Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 15 March 2022
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Ukraine's Application for Membership of the European Union: Engagement with Ambassador of Ukraine.
I apologise for the absence from the committee room of the Chairman, Deputy Joe McHugh. Deputy McHugh is watching and participating in the meeting remotely. It is my privilege to chair this meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss a range of issues that have arisen due to Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine. We will be discussing Ukraine's application to join the European Union and later, the applications of Georgia and Moldova. We also will be discussing the European Union's response to the humanitarian crisis that has been brought about by this war.
On behalf of the committee I welcome the ambassador of Ukraine to Ireland, H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko to this committee, on the 20th day of her nation's suffering. I want the ambassador to know that in every corner of this island, the people stand with her and all of the people of Ukraine in this time of their agony. The EU affairs committee normally deals with the routine business of parliamentary and intergovernmental relationships between member states but 20 days ago, much of what we understood as settled norms on our Continent were attacked and upended. Across our Continent, we are now adjusting our thinking to this new and terrible reality.
Before we begin I must read the note on privilege. All witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Today we will make an exception to that. Collectively, I do not believe that the Oireachtas would expect us to be rigid with regard to at least one individual.
For witnesses attending remotely outside of the Leinster House campus, there are limitations to parliamentary privilege, and as such they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as those witnesses who are physically present. Witnesses participating in the committee session from a jurisdiction outside of the State are advised that they should be mindful of the domestic law that applies there.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside of the House. Again, I think this is something that we can set aside. I remind members of the constitutional requirements that members must be physically present within the confines of the Leinster House complex in order to participate in public meetings. I cannot permit members to participate who are not adhering to this requirement. Therefore, members who attempt to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting.
I remind participants that masks should be worn while not speaking.
Again, I welcome the ambassador of Ukraine to Ireland, H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko and her colleague to this meeting, and I now give the ambassador the floor.
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
Vice Chairman and Members of the Oireachtas, at the outset I thank the committee for inviting me and giving me this opportunity to address the distinguished members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs on the war in Ukraine unleashed by the Russian Federation.
Before I turn to my remarks, let me, on behalf of the Government of Ukraine and on behalf of the President of Ukraine, extend the words of appreciation for Ireland’s support that we are receiving, at this unprecedentedly horrible time for my country, from the Houses of the Oireachtas, the Irish Government, local authorities, businesses, non-governmental organisations and many other institutions. I pay special tribute to the people of Ireland for their huge response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, for their generosity, hospitality and willingness to grant asylum and protection for the Ukrainians, most of them women and children, who are fleeing the war while their fathers, husbands and sons are defending Ukraine and the entire Europe.
Dear friends, the Russian troops continue simultaneously attacking Ukraine from the territory of Russia and from the temporarily occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and Crimea. The main directions of Russia’s invasion remain: Kyiv, with the key goal to change Government to a pro-Russian one; Kharkiv, which is the second largest city of Ukraine situated in the vicinity of the border with Russia; southern regions of Ukraine adjacent to Russia-occupied Crimea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov; as well as the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
I underline that the territory of Belarus is actively used by Russia for its military purposes. Missiles are launched from the territory of Belarus. The Belarus airfield and rail networks are used for transportation of personnel, cargo and ammunition. Belarus supplies fuel to the Russian troops on Ukrainian soil. On 11 March, Russian aircraft entered Ukraine’s airspace and shelled a Belarusian village located on the border with Ukraine. This is a false flag operation, aimed at providing a pretext for Belarus's direct engagement into Russia’s war.
Russia fires hundreds of cruise and operational-tactical missiles at residential areas and military positions, it attacks with aviation, tanks and artillery, and sends saboteur groups into Ukrainian territory. The aggressor state carries out non-stop full-scale air strikes on critical civilian infrastructure and Ukrainian airports, including in western parts of our country near the border with the European Union. The committee will be aware that on Sunday, the Russian military dropped bombs in an area that is 22 km from the Ukrainian-Polish border. The war is very close to the European Union.
