In its second day, the BSPC Annual Conference talks about the challenges brought about by this latest wave of migration, now from Ukraine, to housing, education, health and child care. In its traditional General Debate, parliamentarians reinforce their support for Ukraine but also for dissidents in Belarus and Russia and look forward to Baltic cooperation without Russia. Finally, after an eventful and very successful two-year presidency in tremendous challenging times, Sweden hands over the baton to the incoming German Bundestag presidency of the BSPC.
Fourth Session on
Demographic challenges in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; migration, labour market and the social welfare model
Chair Carola Veit explained that the Russian war and the movement of refugees were deeply affecting the other countries, raising questions and challenges to which answers had to be found, in addition to the measures already taken: housing, education, child and health care, the labour market and the attitudes towards newcomers.
Ms Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, explained that while the Russian attack had taken many Europeans by surprise, the Baltic Sea region had lived in the shadow for many years. Just as well, the fast, united response by Europe had also been a surprise. She highlighted the volunteer work to assist the refugees from Ukraine as well as the citizens welcoming refugees to their homes. Ms Johansson reminded the Conference how divisive migration had been, stressing the unanimous decision by the EU. At the same time, challenges had arisen, among them human trafficking as a major problem that had been tackled from the very first week. A 10-point plan had been instituted to handle the challenges.
Solidarity had been huge, with Poland, Estonia and Lithuania in the top six countries giving shelter to refugees. More support was needed, and Ms Johansson referred to the new EU Initiative Safe Homes to help those opening their homes. Some 400,000 Ukrainian children were going to schools in EU member states, of those 200,000 in Poland and 130,000 in Germany. The EU had set up a talent pool pilot to match refugee skills with employer needs at the European level. Around 6.5 million Ukrainians had entered the EU since the start of the war, of which about 2.5 million had returned. Approximately 4 million refugees were left, making up the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Of those, 3.2 million had applied for temporary protection and could now be registered on a shared EU platform. A solidarity platform had been established at the EU to bring, e.g., children with disabilities to regions where they could be supported, to help raped women and other such cases. The EU funds had been used as flexibly as possible and in a rapid manner, such as one billion euros from the Care Package, 3.5 billion euros in pre-financing.
Ms Johansson had presented a new Pact on Migration and Asylum two years ago on which there had finally been agreement the preceding Friday on three important parts. This showed that member states were now ready to set up a much-needed European system to deal with migration and asylum. She cautioned her listeners that this was not over yet as Russia was fighting a war of attrition. Persistence and endurance were necessary for the future.
Mr Kai Mykkänen of Finland asked about the Commission’s estimates of how many Ukrainians would stay longer term in the EU and how a repeat of the Belarus-Polish border situation of the previous year, also at other borders, could be legally prevented.
Mr Johannes Schraps of Germany highlighted it was important to think beyond the EU borders regarding the solidarity, especially countries like Moldova.
Mr Kacper Płażyński of Poland was disappointed that the EU was paying much more to Turkey to maintain those migrants than to Poland.
Ms Ylva Johansson replied that the migration flux was different to ordinary refugees, with women and children coming first and many people heading back to Ukraine. There was also circular movement, especially in the border regions. So, there were no estimates for long-term stays, but registrations and school enrolments would provide more information over time. She approved of the Finnish emergency plans. Furthermore, she agreed that the outreach to and support for countries like Moldova was vital. As for the Polish comment, Ms Johansson underlined that the Commission could only use money that was already in the budget. They were at the beginning of the MFF, though, and that some 63 billion euros were slated for Poland, with the precondition of judges being reinstated and the judicial system brought back in line. She further underlined that the migration funds were not intended for housing and the like, so that cohesion and other funds could be used for the longer-term refugee situation.
Ms Alske Freter of Hamburg pointed out the other refugees from places such as Syria or Afghanistan that received different treatment by EU countries, wondering if the Ukrainian crisis was changing that.
Ms Anne Shepley of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern asked why the temporary protection had not been applied in 2014.
Mr Jarosław Wałęsa of Poland pointed out that Ukraine, as the largest exporter of grain, could not supply its grain to northern Africa. He asked about contingency plans for the people about to escape this impending famine, putting additional pressure on the migration system.
