Linkevičius: 2016 will test European unity

Linas Linkevičius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

Vladimiras Laučius: Some believe that the European Council, which represents the interests of the EU’s member states, is being pushed out of some important decision-making processes. The European Commission, which is being led by Jean-Claude Juncker and is heavily influenced by Germany, is said to be trying to take over some of the Council’s influence. Some politicians are afraid that, as the power to make decisions slides out of the European Council’s grasp, the voices of weaker EU member states will no longer be heard. Have you noticed such a tendency?

Linas Linkevičius: One’s office doesn’t always determine how influential someone is. There are individuals with tendencies, weaknesses and strengths. Objectively, I’d have to say that the Commission’s leaders feel elected. This is because, in the European Parliament, various positions were delegated according to political groups, with votes. In a certain sense, they don’t feel like parliamentarians, but not like bureaucrats, either. That’s my conclusion.

It is often the case that things that are theoretically possible aren’t actually done. Let’s take the recent example – when the European Council’s will was ignored regarding the implementation of a permanent mechanism for the distribution of refugees. During a meeting, the leaders decided against the implementation of such a mechanism and wanted to preserve the principle of voluntary movement. The Commission, however, offered a mechanism showing what sort of criteria this must be done with.

They openly ignored the European Council’s position. You can draw certain conclusions from that. However, it’s a process, and I can’t imagine any decisions that would tread on or ignore nations’ sovereign rights – especially with the tense situation now. On the contrary, we’re seeing some countries identify their national interests without considering our common policies. I won’t name examples, but there are many. That’s also a tendency.

– You mentioned that the president of the Commission feels elected. But the citizens of European nations should feel much closer to the leaders that represent them in the European Council rather than to the Commission’s president, who was chosen by people about whom we know almost nothing, whom we didn’t choose and with whom we have no common business.

– I specifically said that the Commission’s president “feels” that way. Sometimes, people feel like they’ve been asked to speak, and when they meet you, they start telling you something despite the fact that you don’t have time to listen. But they still feel like they’ve been asked to speak.

Generally, you’re right, and this would be a good opportunity to remind you about the complaints often raised by British Prime Minister David Cameron. You could agree with some of those complaints, but then there’s another question – how do you deal with the problems that arise? How do we fill the gap between Europe’s citizens and institutions? Indeed, few know what those institutions actually do. Even fewer know about their competencies and powers. So what can we say, then, about their leaders and how they feel?

We’ve spoken much about the fact that Europe must feel an internal motivation to unify itself. Europeans must feel like they are in charge of their home. There must be a European identity.

– How could such a thing appear?

– That’s up to politicians. We say, after all, that we want to consolidate Europe. In the global market, the EU is one of the most important players. This forms a lion’s share of the economy, GDP, and even dictates trends. In order for this global player to remain effective and competitive, it must consolidate, not fracture itself. That means we have to develop a common identity, and people have to feel its advantages. Now that questions regarding migration have arisen, many want to solve them individually. This is why 2016 will be a trial for the EU, or even for the Schengen zone.

– In EU institutions and Germany’s chancellor’s service, the creation of a “little Schengen” zone is sometimes discussed. Not only would the zone exclude countries like Greece that flout the Schengen agreement’s rules regarding borders, but it would also exclude some Central-Eastern European nations that refuse to accept policies for mass migration acceptance. Could the “little Schengen” zone become a reality?

– I don’t think this is being seriously considered, though such things have always arisen. This sort of fracturing, when different zones appear, would be the beginning of the end for that larger unit. It wouldn’t be a step back, it would be destruction. Of course, these things can be discussed, but I can’t imagine how it would be possible to seriously consider such a model.

– Some EU politicians, like the Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte, also mention potential financial “sanctions” for uncooperative countries that would be so painful that stubborn nations would wise up and behave the way they are being told to. What do you think about statements threatening “sanctions” for Central-Eastern Europe?

– If we’re talking about sovereign states’ rights to solve and argue for their most important matters, they cannot be blackmailed. The quality of life throughout the EU isn’t the same, and some countries are more developed than others. However, by creating a common market and allowing the free movement of labour, we make all of Europe stronger. If we renege, we will simply destroy what we’ve created. That logic might be emotionally understandable, but it’s flawed.

– You’ve said three things: that “sanctions” shouldn’t be used as blackmail, that the European Commission shouldn’t take power away from the European Council, and that the “little Schengen” should not be created. But are there any chances that even one of these three undesirable tendencies could develop further?

– All three of them could develop further. I don’t think that should be the case, but I’m not saying that it won’t be. Much will depend on European organizations and on the wisdom of individual nations. The more participants in the union there are, the more difficult it gets to maintain a peaceful consensus.

– Berlin is saying that it will attempt to include EU member states in the distribution of migrants. Germany is negotiating with Turkey to obligate it to control its borders more strictly, and the EU’s member states will have to distribute up to half a million new refugees. How long will the peaceful consensus you mentioned remain when faced with such conditions?

– The distribution of mandatory assignments is not viable. In this situation, we are speaking without hearing what we’re saying. We’re saying that those refugees aren’t suitcases or cargo that you register and ship to a specific point. They go where they want. They are living people with their own opinions. Even if they aren’t war refugees and are simply looking for a better life, they have the right to do that. We must consider this.

On the other hand, you can say what you want, but these people are running to Germany and Sweden. Not to Austria or Hungary. So what sort of mandatory distribution can we even consider? They can be mandatory only if someone is truly running from war, if they need help and cannot choose – they must go where they are told. If this mechanism works, we will participate in it, but if millions want to relocate, they will begin a great movement of nations that we, Europeans, are not ready for.

– Berlin’s policies are making the countries of Visegrad ever more upset. When the teams of Poland and Germany met, the fans raised a poster that read, “defend your women, not our democracy.” This represents the growing tensions between Poland and Germany, which tolerates streets filled with raging migrants. Angela Merkel is receiving more and more criticism within her own country. What is Lithuania orienting itself towards?

– I think that both Lithuania and Germany need to use their hearts and their minds when trying to solve this problem. If you only follow your heart, only Christ’s compassion – to help all who ask… Of course you have to help, but that has to be done intelligently as well, because there will be chaos otherwise. The problem arises when there is no more balance between these two factors.

In Lithuania, we shouldn’t turn away from others’ pain and misfortune simply because we are far from that region or “path.” Such an approach would be both immoral and bad for Lithuania, because Lithuania often needs help as well. There have been times in the past when we needed help.

You must have a heart, but you must also have a brain: we must help as much as we can, but not as much as we can’t. We must first gain some experience and shoulder a burden we can bear, not something larger.

– Members of both the conservatives and the social democrats have been Lithuanian Ministers of Foreign Affairs. How would your policies, as a minister representing the political left, differ from the policies of, say, your conservative predecessor?

– I’ve also been the Minister of National Defence. In a nation’s economic, social, healthcare and other fields, there will always be disagreements between various political forces. However, there’s a certain glue when it comes to defence and safety policies – there has to be a consensus and a long-term vision. We must seek a common basis. At least in certain aspects, I think we’ve been successful in that since 1994, when we created the foundational National Safety laws.

It’s important to have opinions, but it is a great privilege to see that consolidated factor as well. I think that that’s how foreign policy should be. I don’t agree with those who say that there can be right or left foreign policy. There is simply a national foreign policy – it must have continuity and it must be predictable, because that’s how our partners will value us.

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