EU Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs says that the Baltic states should be referred to as a success story in the European Union, as their policies led to considerable improvement of the economic situation in the wake of the economic crisis.
In an interview to BNS in Vilnius, the Latvian politician said that EU support for countries of Eastern Partnership should not be reduced. Piebalgs noted he would want to see a bigger contribution of the Baltic states, but emphasized that Lithuania provided more assistance to developing countries than the other two Balts, Estonia and Latvia.
The commissioner also urged Afghanistan to step up its counter-corruption efforts, so that the EU could boost support to the country that will see withdrawal of the majority of NATO-led international forces by the end of 2014.
- The conference in Vilnius focused on EU support to Eastern partnership countries. Do you think this aid could be increased? And is there a direct link between the amount of money and the level of democracy and rule of law?
- Let's start with the first question. For the next financial perspective, we have asked for an overall increase of 17 percent for external actions. But as a discussion is going on, I can't say that our proposal will be accepted. My assumption is that we will have no less money for Eastern Partnership, compared with today.
We have this "more for more" concept for neighborhood countries. The increase envelopes, for example, for Moldova or for Georgia. And for some countries, like Belarus, because of political situation, there have been no development spending, except very limited support for civil society.
- Can the outcome of Georgian elections affect EU aid to the country?
- No, because they were democratic elections. Well, there have been, at least from what I have seen, some irregularities reported, but not on the scale that could challenge the democratic choice of the country. So our engagement with Georgia will not change, whoever forms the government, because it's a government that has been elected in democratic elections.
- Would there be more EU aid for Belarus, if (President Alexander) Lukashenko's regime took steps towards democracy?
- I wouldn't prejudge if he turns more for democracy. We see how he governs and there is not much room for democracy. So, I believe, for the next period, we will support civil society organizations and civil society in general because I don't believe that we will be able to make the programs with the government.
I will not speculate even on this. Our argument with Belarus is that moving towards democracy is what Belarusian people deserve. This argument will stand. It will not be related in the way that 'if you turn, there will be money'. That will not be the policy we will pursue.
- What is the impact of the economic crisis to the EU aid, as some member states pursue austerity and took cuts?
- It depends. Different member countries have followed different patterns. Basically our development aid in 2011 was roughly the same as in 2010. So it's not what we have expected because the EU has a pledge of 0.7 percent of GNI by 2015. We are now at 0.42. The UK, Finland, Germany have increased [their contribution]. But there has been a decrease in Spain or in Greece. Basically, it's a mixed performance and it's a result of economic austerity in some countries, budget consolidation.
I expect that moving closer to 2015, a lot of countries will make an effort to follow the pledge and EU development aid efforts will increase. But with this increase comes a demand for clearly visible results.
- Are you happy with the aid from the Baltic states?
- No. Lithuania is doing the best with 0.13 percent of its GNI. But it's still lower than it should be at this stage, because by 2015 Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia should be at the level 0.33 percent. But I should say they started from a low point and there is more understanding now why it should be done. My native Latvia increased the amount in its 2011 budget, as compared with 2010. So the change is positive but I wish that this change be faster.
- As NATO troops are preparing to leave Afghanistan, will there be an increase in support from the EU for that country?
- Today the EU spends roughly 100 million euros per year, and the sum is being increased towards 200 million per year. The crucial challenge is - and it was agreed in conference in Tokyo - mutual accountability. We would like very much to work through the Afghan government. We would very much expect for the Afghan government to have a credible mechanism to fight corruption. Because when you have suspicions of corruption, it's very difficult to channel development aid through the government, as everybody suspects immediately that the money gets diverted. I think we still have time, and the Afghan government has time to put all the measures in place so that the international community can trust the government.
- Lithuanian officials say they are pushing an initiative to increase EU support for political parties in developing countries. What do you think about this initiative?
- We have developed a new concept, which was started during the Polish presidency, the Endowment for democracy.
Support for political parties is a very tricky matter. Sometimes they change views and move from being rather open to some extreme views. I think it will be rather tricky for the EU, because we have not got much experience. Decisions should be made very carefully, because if you support some parties that later turn on to be xenophobic or extremely nationalist, you could lose public support for development cause in general.
I think it will take time until we find the best modality how to support political processes. But through this Endowment we are making a big step towards supporting political parties. There has never been anything like this before.
- What is your opinion about the experience and efforts of the Baltic states of coping with the financial crisis? Do you agree with the opinion of some commentators that they could serve as role-models for the entire EU?
- It's difficult to say what a role-model is. But I believe that it was exemplary when political parties in parliaments came to a consensus on how to address the crisis. If I take Latvia, opposition parties also voted in favour of measures that were rather unpopular. They could have easily went populist by saying 'we know better, just give us the power'. They didn't do that.
The question is - have macroeconomic figures changed after the crisis? Yes, they improved considerably. So the Baltic states are a success story. Are they role-models for Greece? Well, it's a different region, so one should not immediately copy. But I believe a broader approach for the Baltic states is very encouraging. I am not saying that the countries are perfect. But what they did is encouraging - not because of the processes but because of the results they achieved.