The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) occupies a special place among the European institutions. It does not make executive decisions and does not allocate the European budget. But this Committee, created according to the founding EU Treaties, plays a decisive role in the formation of literally all areas of common European policy.
Since its creation in 1958, this Committee has carried a consultative function and, by definition, it is at the heart of the entire EU democratic system. It combines and accumulates the opinion of civil society from member states, including employers, trade unions, public and non-governmental organizations, environmental movements, and consumer unions – every structure making up the "living tissue" of the European Community.
EESC President Oliver Röpke kindly agreed to share with Ukrinform his vision of the situation in Ukraine, the impact of Russian aggression on the economic situation and public sentiment in EU countries, as well as the prospects and expectations of Ukraine's future membership in the European Union.
RUSSIAN AGGRESSION AGAINST UKRAINE CHANGED EVERYTHING IN EUROPE AND IN THE WORLD
- First of all, thank you so much to find the time to speak into our agency, Ukrinform. We appreciate very much the role that the Committee plays in European policies. We obviously will ask you a question which are related to the situation in Ukraine. Right now, we have a very cruel war from the Russian side and we are trying to fight for our existence. This war is impacting the social and economic life of the entire European Union. How could you assess that kind of influence?
- First of all, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you and also with Ukrainian media and Ukrainian citizens. I will never forget the 24th of February last year when this horrible war started, because it was the day of our Plenary Session at the EESC. And we reacted immediately. We immediately could see that this will change not only in a horrible way the daily lives of Ukrainian people, but also the geopolitical context not only for Europe, but also on a worldwide scale. Therefore, immediately, we had an open debate among our members, strongly condemning this horrible war of aggression of Russia against Ukraine. From this first day on, our Committee has constantly shown solidarity and support for Ukraine and for your fight for liberty and freedom. Therefore, we continued our support in resolutions but also in concrete actions. For example, we host a number of civil society organisations, based in Brussels or in Ukraine, here in our Committee to give practical support to Ukrainian civil society, to give them a voice also at European level.
Last but not least, this Committee reacted as one to this change in the geopolitical context. For example, we were the first EU institution that asked and supported the candidate status for Ukraine in an unconditional way. There is still a considerable journey ahead, but I think the political signal was clear from our Committee from day one. And I'm strongly committed to pursue this policy.
UKRAINIANS ARE FIGHTING FOR THEIR FREEDOM AND COMMON EUROPEAN VALUES
- Russia's war against Ukraine has been going on for more than 15 months and has had consequences for Europeans as well: high energy and food prices. But, according to polls, EU citizens continue to actively support Ukraine in its fight for freedom, even though Ukraine is not yet a member of the EU. Do you have an explanation for this?
- Well, some people say it's a miracle somehow. I don't believe in miracles. I think the foundation is clearly that European citizens see that Ukraine, civil society in Ukraine, and citizens in Ukraine are fighting for the democratic ideal in their country. They are fighting for freedom of civil society. I won't say they fight for European values. First of all, they first fight for their own freedom and for their own liberty. And this deserves our full support. And, also, Europeans and their government have recognised that your fight against the Russian aggression is also a fight that you ultimately lead on our behalf. Therefore, I think civil society, Ukraine, deserves full support from our side. And I think this is the reason why citizens still support this fight despite, as you said, increased energy bills, high inflation rates. These elements are not negligible, but I think compared to the price that you pay, that Ukraine pays, this is a price we have to accept.
But once again, the fight that you do and your commitments are much tougher. This is the reason why there's still such a big support in Europe for the struggle of Ukraine.
VIBRANT CIVIL SOCIETY IS THE BASIS OF THE STABILITY OF THE COUNTRY
- Before the war, the EU and the European Commission were actively helping Ukraine reform its internal institutions, which proved to be resilient and continued to work even in the face of war. What lessons can be drawn from this emergency, including for building resilience in both Ukraine and the EU?
- Already before the war, we had a lot of contacts with Ukrainian civil society organisations. I have to say I was fascinated that there was and there is a vibrant civil society and open discussions, as well as disputes in Ukraine. It is very important that the war hasn't fundamentally changed this. I know you have a lot of restrictions and I know that also civil society organisations face restrictions. I know it also from the trade unions which are struggling with some of the measures, but the important part is that there is still a dialog, a resilience. This is the reason why you have this strong resilience and social cohesion in Ukraine. I don't want to say everything is perfect in this respect, not at all. But we can see that you have conflicts that we also face in EU Member States, between civil society organisations and governments, between social partners. This is normal. The government has to guarantee the space for open debate, even in time of conflicts. It is key that you keep this for the future and at the same time that you keep the credibility of public institutions of the Parliament, of the Constitutional Court, and of course, and keep up the fight against corruption.
