Local party member Tony Olsson is passionate about staying in the EU and loves the Baltic States. After attending the recent meeting with Clare Moody MEP, Tony picked up on a comment from another member who said “I just wish I could be more passionate about it”. This is Tony's response which he hopes will help convince everyone to be more passionate and that we are stronger in the EU.
About me and my involvement with the Baltic States
When at the EU meeting with Clair Moody I asked my question about how much of the money Britain pays to the EU, do we get back, I mentioned I have been involved with the Baltic States since 2003. Most of you will know of me only as that bloke who writes contentious letters to the local papers. As many of those letters are political in nature and very anti-Tory, you won’t be surprised to know that Tory supporters frequently try to get the papers to stop publishing my letters. I’m not aware that Peter Heaton-Jones has tried to put a block on free speech (his national party is desperately trying to do just that), though it seems the censors at the Journal do that for him anyway (they curtailed my on-going differences of opinion with Philip Milton – even though I have it on good authority that the local Tory Party enjoyed our tussles and didn’t agree with much of their former candidate’s opinions – nor mine, understandably).
A few days after he was elected, Peter Heaton-Jones received a multi page letter from me “welcoming” him to North Devon, in which I made clear my views on Tory policies, and since the Tories really started running amuck after winning the election (on the votes of less than one third of the electorate), he has been the recipient of a stream of emails from me in recent weeks – his inbox must be red-hot. Whether it will change his politics I have my doubts, but the claim that politicians haven’t a clue what the “man-in-the-street” thinks, cannot be applied to our Member of Parliament.
My railway journalism and activities
It’s not all letter-writing though. I write magazine articles about the railways of the Baltic States and about Lithuanian music. These are accounts of the history of the railways; plus accounts of the modernisation of the infrastructure, locomotives and passenger trains in recent years. Information about the heritage railways (just a handful of narrow gauge lines) feature prominently in my output. Having been part of the Soviet Union since WW2, where taking an interest in railways was regarded as spying (with dire consequences if caught), there is no tradition of railway enthusiasm in the Baltic States like there is here.
Lithuanian publisher Žilvinas Urbutis started Baltic Railways Magazine in 2009. Being in Lithuanian and Russian, it was soon realised that it would achieve wider readership if it was in “everybody’s second language - English”, so Žilvinas approached me to help by checking the translations, and selling it in Britain. Since then I have provided the same service for a book about Lithuanian steam locomotives and am currently nearing completion of a book on railcars. Both books are set in the period between the two World Wars when Lithuania was independent of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.
I have performed similar duties with publicity and contracts for Lithuanian Railways and other official bodies, and assisted Tauragė District in its bid for EU funding to clean up the river flowing through its territory into the Baltic Sea. The Siaurukas narrow gauge railway in Lithuania is, like the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, one of my passions. Having seen it first in 2003 as not much more than a scrap heap, it has been a delight over the years since to see it develop into a flourishing and very colourful heritage railway. It was a delight to be invited to assist in the production of a joint guide book to the railway and Panevėžys County.
In this country, my articles and news items go into many of the railway magazines you can buy off the shelf in newsagents, and also the magazines of Lithuanian and Estonian expat organisations of which I am a member. Another organisation of which I am a member, and contribute to its magazine, is New Europe Railway Heritage Trust which was set up in 1999 after the collapse of the Soviet Union to provide professional assistance to all those (mainly narrow gauge) heritage railways which suddenly found themselves bereft of the administrative and financial support they received from the state. As a result, there are many railways which wouldn’t have survived without our guidance and that of Fedecrail which is based in the Netherlands. NERHT was instrumental in saving Siaurukas in 2002 after the railway lost its last commercial customer and closed; a deputation from Britain met with concerned Lithuanians and lobbied the Lithuanian Parliament for funds to reopen the railway as a tourist attraction. The task now is to ensure that the good work is not lost due to austerity measures, but even though stressed, the railways are generally in a healthier state than twenty-five years ago,
Why do I love the Baltic States?
They are lovely countries, nothing like the brutal image we in this country have of the former Soviet Union. Whilst admittedly run-down with dire roads and pavements on the housing estates, both Soviet and modern era architecture is adventurous. The modern housing estates have individually designed houses, not the identical little boxes we have here. Most people in the cities and large towns live in five-storey blocks of flats. Unlike here, they work, with three flats off each landing which creates communities of friendly neighbours. No “roads in the sky” there, where out of control children and adults can run riot, drink and take drugs. The stairways are cleaned by the residents who often provide tubs of plants. Inside, the flats are immaculate, and outside you’ll find it difficult to find any litter, even by the communal rubbish bins.
