Marta Barandiy: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Unlock Ukraine. Today, we are hosted by the President of the European Economic and Social Committee, Christa Schweng. Christa, thank you for hosting us here and for agreeing to talk more about your presidency, about the committee, and about what you have done for Ukraine and Ukrainians. We have known each other for one year now. Actually, it was around the 4th of April that you gave the keys to Ukrainian civil society to be hosted here in the committee. Do you remember this day? Do you remember how you took the decision?
Christa Schweng : Of course I do, because for me this 24th of February was quite a dramatic day, I have to say. It was the second day of our plenary and we were just surprised, of course, by this news from this invasion and immediately we changed our whole agenda and we started to debate on what we had to do now, immediately. We found out that quite a lot of people were already providing support for Ukraine, already helping on the ground, NGOs, non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, being there and already providing assistance. But nevertheless, of course, we wanted to do more. And what we did right afterward was to adopt one resolution on Ukraine condemning in the strongest possible terms what happened to Ukraine and what Russia did. So for us, this was of high importance to act like this. And what motivated me most to give the key to civil society organisations from Ukraine was that I felt it’s important to keep the knowledge and the context alive, to know firsthand what’s happening there, because your contacts are much more reliable than anything else we could organise. And therefore, I was quite grateful to have this direct contact with you, and I saw that you needed support and help, and we were able to provide it. So I’m glad and also grateful to our services who provided that assistance.
Marta Barandiy: I have to say that your teams are really very, very approachable, and I can say from the feedback of the Ukrainians of society organisations that are hosted here that they could use not only the space that you have given but also printing services and all other support with all the questions and information but also what I have noticed is involving Ukrainians civil society in the city sitting so the committee in the meetings and you are giving a voice to Ukrainian activists. Well, also to European citizens but to citizens of the third country that wants to be a member of the EU. Is that your way to show that you affirm Ukraine as a member of the EU?
Christa Schweng : Well absolutely, and you may also be aware that we have asked in our second resolution already before the European Council that Ukraine becomes a member of the European Union. But the way why we included, and I’ve also invited you to some of our plenary sessions, the first thing, and the second thing was also that we have, of course, this EU-Ukrainian association agreement, and these kind of agreements are usually overseen and monitored also by an EU civil society platform from the respective country platform. So this combination made already that there were two meetings of this EU-Ukraine civil society platform and they had these meetings twice already since the war started.
Marta Barandiy: Do you feel that your support to Ukrainians has intensified or has given more space for intensification of the context between Ukrainian civil society and European civil society?
Christa Schweng: I hope so. For me, it’s a bit difficult to judge because, you know I just have this perspective from the Brussels bubble, and that might be different than what is to be seen on the ground, but I trust that the work that you are doing and that our civil society organisations are doing is extending, and these are our members that is exactly what brings Ukrainians and Europeans together.
Marta Barandiy: And what is the main point of the committee like for Ukrainians who don’t know who is learning yet what European institutions are, how everything works in Brussels, in the Brussels bubble? How can they use the committee in a positive sense to approach more European Union?
Christa Schweng: Well, our committee is consisting of employers workers and civil society organizations, so there are the three groups and the idea is first of all to have more informed legislation because our people come from all walks of life and from all member states and what they do is that they give advice to European institutions and that helps to make legislation much more to the ground, to the point, and it also says what is needed on the ground, which is also why we are convinced that when it comes to reconstruction of Ukraine, and I’m sure it will and I hope it will soon be the case, that then it is of utmost importance to involve organised civil society from Ukraine in order to support that process.
Marta Barandiy: But that’s already being done slowly, slowly and we would say from what I can hear and what I have learned that the committee serves as a sort of advocacy platform for civil society and from the bottom up for the institutions. Is it what we can say?
Christa Schweng: I’m not sure about advocacy, but what we are doing is definitely providing on a joint basis, and that is not always that easy to reach because, as you can imagine, these represent large groups of societies, of our societies and sometimes employers and workers have controversial views but putting them together on one table negotiating and then finding context that is exactly what brings us further and this is our added value.
Marta Barandiy: Do you feel that these resolutions that you mentioned, that have been adopted here, that they have any further development, or further elaboration in other institutions or the EU?
Christa Schweng: They were, of course, widely distributed and what we’ve asked for also is that when it comes to the reconstruction of Ukraine that frozen Russian assets are also being used. So, this is what we’ve already asked for in June last year. We’ve already always supported all the sanctions that have been asked or that have been adopted towards Russia and therefore, I think this is an important thing. Yesterday, I just learned that the commission is about putting that exactly in practice and checking how this can be put in practice.
