Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite this Thursday was granted a prize for her work on European unity. She talked with DW about her history and the euro crisis - and what European unity means today.
DW: You have been awarded the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen to honor what you have done for European unity. Are you proud of it?
Dalia Grybauskaite: I'm proud for my people, because this prize was awarded to Lithuania, not to me personally.
You're not a member of a political party. Why not?
Personally, I am allergic to political membership in any political party, because I was supposed to be in one party 23 years ago [in the Soviet Union], so now I try to avoid it.
I think if you work professionally and do your job well, you can do it no matter what political affiliation you are. I don't think I'm conservative or socialist. I do what I think is necessary for the country.
Can you name a statesman who was or perhaps still is a role model for you?
Gandhi, Churchill, Thatcher, Merkel now - a lot of people can inspire if you look to history.
You were a teacher at a college which was run by the Communist Party. What did you do when you understood that things you teach your students might be wrong?
I've started my lessons by going from Aristotelian theories to Marxism. I was teaching the history of money as well, starting from small coins up to Internet and artificial currencies what we have now. There was nothing related to any party, including Communist or Soviet ideology - it was purely economist, and I think already at that time I was teaching only objective theories.
Lithuania is one of the three Baltic States emerging from the Soviet Union that joined the EU nine years ago. Is Russia still a threat to your country?
Nine years is not such a long time for nations, for their mentality, for their history. For the historic pains between neighbors. We feel it especially via the militarization around the borders. We feel it through economic pressure - especially in regards to energy prices. So, sensitivities still exist.
But I was told once that neither 10 nor 20 years are enough, maybe we need 40 years for generations to change; for these sensitive memories to be gone to be able to cooperate with our neighbors on equal footing with respect for each other.
Some compare Brussels to the former Soviet Union, describing the EU as an overly centralized Soviet super-state.
I can say that these people have never been to the Soviet Union, so they don't know what this means. The European Union is a union of member states which was organized through goodwill and peacefully, without forcing anybody to join. No one country is dominating; it is our common decision about everything that we are deciding on. What is Brussels? It's head of member states sitting and deciding together in Brussels.
How much damage would it do if the United Kingdom left the EU?
The EU was created to help each other, to have peace, prosperity and security in the world. These goals are still in place today. We still need to be more competitive, not only in the economic sense, but also in a military point of view. During any crisis, anti-European or anti-governmental movements increase - but sometimes our national politicians are using the crisis and looking to find some outside excuse.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is often severely criticized for her firm stands on austerity and budget consolidation. Has Germany become too dominant within the EU?
Germany has been about both economizing the expenditures, but also stimulus and structural reform. But of course it is easier to look for somebody to blame. Some national, irresponsible behavior [that went on] for decades in some member states is now being the responsibility of another country.
But Germany in this situation is taking very responsible steps. And the chancellor is also responsible to the German people - she cannot allow using German taxpayers' money to bail out some member states that do not do any homework or their structural reforms, and are not taking responsibility.
How difficult was it for you to convince Lithuanians of the necessity of cuts and austerity?
It was not easy, but the main thing is to explain. Secondly, you need to apply cuts for people in the political elite who are earning the most, while trying to help the least-protected social groups of people. And to be a personal example - to cut your salary, to fly on cheap flights - whatever it takes.
Do you agree that the euro crisis is revealing a split of completely opposing political cultures?
I never use the term euro crisis. It is a global financial crisis, partly it's a state-debt crisis, yes, but it's not a euro crisis. It is about business mentality, about business practices, about political responsibility, which is dominated in one or another country.
Yes, sometimes we can see elements which are more common in northern countries in Germany than political behavior in some other countries. But I think each country is different - and that it's what Europe is about, we were always able to find joint frameworks for working together. We cannot dictate to any country to do it exactly that way, that one size fits all. Any measure on how to fight crises needs to be customized to the country's history, to the country's mentality.
How long will this crisis last?
Because of a lack of structural reforms, the crisis will take a little bit longer than we expected - but a typical economic crisis was more or less a cycle of two years.
During this period, it is also a good opportunity for real structural reforms. Because in good times, it's very difficult for a politician to say we need to make reforms, we can't spend so much. During a crisis, at least that's our Lithuanian experience, you can better persuade people that changes are necessary and that you need to do what's necessary. Even if that's not leading to good ratings or even if you lose power, but at least you invest into the sustainable future of your country.
Since 2009, Dalia Grybauskaite has been president of Lithuania. Before that, she worked for the European Commission on financial planning and budgeting. Like Margaret Thatcher, the economist is often referred to as the "Iron Lady" within Lithuania. She received the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen for her contributions to European integration and for her country's exemplary progress within the EU.