Tensions with Russia over the Ukraine conflict are giving EU border states and aspiring members the jitters. How are people there coping, and what is the EU doing to reassure them?
Hello and welcome to People First, the EPP Group's monthly program on issues with impact on people like you. Joining us to answer some of your questions is Sandra Kalniete. You're the Latvian Vice-Chair of the EPP Group here in the European Parliament, responsible for relations with Eastern Neighbors as well as Enlargement.
Before we get to our questions, you were prevented by Russia from going there to attend the funeral of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. You spent hours in the airport – is that how it worked, is that what happened there?
I had a diplomatic passport, and according to an agreement we have between Latvia and Russia, those with diplomatic passports don't need to apply for an entry visa. And for me it was a complete surprise, that apprarently there was a problem. It took more than two hours. And the last plane back to Latvia left, before they officially announced to me that according to Russian legislation, and the code and the paragraph 22 prime, I'm forbidden entry into Russia.
So it was a bureaucratic way of keeping you from coming in.
Mr. Nemtsov's murder is just one of the latest issues troubling EU-Russia relations. Let's take a look at some more of them in our report.
The slaying of Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Russian democratic opposition, drew strong condemnation from the European Parliament. The resolution, spearheaded by the EPP Group, requested an independent international investigation.
Ms. Kalniete called the murder a "hybrid message" of Russian President Putin's system to the liberal, democratic world." Her comment alluded to the concept of hybrid warfare – a mix of conventional and unconventional means, as seen among pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.
The resolution also called on Russian authorities to release all political prisoners, including Nadiya Savchenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament.
Belarus is one of six countries in the EU's Eastern Partnership, which encourages reform in exchange for trade, aid and closer ties. Ms. Kalniete, a former Latvian foreign minister, has called for the release of all political prisoners there ahead of the Eastern Partnership Summit which Latvia will host in May. Belarus' president, Alexander Lukashenko, long considered Europe's last dictator, has shown some willingness to reform, and has hosted Ukraine peace talks in Minsk.
The Eastern Partnership also includes Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a member of the EPP, has made clear that there will be no new member states during his five-year tenure. The process, he says, is going to take time. In the meantime, the parliamentary assembly Euronest, grouping EU and Eastern Partnership states, an EPP Group initiative, continues to promote closer ties.
So, quickly on Euronest so we know a little more about that, how is that promoting closer ties? How is it preparing some countries for membership eventually?
Membership is not the main idea. Cooperation between the European Parliament and Eastern Partnership countries' parliaments. What is important, that we have a dialogue, a format where we can exchange views, how we understand development, in Europe, in our countries, and what is important. And in this particular session, what was important, and this is a remarkable achievement, that we, with a large majority, we passed a resolution on Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Now, what you're saying is it's not all or nothing at all. It's not membership or nothing. And I think this might reassure some people who have enlargement fatigue. Here's one:
Regarding enlargement, must we go beyond the 28 current members, while a good number of member states are economically dragging behind, and I don't think that enlargement could bring an improvement in the situation.
OK, there's a tough customer, and he's not the only one. How do you sell enlargement to a guy like that?
To a guy from Charleroi it's very simple. If he would look in 2004 then he would see that Charleroi is just a small local airport. Now it has grown more than 10 times. There are more than 6 million passengers, and there are more than 250 million euros of added value.
So there's something in it for him.
There are 3,000 new jobs. The majority of passengers at that airport come exactly from the countries which joined the European Union in 2004 and 2008.
Let's shift gears a bit and go back to the relations with Russia, and relations with the EU and Russia. And here's a question on that:
And I'd like to know why always diabolise Russia? And why not see the positive things that are happening? I'm sure there are positive things that are happening for the people there.
The EPP Group will be hosting an event in April on relations with Russia. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? We do have relations, we have trade relations with Russia, energy. They are an important partner.
When the Iron Curtain fell, we believed that the new era of cooperation begins, and we were very open to englobe (include) Russia, to cooperate with Russia, which is a mutual benefit to both parties. And what happened in 2014 was building up for years. Now, it is really in the hands of Russia to understand that this is not a behaviour in the globally interdependent world.
So the ball is in their court.
On Ukraine, the referendums in Crimea and Donetsk, they were criticised as being sham votes. Here's a question on that.
Why Europe would not like to organise a referendum in Ukraine to know who wants to be with the Russians and who wants to stay with Ukraine. I think the people have to choose themselves what they want.
I wonder what the Kiev government would think about that?
Yeah exactly. Because it's not up to Europe to organise a referendum in any of our member states or in any country in the world. It's the decision of the government, of the legislative assembly to decide regarding the referendum.
How can we solve this Ukrainian question? Some people argue that it is better that they remain non-aligned so that Russia not be provoked?
Ukrainians, by electing their president, by electing a new reform-minded assembly, they chose their way. And all accusations that this is something which is manipulated by the evil forces from the European Union, which is the discourse of Russia, today they are absolutely unfounded.
Let's shift to the Baltics.
And how nervous are people there, how nervous are you about – and a number of people and analysts say that could be the next place that Russia tests the West. How worried are you about an invasion or hybrid warfare?
To be worried, it will not help, to defend our independence. What is important is that our government is fully conscious that we have to raise our defence budget to 2% of GDP. That we have to strengthen our defence capacities, that we have to make all possible diplomatic efforts to explain to our partners in NATO and the EU what is the current state of affairs in Latvia, and why do we need them.
And just a sense of how it is for the people on the ground there. Can you give an anecdote, or an example of how it is there on the ground in the
Baltics? (note overlap)
I will give an example. My grandson, nine years old, it was half a year ago, he came back from school and said, "Is it true, Granny, that there will be a war?" Which means that even small children, not understanding what it is about, that it's not an electronic game, they are speaking about it.
Trying times for the EU and for countries to the east. It's going take some skilful diplomacy to deal with this. Thanks for joining us on People First, Madame Kalniete.
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Until next time, thanks for watching!