This is key for me because it's also one of the main priority in my manifesto, the full guarantee of the rule of law. Shrinking space for civil society is a phenomenon that we can observe and witness around the world. Also within the European Union, and we have to fight this relentlessly. We have to make sure that civil society has a free space, and the rule of law and fundamental rights are preconditions for this.
THE INVOLVEMENT OF CIVIL SOCIETY IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF UKRAINE BUILDS CONFIDENCE AMONG INVESTORS
- I can say that Ukrainians appreciate very much the financial and economic assistance we are receiving from EU countries. But still, Ukraine is going to transfer into maybe the biggest building square not only in Europe but also in the world, after the war is over. Because the rebuilding and restoring of the critical infrastructure will play the crucial role for the future of the country. In your opinion, what conditions should be created in Ukraine to attract such significant external resources and private investment for post-war reconstruction and recovery?
- Well, first of all, there are already some measures which are positive and I welcome them. For example, the Donors' Coordination Platform. I think it's a valid instrument to increase credibility and trust in investments in Ukraine. We know that international actors such as the EU, the G7, but also financial institutions are involved in this and also the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. I think this is already an important step and their involvement in this platform ensures reliability of this platform, which itself is a good signal for investors.
But we have to go beyond. So, we, as the European Economic and Social Committee, also welcomed the creation of the Ukraine Facility, which is also another important instrument that aims at supporting Ukraine's recovery and reconstruction efforts.
And in this respect, we always put the emphasis on the crucial role of involvement of civil society. I think this will be important for the future and it has to be increased, when we speak about the reconstruction of Ukraine. I think this is not only a question for Member States and for investors, but this is also something where civil society, including social partners, should be at the table to set a framework, not only a legal framework, but also a reliable framework of civil society organisations. I think this is absolutely necessary to make this period, which hopefully will come sooner than later, a success.
WE OFFER CANDIDATE COUNTRIES "HONORARY MEMBERSHIP" IN THE EESC
- Ukraine is trying to come closer to European standards and to make some European legislation into everyday life. What kind of tools can Ukraine get from the European Social and Economic Committee on this path?
- We witness a stronger commitment of candidate countries, including Ukraine, to align with European standards. On the other hand, we see also that the European Union recognizes that we have to speed up the process, which became more dynamic with the war. We have to put even more emphasis on this. And as you said, it is one of my key priorities that the European Economic and Social Committee should play a key role to anticipate this process.
I don't want to be misunderstood. It doesn't mean that we can accelerate the accession procedure. It's not about this. But the EESC plays a key role in supporting civil society organisations in candidate countries. And I insist that our Committee can go ahead and be a frontrunner. As you mentioned, my initiative is to appoint as soon as possible so-called Honorary Enlargement Members from candidate countries, including Ukraine, that would be involved in the daily work of our Committee.
What does it mean? It means I want to involve civil society representatives from the employers' organizations, from the trade unions, from NGOs from Ukraine, in the drafting process of some of our key opinions.
For example, when it comes to initiatives aligning Ukrainian standards with European standards, when it comes to the Single Market, but also the European pillar of social rights, the rule of law or standards for free civil society. It gives an enormous added value for the accession procedure if we can already involve civil society representatives right now. These Honorary Enlargement Members will see, they will feel and experience already the added value of debates at European level.
Coming back to our Committee, we are an important player in policy making, but we are not the decision maker in the narrow sense. We are an advisory body. So, I think it's the best place to start this procedure in our Committee.
I am very happy and delighted that we have a lot of support for this idea from the institutions, from the European Commission, from Commissioners, from the European Parliament, but also, especially from the candidate countries themselves. I met with the employers' representatives, with trade unions, with other NGOs from Ukraine, who were here in Brussels. They discussed this idea. They would start today if it was up to them to decide. And really, I think we cannot disappoint those expectations. On the contrary, I think we should be the front runner as EESC. This is my commitment. We discussed this here in the house. I hope we will have a majority for this idea because it is a major step forward for civil society in candidate countries, a strong signal of solidarity, and finally it would raise the profile of our Committee to be front runners of this development.