Marta Barandiy: The assets using Russian frozen assets for Ukrainian reconstruction, hopefully not only frozen assets of Russian oligarchs but we hope that also the Russian like state assets. Well, it will probably take some time because of the state immunity, but we hope that it will happen, and we thank the European Economic Social Committee for being very strong in this term and having the stunts. You have been president for two and a half years now and you became a president during COVID. Is it something that disturbed or distorted your presidency in the very beginning, or did it influence your expectations on how you would take your leadership here?
Christa Schweng: Well not really, but what was quite clear from the beginning is that it will be a different term and a different mandate than the others had and, as I said, the committee exists since 1957 so quite some time now and I think it’s the first and I hope the only inaugurational session that took place in a hybrid way and that meant that I was sitting in my office in Vienna being connected with the European Parliament plenary, having there around 20 people. Ten of them must have been technicians running around and connecting 329 members and believe me that was a weird atmosphere but nevertheless, it wasn’t an inaugurational session; it was a discussion on how to make economy and societies thrive again after COVID because my vision was always to look how can societies become stronger after COVID, how can Europe become stronger after COVID and, therefore, the vision was to have a Europe that is economically prosperous, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable because I think for me this is the magic triangle that we need to reach.
Marta Barandiy: You became a president in a very distant way. You said it was online, online meeting. Now, you’re very close to the European citizens, you are trying to involve them more into the European decision-making process but you have been with the committee for more than 20 years now. Can you compare being close to the committee, being close to the citizens before COVID, and now is there a change?
Christa Schweng : I don’t think that there is so much change due to COVID. So, this was something that this bridge-building function we tried to have from the very beginning. So, this was always our aim, this was always our ambition, this was always what we wanted to be and, therefore, I think it’s quite the same. What I tried to make clear, and we are still on our way, this is not done yet, is that we need to sell our products better, and our products are our opinions and very often we have the impression that the collaboration between us and the other European institutions is not that widely accepted or widely seen from the outside. But recently I’ve learned with the European Parliament that, on certain levels it works extremely well, on others there is a bit more space. So I think we are on a good path but nevertheless, my idea was always that our members who are rapporteurs for certain opinions, who work on certain opinions need to be ambassadors of these opinions.
Marta Barandiy: ambassadors towards whom? Towards European institutions?
Christa Schweng: Yes. It works both ways, but the idea is always the bridge building means that the experience we have from the ground. We bring it up here to the Brussels Bubble but also, of course, on the way back.
Marta Barandiy: Is it like citizens, can they have that impact to put pressure on the European institutions to take the opinions of the committee more into consideration? Would that be an option like if citizens are empowered to ask the institutions to consider? Well, they did already somehow when you look at the conference on the future of Europe where we had this experience of direct citizens involvement randomly chosen, and, on the other hand, organized civil society, European institutions like our institution but also like big civil society organizations. Here we had this mix of everything together, and what came out of this conference was that the EESC is seen as a guarantor and facilitator of our participatory democracy activities, and that for us is, of course, a request that comes out of this conference and therefore also from the citizens.
Marta Barandiy: You are Austrian, and you are a lawyer. You are also the committee for more than 20 years. Have you always wanted to be a president, or did you have a legal career in mind? Is there something you would do differently if you looked at the past?
Christa Schweng: No, I think all the bits and pieces fell exactly to the places where they should be but it was not something that I planned that I didn’t even have the intention to do but it turned out quite naturally to be like this so, yeah.
Marta Barandiy: And as a president, have you done everything you wanted? Is there something more you would do? Is there a bit more time if you were given – like half a year more – a presidency mandate? Would you do something?
Christa Schweng: What shocked me is the two and a half years are quite short. I didn’t notice that but if you take COVID into account and then you see that the first seven months of my mandate I couldn’t travel. So, only after seven months, I managed to meet some of my team members. So, my cabinet, some of which like Magda here in the room, I didn’t, I haven’t met her before so I just didn’t do an interview online with her. After seven months I was finally able to see her in person and she was not the only one. So this is something that I think is quite unusual, and I had very little time to prepare for my presidency. This I need to say as well. So for me, yes, these first seven months, I think they are somehow lacking, which does not mean that I didn’t do anything. No, on the contrary, I was extremely active also in that period. It was only afterward that my team realised, oh, now it becomes more difficult because now you have to calculate also ways between, you know, place A and place B beforehand. You could do meetings in a row online and that was somehow easier because you didn’t have all the logistics apart from the right address. But then physically, of course, makes a huge difference.
Marta Barandiy: And you are traveling a lot now. Are you going to different states, member states to meet the members of the committee or what?