Ms Ylva Johansson acknowledged differences between refugees from Ukraine and those from, e.g., Afghanistan and Syria. She underlined that the former were receiving temporary protection rather than asylum. At most, it could be extended to three years. Asylum allowed longer protection. Different kinds of regulations were applied to different groups, Ms Johansson stressed. She regretted that the temporary protection had not been applied to Ukrainian refugees in 2014 and considered that a lesson learned, along with a more pragmatic approach in the present. As for famine refugees, she saw it important to reach out support along the routes before they would reach European borders. The countries had to be supported early on, also in terms of security issues as famine might reinforce terrorist activities. Ms Johansson underlined that this was a threat to people’s lives.
Mr Hans Wallmark, former Chair of the BSPC working group on migration and integration and together with Ms Carola Veit BSPC Rapporteur on that issue – chairing the following part of the session – thanked EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson for her valuable input to the 31st BSPC.
Ms Justina Jakštienė, Vice-Minister for Social Security and Labour, Republic of Lithuania, noted that her country had been occupied by Russia for fifty years and could still recognise the propaganda from Russia. At the same time, they valued her friendship with Ukraine and supported their EU membership. She outlined Lithuania welcoming the third biggest share of refugees per capita, providing for them as if they were Lithuanian citizens. Housing was a challenge, she conceded. Nearly half of the refugees were children; out of ca. 20,000, some 1,200 were unaccompanied minors. Lithuania had signed a contract with Ukraine on the protection of children, focusing on their psychological status. All levels of education, up to university were open to them, currently in both Lithuanian and Russian, although efforts were underway to add Ukrainian-language classes as well. Although all Ukrainian children in Lithuania were registered, some of them were continuing remote schooling from their Ukrainian teachers at home. As for employment of the adults, Ms Jakštienė saw them as easily integrated into the labour market. 30 % of working age refugees already had jobs. Some two thirds of those were in medium-skilled jobs, 1 % was in high school jobs. Most Ukrainian worked as accountants, marketers, in manufacturing, social/health assistants, sanitation specialists etc. The support for disabled people would have to be extended, she expected. Furthermore, Lithuania was offering treatment for Ukrainian soldiers. She moved on to NGOs such as the Red Cross that had become close partners of the government during the recent crises.
Regarding the challenges, Ms Jakštienė pointed out that demography was determined by mortality, fertility and migration. War migration was complicated and hard to define for the future. In one week, 1,000 refugees would reach Lithuania, and 500 would be going back. She saw housing, integration, education and special social support as measures to convince people to stay in the country until Ukraine would be rebuilt after the war.
Professor Maciej Duszczyk, Centre for Migration Research, University of Warsaw, reiterated that the war was not over as refugees kept arriving from Ukraine. From the migration point of view, the war had begun in 2014, having tripled the number of Ukrainians living in Poland in the last four years. Exact data were available only on border traffic. The professor estimated 3.5 million Ukrainians had fled the war across the Polish border, although not all had stayed in Poland; using several methodologies – such as phone data or water usage -, there were presumably now about 1.5 or 1.6 million Ukrainians in the country plus 1.3 million people who had already lived there before February 2022. That came out to about 3 million Ukrainians in Poland. With movement back and forth, the question was how many would stay. 600,000 of them were children, 200,000 had been enrolled in Polish schools while the rest were following the Ukrainian curriculum remotely.
The pyramid of challenges started with education, expecting to enrol 600,000 children in the Polish system within the next three months. The professor called this impossible, both in terms of the availability in schools but also because the children should not suffer trauma. The challenge, in his view, was to prepare the capacities to help and to keep helping, especially in learning as the pandemic had shown that remote learning was not a good option. Housing was another problem that needed urgent solving since 600,000 people were still staying in other people’s homes. Healthcare would become a concern in the autumn when children got sick more often.
Compassion fatigue was a psychological reality, he said. That was why a systematic approach from the national government as well as the EU level was needed. Prof Duszczyk noted that there was yet another refugee crisis still ongoing since people fleeing more distant wars – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, to name a few – were still trying to cross the border between Belarus and Poland. He posed the question if they could help everyone and stressed that the answer was no. However, capacities had to be expanded, although that was still not enough and necessitated different solutions had to be found. Prof Duszczyk underlined the importance of human rights as the top priority.
Mr Maciej Koneczny of Poland agreed that there is fatigue among countries and especially families helping Ukrainians. Institutional solutions had to be found for the future. Clear and equal rights had to be enacted for Ukrainians and Polish or Lithuanian people as well as equal working conditions. The same had to apply to housing and healthcare. After the war, in the rebuilding effort, he called for Ukraine not to continue to be saddled with having to repay foreign debts. The European Union and other entities should cancel these debts. Moreover, in future contracts, the interests and benefits of multinational companies should not be prioritised over the best interests of the Ukrainian people. Instead, unconditional help should be given to the people.
