Lithuania faces record legislative load for EU presidency
Lithuania, a country of three million people bordering Poland, Latvia, Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, will take over the rotating EU presidency on 1 July.
"It won't be a surprise that our main priorities will mainly reflect the situation in Europe's economy," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told this website.
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"We inherited a lot of issues. About 80 percent of our agenda will be mainly questions about the European economy, the European level of integration, growth and jobs and the free trade agreement with the US," she added.
A record 563 dossiers are currently in the legislative pipeline and have to be managed by the Lithuanian presidency. The next EU budget for 2014-2020 requires 75 separate bills alone to come into force as planned on 1 January.
With European elections scheduled in May 2014, most legislation has to be adopted during the second half of this year, as the European Parliament will have only three months left to work next year.
"In addition to all of this, the 'Lithuanian flavour' will be the Eastern Partnership, the Baltic Sea Strategy and external borders. In the Eastern Partnership, we seek to finalise association agreements with some states, including Ukraine," Grybauskaite said.
Through the Eastern Partnership, the EU is seeking closer relations and ultimately visa-free travel and free trade with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and, in the more distant future, Lithuania's neighbour Belarus.
Lithuania will host an Eastern Partnership summit in November. Andrius Krivas, Lithuania's vice foreign minister in charge of eastern relations, said the Vilnius event will be the "most important event of the ones hosted in Lithuania, as it happens only once in two years."
A highlight of the event would be for Ukraine to sign a so-called association agreement with the EU. "But the rotating presidency is not the only part in charge, decisions are made by member states and work also has to be done in Ukraine," Krivas said.
The main sticking point is what the EU calls "selective justice", the most prominent case being that of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, jailed for alleged corruption for signing off gas contracts with Russia.
"The Ukrainian government has made some gestures recently with the release of two former ministers, along with other individuals. This is a positive sign, but EU member states continue to draw attention to the last case of selective justice: Yulia Tymoshenko," Krivas added.
Lithuania is also keen on improving EU relations with neighbouring Belarus, where the autocratic regime of Alexander Lukashenko is still subject to EU sanctions.
"Political prisoners are the most important issue that has to be solved in order to resume EU-Belarus relations," Krivas said. The will of the Belarusian diplomacy to resume ties with the EU seems to be "genuine," the Lithuanian diplomat said. But he admitted that there are "elements of both" predictable and erratic behaviour to the Lukashenko regime.
"We always stress the importance of what they have to do for Belarus to become a fully-fledged member of the Eastern Partnership," he added.
Even on a bilateral level, relations between Lithuania and Belarus are odd. A local border agreement allowing people from neighbouring villages divided by the Schengen border to travel visa-free within a 50km range, including to the Lithuanian capital, was signed three years ago, but never enacted because the Belarusian side did not implement all the necessary requirements.
In addition, Ales Bialatski, one of the political prisoners in Minsk was jailed due to a Lithuanian blunder, as his name was transmitted by the Lithuanian ministry of justice after Belarusians asked if he held any foreign accounts for his human rights NGO.
"It was a blatant mis-coordination between Lithuanian authorities. The person in question realised her responsibility and stepped down from the ministry of justice," Krivas said. Procedures have since been tightened so no other ministry sends any information to Belarus without the foreign ministry first double-checking the data.
"But of course, Bialatski is still in prison. He is one of the 12 political prisoners we constantly insist has to be released," Krivas said.
With a budget of €62 million, the Lithuanian presidency is keeping spending relatively modest. Neighbouring Poland, by contrast, spent a whopping €115 million when it held the six-month EU chairmanship in 2011.
"We are very excited and enthusiastic for chairing our first presidency, but we are also realistic. Underpromised - overdelivered, that's my motto," said Vytautas Leskevicius, the deputy foreign minister in charge of the EU presidency.
He said the model of presidency they are adopting is a "Brussels-based presidency," meaning giving Brussels-based diplomats a maximum of leeway to negotiate and act on the 563 files to be tackled.
"Since the Lisbon Treaty was adopted, no EU presidency has had that many dossiers on their table. We tripled our staff in Brussels, we now have some 200 people there, not only diplomats, also special attaches who are experts on various files, coming from the respective ministries," Leskevicius said.