The city of Mariupol, with a mainly Russian-speaking population, was totally destroyed. What is happening today in this city has no parallel. It blows my mind that there have been more than 2,357 civilian deaths in this city alone, while those innocent people who are still alive are suffering a humanitarian catastrophe deliberately created on Putin’s demand as revenge for civil disobedience. The Russian Armed Forces have even bombed children's and maternity hospitals in Mariupol. Members will have seen the terrible videos and photos. That was cynically recognised by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces hold ground strongly. Russia, however, has significant air advantage. We urge our partners to immediately introduce a no-fly zone to save the Ukrainian people, as well as to avoid devastating nuclear disasters. Russia has already put the entire of Europe on the brink of nuclear catastrophe by shelling the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is equal to six Chernobyls. It was seized by Russia and the situation remains very fragile. The Russian occupiers have declared that the plant is now under control of Rosatom, which raises additional concerns on nuclear security.
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was also seized by the Russian troops at the beginning of the war.
They have already twice damaged its power line, which could lead to the leak of radiation. The situation remains extremely dangerous. The International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, has lost connection with the monitoring system of guarantees both in Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia. At the same time, Russia's nuclear deterrence forces remain on alert and threats of nuclear war continue.
On 12 March, in Melitopol, another southern city of Ukraine, the invaders captured the mayor of the city, Ivan Fedorov, a mayor who defended Ukraine and the people of his community. The Russian invaders have switched to a new stage of terror where they are trying to physically eliminate representatives of the legitimate local Ukrainian authorities. The capture of the mayor of Melitopol is a crime not only against a particular person, but against humanity and democracy as such. President Zelenskyy appealed to the international community, as well as to the distinguished Members of the Oireachtas, to demand from Russia the immediate release of the mayor of Melitopol and guarantees of full security to all heads of communities across the country.
The whole world witnesses that the Ukrainian people do not surrender to the invaders, even where Russian troops temporarily manage to enter. At the same time, the Russian Armed Forces are facing huge losses of combat capabilities. The number of killed Russian servicemen on the territory of Ukraine already exceeds 13,000 people, or even more. The number of wounded invaders is many times bigger. By blocking social networks, intimidating media, censorship, high fines and imprisonment of up to 15 years, as well as using mass graves for Russian military killed in action, the Kremlin attempts to conceal these figures, afraid of mass anti-war protests. Still, the truth cannot be hidden.
Russia’s barbaric actions have already resulted in a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine which is rapidly deteriorating. Kindergartens and schools, universities and hospitals, airports and fuel stations, bridges and water reservoirs continue to be targeted. As of 14 March, more than 400 educational institutions, 111 hospitals and more than 1,500 residential buildings were damaged or destroyed. Many people have lost their homes. More than 2.7 million persons have left Ukraine across the western border, including over 6,000 who have already arrived in Ireland. Some 1.85 million people became internally displaced persons, IDPs. Almost the entire city of Mariupol and several towns near Kyiv have been left without heat, light and water. No humanitarian assistance can reach the destination due to Russian shelling. The Russian troops do not allow civilians to leave, using them as a human shield and disrupting the work of most humanitarian corridors. Unfortunately, Russia took an unconstructive stance during the meeting between Foreign Ministers Kuleba and Lavrov in Turkey and in yesterday’s talks. No agreements on Ukrainian proposals on a ceasefire or humanitarian corridors were reached. However, despite everything, over 4,000 people are saved daily from towns and cities besieged by Russian forces.
Russia has failed to reach its key goals. Ukraine did not surrender in three days, as the Kremlin was expecting. Kyiv as a political and military command centre remains intact. No big cities, with the exception of Kherson, were taken. In the towns temporarily under control of Russian troops, the Ukrainian population is actively protesting against them. In Kherson, protests are so massive that Russian occupiers had to deploy police units. Following the 2014 playbook, the Russians now desperately try to organise a sham “referendum” for a fake “people’s republic” in Kherson. Given zero popular support, it will be fully staged. Kherson is and will always be Ukraine. Some 92% of Ukrainian citizens are convinced that we will win this defensive war against Russia.
