Interview: Lithuanian Ambassador on EU Presidency, Baltic Unity and Nuclear Families
ERR correspondent Marina Giro spoke to the Lithuanian Ambassador in Estonia, Neilas Tankevičius.
The spirit of this small embassy (it only has four people working there – the ambassador, consul, secretary and driver) is cozy and very hospitable. Situated on Uus street in Tallinn’s Old Town, in a historical building that adjoins part of the old city wall, the building received a distinctive touch during recent renovation – a floor done in the colors of the Estonian and Lithuanian flags.
What are the biggest Lithuanian success stories in Estonia?
I would say there are many success stories and probably the oldest success story from 1990s is that of Vičiūnai. It was started in Estonia and started to produce refrigerated crab fingers. This product became very popular throughout the Baltics. Later they expanded their business to Lithuania and other European countries, and Russia as well. I would say Vičiūnai is both a Lithuanian success story in Estonia and an Estonian success story in Lithuania.
Maxima is another one of the biggest success stories. It is a success story that is still unfolding, a success which started in Lithuania and expanded to Latvia, Estonia and other countries. There are several Maxima shops opening every year and it seems like Estonian consumers like the service they find in Maxima stores: prices, product, quality. And the ethos: a few weeks ago Estonians conducted research into what margins supermarkets charge for their product and they found that Maxima takes the smallest cut.
As for the third success story, I would say that not many people in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania realize we are one economic market – you could go to a supermarket and find products with labelling at least at three languages: Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, could be also English, Russian, some other languages. It doesn’t matter if it is Rimi in Lithuania or Maxima in Estonia – you can still find products labelling in in Lithuanian or Estonian.
What can Estonia learn from Lithuania?
We are learning every day, this is one thing I realized when I came to Estonia: Estonians are flattered to hear they have a good image in Lithuania but there are a lot of things that Estonia learns from Lithuania every day: sometimes we break through here or there and Estonians see it, take it, use. Throughout the EU integration between the three Baltic states, we were always comparing notes on how to do things better. It is very difficult to identify what Estonia learns from Lithuania or Lithuania from Estonia. For example, in the case of implementing certain laws at certain times, those laws were different in Estonia, but Estonia thought that the Lithuanian system for implementing laws was better in Lithuania so Estonia also chose that way. So we are going the same way, for example the economic crisis of 2009-2010. It is very difficult to say who learned from whom: all three Baltic States had similar ways, there are differences but three prime ministers were learning from each other and I would say it is teamwork between three countries.
Former Lithuanian Minister of Finance Ingrida Šimonytė brought up Estonia’s balanced budget recently? Maybe Latvians took example from us, but Estonia was in the front?
I would say it is not about crisis itself - there were different fiscal and economic policies which were implemented through several years and Estonians adopted the attitude that budget should be more balanced than it was in Latvia or Lithuania. The budget deficit was smaller but when the crisis came, it was quite a severe economic crisis for the three Baltic States. Estonia had reserves. Otherwise many of the tools implemented during the crisis were similar and the results were similar as well. Now the three Baltic states are the quickest growing economies in European Union. We can just compare what is Latvia or Lithuania growing faster, Estonia was growing faster last year, will be growing comparable speed with Latvia and Lithuania next year. One of the things that we do – Lithuania currently holds the presidency of European Union and this preparation process started very long time ago – in 2005, Lithuania started slow preparation and now it is giving off good results, but sometimes these results are not visible – Lithuanians are not carrying out a huge revolution in the European Union – we have a very big agenda, my colleagues are checking whether all EU mechanisms are going smoothly. So one thing that Estonia can learn from Lithuania is the preparation for the Estonian presidency of the EU in 2018 – they started last year and they are using all this experience we accumulated during 5 years.
What can the Baltics do to combat demographic decline - the problem of Lithuanians leaving is even more dramatic than in Estonia....
It is very difficult to come up with a prescription for what to do, because I am not a politician. It depends on the governments of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia - on whether they will adopt some policies that slow the emigration processes. Every country is different. Estonia‘s net emigration is smaller than Latvia‘s and Lituania‘s but there is hidden emigration to Finland. It means that a lot of Estonians are just comuting to Finland – going to work and cothuania muting and it is very difficult to say if they emigrating or working part-time in Finland. It is very difficult to commute to UK from Lithuania – it is possible but it is difficult. It is easier to go for a while to the UK. These processes are unavoidable. We should learn not only from each other experience but our neighbours the Nordic countries. In the 1970s, for seven years there was quite a strong emigration trend from Finland to Sweden. This situation changed when the economy in Finland stabilized and business started to create more jobs. The emigration stopped and even reversed at some point. This experience in two countries was described like bringing two countries closer. There are a lot of Finns in Sweden; they have family connections, maybe even more than they used to have before.
What are the issues like on the nuclear power front?
A nuclear power plant is being planned in Lithuania – Visaginas – and this project has been discussed by three countries for several years now. We see that both Latvia and Estonia are looking for new energy sources in the future and they are looking for economically viable projects. Companies from all three Baltic states are involved to this project. The three companies should find out how economically viable this project is. They will present their case to the government to see how to proceed.
All three Baltic States should find new sources of energy with competitive prices in this part of Europe. All three countries lack electricity capacity, if we look ahead 15-20 years. In several years’ time we will find energy sources that will fulfil our needs. We are also building connection to Poland, Finland and Sweden to have interconnected electricity market and electricity market is officially functioning in the Baltic States and it is connected with Nordic Pool, but one of the things which are unsolved is base load electricity generation capacity that will fulfil our needs winter and summer, day and night. So we will find that energy source. It could be wind, hydro energy, nuclear energy other source if we find it to be competitive.
How do you see a common nuclear power plant in Lithuania’s future?
According to its the energy strategy, Lithuania continues to be nuclear energy country. At 2012 Energy strategy stated that nuclear power station is necessary for functioning Lithuania’s energy market. This spring Lithuania’s government stated that nuclear energy is not excluded from mix of energy necessary to supply Lithuanian consumers if there is a competitive project. We agree with our partners that we cannot build a plant that is not competitive on the market.
How does Estonia react to Lithuania’s changing opinions about nuclear power plant - last autumn during the referendum Lithuanians said they don’t want this nuclear station, now – they change their mind?
You know a referendum is a political process; most referenda are called by politicians. Lithuania already expressed its wish to continue with nuclear energy but it is very difficult to see what mandate the Lithuanian people gave the government at last referendum. As question was formulated it didn’t say precisely say “no” to the Lithuanian nuclear power plant. Visaginas nuclear power plant is a regional project – something stated by Lithuanian government and we need regional partners to participate in it to be able to implement it. Between the three partners – Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia – Lithuania is the most important, without a doubt, because we have infrastructure, institutional and legal framework and nuclear power plant would be on Lithuanian territory. We should agree with Latvia and Estonia about the terms: how will they participate in the project? This discussion is ongoing.