Enlargement, communication and energy top the agenda at the EESC's Connecting EU seminar addressing the war in Ukraine's impact on the EU

The enormous challenges posed for Europe by Russia's aggression were the subject of the EESC's annual seminar for civil society communicators, entitled Geopolitical turmoil at Europe's door: the perspective of civil society, which took place in Zagreb, Croatia, on 24 and 25 October 2022.

The European Union, as was stressed at the seminar, organised in partnership with Croatia's Economic and Social Council, should not only support Ukraine in its daily life during the war but should also think about Ukraine's long-term reconstruction and path to EU membership.

Let's try to imagine Ukraine in a couple of years. I know it is difficult to view matters positively against the backdrop of constant news from the field, with missiles continuing to hit Ukrainian cities every day, inflicting damage on the water network and causing power cuts. Our thinking and our work today must be led by how we want to see the future of Ukraine. I see it as a reconstructed, prosperous country based on European values and allowing its citizens to return to decent lives in their home country, said Christa Schweng, EESC President, in her opening speech in Zagreb.

How did the West make a mistake about Vladimir Putin? Galia Ackerman, writer, journalist, historian, and French translator of Anna Politkovskaya's work, tackled this question in her keynote speech. In her opinion, Putin has been pursuing a hidden agenda since the beginning of his rule in Russia.

Nonetheless, some Westerners were not able to see Putin's goals, and some preferred not to. The KGB-trained Vladimir Putin has the mentality and the ethics of the KGB. And I agree that someone who is a product of the KGB could have the skills to deceive most of the world, said Ms Ackerman.

Even during the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin is still able to target both the extreme right and the extreme left in the West. To the extreme right, Putin speaks about societal values or "healthy conservatism", which is not healthy because it is, for example, against the rights of LGBT minorities, Ackerman explained. On the other hand, Putin appeals to the extreme left, using, among other things, anti-American sentiment.

"It wasn't long ago that Croatia faced completely different geopolitical circumstances. We were on the other side of the border of the EU. We had UNESCO-protected sites, such as Dubrovnik, coming under attack. At that time, a song emerged. Many still remember the lyrics to Europe, you can stop the war, said Marin Piletić, Croatian Minister for Labour, Pension Systems, Family and Social Policy, remembering the war in the Balkans and the hope that Europe brings. His country is now on the threshold of joining the Schengen area and the eurozone.

Europe has suddenly discovered it is not in a good place, said Seamus Boland, President of the EESC's Civil Society Organisations Group. He pointed to the lack of safe access to resources that previously came from Russia.

The panel discussion In the shadow of war: Europe's new geopolitical context over consequences for the future of the EU focused on the impact of Russia's actions on the Balkans and on lessons for Ukraine regarding EU enlargement. The enlargement process shows that the later you enter this process, the longer it takes. In this sense, Ukrainians will have a tough time. Still, in the end, they will not face major disappointment because the EU will not reject them, said Augustin Palokaj, Brussels correspondent for the Croatian newspaper Jutarnji list.

The West's struggle in the battle of narratives against Putin's Russia was one of the themes of the panel discussion Communication in times of crisis. Communicating in a crisis means operating in a very unstable and fast-changing environment. So we need to be flexible to move fast. And the EU is still often stuck in its processes, so I think there is room for improvement here, said Aurel Laurențiu Plosceanu, member of the EESC Employers Group and president of the EESC's Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship (SOC).

Russia's strong hand in sowing its propaganda outside Europe and North America was stressed by panel members. In Europe, too, there is a growing need for professional and "volunteer armies" to combat disinformation techniques.

Regarding disinformation, a systematic approach is absolutely essential. We need to know everything about our enemy, and we need systematic debunking to limit harmful disinformation. We need to educate our audience about media and media literacy and never give up, stated Viktoriia Romaniuk, deputy editor-in-chief of StopFake.org and deputy director of Kyiv's Mohyla School of Journalism.

Severe problems in the energy market, compounded by the war, were the subject of a panel debate on The energy revolution between the war and climate objectives, challenges to the Green Deal. On the agenda were challenges for the green transition, lessons from dependence on Russia (which now also apply to China) and the pros and cons of nuclear energy.

Russia's aggression against Ukraine forces us to either slide back to coal, which still plays a significant role in the EU or to double down on developing renewable sources. The war has also reminded us of the problem of relying on a very limited number of suppliers for resources, said Oliver Röpke, President of the EESC Workers Group.

Persevering with the EU's climate goals requires increased efforts to achieve a socially just transition. It is necessary to assess energy poverty wisely to tailor support fairly. For example, you must have a roof to put solar panels on the roof. This makes the difference between owner and tenant, said Jarosław Pietras, Visiting Fellow at the Wilfried Martens Centre and former Director-General at the Council of the EU.

The seminar was supported by the Office of the European Parliament and the European Commission's Representation in Croatia.