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Oliver Röpke (EESC): Stop the war. Protect workers. Save democracy
Oliver Röpke (Photo: EESC)

Oliver Röpke (EESC): Stop the war. Protect workers. Save democracy

The conflict itself, on the very borders of the European Union, has reminded us that the world is still out there

The urgency of the situation in Ukraine, the plight of its people, their courageous and successful defence against a much more powerful enemy – all of this has shaken the foundations of what, until a few months ago, was often assumed the natural order of things in Europe.

The war itself, on the very borders of the European Union, has reminded us that the world is still out there. The images and news we receive every day remind us of the brutality of war – one that is taking place on our very doorstep – including the recent finding of mass graves and signs of what could be war crimes. It has shaken the EU and has shown, once again, the real face of autocracies. Putin’s forces and rockets hit Kyiv and, even after their partial retreat and the Ukrainian counter-attack, the offensive rages on and civilians keep dying. Having discarded the blitzkrieg of the early days of the war, and after suffering heavy losses, Putin seems to have shifted to a targeted and more progressive attack, devastating each metre of conquered land. Using the massive superiority that Russia enjoys on conventional equipment, and particularly heavy weaponry, Putin keeps making gains, forcing thousands out of their homes and killing many more. The signs of war crimes and the sheer number of refugees suggest that this strategy will leave very few Ukrainians behind the lines to contest the current de facto annexation (including the issuing of Russian passports) of occupied Ukrainian territory. In the EU, the economic consequences are already hitting the most vulnerable people hard and the situation is only likely to worsen as the war lingers on.

Fortunately, the response, after the initial hesitation, was united and clear: measures to punish Putin and his regime, solidarity with the millions of refugees fleeing the Russian invasion and clear support for the Ukrainian people. The Temporary Protection Directive was a key piece of this response. The first priority is to assist Ukraine and its refugees and host societies. Civil society has done, and will continue doing, an outstanding job, from channelling donations to providing shelter and helping those fleeing. The EESC Workers’ Group, together with the ETUC, condemn the Russian aggression and express solidarity with the people of Ukraine. We are constantly in contact with our Ukrainian counterparts, ensuring that as much help as possible arrives where it is most needed. It is now more important than ever to maintain our efforts and avoid normalising this situation and shifting our attention elsewhere. Continuous support by every means available is the only way to achieve peace, and Ukraine badly needs the resources to stop the invasion: as long as Putin considers a military victory likely, he will only sit at the negotiating table as a masquerade to regroup his troops.

We must also remember that this war is the latest example of a long trend, from Chechnya and Georgia to Crimea. In case we needed any further reminders, Putin continuously shows us how Ukraine is just another step in a longer imperialist vision where entire parts of Europe should bow to his autocratic regime or be considered aggressors. It is foolish to think this time he will have had enough. Another side to this conflict is the war that Putin is waging against his own people: keeping them afraid and misinformed with propaganda, dividing them through polarisation, equating dissent with treason and directly eliminating those who dare to speak up.

As with the pandemic, this invasion has found us unprepared, in this case with many countries lacking any diversification from Russian supplies of fossil fuels. This reckless dependency, damaging both the climate and our sovereignty, needs to end. Ukrainians will certainly bear the brunt of this, but others will not be immune. Sanctions and recession will hit Russia’s and the EU’s most vulnerable workers hard. Soaring energy prices, rampant inflation levels, rising costs for basic items – this is just the beginning. Meanwhile, a potential food shortage and starvation crisis is looming in many countries that can no longer count on Ukrainian exports.

The EU and its Member States need to act, protecting our citizens’ living conditions, ensuring that speculation with energy prices does not force our families even further into energy poverty and our industries to collapse, and supporting the societies hosting millions of refugees. Moreover, long-term reforms are needed in an energy market that has clearly shown how dysfunctional it is and how directly any disturbance spills over to workers and other members of the public. The worsening conditions for Europeans should also serve as a cautionary tale, as autocratic leaders thrive on inequality and poverty. Democracy is threatened by people like Putin, who considers Ukraine his, some other countries also his, and seizes his neighbours’ resources under the cover of protecting certain ethnic identities. It is also under threat by political leaders within the EU who hope to build a similar model and who feed on rising inequality and poverty. The support for Ukraine’s EU candidate status is a strong positive sign: Europe must no longer be a chessboard for superpowers, but rather a united and peaceful Union striving for the freedom and wellbeing of its citizens. However, the candidate status is just the beginning of a long procedure, which is also an opportunity to set EU standards when rebuilding Ukraine after the war. This includes strengthening the autonomy of social partners and social democracy, fully respecting social rights and embedding in the country’s legislation all the rest of the acquis communautaire, ensuring full respect for the rule of law. Notwithstanding this candidate status, it must also be noted that the EU is not yet ready for a further major enlargement: rules are not fit for purpose; this much was clear in the recommendations made during the Conference on the Future of Europe. The European Union must speed up its reforms, making its decision-making procedures more democratic and straightforward and moving its mechanisms away from a system designed for only a few members to a system that can cope with the nearly 30 countries that might make up the EU in the near future.

From our side, the Workers’ Group will continue to monitor the situation of people fleeing Ukraine as a consequence of the war, specifically the assistance they are receiving in their host countries and their integration into the EU labour market, with a view to implementing measures to avoid precarious employment and labour exploitation. Furthermore, we will continue to assist trade unions’ efforts to channel help towards Ukrainian workers and trade unions.

Oliver Röpke, President of the Workers’ Group in the European Economic and Social Committee

(Il testo in italiano seguirà a breve)