Mr Kacper Płażyński sarcastically commented on European Commissioner Ylva Johansson’s remarks about Poland using other funds for refugee aid and asked Ms Jakštienė about her and Lithuania’s opinion. Ms Justina Jakštienė conceded that helping the refugees, in particular assisting children and disabled people, was very expensive. As for Lithuania, the country had amended its budget right at the beginning of the war to create reserves. As for the European funds, they had already been allocated, and they were already working on using the funds of the next financial period. In particular, some present-day aid for refugees would be provided from Lithuania’s share in the following financial period. Their focus was on housing, education and the health system.
Mr Sayed Amin Sayedi of Germany, representative of the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum, picked up on the Polish delegation distinguishing between so-called “real refugees” from Ukraine and other refugees. Mr Sayedi presented his own story of hardship in fleeing Afghanistan that had been compounded by six years of staying in Finland and Germany without any perspective for the future. He had not been allowed to go to university or work during that time. He found it disappointing that refugees received such diverse treatment. Furthermore, Mr Sayedi raised the point that the people who had fought and worked alongside and for the European and Americans in Afghanistan had essentially been forgotten. Instead, help should be given to them.
Prof Jānis Vucāns chaired the debate session with Mr Jarosław Wałęsa, continuing a format that had been a part of the Annual Conference since 2018. Very well received, the debate offered delegations the opportunity to provide their perspectives on issues dear to their hearts.
Prof Jānis Vucāns saw the BSPC in a new position, after suspending the Russian parliaments. Open discussion could now deal with topics that had been impossible with Russian participation, among them economic, energy and security questions. Energy would prove crucial for the Baltic Sea region. He underlined that “together” was a vital concept for their cooperation, also in the long-term support of Ukraine.
Mr Jarosław Wałęsa encouraged the attendees to contribute to the debate from different perspectives.
Mr Axel Eriksson of Sweden, representative of the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum, saw the security issue also as one of climate change and biodiversity loss, mentioning that for example water stress could trigger security conflicts. If the fundamental roots were not addressed, they could not be solved in the long term. He asked for fundamental roots of conflicts to be treated in addition to their consequences.
Mr Simon Påvals of Åland considered the interface between first-hand experience of climate change and scientific research to be crucial. Only that way could it be understood what the future would bring. The effects of human interaction were difficult to predict, he said, citing the example of the stickleback fish’s stock numbers exploding with their natural predator, the herring, a favourite target of human fishing. The food chain was changing, but scientific institutions had yet to take notice. He stressed that the local people were the key to success against climate change and to preserve biodiversity.
Mr Jarosław Wałęsa agreed, suggesting a return to a 1970s treaty limiting the sizes of the ships that could operate in the Baltic Sea.
Ms Inese Voika from Latvia concurred that support for Ukraine had to extend beyond military help to reconstruction of the country, both in physical terms but also rebuilding its democracy. She further touched on Belarus and Russia and giving support for the democratic opposition. That had been much as the Baltic States had nurtured their sense of democracy during the Soviet occupation and been able to become independent.
Ms Iveta Benhena-Bēkena, also from Latvia, quoted, “Si vis pacem, para bellum.If you want peace, prepare for war.” Peace had to be the foremost goal on every level, and she believed that all sacrifices would be worth preserving their democracy.
Mr Kacper Płażyński raised the idea of reparation payments for Ukraine from Russia. He insisted that one could not go back to business as usual once the war was over at some point in the future but that reparations would have to be demanded.
Mr Ola Elvestuen from Norway saw the BSPC Annual Conference as sending a strong message of unity. At the same time, it was necessary to increase the military support with heavy weapons and ammunitions to make Ukrainian forces advance again, while also increasing sanctions and continuing support for refugees. Greater coordination was also necessary to tackle the wider crises across the world.
Mr Hans Wallmark of Sweden found this conference to be relieved and free compared to previous ones, because there were no Russian delegations. The lack of restraints on discussions should lead to them investigating during the coming year what other challenges – in the security area, posed by Russia – should join the established topics. At the same time, this cooperation of free and independent countries and regions could find new opportunities as well. They could now create their own Hanseatic League of the present day.