Christa Schweng : I’m not meeting members there, but what I try to do is also to get a certain feeling for what’s happening on the ground. Coming back to Ukraine, and I went to Ukraine because I thought this is a security issue, not only for me but also for Ukrainians, and I didn’t want to endanger anybody. But what I did was I went to Romania, and I looked at the facilities they provided there for Ukrainians. And for me, this was quite impressive I have to say because Romania is not a country that has any experience with refugees, not at all. And it’s not their mindset, it’s not there but it was absolutely natural immediately to start help and to start support. And the facilities that they provided there, it’s quite impressive because all the local, regional, European and also UN agencies are all together in one room in Bucharest and I saw this century and I was really amazed. We also traveled to Poland. There was saying we had a big conference in Poland, yes, and I also had your opportunity there to make contact with the civil society organisations on the ground to see how they provide support for Ukrainians. We had a conference on the reconstruction of Ukraine in June last year where we had about 200 participants. So, I think this was also something where we connected. And also to see on the ground what’s happening really. What are civil society organisations doing but also governments doing?
Marta Barandiy: You are a successful woman, you’re president, a female president. Was that difficult for you to be a female or woman leader? Is it something that came on your way, or you know, like women are faced with challenges, especially when they have to balance family and career?
Christa Schweng: Well, I think my daughter was born in 2002, so she’s now 21 this year. This makes things a lot easier, I have to say. So, with a small child and I was always traveling, I was always working. But I used to be in the agency for safety and health in Bilbao. I was always involved, and I was always the spokesperson of the employers, and on a three-year rotating basis, I was also the president there. So, I had this experience of leading, of managing, a tripartite body, I’d say. So this is, of course, experience that helps and therefore, it wasn’t something that was very surprising or very unusual for me. Let me put it like this.
Marta Barandiy: So it comes naturally, and have you always wanted to be a president?
Christa Schweng: No. It just happened.
Marta Barandiy: That is something that many girls, you know when they have to choose their career they are being encouraged to be ambitious and to dream high because actually what’s the problem is with women that they can get employed but very seldom they get into very high positions, and that’s what happened with you. You are in a very high position and it’s interesting for women to know how it happens. So yeah, it just happens, and it is possible. Is there something you would like to tell Ukrainians who are hearing us now if you have this opportunity to inspire them or to give them a word of support?
Christa Schweng: I’m really impressed by the courage that the people are showing. I’m impressed how Ukrainians are also coping with the challenges they’re facing in the countries where they are currently living because leaving everything you have from one day to the other, it’s heartbreaking. And, therefore, this is something that really inspired me, that people are so courageous and do that and have to cope with very difficult circumstances, and this I think really this deserves support, and this requires support and this is a question of solidarity for me.
Marta Barandiy: Recently, we talked to the vice president of the European Commission Brafka Suitsa, and she spoke about defending democracy and defending a democracy package that is now being under public consultation, and the commission is going to adopt that package soon. What do you think about the citizens’ involvement in making this defense democracy package legitimate in terms of defending democracy from foreign interference?
Christa Schweng: I think, as usual at the beginning, it’s education. It’s education, education, education because if you don’t have people who are able to think critically to ask the right questions, who do not believe everything they hear. I think this is the first important protection against interference from the outside, and here I’m talking, of course, about fake news and about democracy?
Christa Schweng: Exactly and I think here it gets really difficult. Here we are in very deep waters.
Marta Barandiy: But that is why we need citizens involvement because there are citizens who legitimize it and they give their own opinion.
Christa Schweng : And therefore, they need to be educated in the right way and in reality with this open mind with this ability to ask questions.
Marta Barandiy: So they have to be empowered? To be educated, they have to be empowered? That is what you do as well. Are you planning to come to Ukraine one day when there is a victory?
Christa Schweng: Yes, I would really like to see it. I would really love to go there.
Marta Barandiy: You are invited.
Christa Schweng: Thank you.
Marta Barandiy: We will make sure that Ukrainian civil society is there to receive you and give you a proper upload. Probably the last question. What are you planning to do in future?
Christa Schweng: Well, what I would continue is that I will continue as a member of this committee. I will take back more of the responsibilities I had in Austria before. Because my organisation, of course, gave me some space, otherwise I couldn’t have done the job here. And well, as I said, I am a lawyer. I come from the employer side, but I am very much into social affairs. And my specialty is European social policy. And I am looking also forward to working in that field more intensively.
Marta Barandiy: I wish you success!
Christa Schweng: Thank you very much.
Marta Barandiy: This has been Unlock Ukraine with a president of EESC, Christa Schweng. Don’t forget to subscribe!