Vice-President of the European Commission Dubravka Šuica told Marta Barandiy, founder and head of NGO Promote Ukraine, about her vision of the role of civil society in defending democracy, the power of citizens to draw European law, care for Ukrainian refugees, in particular children, temporary protection and its impact on the lives of those who have been affected by conflict and war.

Watch the discussion of these and other topics in the video podcast:

Democracy cannot be taken for granted – it is essential to protect it

Marta Barandiy: Vice President Šuica, we are very glad that you are hosting us here and starting our podcast series: Unlock Ukraine. This is very symbolic for us because you know, Ukrainians defend democracy today and you are the one who defends democracy in the EU being vice president of the European Commission who is responsible for defending democracy. How do you feel about this special mission, seeing that Ukraine is also a candidate member of the European Union?

Dubravka Šuica: Thank you for having me today here, of course you know the title of my portfolio is Democracy and Demography. You ask me about democracy of course democracy can’t be taken for granted if you look at what’s going on in Ukraine, what’s going on with Russia’s war in Ukraine where Russia is attacking Ukrainian citizens, Ukrainian people, and they are denying the identity of Ukrainians. So, you are on the forefront for defending democracy. Yes, we are defending democracy here in the European Commission and we are preparing one big package, which is called the Democracy Defense Package which will be dealing with the legislation of democracy. Unfortunately, this situation in Ukraine shows that we have to defend democracy though some citizens, here in Europe, might think we are fine, that we have liberal democracy but then today there is no business as usual so we have to defend it and we are preparing legislation which will help us identify foreign interference, misinformation, and fake news but in order to do this we have to make our citizens of Europe understand what is misinformation and what is genuine information we have to create a civic space where we will show our citizens and teach our children how to differentiate good from bad, evil from good. It’s a task now, I am working on this piece of legislation with my colleague, Vice President Jourová.

Civil society plays a vital role in defending democracy and helps safeguard our democratic institutions

Marta Barandiy: And this is something where you would also involve civil society, would Ukrainian civil society play a role there?

Dubravka Šuica: Of course we have a great role in our work that relies on civil society, you know that I co-led the Conference on the Future of Europe which is the biggest democratic exercise ever, exercising their right to democracy, and we did it in co-habitation with civil society so the other day, I was a guest in a European committee for economic and social affairs…

Marta Barandiy: Where we met?

Dubravka Šuica: …where we met, which is a very important place for civil society, so we usually have them on board. Regarding Ukrainian civil society, of course there would be some, but this is about European democracies, and you are a candidate country and I hope you will take into consideration because you are on the path of your reform process.

Marta Barandiy: The thing is that Ukrainian civil society could be the one in Ukraine but could also be the one in the EU, and maybe the one in the EU could be considered because Ukrainian civil society is here but also Georgian with the new situation in Georgia, this could also be something considered by you like these nations are the ones who know about defending democracy better than anyone else nowadays.

The path of Dubravka Šuica, a prominent figure in Croatia and EU who has experienced war and now stands for democracy and civil society

Dubravka Šuica: You know that I was not born in a democracy, so I experienced the war in Croatia, and 32 years later I can compare what happened in Croatia at that time when we had that atrocious war, and it’s similar to the war that is unfortunately ravaging in Ukraine so I can understand the situation and I feel sympathy and empathy for the Ukrainian people and especially for Ukrainian women and children, because at the time of war I was a refugee myself and I was also hiding in shelters, the same as you are experiencing now in Ukraine.

The voices of Ukrainian civil society in Europe and their contribution to the ongoing struggle to defend democracy and human rights

Of course, we heard the voices of the Ukrainian people the other day in our citizen’s panel I don’t know if you were following that citizen’s panel on the 24th of February which marked anniversary, unfortunately, then we had five citizens who were witnessing what was going on in Ukraine.

Marta Barandiy: I remember that we provided the names of some temporarily protected Ukrainians here in Belgium to your team, so that they participated in this panel, and congratulation on the effort! I read your article where you said that you implemented 80% of the visions of the European citizens on the Future of Europe in the program of 2023, this is also something remarkable, it means you are trying to listen to citizens and bring it to reality and to fulfillment.

Each and every citizen has the power to draw European law. Understand and utilize this power

Dubravka Šuica: Our main goal is to come closer to citizens because sometimes we see that there is a gap between policy-makers and citizens, and we wanted to make this gap narrower and that is the reason we will organize this conference in the future, where we include citizens in the policy-making process, so we can say that we incorporated liberty and democracy into our policy-making process in order to show that each and every citizen can influence drafting European law. This is our final goal; it is of course not easy to approach each and every citizen, but I think we are on a good path. Also, when we are listening to Ukrainian citizens during that panel, it is important for European citizens to hear and understand what is going on, sometimes it is not easy to comprehend and it’s very important that we have your citizens talking with us directly.

