“Transportation Is My Country’s Last Big Transformative Endeavour.” An Exclusive Interview With Marius Skuodis, Minister of Transport and Communications, Republic of Lithuania.

Thomas Jérémie Hayden-Lefebvre – Green Mobility Magazine.

At only 38 years old and having completed his PhD less than a decade ago, Marius Skuodis is already one of Europe’s most accomplished and undoubtedly busiest politicians. Between managing his country’s participation in one of the world’s most ambitious infrastructure mega-projects, Rail Baltica, and dealing with the numerous and multifaceted challenges brought by Russia’s now year-long war of aggression against Ukraine, Lithuania’s Minister of Transport and Communications is holding his country’s presidency of the International Transport Forum (ITF).

The ITF, an inter-governmental institution which operates under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is, Skuodis tells us, a “place where ideas clash, and new ones emerge”. 

Indeed, as the only global body that covers all transport modes, the ITF and its 66 member countries work to overcome global challenges like connected transportation, innovation, and sustainability, as well as pressing emergencies such as the transport sector’s response to COVID-19 and supporting the reconstruction of Ukraine’s transport systems. To successfully achieve this, every May, the IFT organises a high-level political and business summit in the German city of Leipzig, which, for 2024, will be themed around “Greening Transport: Keeping Focus in Times of Crisis.”

We explore this year’s theme, the poly-crisis facing ITF member countries, and Mr Skuodis’ accession from a public finance specialist to one of Europe’s most prolific transport ministers, in an exclusive interview with the Green Mobility Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Thomas Jérémie Hayden-Lefebvre. 

Minister, could you please share with us a bit about your past, and particularly, why you entered politics?

After completing my second graduate studies in London, I returned to Lithuania and soon joined the Bank of Lithuania, my country’s central bank. It was an exceptionally interesting and, at the same time, challenging period of my career (for instance, Lithuania held the Presidency of the Council of the EU and adopted the euro). I was responsible for the Bank’s participation in the Eurosystem, the European System of Central Banks, and decision-making processes within the EU, as well as cooperation with international financial institutions and other central banks.

However, one day, I received a call from the then newly appointed Minister of Economy, the current Member of the European Commission, Virginijus Sinkevičius, inviting me to join him as his deputy. The main argument that finally convinced me to enter politics was his invitation to take on the following challenge: he told me that plenty of people advised on how things should be done but only a few could successfully make them happen. So, he challenged me to come and try to deliver, and I have been trying to do my best to deliver for the past six years.

How long have you been interested in transport? Is there a particular aspect of the sector which you are fond of?

After spending five years in central banking, I moved from an independent, stable institution to a political, turbulent, and policy-making role at the Ministry of Economy. Since transport and logistics form the basis for any exchange of goods and services, it has always been a part of my work in the Government. Moreover, in Lithuania, transport and logistics create around 12% of our GDP, which is much more than the EU average. On the one hand, transport is at the centre of unprecedented changes in our economies. Conversely, it is a fascinating field since its transformation will play a vital role in implementing our climate-related goals. The decisions we are making today in the transport sector will have major long-term effects.

What are your top priorities for transport in Lithuania? 

In broad strokes, I would single out a few key issues: the transformation of the entire transport system towards Western markets, decarbonisation, digitalisation, the rail routes to Germany, Italy and other countries, and the construction of the Via Baltica highway in Lithuania. For instance, we are now moving rapidly with constructing its sections to the Polish border. We are also working on the construction of the Rail Baltica international project in the Baltics (the largest and biggest greenfield infrastructure project in the region ever), and the development of the Klaipėda Seaport and Lithuanian airports.

The theme for this year’s Summit is “Greening Transport: Keeping Focus in Times of Crisis” Do you believe that policy and business leaders are at risk of losing focus on the sustainable transport transition?