I like the people who are friendly, hard working and who care for their surroundings. One frequently hears reference in the media to the Mafia, and our gutter press delights in front-paging Latvians and Lithuanians who have been involved in murder and trafficking over here, but I’ve not seen any of that over there – not been mugged, had nothing stolen – but I did have a bag stolen from the luggage rack of a train from Nottingham to Birmingham (UK) recently !!!
I first had contacts with Lithuanians in Barnstaple in the late 1990s. A mother and her two daughters would come here to work during the summer and winter holidays because at that time, Russia and the Baltic States were (even though now independent of each other) dependent economically on each other, and were in dire straits after the break up of the Soviet Union – freedom wasn’t all good news, and caused many unexpected problems. The father, who was a Professor of Maths at Vilnius University, had to give up his job and get a job as an international lorry driver in Dublin. Like many people in Lithuania at that time, he didn’t get paid for months on end. His wife had the same problem even though she had a responsible job at Panevėžys City Council. The two girls were very bright university students; one went on to study at Oxford University, the other became an architect in London. Yet all of them were willing to do whatever work they were offered which included cleaning, waitressing and even working in a slaughter house.
It makes me very angry to read and hear people in Britain say they only come here for the benefits, The Poles, the Latvians and the Lithuanians are the peoples who brought down Communism by bravely standing up to the Soviet troops stationed in their countries, Five unarmed civilians were killed by Soviet troops in Riga (Latvia) and fifteen in Vilnius (Lithuania), some run over by tanks whilst protecting their governments. Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev did not bring about the collapse of Communism (indeed it was Gorbachev who sent the tanks against the people to break the independence movement).
The physical aspects of the countries
The counties are delightful with the cities a mix of very old wooden buildings with all styles up to modern skyscrapers all jumbled in together. The capital cities have “Old Towns” which are Italianate in character. There aren’t many sea sides because the Baltic Sea coast is not long, though there is the Curonian Spit, a large wide sand bank which extends from Lithuania to Kaliningrad Oblast (an isolated piece of Russia sandwiched between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea).
Weather can be -40°C in winter (no need for freezers if you put the food on the balcony) but many flats have triple or quad glazing. Central heating is usually provided by the centralised water heating factories (tall chimneys with white and red bands) which pump hot water into the flats. The pipes go up through the bathrooms which can be quite cosy. When I’ve been there in summer, the temperature has been 10°C hotter than in Britain, but because humidity is lower, it’s much more comfortable than Britain in summer.
Many flat dwellers have “country houses” they can go to in summer to relax and grow food and flowers. These aren’t country houses as in Britain, but genuine small very basic houses on an estate of allotments. What can be better than relaxing in the open, in pretty surroundings with a bottle of alus (Lithuanian beer) in one hand and a whole smoked mackerel (skumbrė) in the other? Pure bliss! [It’s a shame Ilfracombe Lidl stopped selling it].
Inland are many delightful lakes and clean rivers which are safe to bathe in. The countryside is mainly flat, a mixture of farm land and forest. The EU has poured much money into the Baltic States to upgrade the roads and railways, so there is now a network of new roads almost up to motorway standard. Railways are a problem (I’ve been campaigning for reform for years) due to the fact that whilst part of the USSR, railways were predominantly for moving very heavy freight trains on single track lines between Russia and the Baltic Sea ports. That’s still the case, though things are improving.
Estonia in particular has replaced its old Soviet passenger trains with a fleet of very pretty multiple units, and has raised its platforms to enable wheelchair access. Disputes with Russia has resulted in the loss of much of its through freight traffic.
Lithuania has completely modernised its railway system. The stations, marshalling yards and other infrastructure were rebuilt between visits in 2009 and 2014, and the work is on-going. Unlike Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have retained the ground level platforms which require a climb up a staircase at the end of the carriages – difficult with heavy cases, and impossible for wheelchair users. The old Soviet locomotives and passenger trains are rapidly being replaced with modern trains bought from central Europe made by Škoda, Siemens and PESA; and a maintenance depot is rebuilding withdrawn Soviet shunting locomotives, making them fit for many more years work,
Latvia cannot make its mind up whether to go electric like Estonia, or have a mix of electric passenger trains and diesel freight locomotives, so isn’t doing much at present. It should be borne in mind that both Latvia and Lithuania rely on freight passing through from Russia. Under the current tensions with Russia, nothing can be guaranteed at the moment.
All freight and passenger trains between Kaliningrad Oblast and Russia have to pass through Lithuania so that traffic is relatively safe.