WE SHOULD SUPPORT REFUGEES AND CREATE CONDITIONS FOR THEIR RETURN TO UKRAINE
- At the beginning of the Russian invasion, Europeans opened their hearts and homes to Ukrainians fleeing Putin's war. But no one expected the war to last so long. The presence of more than 4 million Ukrainian citizens in Europe is turning into a factor of economic and social influence on the stability of the EU itself. How do you assess this impact, and what can be done to give Ukrainians more incentives to return and to participate in the rebuilding of Ukraine?
- Yes. Well, first of all, I have to say I'm grateful that so many countries in Europe opened their borders and welcomed the refugees from Ukraine. It is important. And it is not only the will of the governments. We can see that there's a lot of commitment on the ground of civil society organisations. We have many of our members who are concretely involved on the ground, for example in Poland, but also in many other countries for example in Romania and Slovakia, but also in Germany, in Spain and everywhere across Europe. This is really important and shows that in a practical manner, civil society organisations play a crucial role to facilitate and to help refugees.
Now you said, and you're right: at the beginning we couldn't imagine that this horrible war will last so long. After a while, unfortunately, we recognised that it will be a rather long war. Nonetheless, it is still our responsibility to host those refugees, especially the most vulnerable in our countries, to make sure that they have equal treatment, that they are not exploited, especially women, which was also a big concern of the Committee and also of myself.
I think that the temporary protection mechanism was an important step forward. We can prolong this, but it is not endless. For the time being, it can be prolonged until 2025. But I think we have to look into other solutions to integrate some of them with a longer perspective. We have to bring opportunities to Ukraine to make sure that those who want to return should be able to return.
It would be very harmful for Ukraine if you lose all those important people permanently or even more people. So, we need, of course, still to continue with our support, foster more investments in Ukraine while insisting on reforms, which is challenging during war. But we can see improvements already, also the fight against corruption, the fight for more credibility, for stronger rule of law. I think all these are important factors to make the post-war Ukraine a destination for refugees to come back. It will require a huge financial European and international commitment. Support to Ukraine should be a worldwide effort.
And at the same time, we should also not forget the others. We have Moldova and we have all the Western Balkans countries, also Turkey, which are in candidate countries for a very long time. This is the reason why my Honorary Enlargement Members initiative is focused on all candidate countries. I hope that we can contribute here to more coherence within Europe and to make the enlargement procedure, how long it ever takes, a success. And to learn also from some developments in the past, when the EU was perhaps not careful enough with candidate countries to support them earlier, not only when they accessed the European Union but much before to make their civil societies and their systems resilient and to already foster a have a vibrant civil society. I think we have a good window of opportunity now and the starting point is now, but we have to continue our efforts and the Committee will definitely play a key role.
I myself plan also to come to Ukraine as soon as possible, after summer. We are in contact with your government, with your embassy, but also with civil society organizations there. It shouldn't be only a formal visit for a handshake. No, it should be much more. I would like to offer something, especially our initiative to involve civil society in our daily work. I would like to present this to policymakers, but also if the security safety situation allows to present this idea to civil society organisations and to discuss it with them in Ukraine.
ANY ISSUES OF EU ENLARGEMENT COULD BE SOLVED IN GOOD WILL
- Currently, despite of the free trade agreement, we have now the ban of Ukrainian imports to five bordering countries. But that happened during the war when our ability to produce some agricultural products is reduced. Since your Committee is involved in forecasting, do you have an answer to what will happen when Ukraine becomes a full member of the EU? How can the EU prepare itself and its structures for future enlargement?
- First of all, I condemn very strongly the behavior of Russia, again, not to prolong this Black Sea Grain Initiative. It shows again that food and hunger is misused as a weapon. I strongly condemn this. This is also an attack to our multilateral system and a threat against our rule-based system. We know that the General Secretary of the United Nations himself was very much personally involved in this solution. I was recently in the US just last week for the High-level Political Forum, when we discussed this.
I hope we can find other ways to help. We should help Ukraine also in the interest of all the people in the world who are suffering from hunger and again, from increasing food prices and also fighting against food speculation in this respect.
When it comes to the future, we know that integration of new Member States, especially big Member States with a huge agricultural system, will be a challenge. There is no doubt about this, and it will be challenging for all of them. But I am convinced we can find solutions.
We have to frame and design a new common agricultural policy after 2027 and we have to take all these elements into consideration, Everybody has to contribute to a solution and I am convinced that if there is good will from all sides, we will find a solution. Once again, I think the Common agricultural policy will be key after 2027.
- We look forward to seeing you in Kyiv.
Dmytro Shkurko, Brussels
Photo by EESC