Appointment of Dubravka Šuica by Ursula von der Leyen – symbol of the EU’s commitment to democracy and human rights

Marta Barandiy: You mentioned that you were a refugee, is it something that now directs your mission, a mission that may be bigger than yourself? Is there something that you feel you should sacrifice? Do you sacrifice something dear to yourself to achieve that bigger mission?

Dubravka Šuica: You know what, when President von der Leyen decided to allocate this mandate and this portfolio, she told me, “due to your experience, due to your previous life,” I was mayor of Dubrovnik.

Marta Barandiy: First female mayor in Croatia?

Dubravka Šuica: Yes and she said, “oh you would be the right person for contact with these citizens, with your experience,” of course this experience from Croatia, from war, and also from my Office of Mayor helps me a lot in this area because it is completely new and we have been establishing this portfolio for more than three years and I think it is very important to understand what citizens think and what citizens need, and this is what I am trying to do. I think my experience helps me a lot in this job.

The challenges faced by women, and the importance of addressing these issues in the context of democracy and human rights

Marta Barandiy: Vice President, you are in a very high position, a position that many girls dream of in the European Union, leading and changing the system from within. How did you manage to do that as a woman, you were the first female mayor in Croatia, you are a head of EPP, a women group, you were the vice president of the EPP in the European Parliament? How did you manage to get that, and now you also have a role in empowerment women? What moves you to do that and what did you sacrifice to do that?

Dubravka Šuica: First of all, I haven’t planned this. In the 90s there was a change of systems, I joined my party, which was a democratic one, I can’t say fell in love but little by little, saw that I can change something. I was elected at local, at regional, at national, at European levels, European parliament. Now I’m here at this level in an executive body, but from this position I can tell you that in the end, all politics are local, wherever we are, it is reflected at the local level. Regarding women, I didn’t have any obstacles, there are women who say they want to break the glass ceiling, I myself have not experienced this but I started my fight very early in my childhood. I grew up between two brothers, I was in the middle, so my fights started very early so I realized,

Marta Barandiy: So, you had to adapt and learn.

Dubravka Šuica: So, I got to know how to get along with my male colleagues. So, I won’t have any problems, but I think women are not represented enough in different positions and I think we have to be more self-confident and of course there are obstacles sometimes because women have to take care of their parents, they have to take care of their children, and they don’t have enough facilities, or those facilities are not affordable for them. This is a big issue, eight million European women are not in the labor market although they have their careers, but because of this care they have to give, they don’t work which is bad. We are trying to change this which is why we have adopted care packages and we give recommendations to member states to help women be able to enter the labor market. This is also a big issue, but this is also the first gender balanced commission, we have a president, von der Leyen, who is a woman, and we have 13 women and 14 men, which is unprecedented.

Marta Barandiy: Congratulations!

Dubravka Šuica: Thank you, but this was up to her decisions, she wanted to make this Commission a geopolitical commission and then a gender balanced commission.

The care needed for Ukrainian children and the importance of providing them with a safe and nurturing environment to grow and thrive.

Marta Barandiy: As you said that women should sometimes balance, and take care of parents or children, how did you balance? I had heard that in the shelter you also had to take care of your child. How did you manage to do all of that, taking care of your own child, and now you are going beyond: you are taking care of other children, of Ukrainian children?

Dubravka Šuica: I am a mother of a daughter and now a grandmother of two. My basic profession is teaching so I very much love and like children, and this is something which marks my life. Regarding Ukrainian children we are really taking care and now the majority of my work is dedicated to Ukrainian children. If I may say we somehow categorize, if you can somehow categorize children, into three categories: one is from Ukraine under bombardment and under bad circumstances, another are children who are here in the European Union in different Member States, and the third category are ones who are forcefully deported and abducted into Russian territories. Unfortunately, there are many subcategories: unaccompanied children, children with disabilities, orphans so it’s not an easy task dealing with all of this.

Temporary solutions for children are no longer sufficient and why it is crucial to address this problem strategically

The other day, I visited Poland, namely Warsaw. There I visited one site. There are 500 children living there under one roof. It was very generous for these people to offer the children housing and everything but after a year we don’t think it is good for these children to spend another year. I hope not, you never know when this war will end. We are working together with Ukrainian authorities on deinstitutionalization, what means that we would like for them to change Ukrainian law to adapt on the path to reform to the European Union, reform their laws. So they are sending smaller groups of children, and we started with a pilot project together with Polish and Ukrainian authorities to change this. Also, UNICEF is helping us, so we will see how it works, we won’t do anything forceful, but we think for children’s future and wellbeing, it is much better to live in smaller groups which is the case here in Europe. We want to move away from institutionalization to family-based care, and in Poland we want to do it with families, it would have been nice if this happened in the beginning but now there will be intermediate housing, there will be smaller houses for groups of children. This is what we are doing at the moment, but there is a lot to say.

The alerts from civil society and the difficulties faced by Ukrainian children in integrating into the EU school system

Marta Barandiy: How did you find out about the situation in Poland? Did you receive a complaint?

