EU must 'strengthen' partnership with eastern countries

'Poor integration' of eastern Europe into 'critical' EU infrastructure has been highlighted by events in Crimea, says Algirdas Butkevičius

By Algirdas Butkevicius

28 Apr 2014

When I hear a question about Europe's vision for the near future, it always comes to my mind that there is only a little over five years for the Europe 2020 strategy to be completed. We have to take careful stock of the progress achieved in terms of the objectives of individual European Union member states. As regards Lithuania, the government is fully supportive of the EU progress programme, and is actively involved in its implementation, while focusing on better quality of education and alleviation of social exclusion. This is of equal relevance for both Lithuania, as well as the entire EU, as we move towards our ever more effective competition in global markets. The global financial downturn has in many respects adversely affected the European population. Unemployment has touched the lives of millions of people, particularly the most vulnerable social groups, including the youth. Despite the efforts and adjusted targets of the national authorities, it is clear that the restoration of public confidence in the financial sector and government must be preceded by calls for increased efforts to reach out to the most disadvantaged. Therefore, I believe that Europe 2020 objectives related to better quality in education have acquired a particular importance. Improved education will produce an increased number of market-required professionals, who will be able to find a job and provide for a dignified life for both themselves, as well as their families.

History has shown that the social democrats have always aspired for all-embracing social welfare, higher quality employment and a better life for everyone living in socially just societies. The European left-wing have paved the way for a welfare state, universal access to education and healthcare and equal rights for all, that's why I think that, in the near future, Europe must become more left-facing. When Lithuania joined the EU in 2004, the Lithuanian population were among the most enthusiastic supporters of the European Union. However, the public attitude has been changing over the 10 years of Lithuania's membership. Just to compare, in 2004 it was two-thirds of Lithuanians who said that European Union's image was positive. While now only four in 10 respondents say so. It is possible that the Lithuanians have gotten rid of unfounded expectations that EU membership will solve domestic problems, ensure economic prosperity and social protection. In this respect, Lithuanians are becoming like the people in the old EU member states, who have a more sceptical attitude towards the EU. I hope that all EU states do their best to increase the involvement of citizens in union's processes. Obviously, not all avenues have been exploited in order to raise voter turnout in European parliament elections, and the overall public participation in EU decision making.

"Despite the efforts and adjusted targets of the national authorities, it is clear that the restoration of public confidence in the financial sector and government must be preceded by calls for increased efforts to reach out to the most disadvantaged"

At the beginning of the EU, the Marshall plan funding was primarily used for the restoration of transport infrastructure. The destruction of the roads, bridges and ports in the second world war prevented the development of the European economy, and this became the first priority to be attended to. Today, more than 60 years from the final disbursement of the Marshall funds, the EU still has some countries whose transport and energy systems are not properly joined with the western European network. Like France or Benelux after the war, who were not able to become fully-fledged European countries without the restored roads, railways and ports, today's Baltic states are prevented from full integration into the European family without adequate critical infrastructure. Poor integration into the European logistics network is not the only problem of the new European Union states. The Baltic states still remain as energy islands, entirely dependent on a single supplier in Russia. In the context of the recent events in Ukraine, the need to advance diversification processes has become extremely urgent.

This year, we will be celebrating a quarter of a century from the fall of the Berlin wall. Over these 25 years, we believed that we turned a new page not only in the history of Europe, but also of the world, promising us a joy of ever stronger peaceful cohabitation among the countries. What we witness in Crimea, which is in close proximity to European Union borders, raises great concern. Therefore, I am firmly convinced that the EU must strengthen the eastern partnership programme and provide a clear action plan for countries that are willing to comply with EU standards. I want to believe that it will not take five years and that the eastern neighbourhood countries will not have to make a choice between east and west. Their target will be clear and guaranteed - that is a strong partnership with the European Union. Let me conclude by wishing us all in Europe more optimism, solidarity and openness.

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