Speech by V. Leškevičius, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the closing conference of the European Year of Citizens

16 December 2013, Last updated at, 08:23 EEST
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author: URM

Dear colleagues, dear guests, dear citizens of Europe,

As vice-minister for European Affairs during the months of the Lithuanian EU Presidency I have been engaged in various debates and discussions with EU institutions, governments, parliaments, think tanks and the broader society on how to make 2013 a true year of citizens.

Just yesterday I have returned from the European Parliament which faces a general election next year. My colleagues at the EP have recently been sharing their thoughts and fears that disappointed citizens might choose an anti-European course and by doing so shake the foundations of the European Union.

We must admit that because of the current economic and financial troubles, youth unemployment, social disbalances and rising poverty our citizens seem to have lost their faith and trust in Europe. And because of bleak EU communication in the past years we cannot require a grocery store owner in Vilnius or a car mechanic in Barcelona to know what the EU is all about and to show respect for it.

It might even seem that the European Union has become a bureaucratic fiction. And the usual comments about bureaucrats and politicians end up with negative connotations.

As the New Year approaches, looking back, can we say that this has been a European year of citizens? Was it any different from the previous years?

My dear friends,

I can loudly say - YES. Yes, it was. And it is still happening. Without specific EU funding, without institutional leadership and – as a true paradox – outside the borders of the European Union.

Of course, I am talking about recent events in Ukraine.

Just two weeks ago here, in Vilnius, Eastern Partnership summit which had to be another usual political event, called out a strong civil upheaval. By not signing the Association agreement with the EU Ukrainian political leadership defied the expectations of the Ukrainian citizens bringing them out to the streets.

And three weeks later we are closely watching the events in Kyiv unfold. The whole world suddenly turned their eyes on the pro-EU protesters not willing to let go of their European dream and be subdued by local authorities.

As I have been closely involved in the process I can tell you openly that European leaders, EU institutions have not expected such a reaction from the citizens of Ukraine. This time it was the people who set up the agenda of Europe. It is this power of the people that is turning the tides of history.

Ukraine will never be the same. Latest polls have shown that more than 58 percent of local population support a firm path of integration to the EU. At a time when opinion makers and opinion shakers have been lambasting the EU and saying it has lost its good image we see exactly the opposite thinking in Ukraine.

After the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit EU politicians and diplomats have not yet had time to understand this comeback of good reputation. Or simply that it has not vaned at all, that the EU still is a trendsetter for many nations in the world beginning with its closest neighbours.

That is why we must show all our support to the European citizens standing proudly in the Euromaidan. It is a unique chance not only to bring Ukraine closer; it is an opportunity to bring back the trust of our citizens to the European Union.

The politicians seem to have understood this and start showing their support publicly. Still it is the European citizens who I am glad to commend first. In case you have been watching broadcasts from the Euromaidan you could not have missed the flags of EU member states being waved beside the EU's and Ukraine's blue and yellow. These are EU activists, NGO representatives and academia who have been flocking to the capital of Ukraine to make the atmosphere in winter-cold Kyiv much much warmer.

Pro-European feelings go far beyond Ukraine. Georgia, Moldova or the Western Balkan countries are doing their best effort to get closer to the European Union. And it is not without the huge and active support of their citizens. When Georgian and Moldovan leaders were initialing their Association agreements with the EU in the Vilnius summit crowds back home cried tears of happiness and joy.

Just look at the interest of the people in the Western Balkans whenever a progress report in their EU membership negotiations is being discussed. Many people in Lithuania can still remember how more than ten years ago society would thoroughly analyze every piece of news about our own integration process.

Some might say that we wanted EU membership to get more and tastier bread, security, visa-free travel and comfort. And it is not a lie. But first of all we wanted IN because of dignity, because we wanted our rights and freedoms respected, our voice heard in the international community. That is what the European citizenry needs in the first place and that is the promise the EU has represented for many decades.

Aspirations towards the EU in our Eastern neighborhood, the Balkan region and the civil protests in Kyiv are a show of democracy and a fight for democratic values which the EU represents. As I said in the conference with Sakharov award winners in Vilnius last week I am confident that because of what is happening in Ukraine the EU can once again serve as a beacon of European values of freedom, democracy and human rights.

Last Thursday the world lost one of such beacons of democracy. Nelson Mandela believed that a human being can only be HUMAN in a democratic environment respecting human rights. And he fought hard for his beliefs. Nelson Mandela proved that it is enough for one man with a lot of determination to change the whole world for the better.

Dear citizens,

With the recent inspiration coming from the open spaces in Kyiv, from the active public debates in the East and Southeast of the European continent, from the life-long example of the late Nelson Mandela we can be active participants in the life our countries and the whole European community. We can bring necessary change for the sake of all members of the society. We can bring Europe back to its citizens. And the time for it – is NOW.
 

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From 28.11.2013 to 29.11.2013
The 3rd Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius

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