The Russian invasion of Ukraine means a deep cut in the work of the BSPC which suspended and froze the memberships of the Russian parliaments. The Standing Committee discussed how to continue their work and revise their Rules of Procedure before learning more about the migration of refugees from Ukraine to Poland as well as the effects on the CBSS and their continued activities. The future of the BSPC and the Baltic Sea Region was further investigated regarding the 2022 Conference in Stockholm as well as an outlook on the following German presidency, with a focus on the continued involvement of youth participants through the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum. The meeting included about 40 participants from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Nordic Council, Norway, Poland, Schleswig-Holstein and Sweden.
BSPC President Pyry Niemi welcomed the members to the Standing Committee meeting in Warsaw, Poland, highlighting the host country’s efforts in supporting refugees from the war in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion had led to a fork in the road for the BSPC’s cooperation.
Mr Jaroslav Wałęsa, head of the Polish delegation, described his country as at the front of what was happening in Europe. He underlined that Russia had become a terrorist state, targeting civilians, schools and hospitals in a war of annihilation that would take a very long time. None had expected there to be another war in Europe, but now it was necessary to arm themselves to prevent Russia from taking another step forward. Sanctions had to be reinforced. He emphasised that Putin and his regime had to be held accountable. Furthermore, he voiced his pride over Poland having taken in so many refugees, noting that the country required substantial financial support to care for these people over the long period it would take until Ukraine could be rebuilt. Indeed, Mr Wałęsa underlined that the heart of the matter was the west continuing to stand united against Russia. As long as they would continue to speak with one voice, everything else would fall into place.
Forging a New Future for the BSPC
President Niemi pointed out that the BSPC had been the platform for cooperation, commitment, competence and political dialogue in the whole Baltic Sea region for 31 years, aiming to contribute to stability, peace, and democracy. After the Russian invasion, the next planned meeting of the Standing Committee had been adjourned. On 25 February 2022, the president and vice-president had released a statement condemning the unjust military attack in the strongest terms and appealing to the Russian Federation to immediately stop their assault. The heads of the BSPC delegations from outside Russia added their opposition to the war in a further statement on 12 March 2022, noting that they had decided that the Russian parliaments be suspended from all efforts of the BSPC until cooperation under the fundamental principles of international law would once again become possible.
The Standing Committee discussed how to implement the future of the organisation with regard to excluding any parliaments acting counter to the democratic values of the BSPC. The president and the secretary general laid out the available options to be finally decided at the Annual Conference in Stockholm in June 2022, ranging from disbanding and re-founding the BSPC to reforming the organisation.
Remarks to the discussion were contributed by Mr Bertel Haarder, Mr Jaroslav Wałęsa, Ms Carola Veit, Mr Bodo Bahr, Prof Jānis Vucāns, President Pyry Niemi, Mr Wille Valve, Mr Sakari Puisto, Vice-President Johannes Schraps and Mr Himanshu Gulati.
Given the immense administrative efforts, time spans and decisions that would have to be taken in various parliaments in forming a new organisation, a realignment and an adaptation of the existing BSPC to the current situation – suspending and freezing the memberships of the Russian parliaments – underlining its democratic and peace oriented values and principles based on international law emerged as the favoured choice, continuing the endeavours of the democratic members in working together and retaining the ability to act. A proposal for revised Rules of Procedure would be distributed a few weeks later, BSPC President Pyry Niemi explained. At the Stockholm Conference in June, there would be a one-hour pre-conference event at which the final decision would be taken on the Rules of Procedure as well as the suspension of the Russian parliaments by the Annual Conference. The president underlined that this change would be accompanied by a document explaining the grave reasons for it, not least for future delegations to the BSPC to understand the historical measures taken.
The Standing Committee agreed to that proposal.
