(Non)Lithuanian foreign policy accents on the other side of the new year

Audronius Ažubalis. Photo Žygimantas Gedvila, 15min

Following the end of the year, three foreign policy events would be good to discuss, having one way or another been significant to Lithuanian interests. By my subjective evaluation, they have been insufficiently showcased to broader audiences, certain dubious aspects of these events have not been disclosed, Audronius Ažubalis writes.

First of all, I am talking about the agreement reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union after nearly ten months of negotiations on trade relations after Brexit.

In a joint session of the European affairs and foreign affairs committees of the Seimas on December 29 last year, it was planned to introduce us, politicians in Seimas, with the negotiations results in regards to EU-UK trade and relations, classified information security and exchanges, cooperation for the safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy agreements and their temporary application. What was notable is that almost all EU national parliaments were “advised” due to a lack of time to trust the European Commission and European Council’s Declaration that a situation will never again repeat where agreements, as in this case between the EU and UK, would not be deliberated on in national parliaments.

Questions arise on how in this specific case, two months were set aside for such deliberations in exclusively in the European Parliament though everyone clearly understands that negotiations questions involve not only the EU’s exclusive but also mixed (shared) competence, ergo – areas where national parliaments have the right to deliberate on questions and offer recommendations or opinions.

The EU’s jurists base this in how the agreements do not include provisions related exclusively to national member state competences, the agreement can be ratified by solely the EP. Of course, we trust the new Lithuanian government, which gave approval to the agreements on December 28, but none of the responsible state officials answered a simple question – who approved (issued a mandate?) that the Seimas would suffice to receive an assurance that the agreements are “ok” and that the national legislative institution can be circumvented? Whether you like it or not, the situation, even if remotely, is akin to the early voting of the Lithuanian Seimas in the year 2005 on the agreement on a European Constitution…

This year presented before the politicians of the Lithuanian Seimas another rather unpleasant surprise – the near concluded EU – China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). The European Commission (and primarily – Germany, which holds the EU presidency) sought and was able to achieve that agreement was reached for such a deal at the highest – head of state – level on December 30, 2020. This urgency being demonstrated by the presidency country is explained in that it is likely the largest benefit from the agreement’s investments falls in the automotive, transport equipment, telecommunication equipment, chemical and textile sectors.

Based on data from 2019 presented on the UN COMTRADE international trade database, German exports to China reached 108.32 billion US dollars, with the most prevalent areas being vehicles, mechanical equipment and electronics. French exports to China reached 23.44 billion US dollars, with a particular focus on vehicles and mechanical equipment.

Germany and France have to hurry and make use of Chinese “concessions” also because there is no real news on whether the new Joe Biden administration won’t follow Donald Trump’s footsteps, trying to equalise trade tariffs with the EU, which have, for a long time, allowed EU countries, export leaders to the USA, to live, in part, at the expense of the “big brother.” German exports to the USA, based on the aforementioned source, reached 133 billion US dollars, French exports – 47 billion US dollars. To compare – the oft mentioned, 10% car export tariff to the EU and 2.5% car export tariff going from to the EU to the US… Thus, it comes as no surprise that Germany views the EU – China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment as a core priority of its EU presidency.

So where is Lithuania and its interests in all of this? One can only conclude that in this stage of negotiations, Lithuania’s position was not sufficiently heeded (or at least the position was not clearly articulated and defended by the previous government) and so, our country has three reservations in this deal’s provisions because opening the EU energy sector would allow Chinese investors to establish companies whose operations could be related to retail or wholesale of electricity. In consideration of how a significant amount of electricity in our region is imported from third countries, Lithuania is seeking specific reserve in terms of access to its electricity market when it comes to third countries, which operate unsafe nuclear power plants. While the importance of the question is undeniable for the energy sector, Lithuania faces significant pressure from the EU to abandon its stance related to the so-called anti-Astravyets law.

In general, the impression is that the bloc of interested EU countries is doing its all to “hammer a nail” into the new Joe Biden administration just as it is forming. Perhaps in the expectation that this will ensure something of an advantage in future political negotiations on trade relations with the USA. However, it might happen as did for the Australians five years ago, who signed a free trade pact with China, but now finds itself on the brink of a trade war with China, one that might cost the country-continent 6% of its GDP.