The cross border routes between the capitals were closed after independence, so realistically the only way to travel around the Baltic States is by buses and coaches. All the capitals can be reached by Eurolines coaches from Victoria Coach Station – not the most comfortable way to travel, but the view is much better than the tops of clouds. To do the journey by rail costs a lot more, and takes longer – I did it once!
I did warn you I’m passionate about the Baltic States!
I’ve deliberately avoided the economic cost of being part of Europe; frankly that’s Tory monetarist territory, and deeply repugnant.
The debate over how much we pay to the EU and how much we get back, is akin to the Tory philosophy “It’s MY money, you’re not having any of it”. I hope no Labour Party/Socialist members view Europe in that jaundiced way. However it is a constantly used question by UKIP and the gutter press to persuade the electorate to vote for Brexit.
I asked the question at the meeting in an attempt to obtain some figures to counter the argument for leaving. I can provide costs of many of the railway improvement schemes in Lithuania (and probably the other two) from my own records and the internet, but you won’t find much information online about what we receive from the EU. If I wasn’t interested in British railways as well as the Baltic variety, and buy a range of railway magazines, I wouldn’t know that the EU is contributing to the cost of the GWR electrification (it’s not all paid for by that nice Mr Osborne!). EU money is being used all over the country to develop the infrastructure and subsidise farmers, but you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t know what to search for. As Clare Moody said, the way in which aid is distributed is so complicated, it’s nearly impossible to find out what went where. She also suggested it might be a deliberate ploy to hide the figures.
Whilst I am happy with the philosophy of rich(er) countries helping poor(er) countries to improve their standard of living and to repair a neglected and decaying infrastructure, there have to be some limits. The EU is in financial crisis due, I suggest to a blind allegiance to the idea of “subsidiarity” – the notion that every country in the United States of Europe must have the same standard of living. An honourable goal, but can we afford it?
As mentioned above, I have seen Lithuanian Railways completely rebuilt and re-equipped since 2009. That’s cost a lot of money in aid of a philosophy. I love Lithuania, but I can’t justify spending billions on a complete rebuild of a railway system which in one year handles only as many passengers as one platform at Waterloo Station does in a year.
I dread to think how much it will cost to rebuild the railways of Bulgaria and Romania. I don’t know those countries, but I suspect the condition of the railways there is dire. A rethink is necessary, surely?
In order to conform to the principle that trains inside the EU can run on other country’s lines, the EU is putting a standard gauge line (Rail Baltica) from the border between Poland and Lithuania, up through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia connecting with a train ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki. Latest thinking is to build a tunnel to replace the ferry.
It’s madness! The railways of the Baltic States are to Russian gauge 1520mm as against 1435mm standard gauge used in most of Europe and Britain. Finland’s railways are to the original Russian gauge of 1524mm, so trains from central Europe and Poland can’t go anywhere off the Rail Baltica line except to a few transhipment depots. Lithuania is to build an extension from Rail Baltica at Kaunas to take the new high speed trains on to Vilnius. That makes sense (though it already has a fast electrified link between the two cities), but nothing else does. As mentioned earlier, in 25 years of independence, all attempts to run passenger trains between the Baltic States capitals have been resisted. The lines are there, as they were in Soviet times when the Baltic States were operated as one railway controlled from Riga. I have grave doubts that the situation will change when the new line is opened. An editorial in Today’s Railways EUROPE suggested that the EU might have to step in to force railway companies to allow trains across borders. It should be noted that most railways in Europe are owned (much to the annoyance of the EU) by national governments. That also makes nonsense of the Tories resistance to nationalisation, as most of our railway operating companies are owned ultimately by foreign governments.
Railways is my subject; I can’t comment on other aspects, though I’m sure there are many schemes in other disciplines which need to be examined. The nonsense of having the EU HQ in Brussels and Strasbourg (or is it Luxembourg?) comes to mind. The EU has not issued audited accounts for many years. I suspect that if the EU examined its finances and made appropriate changes to expenditure on a value for money basis, its financial situation would be drastically improved, and Britain might then agree to pay its full share of the cost of running the EU.
I do hope so!
To conclude, can I ask that nobody in the North Devon CLP refers to the Baltic States as being in Eastern Europe? A look at a map will show that Lietuva (Lithuania), Latvija (Latvia) and Eesti (Estonia) are in Northern Europe north of Poland. Indeed, a French geological society claims that the centre of Europe is 17km north of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. That’s continental Europe, not political Europe. Because of the appellation “Eastern Europe”, many confuse the Baltics (the Baltic States) with the Balkans (the former Jugoslavia) which is in Eastern Europe, ie to the east of Poland.
This page is where North Devon members can post their views, copies of letters to the local papers or any thoughts they may have. Feel free to respond and enter into the debate