Presentation Professor Paweł Kaczmarczyk: Migration from Ukraine to Poland – Past and present
Professor Paweł Kaczmarczyk, Director of the Centre of Migration Research, Poland, spoke about the migration from Ukraine to Poland, a process still unfolding with many aspects yet unknown. Ten years earlier, Poland had been the EU country with the lowest share of foreigners among their population, below 0.5 %. After 2014, Poland became a leader in issuing residence permits as a consequence of the first war with Ukraine and massive migration pressure. Poland had also developed a strong demand for outside labour. From 100,000 foreign residents in 2011, Poland had 750,000 in 2016, predominantly male and of productive age. Most of these were Ukrainians, only staying temporarily in the country. Immigration proceeded apace, with only a minor dip during the start of the corona pandemic. Polish legislation easily allowing citizens of six former Soviet countries to work in the country has led to some 1.5 million immigrants, primarily from Ukraine. Even before the war, migration from Ukraine to Poland had already been massive, spreading across the entire country.
Regarding the attitudes towards immigration, Prof Kaczmarczyk distinguished between old immigration countries – mostly western European but also the southern European nations experiencing massive inflows during the 1990s and 2000s – as well as new and future immigration countries, mainly in central and eastern Europe. Looking at data from 2018, he found that the perception of immigrants in western European countries as threats was in decline, e.g., in the UK and Germany. In southern Europe, Italy was an exception, presumably due to their role in the refugee crisis of 2015/16. Most interesting were the changes in central and eastern Europe, with countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia perceiving immigrants as threats. The same applied to hostility towards newcomers. Despite the very different patterns of immigration, the attitude development was striking and could not be explained by the newcomers themselves. Rather, politicization and media slant affected the popular view. Prof Kaczmarczyk cited a well-known phenomenon called “imaginary immigrants”, with the UK as an example. People believed that most people coming to the UK were asylum-seekers or refugees when in fact, the vast majority were students or labour migrants. The facts did not matter but rather the perception, the professor underlined. This perception could be fuelled even more by politics, as evidenced by the “Vote to Leave” campaign in the UK.
Prof Kaczmarczyk went on to speak about the recent refugee situation at the border between Belarus and Poland. In July 2021, the developments were in fact kicked off at the Lithuanian border, with increased pressure on the Polish border as well. From the declaration of a state of emergency in September to November, some 30,000 attempts to illegally cross the border had been registered, with an unknown number of pushbacks. The border was not as tight as believed as some 10,000 people had still reached Germany. The speaker highlighted that the position of the Polish government at this time was very strong against immigration, including respective changes of legislation. This case had been called a “migration crisis”, concerning some 13,000 – 15,000 people stuck in the woods between the border or in Belarus. Some 5,000 – 10,000 people might still be stuck in Belarus. Comparing these numbers to what was happening at the moment showed a stark difference.
Fairly little was known about the current situation, not least because of the mobility of the group in question, going back and forth. Two unique features characterized the situation: firstly, Ukrainians had been able to move freely across EU territory from the start, and, secondly, they could also move back to their home country if they liked. This, the professor pointed out, was very unusual. Current estimates showed that some 5 million people had left Ukraine, with approximately 3 million of those having reached Polish territory. By far, the highest numbers were registered in the early days of the war, the inflow tapering off and outflow back to Ukraine slightly increasing since. One million Ukrainians had registered in Poland, 50 % of them children, 45 % of them women of an economically productive age and 3 – 5 % of the elderly. Entering the Polish labour market was a slow process, so far only having yielded some 60,000 jobs. For Warsaw, as an example, this meant that the number of children of school age increased by 30 – 40 % within a single month.
For the look forward, important unknowns were when the war would end and what the political and social situation in Ukraine would be then. Prof Kaczmarczyk said that the Centre of Migration Research was considering three main scenarios, such as a protracted war, a quick end of the war and a fast recovery, a long war with a very difficult restoration. The professor underlined that in all likelihood, the number of Ukrainians in Poland would be much higher after the war than before, in every scenario. Secondly, the demographic structure would change substantially, with a greater share of children and elderly while there had been barely any before. This raised challenges that the countries of the Baltic Sea were already facing: first of all, housing, education, child and health care, labour market and the attitudes towards newcomers. Only two months after the start of the war, the people were already exhausted – also financially – so that systemic and massive interventions were necessary. He noted that of the 2.8 million people who had come to Poland, 1.5 million had stayed while the rest had moved on. The remainder was still a huge number, putting huge pressure on social services. The professor distinguished the situation from that in Germany in 2015 as many of the Ukrainians coming to Poland already had knowledge of the local labour market. Child care was a primary barrier to entry.
