The United States supports Lithuania’s efforts to evaluate all potential energy sources and is ready to share its experience in the area of shale gas exploration, US Ambassador to Lithuania Deborah A. McCarthy said.
In an interview with BNS, the diplomat said the US hopes that free trade talks between the European Union and United States would start at the beginning of the Lithuanian EU Presidency.
The US Ambassador, who presented her letters of credence in February, also said she supports Lithuania’s efforts to bring the EU’s post-Soviet eastern neighbours, whose leaders will be invited to an EU summit in Vilnius later this year, closer to the West.
In the first in-depth interview with the Lithuanian media, McCarthy also underlined that US-Russian relations are “not about spheres of influence”.
BNS: What priorities do you set for your term as the US Ambassador?
AMBASSADOR: In being assigned here to a member of the EU and NATO, our focus is very much to work with a mature democracy, that is Lithuania, on a number of global issues. This is in line with our partnership with Europe, which is not just focused on immediate transatlantic, but also focused on how we partner and work on the outside.
And that covers a gamut of challenges that we see in the security side, new economic powers throughout, security challenges, and challenges in the Middle East. So it covers that broad an area.
Specifically, obviously, in the beginning it’s the EU Presidency and everything that is expected in Lithuania. We are looking for some elements that would move forward under that presidency as well.
BNS: Under the presidency, Lithuania will have to deal with the EU-US free trade talks. What do you expect from them?
AMBASSADOR: In general, what we would hope to see, once each side has its negotiating mandate, is that we would hope to see expressions of support for the process. The details will, obviously, come over time as they negotiate. Because it is the first attempt in years to further deepen the relationship and going into areas as defined by the mandates, given that may take some time to negotiate. So the bottom line, it would be an expression of support for the process because it deepens our integration across the Atlantic.
BNS: What effect free trade between US and EU would bring to economy, jobs?
AMBASSADOR: It would further trade absolutely by looking at non-tariff barriers, by looking at areas that are not as easily traded. Again, I am staying away from the specifics because we don’t know the mandates given by each side. It would help boost trade on both sides of the Atlantic, and, therefore, create jobs. We, like Europe, face a challenge of slow growth and insufficient jobs.
BNS: Do you expect the talks to start exactly during the Lithuanian Presidency?
AMBASSADOR: The date is still not set because we are in the process of consulting with our Congress for a specific 90-day period. The EU has its own internal schedule. We expect that this will be concluded by about June, and so, therefore, it is likely – though we can’t say for certain yet – that about the time of the beginning of the presidency is when the discussions or some contact would begin.
BNS: Your predecessor Anne Derse said in her last interview to BNS that during her term, there was “a good start on helping Lithuania to get on the radar screens of many many more American companies”. Do you anticipate further expansion of the economic ties and American investments in Lithuania?
AMBASSADOR: I would expect that, the following would take place under the umbrella of Lithuania’s own economic situation, for companies will be looking at either Lithuania or looking at the region – many of our companies operate regionally – in the light of how well it is doing in terms of the cost of labour, taxes and so forth.
Again, this is more focused on investment. Certainly, in the region there are opportunities for US companies. Although the size of the Lithuanian market is not large, as I said, many operate regionally; they work in two or three countries, and perhaps even including Poland. So what we would do is support those initiatives coming from individual companies in all areas and really accompany them. That’s part of our new mandate as well, which is to support US companies in their efforts not just in country but regionally.
BNS: What advantages does Lithuania have for investors?
AMBASSADOR: It is clear that it is a member of the EU, with a highly educated workforce that is well prepared, that has language skills, and, therefore, it is a very attractive market. Each company obviously makes its independent decisions. And we certainly do see companies asking us more about the country and the region. So I think the EU Presidency will help in that respect: to reinforce that if you base yourself here, or you are nearby and you work here, you have access to the entire EU market.
BNS: Recently, there have been heated debates about Lithuania’s energy strategy. What is the American interest in participating in crucial energy projects, like developing nuclear energy or shale gas exploration?
AMBASSADOR: At the outset, I need to be very specific and clarifying that our interest in energy security is a strategic interest. Globally, we are looking at shifting patterns of demand with the rise of demand, for example, in Asia, and we are seeing exploration in various forms in different countries of different sources of energy such as taking place here in Lithuania.
