We want Europe to speak in one strong voice, says Lithuanian Ambassador

We want Europe to speak in one strong voice, says Lithuanian Ambassador

Julius Pranevicius said the pro-China 17+1 grouping within the Union had not proved beneficial

In May, Lithuania announced it would pull out of the China and Central & Eastern European (CEE) 17+1 mechanism, which is seen as a pro-China grouping of countries within the EU. Denying that the decision came because of U.S. pressure, Lithuania’s Ambassador to India Julius Pranevicius spoke to The Hindu about growing tensions between the European Union and China over a number of issues including sanctions and trade negotiations.

The Lithuanian Foreign Minister has announced that Lithuania is pulling out of what is called the ‘17 plus one’ grouping of Central and Eastern European countries with China. What was the main trigger for this?

We began this format [grouping with China], this kind of cooperation, nine years ago, but we discovered that the whole thing is not so beneficial, and so we started to gradually withdraw from that format. And, indeed, last month our minister officially announced that Lithuania no longer considers itself a ‘17 plus one’ format member and will not participate in this initiative.

I would also say that we had expected that our trade would benefit a lot, that our exports would grow as a result of this grouping, and we didn’t see it happening. But the main reason is our membership at the European Union. We want Europe to speak in one strong voice, and in that sense the ‘17 plus one’ format became a divisive forum. We would prefer to keep the dialogue as 27 members plus one, meaning that the entire European Union will engage as one with China on all aspects.

Tensions between China and Lithuania have been building up over a number of issues: Lithuania’s new ties with Taiwan, its parliament’s resolution on Uighurs, and then Chinese sanctions on Lithuanian and EU politicians, which led to the EU putting the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment on hold.

Well, we decided to set up a trade office in Taipei, which is part of our broader reach out to Asia, and to be more active and to be more present in different parts of this continent. This is not so unusual — around 15 European countries, and I think about 60 countries all have the trade missions in Taiwan. This move was driven by our trade and economic needs, as well as our decision to broaden resources in Asia, and we are also establishing new embassies in South Korea and Singapore. This should not reflect on our bilateral relations with China.

On the sanctions, it was China that decided to impose entry bans and sanctions against some European politicians and academics, and that has had an impact on EU-China relations. Yes, the Lithuanian parliament had a resolution on the situation in Xinjiang (calling for UN enquiry into treatment of Uighurs), but that is their decision, they are keen to observe what is happening in different parts of the world.

What is Lithuania’s stand on the Belt and Road Initiative, which is causing concerns in other European countries more recently, like Montenegro, over the debt incurred?

In our case, the investments from China are not very large, and China ranks 40th among all the countries in the world on FDI in Lithuania. We also have a well-functioning system of screening of all the foreign direct investment that was introduced in 2002, and a special commission that checks them. We don’t have any issues that we would makes us fear China’s presence in this area, as you said with the examples of some other countries.

India is now back in negotiations with the EU on a free trade agreement, just as the EU put a hold on its Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China. Have Lithuanian tensions with China come up in bilateral discussions in New Delhi?

We very much welcome the decisions of the most recent summit for European leaders and Prime Minister Modi and the decision to launch the discussion on trade agreements. In terms of our bilateral cooperation, we haven’t discussed our stance on the ‘17 plus one’ format with Indian counterparts recently, but when we do have ministerial meetings, we will discuss what is happening more broadly in the world, as we always do.

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