Finally, he addressed the attitude towards newcomers. Prof Kaczmarczyk emphasised that immigration was a topic that could very easily be politicised and used by populist politicians and media, not only in Poland. Smart communication strategies were needed on the side of government, showing why the migration was happening, how the support would be financed, how responsibilities would be shared, how the community – including the EU – would be used. This had to be communicated to the public as soon as possible.
In response to a question by Ms Bryndís Haraldsdóttir of Iceland, Prof Kaczmarczyk explained that immigrants were expected to get a Polish ID. Surprisingly well as it was going, the process did not record how many people had left Ukraine or had then left Poland, much as in Germany. Plans were afoot for a large-scale longitudinal survey, following the groups that had arrived in Poland for their decisions and needs.
Mr Johannes Schraps noted the importance of the EU decision to allow free movement to Ukrainian refugees but also the extraordinary lengths that Ukraine’s neighbouring countries had gone to. Ms Carola Veit commented that most refugees being in EU territory might speed up Ukraine’s accession. Regarding these and Mr Bahr’s questions, the professor believed the focus should be on supporting the refugees and in the longer term the reconstruction of Ukraine. He emphasised that these were not migrants but for the most part wanted to return as fast as possible.
Mr Olaf Berstad, Chair of the Committee of Senior Officials of the Council of the Baltic Sea States, Norway, spoke about the state of affairs in the Council of the Baltic Sea States. The CBSS had no provisions for suspension or cancellation of membership as it was built around consensus rather than legal obligations. Despite most member states now also being EU members, the CBSS had yielded an extra benefit by including Russia, especially during more difficult relations. Yet its priority areas of fostering a regional identity and crafting a safe and secure region were a strong raison d’être all on their own.
After Russia’s invasion had made clear that cooperation could not continue as it had before, not only was it decided to suspend Russia and Belarus but also to do so through a joint declaration by the foreign ministers of the remaining CBSS member states, just one week after the invasion had begun. That would give it a similar status to the Copenhagen Declaration that had launched the CBSS. This suspension would hold until cooperation would become possible under international law again. Mr Berstad did not believe a ceasefire would meet those requisites, and that a resumption of cooperation would take a long while. Russia was considering the suspension a hostile act, threatening withdrawal. The payments originally provided by Russia were frozen since the disrupted banking connections rendered refunding impossible. Russia’s absence, though, would enable the CBSS to hold the first full council meeting since 2013. Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea had prevented such already. On 25 May 2022, the ministers would meet to discuss how to handle cooperation without Russia and Belarus as well as how to support Ukraine, an observer country to the CBSS. A political declaration was being drafted, also in light of the 30th anniversary of the CBSS and the huge progress the Baltic Sea region had experienced over that time. As for the future, the CBSS had decided to proceed with its work and plans as much as possible and to do so without Russia. A new expert group on sustainable development was being planned, combining the strength of 10 countries, the European Commission and over 150 local and regional authorities.
Ambassador Grzegorz Marek Poznański, Director General of the CBSS Secretariat, added that the long-term priorities of regional identity, a sustainable and prosperous region, a safe and secure region remained valid as well as the long-term challenges such as climate change or demographic shifts. The CBSS expert groups had been energized by the suspension of Russia, developing ways of supporting Ukraine through their civil protection specialties. The expert group dealing with children at risk was looking into increasing or protecting the rights of children. At the same time, human trafficking was confronted, applying the CBSS expertise in transnational prevention efforts. Many issues had only been possible in a limited frame due to Russia’s involvement; without it, they could be explored in more depth.