Having failed to make Ukraine surrender, Russia started searching for fake pretexts to justify its war of aggression. Despite Russia’s false allegations, Ukraine has neither intention nor steps taken aimed at the creation of a nuclear weapon, and this is confirmed by the IAEA. Various Russian officials also falsely accuse Ukraine of non-existent biological or chemical weapons. This is deeply troubling as Russia may prepare a horrific false flag operation.
Ukrainian people are dying for the freedom of Ukraine and the freedom of Europe, as well as their right to become a full member of the European Union. According to the polls held on 1 March, the EU membership is an idea that unites the whole of Ukraine and has support in all regions of the country without exception. A record 86% of Ukrainians support EU integration, with the figures at 81% in southern Ukraine and 72% in the east, which is a Russian-speaking region. On 28 February, the President of Ukraine signed an official application for EU membership for Ukraine with a new urgent procedure. I am proud that Ireland supports us in our endeavours. We are grateful for the decisions already taken by our EU partners during the recent informal summit of the EU leaders in Paris, which acknowledged the European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine. However, as stated by President Zelenskyy, the decision should have been stronger.
Ukraine is now a pluralistic democracy with a mixed parliamentary-presidential form of governance and with a strong tradition of free and fair elections. Ukrainian people halted the threat to democracy and defended European values in 2004 with the Orange Revolution, again in 2013 and 2014 with unprecedented protests on the Euromaidan and now in the bloody war of Russia against European Ukraine. We are a reliable EU partner in international affairs. Last year, Ukraine joined 93% of the European Union’s statements on international developments and approaches to their regulation. Even amid the military aggression, Ukraine managed to integrate its unified energy system into the European ENTSO-E energy system after the first test only. The significant progress made in economic integration between Ukraine and the EU has become possible through the deep and comprehensive free trade area that accounted for more than a 40% share of the country’s total trade turnover in 2021.
We are already involved in the European process via integration into the EU Internal Market, mainly the energy market, and joining the key EU policy initiatives such as the European green deal. Ukraine has high renewables potential as well as the possibility of hydrogen production. Ukraine also has one of the strongest IT potentials. The national IT industry saw exports crossing $5 billion for the first time. It accounts for 4% of GDP and employs roughly 200,000 professionals. Even before the Russian invasion, support for Ukraine's EU membership was high in many EU states. Today, it is even higher. This means that Ukraine's membership of the EU is natural and finds maximum support from society.
We can already see that sanctions against Russia are working. According to Bloomberg, in the two weeks since Russia's invasion, it has suffered perhaps the worst fall since the 1990s crisis, which has already slashed Russia's GDP by $30 billion, or 9% in 2022. Leading international companies are already leaving the Russian market, but it is not enough. We must put more pressure on Russia to force it to sit down at the negotiating table and end this brutal war. In this regard, we urge Ireland and our EU partners to take further actions which have to be done immediately. The first is a no-fly zone over Ukraine to stop the shelling of civilians by Russia and to ensure the safety of critical infrastructure such as nuclear power plants. A trade embargo must be introduced on coal from Russia. Russia must be prevented from using cryptocurrencies to circumvent sanctions. Ports must be closed to Russian vessels, following actions by the UK, Canada and Cyprus and, there must be a ban on ships under EU member-states flags going to Russian sea ports. We must encourage private business to divest from Russian assets and cut all trade ties with Russia. We must block new visas and residency permits for Russian officials and their families. The fewer dollars Russian business earns and the less tax the Russian state receives, the less opportunity the Russian military will have to kill our people, Ukrainians.
To conclude my remarks, I would like to stress again that Ukraine is committed to justice, peace and security not only for itself but for the whole of the Euro-Atlantic community. The future of the global security architecture is being decided in Ukraine, and the ability of the coalition of the democratic states to take on the current threats and challenges in Ukraine will have a direct impact on their own future. We continue to fight, and we will win.