The theme rather reflects the imperative to avoid the temptation to direct all our focus to just one area or one particular issue – just one crisis that the international transport community and the international community at large have to deal with going through these very turbulent times. We do not have the luxury to choose between geopolitical tensions or wars, greening or making our global supply chains more resilient, or the ever-more contested rivalry among state and non-state actors across the board.

Losing focus aside, looking across Europe and beyond, what are the three biggest challenges facing international transport?

First, our international transport community does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a larger whole. This larger whole has been most severely challenged since WWII. We should keep in mind that the ITF’s predecessor, the European Council of Transport Ministers, was created along with other big institutions aimed at upholding rules-based international order. As rules change or are challenged and even destroyed, we must think creatively about how to foster, not abandon, the global connectivity that was created thanks to the visionary leadership of state officials in the 1950s. To live up to their aspirations and vision is the biggest challenge we face and the biggest task to accomplish today.

Secondly, in some ways, it flows from the first challenge because we must realize that there will not be “business as usual.” We cannot return to the well-trodden path of the old ways. We will have to creatively adapt politically and technologically by diversifying our usual routes and forging new alliances. 

And thirdly, still, there is always a silver lining. New and green technologies emerge. Sustainability and care for the environment get an ever-more-established policy line and business practices. 

And seizing and using to the fullest the emerging developments and what disruptive technologies and inventions offer – daily, at an unprecedented scale – is both a challenge and a great opportunity at the same time.

How do you hope to utilize Lithuania’s presidency of the International Transport Forum to overcome these challenges? 

As I used to say, transportation is my country’s last big transformative endeavour. After political, security, economic, and energy transition, we are fully immersed in transforming our transportation system. Introducing new technologies, reorienting the usual directions, making a huge leap in electrification (not only trains), and fostering new partnerships. And, of course, helping Ukraine to succeed. This is an opportunity for us and other ITF members to compare our transformative experiences. 

Our transformational experience is still very fresh; it is still happening. This may be of big use for others. Secondly, the way how we apply and implement digital and green innovations in our transportation is key. Third, we are on a fast and unique journey to diversify – from politically heavily influenced markets to new ones which were not even on our radar screens not a long time ago. For instance, Lithuania has recently adopted its first-ever Indo-Pacific strategy, putting a new emphasis on making ties with democratic countries in the region. Fourthly, we have our own regional cooperative projects. From the biggest regional infrastructure project, Rail Baltica, to the alternative, so-called Baltic route to help transport Ukraine’s grain, which is much needed in the world markets.

Focusing on the positive, what are the biggest opportunities transport stakeholders should look at? 

In short, going electric, going hydrogen, going digital. Those who master it will succeed not in the distant future, but already now. 

In your eyes, how can the ITF support member countries and the private sector in honing these opportunities?

The ITF has a great track record in providing a platform and being a forum for politicians, businesses, industries, regulatory bodies, and international institutions, including international financial institutions (all those who hold rules-based order dear) to get together.  Fostering an unfettered exchange and discussion, being a place where ideas clash and new ones emerge, and giving some policy guidance as to where global transportation needs to look – this is where the main strengths of the ITF lie. I hope that these strengths will only be further strengthened.

Lastly, are there any other messages, concepts, or ideas that you would like to share with our readers? 

Yes, I would like to share two ideas with your readers. 

Firstly, as the international order changes, so do we, the international transport community, and its biggest organization: the ITF. It needs to constantly adapt to be more flexible, including by carefully weighing the possibilities of making some changes in its modus operandi in the way decisions are made. That is the only way for any organisation to ensure that it is future-proof. 

Secondly, energy innovations are hugely affecting transportation. And vice versa; the digital transition is the reality of the day. If climate change is not the main issue today, adaptation costs will be much larger tomorrow. My wish and plea is; ‘let’s connect the dots, let’s think comprehensively, in a 360-degree perspective’.

Bonus: I hear you are fond of classical music; who is your favourite composer? 

Everyone who you can hear performed at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and much more!