Ambassador Poznański pointed out that 2022 would mark the second time in a row that the CBSS and the BSPC were cooperating in organising a Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum, making use of the Baltic Sea Youth Platform, a vital tool for youth collaboration. The CBSS was working on making it a permanent and more sustainable institution. The youth activities had proven highly successful, connecting them among each other and bringing their expertise to the foreground.
Regarding the idea of disbanding existing organisations in favour of new ones without Russian involvement, the ambassador voiced his support instead for preserving the established frameworks, with decades-long expertise. They would also make it easier to one day re-incorporate Russia – whichever form that country would take when returning to the world community.
Vice-President Johannes Schraps appreciated that both the BSPC and the CBSS continued to be aligned, an important foundation for the coming months. Secretary General Bodo Bahr underlined that both organisations should continue to strongly support each other.
Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum
2022 will see another Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum, as agreed earlier. Ms Johanna Ingvarsson provided an update on current preparations, including requests to be sent to the delegations about taking part in segments of the forum. The event would be held mainly online on the Saturday preceding the BSPC Conference. Ambassador Poznański on the side of the CBSS explained that the invitations to young people had been published on several channels. The BSPC was in charge of the programme for 11 June while the CBSS would arrange the presentation of the recommendations on 12 June. The CBSS Secretariat would handle the administration of participants and the on-site aspects on their own premises. The ambassador noted that the German Bundestag had been invited to attend the event, preparing the parliament to take on these efforts for a third forum during the German presidency of both the BSPC and the CBSS 2022/2023. Ms Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby added that representatives of the Youth Forum would be invited again to present their findings to the Conference, given the success and great approval from the preceding year.
Since one of the two BSPC Rapporteurs on Integrated Maritime Policy, Mr Jochen Schulte from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, had resigned from his parliamentary mandate, the Standing Committee appointed Mr Philipp da Cunha from the same parliament to fill his position and report together with Mr Jörgen Pettersson.
As the topic of Sea-Dumped Munitions was of special interest to the BSPC, the Standing Committee discussed whether to appoint a new rapporteur. Vocal support was brought forward by Mr Schraps and Ms Beate Schlupp. Mr Schraps explained that the German government was planning to provide financing in its upcoming budget which could provide the seed for financing in the whole Baltic Sea region. It was decided to ask the German Bundestag delegation to propose a candidate for the position.
Ambassador Poznański explained that the CBSS and HELCOM had been planning a joint roundtable on sea-dumped ammunitions in April 2022. That had to be cancelled due to HELCOM switching to an informal mode after the Russian invasion. Instead of that, they were seeking to put together an expert meeting on the same topic. He invited the BSPC to send a rapporteur to that meeting so they could envision the future process together.
As BSPC observer at HELCOM, Ms Schlupp had submitted a supplementary written report on the activities, particularly regarding the HELCOM ministerial meeting in Lübeck.
The Annual Conference in Stockholm 12-14 June 2022
President Niemi explained that the programme for the Conference had been updated, considering the brutal war Russia was waging against Ukraine. The title was now proposed as The Future of the Baltic Sea Region – the answer to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Strong democracies, the protection of human rights and sustainable development. The title underlined that it would be the democratic states shaping the future of the Baltic Sea region, based on strong democracies, the protection of human rights and sustainable development.
The first session would deal with cooperation in the changing situation, the vital second session with democracy and freedom of expression while the third session would reflect the working group’s efforts as well as the Stockholm +50 conference. The fourth session would investigate demographic challenges in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, especially concerning migration, labour market and the social welfare model. A general debate would round out the programme.
In response to Ms Carola Veit‘s question, Mr Bodo Bahr detailed the procedure of setting it up and integrating the input from the delegations in a more expedited manner than usual with the earlier Conference. He also provided more suggestions for high-level guests the delegations could invite, also taking into account the comment by Prof Jānis Vucāns on the special laws for Ukrainian refugees the Baltic States had integrated into their legislature. Ms Johanna Ingvarsson explained further administrative details.
Secretary General Bodo Bahr stated that the financial report of 2021 was again good, given the pandemic’s effects. A surplus was yielded once more, increasing the unused funds of the organisation even more. Despite the harsh situation, the financial situation of the BSPC had never been as excellent as at the present, throughout the organisation’s 30-year history.
