MEP Leonidas Donskis is a Lithuanian philosopher, political commentator and one of the leading human rights and civil liberties advocates at the European Parliament. A member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), he takes part in the European Parliament Committee on Development and Subcommittee on Human Rights, as well as in the Delegation to the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly. He kindly accepted to share with us his views on the Lithuanian Presidency, its ambitions and priorities.
Nouvelle Europe: What is Lithuania's place in the EU today and how can it achieve a successful Presidency?
MEP Leonidas Donskis: Lithuania is a small country but sets itself ambitious goals. It is the first former Soviet Republic to hold the Presidency and as such, it sees these six months as a real opportunity to play an important role and influence the course of EU politics. At the beginning, Lithuania and most of the countries that joined the EU in 2004 were considered as « users » of the EU's soft power. For the first time, Lithuania has the opportunity to show that it can also provide leadership. It does have a foreign policy and a vision for the EU.
Lithuania can also rely on important « lessons learnt » from its first years as an EU member. We know how to work with big countries. We will take their interests into account while trying to accommodate the sensitivities of smaller EU members.
How can the Lithuanian Presidency contribute to the progress of the Eastern Partnership?
I believe that Lithuania has an important role to play in enhancing the Eastern Partnership and achieving important milestones in the process. Very early, Lithuania positioned itself in favour of stronger relations with the Eastern neighbourhood. This is due first to historical reasons, as Lithuania and Ukraine in particular were part of the same Commonwealth and have developed ties that are deeply rooted in a common past. In addition, Lithuania was the first of the Soviet Republics to declare its independence and break away from the USSR. As a result, Lithuania is strongly attached to democracy and wants to support democratic movements in neighbouring countries. It feels a sense of solidarity with democratic movements in Ukraine today, as it was itself at the forefront of the democratic revolution at the end of the 1980s.
Beyond historic reasons, Lithuania also wants to give talented countries such as Ukraine a chance to get closer to the EU and potentially enter it. Ukraine is far from perfect as there is a lot of corruption and the Timochenko case is definitely a blatant case of selective justice. However, we should not equate the Ukrainian nation with its political class. While it is true that there are few genuine democrats in the Ukrainian political class, human and basic rights are much more respected in Ukraine than in Russia for example.
How do countries of the European neighbourhood perceive the Eastern Partnership?
The Association Agreement is not about immediate accession, but it gives these countries prospects of getting closer to the EU and hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. This represents a symbolic but pivotal achievement for democratic forces in countries of the Eastern Partnership. Of course concerns expressed by France and Germany in particular regarding the Timochenko case in Ukraine are understandable. The best solution would be for Viktor Ianoukovytch to allow Iulia Timochenko to leave the country and go to Germany for example. A bad move would be for Germany and France to ask the Ukrainian court to change its ruling. Ukrainians are aware that a solution needs to be found to this issue. Achieving this agreement with the EU is a matter of prestige for the political class, but economic considerations also play a role. European funds are badly needed in the region.
How do you see the role of Russia in the region?
By blackmailing countries of the Eastern partnership, Russia is not doing itself a service. Ukraine in particular is strong enough to ignore Russian pressure. For me, Russia needs Ukraine much more than Ukraine needs Russia. Russia's attitude towards Ukraine is shaped by its nostalgia of a « huge state ». Russia still sees Ukraine as a great power and cannot conceive a Russian « empire » without Ukraine. This relationship is based on much more than just pragmatic interest.
And towards the EU?
Historically, Russia has always managed to base its foreign policy on bilateral relations and the principle of « divide and rule ». This time, with the EU as interlocutor, this is proving extremely difficult. I wouldn't say that there is a fully-fledged European policy towards Russia as there are still divergences between EU countries regarding the position that needs to be adopted on a certain number of issues. There is still room for improvement, in particular for big countries. In particular, countries such as Lithuania would sometimes appreciate a bit more consideration for their positions and interests. However, we increasingly witness a tendency for member states to rely on Brussels when there is disagreement with Russia on certain issues. The EU policy towards Russia is definitely more consolidated now than it used to be.
What are Lithuania's views on the crisis and on the future of European integration?
Lithuania is not a Eurosceptic country. Intellectuals are generally very pro-European and Eurosceptics are quite easy to defeat in the public debate. Lithuania therefore supports further integration between EU countries and is still willing to join the Eurozone in 2015 for example. For Lithuanians, the European project is not a threat to a newly-acquired sovereignty. Nothing is threatening the Lithuanian identity and it is actually the European integration process that helped us overcome our insecurities and fears linked to our historic position between Germany and Russia. For Lithuania, further integration is also synonymous with enlargement. It was impossible to think in 1989 that the Baltic States would one day be part of the European Community, but it is now the case. We want other countries to follow this path and experience a similar transition. If the Vilnius summit does not lead to a « yes » to Ukraine, this will be seen as a very disappointing result for Lithuania. The EU Council would probably praise us for the effort, but from both an internal and external point of view, this would represent a bitter disappointment.
Looking ahead, there is a clear need for the EU to consolidate its position on key issues. We need to agree on basic principles, i.e. what shouldn't be negotiable, such as human rights, human dignity and human life. Beyond issues such as military power versus soft power, we need to define basic principles of foreign policy that are not up for negotiation. The Syrian crisis blatantly showed the lack of a coherent EU voice. We need to make sure that we take stock of current limitations and that we commit to a core set of values that cannot be put into question in our relations with third countries.
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Source picture: flickr