I thank Ambassador Gerasko for such a powerful statement to the committee. Some of our colleagues are online. Deputy Calleary is in Strasbourg at an extraordinary session of the Council of Europe, whose purpose is to exclude Russia from that organisation. He cannot join us here today but asked me to send his regards to the ambassador. Our Chairman, Deputy McHugh, cannot join us today but he sent a message which I will read:
I would like to thank the ambassador and her colleague [Ms Olena Shaloput] for meeting with me last week and for her comprehensive opening statement, which includes an update on the Ukrainian people's incredible effort to fight for freedom and an insightful analysis of a future vision for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. My question to the ambassador is: How can we as a committee help in the immediate term to deal with the enormous challenges her country faces?
I ask for a response to that first and then I will give the floor to Deputy Richmond.
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
First, as I mentioned, we have a list of our requests or demands. I know that Ireland is not a member of NATO. What we need most of all is a no-fly zone over Ukraine. We would be grateful to all members of the committee if they could again urge their colleagues in NATO member states to push their governments to provide us with a no-fly zone. We would be grateful for members to advocate for our application for EU membership. We know that some EU member states are blocking our application and have some doubts regarding providing us with such an urgent procedure.
I thank the ambassador for her extremely powerful opening statement. I also thank her and her team for their distinguished presentation of their people's flight to this country in recent weeks. They have maintained the highest levels of professional diplomacy during what I can only imagine is the most difficult time personally for them and their families both here and at home.
I have three areas I want to refer to briefly that follow on from the opening statement. The first is a comment. The ambassador's requests are quite clear. They have received varying levels of response in this country and across the European Union. What we have seen throughout this devastating war is an inevitability. There was opposition at a European level for full sanctions when it came to such matters as SWIFT, but that changed. There was opposition at a European level to providing lethal equipment to the Ukrainian army, and that changed. Now we see people stating why they cannot or should not introduce an immediate ban on Russian oil and gas imports, a blockade of sea ports, or refuse to receive Russian flagged vessels, and ultimately the implementation of a no-fly zone. I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that all these things are inevitable and the longer there are delays at an Irish Government, EU or NATO level to these very fair requests, the worse this war will be for everyone.
I was very taken by the ambassador's comment that Ukrainians are dying, not just for the freedom of Ukraine but for the freedom of all of us in Europe. That is quite apparent. We take it for granted when we are watching from a distance on our satellite televisions while every morning the ambassador and her colleagues wake up and make that first phone call or send that text message home to family members.
Those of us here who try to take this as an existential debate and score political points, including myself, perhaps need to reflect a little more sensitively on that.
I have two direct follow-on questions, the first of which is on the details of supporting Ukrainian accession to the EU. We could all leave this room and say that we support the concept of Ukrainian membership of the EU - that would be an easy thing for us to do - but there are clear rules in the form of the Copenhagen criteria. Although those criteria are black and white, there are things that we can do within the EU and here in Ireland not just to advocate for Ukraine, but to support it and, indeed, Georgia and Moldova to meet those criteria. Prior to the invasion of a couple of weeks ago, where specifically were those supports required? Were they required in the economy, rule of law or access to an exchange of personnel? What can we start doing now to expedite that process? The responsibility for Ukrainian accession to the EU is no longer just Ukraine's. Rather, it is the EU's responsibility to meet that request favourably.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Ireland is relatively small compared to others, for example, the Russian Embassy, which sadly is still open. Regarding the influx of Ukrainian guests who are fleeing the war and the requirement to meet their needs on consular, pastoral and practical bases, I welcome the moves to have the reception centres open at Dublin, Cork and Shannon Airports, but where can the Irish Government - working with the Red Cross and more closely with the ambassador's team, the existing Ukrainian diaspora and the diasporas from Ukraine's neighbouring countries to help those who are coming to Ireland, who are traumatised and have left behind their husbands, sons, grandfathers and brothers - provide supports for the upwards of 100,000 people who will come here as our guests and not in ordinary circumstances? How can we as parliamentarians advocate to our Departments and Ministers to meet those ever-growing demands?