In light of the discussion that day, Mr Bahr had elaborated a proposed 2022 budget taking into account the suspension of the Russian parliaments. The entire contributions for 2022 originally paid by these would be refunded in full. Although the budget would thus be lower for 2022, there would also be savings such as there no longer being any interpretation into Russian. Should the necessary expenditures exceed the annual budget, the unused means could be put to use.
As digital meetings were more expensive than in-person events due to technology costs, Ms Carola Veit suggested that delegations paid a fee roughly equivalent to their savings in travel and hotel costs. The idea would be taken into account.
The Standing Committee agreed to the proposal for the dynamic budget for 2022 and the further budgetary proposals.
Vice-President Johannes Schraps provided an update for the plans of the German presidency, among them the date for the 2023 Conference in Berlin from 27 – 29 August 2023. The Drafting Committee would assemble on the Sunday before. The German Bundestag delegation was also planning to continue the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum with a third iteration on the Saturday prior to the Conference. He also noted that Berlin would host the Standing Committee’s autumn meeting on 20 – 21 November 2022.
He further spoke about possible – currently considered – priority topics of the German presidency which would be under the headline Strengthening Democratic Resilience and Promoting Peace, in continuation of the successful work of the Swedish presidency. During a time of great upheaval and change on various fronts – from climate change over COVID-19 to the Russian assault -, the German presidency wished to tackle these issues. Thus, their thematic striving was to boost resilience against anti-democratic influences, to cope better with the challenges democratic systems were facing. Good neighbourliness and co-existence were even more vital to be promoted as was respecting the equal sovereignty of all states. Drawing on the main theme of the Swedish presidency from 2020 to 2022 to support democratic institutions, resilience was a cornerstone of their approach. Equally vital was resilience in the digital sphere, spurred on by recent cyber-attacks that had exposed the vulnerability of democratic societies, but also against conspiracy theories and disinformation. The protection of the marine environment was another fundamental topic, also in view of the sea-dumped munitions.
He listed the cornerstones as intensifying cooperation between like-minded states, strengthening the principle of peaceful and reliable neighbourliness – hence the condemnation of any aggression and use of force against the territorial integrity of another state – and boosting democratic as well as digital resilience. The battle against hate speech, fake news and conspiracy theories could serve as a focal point of the 2023 Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum, he proposed.
Mr Schraps further pointed out that the Germany would also take over the presidency of the CBSS from June 2022. Both were seeking to engender synergy between the two presidencies.
Regarding the upcoming Danish presidency after the German Bundestag, Mr Bertel Haarder referred to the next Standing Committee meeting. Picking up on Mr Olaf Berstad’s comments regarding Russian propaganda, Mr Haarder suggested bringing in an expert to provide more information on its workings and how to counter it.
Mr Wille Valve reminded that his home, the Åland Islands, were celebrating 100 years of autonomy.
President Niemi informed the Standing Committee that responses to the 30th BSPC Resolution had been received from a number of parliaments: Åland, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hamburg, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, with Sweden to follow in the coming week.
The chairwoman of the Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity, Ms Tenfjord-Toftby, explained that they would hold their first in-person meeting on the Åland islands on 9 – 10 May 2022. The emphasis of the programme would be on biodiversity both on land and in the sea. Furthermore, they would address the survey that had been sent out to the governments to achieve a clearer picture of what had been done. Nine members had sent responses: Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hamburg, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Schleswig-Holstein and Sweden. In September 2022, Sweden would hold general elections, but Ms Tenfjord-Toftby was not seeking re-election so that the working group would require a new chair.
President Niemi informed the Standing Committee at the end of the meeting about ongoing contact with the Nordic Council about a future location of the BSPC at the Nordic Council Copenhagen office.
Furthermore, BSPC President Pyry Niemi underlined that this session had been a historic meeting. He highly appreciated that the BSPC Standing Committee had been united and proven to be very strong and firm. Finally, he thanked the Polish delegation for hosting that meeting in Warsaw.