Ms Hanna Katrín Friðriksson of Iceland highlighted the role of a free and independent press and the fight against strategic propaganda as well as fake news. She stressed a suggestion made by Ms Valentina Shapovalova that the international news should be translated into Russian and made available to the Russian people to actually understand what was happening.
Mr Wille Valve from Åland referred to the European ban on seal products for reasons of animal welfare. This created an awkward situation in everyday life for coastal life. Legally, the hunting of seals was allowed – and necessary due to the damage seals caused -, but it was not permitted to generate products from the small quantity of killed seals. While he approved of the overall ban, he called for a limited exception for artisanal local products.
BSPC President Pyry Niemi and Vice President Johannes Schraps chaired the final session of the 31st Baltic Sea Parliamentary Conference. The reports of the Rapporteurs began the session.
Ms Beate Schlupp, BSPC Observer at HELCOM, said that the brutal Russian invasion had disrupted the work of multiple regional cooperation organisations that had taken decades to create. HELCOM was among those severely affected by the war waged by one of its founding members. All physical meetings had been put on hold until 30 June 2022. Yet the crises continued and demanded their joint efforts continue towards a safer and more sustainable Baltic Sea. The BSPC had confirmed its revised Rules of Procedure as well as its principles and objectives at this conference. For 20 years, the BSPC and HELCOM had been working together towards their shared goals. She outlined the recently adopted Baltic Sea Action Plan of HELCOM, in particular its cross-cutting goals. This should send a strong signal in the area of marine environmental protection. She wished the new Latvian presidency of HELCOM the best of success.
Mr Philipp da Cunha spoke as Co-Rapporteur on Integrated Maritime Policy considered the impact of the war on maritime business, such as cruise tourism and supply chains. He noted that the former had already been deeply affected by COVID-19. Supply chain problems were visualised by maritime traffic jams, among others triggered by China’s zero-COVID policy banning harbours. Inland transport had suffered from a lack of truck drivers as well. He highlighted the role of the blue economy in the green and energy transition. Economic growth had to be decoupled from the use of resources. Currently, there were military, economic, energy and food uncertainties. Market expectations had changed dramatically, altering prices for all commodities. He highlighted a shared European approach to curb Russian fossil fuels and replace them with other reliable energy sources.
BSPC President Pyry Niemi moved on to the adoption of the Resolution of the 31st Baltic Sea Parliamentary Conference. This had to be done unanimously, as per the old and new Rules of Procedure.
Before that, the Conference adopted an amended version of paragraph ten of the Statutes and Rules of Procedure which had been unanimously proposed by the Standing Committee in the margins of the conference.
The Conference adopted the 31st BSPC Resolution. President Niemi hoped that the contents of this resolution would be acted on by the governments, ministries and other institutions around the Baltic Sea.
In good BSPC tradition, BSPC President Pyry Niemi passed the baton of the presidency to the incoming president of the BSPC, Mr Johannes Schraps of the German Bundestag.
Incoming BSPC President Johannes Schraps underlined in his outlook on the focal issues of the German Bundestag’s presidency the difficult times they were living through: Instead of showing signs of division, it was essential to underline togetherness. The 31st Resolution did just that. Tremendous challenges continued to lie ahead of them, so that close and reliable cooperation were even more important than ever. Strengthening democracy and promoting peace accordingly would be the headline of the new German presidency. Reinforcing democratic resilience against challenges was vital, as was the promotion of good neighbourliness, peace and the sovereign integrity of all states. The vulnerability of democratic states to conspiracy theories had been revealed in recent years, so that democratic processes had to be made more transparent and a stronger, more diverse civil society had to be encouraged. Media literacy was a challenge for the whole population. On top of that, the climate crisis remained the overarching challenge, so that the German presidency had put the protection of the marine environment at the forefront. This included cooperation in energy aspects but also the topic of sea-dumped ammunitions. With regard to the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum, Mr Schraps said that another instalment was planned in conjunction with the 32nd BSPC Conference in Berlin in 2023. In closing, he said that each generation had and wanted to find its own answers for their age.
The President of the 31st BSPC and further BSPC Vice President Pyry Niemi thanked all who had participated in the Annual Conference and had contributed to its particular success in challenging times, the Drafting and the Standing Committee, all delegations, parliamentarians, governmental representatives, experts, guests and supporters in the background as well as the staff of the Swedish parliament, the Secretary General and the interpreters.