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
Regarding the Deputy's second question, we work closely with many local authorities on accommodating our Ukrainian immigrants. We also work with many Departments to set up or create language courses and community centres for them. These are important because, although many of our Ukrainians speak English, many others do not. It is important to have places - not just in Dublin, but across the country - where they can chat with Ukrainians who have been living here for may years, get assistance and share their problems. We are also working with some doctors on getting consultations because it is important to treat post-traumatic syndrome. Our embassy team is small and it is difficult for us to have connections outside of Dublin and work with citizens across the country. We would appreciate it if the committee raised these issues so that I might, for example, send members a list of our requests in respect of their constituencies. We would be grateful for members' support.
Just 6,000 Ukrainians have arrived, but we expect more and more. It depends on the situation in Ukraine. For now, that situation is deteriorating. It depends on the war ending. We can expect more immigrants, of course. Most of them are women and children. For instance, more than 2,000 Ukrainian immigrants in Ireland are children under 18 years of age. Our women will face problems with kindergartens and access to the labour market. Our immigrants do not need work permits, but they still have to live somewhere with small kids, get jobs and go to work. We will face many problems with our Ukrainians.
We must meet the Copenhagen criteria. It is difficult to discuss this issue now when part of our country is destroyed. Infrastructure and homes have been destroyed, but our reforms have not been. Our reforms were pretty successful before the three weeks of war. We still have to do a lot and we have to continue our reforms, including anti-corruption reforms. Corruption was one of the main problems in Ukraine. Believe me, though - this war has changed the nation, changed our politicians, changed everything in our country. We are now more united than ever. Many politicians who were involved in corruption have fled the country. It has been like a-----
I thank the ambassador. I am conscious that every member wishes to speak on this important issue and I do not want in any way to delimit debate, so I ask members to be succinct in their questioning. I call Deputy Ó Murchú. My request was not aimed specifically at him. It was a general one.
It probably could have been aimed at me fairly.
I thank the ambassador and her team. I salute the courage of the Ukrainian people. It is fair to say that all of us here and throughout the island stand in solidarity with them. As Ms Gerasko stated, Ukraine is up against a criminal invasion and Russian occupation. We have seen absolute courage. We also realise that it is an utterly changed and far smaller world than it was 20 or 30 years ago. We are all aware of Ukrainian families in our own areas. Many Ukrainians have gone back to fight.
Following on from this meeting, the most useful work we could do would be on the ambassador's requests as regards language courses and access to community centres.
An awful lot of that can be done on an ad hocbasis but it would be far better if this committee took a hands-on approach and corresponded with the witnesses on that. We need doctors who can deal with kids and families with PTSD. While we are currently dealing with 5,000 or 6,000 people, the numbers are bound to become much greater. There is talk of 4 million people being on the move but I have seen estimates of up to 12 million. The worse this war gets for Russia, the greater the numbers will be.
In fairness to Deputy Richmond, I also think we should play a part here. It is all well and good to talk about facilitating and expediting membership of the European Union but we should help and facilitate properly wherever we can. I ask that we start that element of correspondence.
Nobody will die of shock to learn that corrupt politicians fled the minute things got very difficult on the ground. We see who did not and that is to be commended.
I have two very quick questions. We have to assume Russian intelligence was not great as the war is not going particularly well for it. Russia has lost about 13,000 soldiers and a huge amount of other resources. There is a threat of nuclear and chemical weapons and Her Excellency has expressed a fear about false flag operations. We have had conversations around peace negotiations. Where do the witnesses see all of that? They have put their requests on the table and they are very straight, such as closing the seaports and cutting off whatever Russian resources for fighting this war we can. There has been much talk about the Russian money that has gone through the IFSC. Is there anything specifically that Ukraine needs Ireland to do in order to cut off Russia's ability to fight this absolutely criminal war?
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
We have a list of companies affiliated with Ireland. We have passed this list to the Department of Foreign Affairs for its consideration, in order to cut trade and economic relations. As the committee knows, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has launched an investigation into crimes against humanity. Ukrainian authorities and officials, as well as many other countries, have joined in the collection of evidence for the ICC. We have much evidence that Russia intends to use chemical weapons against the Ukrainian population. It used phosphorus bombs a couple of days ago.