In the perspective of supporting the EU in its work in energy and the Third directive and in support of this country’s and the region’s search for having a broader base of energy sources, we are encouraging Lithuania to look at all sources and make the decision, which, I gather, they will be making fairly soon, as to which ones they would focus on. And then from there, with our companies that may come in or be here, engage in these processes to support their efforts to be successful here.
So I think you need to look at it in terms of a larger perspective of where we are coming from, and then we move to the opportunities for our companies.
BNS: Your colleague, Lithuanian ambassador to Washington, Žygimantas Pavilionis, has recently said he expected the US-EU free trade talks to open doors to American LNG exports, as currently American gas is only exported to countries where they have free trade deals. Do you think this could happen?
AMBASSADOR: There is a discussion and consultation process taking place right now on precisely the area that my colleague has mentioned; i.e. the export of gas. It will be a national decision; it will be a political decision. And then you move into the regulatory aspects of being able to do this with areas of countries with which we have free trade agreements.
It is not clear at this moment of what the mandate will be for the discussions in general. But certainly as you look through the stages, it could lead to that. However, first we have to make a decision on allowing the exports; and that is a domestic decision.
BNS: Shale gas has led to huge changes in the American energy sector. Does the US have experience to share with Lithuania in this area? What lessons can Lithuania learn from the experience of your country?
AMBASSADOR: Certainly, we will be more than happy to share. We know that the issue of exploration in the United States was discussed, there have been concerns, there have been consultations with the (affected) communities. And yes, we’ve learned from the process and we’ve already begun … to share that experience and we certainly would be willing to share even further in that field, absolutely.
BNS: I would like to move to another focus of Lithuanian EU Presidency – closer ties with the EU Eastern Partnership countries. Do you see a chance to bring those six post-Soviet countries closer to the West?
AMBASSADOR: We have followed and clearly supported further integration of those countries into the European fold. It obviously remains to be seen on each individual one, based on their discussions with the EU, as to how fast that happens.
We are certainly supporting the aim and really commending the Government of Lithuania and the President for moving forward on the initiative to hold the business summit. So I think we are both operating on the basis of the same objective, which is to see their further integration into the West.
BNS: All eyes will be on Ukraine during the summit. Do you agree with analysts who say that 2013 is a crucial year for Ukraine after years of balancing between Russia and the West?
AMBASSADOR: I am obviously not sitting in Kiev, my colleague is, the former ambassador to Lithuania [John F. Tefft]. I think that there is a sense that it is a very important time when the country is poised to make some critical decisions and that the moment is right to make them.
BNS: The US ‘reset’ policy with Russia has been a sensitive issue here in Lithuania. Is this policy still viable?
AMBASSADOR: I think that we need to look at our relationship with Russia, and I welcome the opportunity to clarify this. We have a very broad and practical relationship with Russia. We work with Russia on a number of dossiers that are global. And we also have established mechanisms with Russia, specifically in the presidential commission. They cover these and other issues. It is not an issue of a term, but it is an issue of recognising that for years we have been working with them on very concrete issues.
Sometimes there are differences of views, there is a continuous back and forth, there are continuous meetings whether in Washington or during another forum where we talk about such critical issues such as what is happening in Syria, what is happening in North Korea, also the dossier of Iran is large. So it’s a very practical and pragmatic relationship.
BNS: But some in Lithuania argue that this ‘reset’ policy led to bad tendencies in Eastern Europe. Former Prime Minister and the current opposition leader, Andrius Kubilius, has said that in “the recent four years the presence of America has declined in the Eastern Europe while the Russian has increased”. Do you agree?
AMBASSADOR: Our relationship with Russia is not about spheres of influence, it is about working practically and pragmatically to tackle the global challenges. I repeat – it is not about the spheres of influence, that is not part of our dialogue. I cannot comment on how Eastern Europe feels about it, but that is not part of our dialogue.
BNS: Do you see a chance of the US and Russia, NATO and Russia agreeing on the missile defence any time soon?
AMBASSADOR: You’re speaking to a US ambassador in Lithuania, not a US ambassador to NATO, who is a good colleague of mine. Therefore, I wouldn’t want to run the risk of going into the area that I am less familiar with. But I know that there is a dialogue between NATO and Russia, there have been attempts to have a more fruitful discussion and have exchanges. I think you have to look at the broader relationship between NATO and Russia which is still a working progress.