy and we were therefore delighted when Mrs Skaisgirytė-Liauškienė nevertheless accepted our invitation to speak.
The Ambassador began with an overview of her country and its current position within Europe. The largest of the three Baltic States with a population of 3 million, Lithuania‘s home market is the Nordic-Baltic region of 35 million; most inward investment is from the Nordic countries and the banking is all Scandinavian. In 2010, at David Cameron‘s behest, the UK joined the five Nordic and three Baltic countries to form the UK-Nordic-Baltic Forum, renamed in 2012 as the Northern Future Forum; at the meeting in 2013 in Riga, the discussions revolved around the digital revolution and the green economy. Lithuania‘s economy is recovering from the economic crisis of 2009 and growth this year is estimated at 3%, with trade booming. Prior to the EU Presidency, Lithuania was President of the Community of Democracies in 2008 and of the OSCE in 2011. In noting that Latvia will be President in 2015 and Estonia in 2018, Mrs Skaisgirytė-Liauškienė pointed out that the UK will have the Presidency in 2017, the year much talked about for a possible referendum on UK membership!
Links between the UK and Lithuania go back to the marriage of Richard II and Queen Ann, a Lithuanian. More recently, the UK recognised the Republic of Lithuania in 1922 and maintained diplomatic continuity throughout the Soviet occupation, restoring full diplomatic relations in 1991. There have been several royal visits to Lithuania, including the Queen‘s in 2006, and Presidential visits to the UK. In the interwar years, the UK was the first export destination for Lithuania, and now ranks fifth. Trade relations are strong and the two countries share a free market, free trade ethos. Unemployment levels in both countries are similar as is the youth unemployment rate of about 20%.
The Ambassador then turned to issues of the Presidency and the three main priorities summarised as Credible Europe (strengthening the European economy, promoting trust and expanding the banking union), Growing Europe (more jobs and a stronger single market – the Ambassador noted that there was still no single energy market – and a stronger multi-annual financial framework), and Open Europe (strengthening Europe in global markets through more free trade agreements, eg with the USA and with Japan). Other issues are energy security and the Eastern Partnership, particularly trade relations with Ukraine. Mrs Skaisgirytė-Liauškienė then summarised forthcoming events in the UK including round tables on banking, professional qualifications, food standards, transatlantic relations and energy security, along with cultural events that include a robot festival in collaboration with the Science Museum in London. Details can be found on the embassy website:
Question (Q) What are current relations like between Lithuania and Russia?
Answer (A) Overall the approach is a pragmatic one. The Russian minority in Lithuania is second only to that of the Poles, and the Russians are well integrated. There is good co-operation with Russia on cross border issues including communications and smuggling, but there remain different interpretations of history that are more intractable
Q how is Lithuania‘s chequered history presented to children?
A with an emphasis on nourishing and protecting the freedom gained, being vigilant and never taking things for granted
Q what about relations with Poland?
A rather like those of a married couple : love/hate! But seriously, the relationship is OK and is on the basis of both being members of the EU and of NATO – there is no separate bilateral relationship. Interestingly, it is Polish jets that protect Lithuanian airspace
Q and Kaliningrad?
A people there think of themselves as “Euro-Russians“, ie somewhat detached from the Motherland. This is not the view of the Kremlin but the appointment of a local as Governor indicates a softening of policy
Q what are Lithuania‘s main exports?
A oil (refining imported crude), high-tech (nano and bio industries) and foodstuffs (mainly to neighbouring countries)
Q why is the Presidency only six months? Is this not both expensive and a bit frustrating?
A agreed! Especially July-December which covers both summer and Christmas holidays, so only 4-5 months of real work. This is what makes the Trio so important, working with the previous President and the next incumbent (Ireland and Greece in Lithuania‘s case, giving it 18 months‘ involvement)
Q What is Lithuania‘s stance on the Euro?
A Lithuania wants to join the Euro, already meets the criteria and plans to adopt it in 2015. Mrs Skaisgirytė-Liauškienė emphasised her view that the Eurocrisis was not one of the currency per se but rather the result of poor management and inadequate control of expenditure and budgets. Over the last 2 years, attempts have been made to tighten rules, not appreciated by all governments (cites Greece as an example)
Q Why does the Ambassador think we Brits are so hung up about Europe?
A The UK has a rich cultural heritage which the ambassador admires, but maybe is a bit too pragmatic in terms of the EU, cherrypicking the good things while blaming Brussels for things which are more difficult. In the Ambassador‘s view, other countries value solidarity more and understand that some sacrifices have to be made for gains in other areas
Q is there an anti-EU movement in Lithuania
A in any EU country there are people who dislike the EU for whatever reason, but in Lithuania the overwhelming majority are in favour. The vote to enter the EU was 75% in favour and even now pro-Europeans poll 60-65%. Anti-European sentiment is not a pressure point.
Q what is the importance of the legacy of the Soviet rail gauge on communications between the Baltic States and the rest of the EU?
A This is an issue which the Rail-Baltica project seeks to address. Eventually there will be standard European gauge (ie narrower than the Soviet gauge) connections between Warsaw and Tallinn, with onward connection by ferry and possibly tunnel to Helsinki. Currently there is a section from the Polish - Lithuanian border to Kaunas being built.
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