Mrs. Olena Shaloput:
We are grateful that Ireland is among the countries that agreed to provide evidence and facts of the war crimes committed by Russia. What we need from Ireland is for it to review all the economic links with Russia and cut these ties. We also ask that Ireland pay attention to vessels arriving into Irish ports not just under the Russian flag but also under other countries' flags, bringing Russian goods.
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
Another issue is that we requested the seaports be closed a couple of weeks ago. Ireland closed its airspace to Russian airlines but not its seaports. The Irish Government said this could be a common decision within the EU. The problem is that we raised this issue two weeks ago and there is still no decision from the EU. It is the same with the expelling of Russian diplomats, or at least reducing the numbers of Russian diplomats in EU member states. Some EU member states took a decision to close their seaports and expel Russian diplomats without a joint or common decision. It is not only Slovakia. I do not remember them all but there is a list of countries that did this.
There are some companies here that continue to have trade and economic relationship with Russia. We have such a list and-----
I thank the ambassador for coming in again, for giving us those accounts of what is happening on the ground in Ukraine and for updating us on the horrific situation we are witnessing on our television screens. I also pay tribute to President Zelenskyy for his extraordinary leadership. He is a wartime president. I am sure he is an inspiration to the people of Ukraine and, indeed, the world. We stand foursquare behind him.
I note the very clear asks in Her Excellency's presentation. As she knows, the Irish position is that we will provide humanitarian aid, in the form of €11 million through the European peace facility and €20 million of our own unilateral humanitarian aid, non-lethal equipment and a welcome for so many displaced people. I do not think Ireland will be involved in any kind of decision-making on the request for a no-fly zone. However, I hear what Ms Gerasko is saying. We are not a member of NATO but it is certainly something we could discuss with our EU colleagues. At the end of the day, it is a decision that has to be taken somewhere else.
Regarding EU membership, the ambassador has given us a wonderful report card - 86% of people in favour of EU membership. As the ambassador is aware, we have the eastern partnership association agreements, the deep and comprehensive free trade agreements, and the various criteria that must be met, but Ukraine is certainly making significant progress in that regard. At a special meeting of the European Council, the Taoiseach championed the case of Ukraine. He is unhappy with the pace of enlargement generally, particularly in the case of Ukraine. The summit asked the Commission to present a report. It does not sound very urgent. We hear clearly what the ambassador is saying. As the Houses of the Oireachtas, we need to push that along and state very clearly we welcome fast-track membership of the EU.
I note the ambassador also said the sanctions are not enough. She has a very clear list there. This is something with which I would agree. Again, Ireland was to the fore in pressing for strong sanctions initially when some member states, especially Germany, were not too sure about them. However, they all came on board. I agree with the ambassador the sanctions are not enough. Again, we need to go through the ambassador's list of companies and be much stronger at EU level in implementing comprehensive sanctions.
Regarding the possibility of a negotiated settlement and the possibility of diplomacy helping in this regard, the ambassador more or less said if the comprehensive sanctions were implemented, it would force Russia to the table. Is there any scope for diplomacy, a negotiated settlement or discussions at this stage?
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
I thank the Deputy for the very strong stance of his country and the Taoiseach. We are interested in a ceasefire and a peaceful solution to this war. Even if part of our country is completely destroyed, we will rebuild our country. Even when there are so many civilian casualties, we are still keeping our diplomatic channels open for a diplomatic solution. Our President has said he is ready to meet and negotiate with President Putin but Putin always rejects negotiations. What has changed since yesterday? Regarding negotiations in Antalya in Turkey and negotiations between our delegations on the border with Belarus, during talks, the Russian side used the language of the ultimatum. Yesterday, the Russian side changed its rhetoric in negotiations. At least, the Russian side demonstrated its intention to negotiate and discuss some issues. Unfortunately, talks were unsuccessful yesterday, but at least the sides started to discuss matters.