Michael Shoebridge, the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Defence, Strategy and National Security Programme, also questions how much Beijing’s signature is worth, noting that China “has never upheld its commitments and does not intend to… other countries simply cannot trust the Chinese government to uphold its commitments. The best evidence of this is the case of Hong Kong – in 1984, China signed an agreement and then simply breached its commitments. In consideration of breaches of the agreement on the South China Sea, obvious breaches of the free trade pact with Australia – other countries and businesses must realise that it is not possible to trust Chinese commitments.”

Some might say that the EU is not Australia and will be able to force China to adhere to the deal. At this stage, the deal will encompass only the aspect of opening markets, both the complex drafting of a final text awaits, as well as a second stage pertaining to investment protection and so, negotiations will continue and some control can be expected. However, considering that Brussels isn’t able to pressure even the economically “sickly” communist Cuba, which constantly breaches the EU-Cuba deal signed in 2016, to uphold its commitments, serious doubts emerge on chances to ensure that China adheres to human rights and other agreements.

In an environment of such moods and at the same time, expected negative consequences for Lithuania, the silence maintained by S. Skvernelis’ government over the EU-China agreement looks poor. Responsibility in this case also falls on the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius, who never did find either the time or desire to adequately inform politicians in Seimas about the progression of negotiations. When I say inform, I do not mean saying “everything’s fine, but there are some minor challenges”, with such a global scale deal nearing. Today, one thing is clear – already two-three years ago, we should have engaged in serious diplomatic action at various EU and regional levels.

Meanwhile, at this point, Lithuanian politicians in Seimas once again are faced with a bygone fact. True, the exceptional joint sitting of the foreign affairs and national security and defence committees in Seimas initiated by the ruling bloc and the political decisions and recommendations made during it, I believe, to a certain degree will help the new cabinet resist the European China “fan club’s” pressure.

We conclude the year with a report by the NATO Expert Group, introduced to the NATO secretary-general in the NATO 2030 format. While Hubert Vedrine, former French foreign minister appointed by E. Macron to the NATO expert group, when evaluating the results, thanked the French president for “kicking the anthill” (in reference to last year’s statement about “NATO’s brain death”), saying that if not for E. Macron, NATO would continue celebrating its effectiveness and continue calls for Europe to pay more (??? – A. Ažubalis). This valuation only serves to prove that the report leaves much room for everyone to interpret it as they find convenient.

The NATO Expert Group report segment on open door policy only says that such a policy must remain, but you can’t find any “kicking the anthill” in it – a courageous, visionary thought on how it is now time to unambiguously prepare to invite for full-fledged NATO membership countries, which could fundamentally – globally – help strengthen Euro-Atlantic civilisation. With this, I mean Sweden, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. This is essential in response to NATO’s own aim to better adapt to the rapidly transforming security environment. It is futile to plan for a secure future and global role for NATO without abandoning old mantras about the perennially open doors of NATO while fearing expansion. While the same report emphasises that China does not pose the same military threat to the Euro-Atlantic space as does Russia, at the same time, Russia is introduced in the report as a country with whom matters must be settled by arming and supporting “increased political ties” with Moscow…

The 1967 Harmel Report method quoted and presented in the new report has already cost thousands of Ukrainian and Georgian lives… Thus, in this case, I can only conclude that the report’s authors/experts lack the courage to state that both China and Russia are equally dangerous. Unfortunately, such circumstances remind and well reflect the alliance’s only “sensitivity” to saying what you see.

I hope that this report is merely a jumping-off point for serious discussions, the sort we can expect at the NATO summit meeting in early 2021. I hope that comprehensive discussions of it will allow state leaders to avoid ambiguities and detachment from reality…

Thus, facing Chinese and Russian power on the international area, as well as the “sensitivities” of the North Atlantic Alliance and the European Union, we must ourselves strengthen capacities ensuring Lithuania’s economic and hard security and communicate without sugar-coating our key views to NATO and EU partners without fearing, if need be, to stand alone, blocking decisions that threaten Lithuania. Remember how in April 2008, with just two months to the EU-Russia summit meeting, Lithuania dared and vetoed the Russia negotiation mandate. As a result – four questions that were important to Lithuania were included in the negotiations.

Geopolitics based on common values and solidarity is the main principle of Lithuanian foreign policy and so, we must create the futures of the North Atlantic Alliance and European Union as equal partners. The aforementioned negotiations and clashes of views in the report indicate that Lithuania cannot naively expect favour in advance from any “core”, be it NATO or the EU. We must seek not favour but understanding, which would allow us to return and emplace in transatlantic and European policy our legitimate national interests so that we may remain a nation and a state.

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