Dubravka Šuica: We were alerted by several civil society organizations on the situation. I was there, everything was nice but this is good for a year’s time not for a second year, because if the war stops tomorrow, they cannot come back immediately. First there is a need to reconstruct their homes, facilities, kindergartens and schools that are have burnt. Parents will have to find jobs. It is not that easy to return. I am talking from experience, I don’t want to sound pessimistic but it’s better to be on the safe side, if they have to spend another year or two it is better to do it in safe surroundings.

Marta Barandiy: Again, asking about this, you were alerted about it, do you get alerted about other situations? Are you the one in the European Commission travelling around for this kind of causes?

Dubravka Šuica: I’m not the only one, there are many Commissioners who are in charge of children, I’m focused on children, but my colleagues also help. So, many of us deal with this, but I’m in charge of EU strategy on the rights of children. When you look at Germany, children who came to Germany were immediately directed to family care, in Poland, this is not to blame anyone, because it was a huge influx of children, they were very generous. One fifth of all Ukrainian children are now in the European Union, and it was not easy to give them a roof immediately. This was done by Polish authorities and this is to congratulate them, but if this take a longer time we have to do everything in the best interest of children.

Marta Barandiy: One of the issues you are taking care of is to make sure the brain drain is not that big and that talent could still develop and stay in the EU, what about Ukrainians, there are now many Ukrainian refugees here and their children that are becoming adults also, do you foresee any programs for them where they could get developed here and maybe later with the perspective to go back to Ukraine and apply that in Ukraine?

Dubravka Šuica: You know that the Temporary Protection Directive is now prolonged until March 2024, and according to this Directive, all Ukrainians get the rights of European citizens. Right to housing, right to childcare, healthcare, schooling, jobs, everything. This is something we triggered for the first time in our history which is good for Ukrainians but so far as I can assess the situation, Ukrainian citizens want to go back as soon as possible, which I can totally understand. But in the meantime, they have to live, and they have to be educated, there is a problem that there are 1,5 million Ukrainian children and only 700,000 are enrolled to go to school. The rest of them follow online Ukrainian schools, which is fine, but they have to be enrolled in the systems of the Member States, which is not the case at the moment.

Marta Barandiy: Should it be more regulated on the local level instead of centralized?

Dubravka Šuica: Registration is fine but in some Member States they did not want to urge the children and their parents and not spend a year or two without schooling. This is something that should be better regulated and better monitored, but we think things are going in a good direction.

The one year of Directive on Temporary Protection

Marta Barandiy: Do you think that the directive on temporary protection is working? How do you assess in general the obligations of the Directive on the local level, not only about children but in general are there many things that could be improved or many local authorities that don’t understand it?

Dubravka Šuica: It always depends on what level it is. I know several Ukrainian citizens who live in Croatia who work, have found jobs. I also know two boys who go to kindergarten together with my granddaughter, they feel like Croats.

Participate in public consultation and have your voices heard

Marta Barandiy: Here is Brussels Ukraina Review – a journal that I would like to present to you,

the 10th edition, and I am inviting you to give us an interview for the 11th edition on the defense of democracy package and to let people know about it, especially people who will be impacted by it. Would you like to say something to Ukrainians in regard to their involvement in this package, Ukrainians living in the EU who have EU citizenship if you would like to say something about it?

Dubravka Šuica: So, public consultations are ongoing and will last until the 13th of April. I can invite all Ukrainians to go to public consultations webpage and to give their contributions. This will be the best of what we can do, they can influence this package with their ideas, with their proposals, and until the 13th of April it’s open for everyone in Europe. It is also valid for Ukrainians.

Marta Barandiy: So, does the person need European citizenship or can anyone contribute?

Dubravka Šuica: Anyone can contribute.

Marta Barandiy: This is very good and it is something we would like to promote as well; we don’t have much time for that as the deadline is in a few weeks.

Dubravka Šuica: In this package for us, the most important issue other than civic space is that we guarantee transparency for the financing of civil society thinktanks, NGOs, political parties. We want to see where the source of finance is, because then we will be sure whether it goes in the right direction or not. I was mentioning foreign interference.

Marta Barandiy: Isn’t it something that the Georgians are very worried about in Georgia, because of that foreign agent law that forces the transparency of funding?

Dubravka Šuica: I saw what’s going on in Georgia, but it’s very important for us to be transparent and open and inclusive as these are key priorities.

Marta Barandiy: You can also invite Georgians to contribute… Vice President it was a pleasure talking to you, and that you agreed to give us an interview in the next journal about the impact of the democracy defense package, maybe some conclusions of public consultation. I wish you success in what you do because it’s very important that you are supporting children, supporting women, that you are defending democracy. We know what it is, it is a fight with evil that you don’t really see but you do feel, and you have to be very precise in your fight. I wish you success in that and we stand by your side!

Dubravka Šuica: Thank you very much for having me and may I present you one copy of the proposals of the future conference?

Marta Barandiy: Of course, Of course. Thank you for being with us on Unlock Ukraine!

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