The ambassador is very welcome. I have had the privilege of meeting her on a number of occasions, including before a meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs before the invasion started. On that occasion, I listened to all of the concerns, including those about the military build-up. Unfortunately, all of the ambassador's concerns played out exactly as feared. Like all my colleagues, I stand with the Ukrainian people and my thoughts are with Ukrainians here and their families back home in Ukraine. I cannot bear to think about the trauma Ukrainians in Ireland are enduring so many miles away from their families and loved ones, so my thoughts are with them in what is a criminal act by Russia. We are in the 20th day of the invasion and see images being played out on a daily basis on our screens - maternity hospitals, pregnant women and civilians being targeted, and civilian infrastructure being systematically destroyed. We see the horrific images of Ukrainian people being forced from their own communities and spilling over the borders into neighbouring countries like Poland, Moldova etc. The figures are stark. A total of 2.7 million people have been forced over the borders. This committee will hear some testimony from some of those countries about the impact of this. In addition, 1.85 million people have been internally displaced.
I will focus on two areas because my colleagues have covered a lot and I covered a lot with the ambassador previously. I wish to discuss the humanitarian response. There are rules in war in terms of humanitarian access. We see how Russia has no regard for any of that in terms of safe corridors. In terms of the delivery of aid to Ukrainians who need it, we see Mariupol and other towns and villages under siege. Will the ambassador paint a picture as to how difficult it is to get aid to places like that?
The outpouring of support from the Irish people is very stark. We see people willing to open their homes and do everything they can. People from Wicklow are filling up vans and bringing stuff over on ferries etc. What more can the Irish Government do in terms of refugees over the border in Poland? Should Ireland be looking at buses or chartered aeroplanes to help people to come to Ireland, which has taken more than 6,000 to date? What meaningful measures can be taken on the borders in addition to measures already undertaken by the Irish Government? Do we need feet on the ground to help people to get to Ireland?
I know talks are taking place today as well. I know negotiations have not been very successful, which says a lot about Russia's intent. I think Putin has to have this perceived victory for his own survival internally, which may explain a lot of what is happening.
How optimistic is the ambassador in terms of the talks? She mentioned Chernobyl and the threat of nuclear weapons being put on standby. We know there was a power cut to the Chernobyl power plant. In Ireland, we have done much work with Ukraine, particularly families from Chernobyl. There have been reports that power has been restored to the Chernobyl power plant. Ms Gerasko might give us a brief update on that.
I want to touch on a final point. The ambassador mentioned some countries taking unilateral action, such as Cyprus closing ports. All along, we have heard talk that when the EU moves together, it is strongest. That is a rationale given by some countries not to take unilateral action. Does Ms Gerasko think Cyprus taking that unilateral action in closing ports should be a message to other countries to follow suit? If the EU is moving too slowly on these matters, should Ireland take unilateral action and move to close our port or is it more powerful when the EU moves as a bloc?
The second part of this point is the diplomatic approach. My party and I have constantly said the Russian ambassador to Ireland, Mr. Yuriy Filatov, should be thrown out, as should other diplomats. I met Ms Gerasko outside the Russian Embassy and some of our colleagues in the Oireachtas were also there. Again, Ireland said we will only act when the rest of the EU acts. How powerful would it be for Ireland, as a member of the Security Council, to move unilaterally to expel diplomats or, indeed, go further and expel the Russian ambassador?
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
The Deputy asked many questions. I will try to keep everything in mind. First of all, we are very grateful to Ireland, as a government and a people, for humanitarian aid. Ukraine has received much humanitarian aid, mainly through the Polish border, from the Slovak Republic and from Romania. What we need in terms of humanitarian aid is medicine, first of all, and body armour and, of course, weapons, but not in Ireland's case. By the way, we are grateful for yesterday's decision to supply 200 pieces of body armour and food for our military. Believe me, however; 200 is not enough.
It is not only a matter of weapons, of course. We need them to protect our defenders - not only Ukrainian military forces but also defenders or participants from the territorial defence units. The participants of these units are ordinary people. They are not military personnel. We need ambulances. Two ambulances have already been sent to Ukraine and an additional nine are ready to go but we need more. Unfortunately, the situation is terrible. I know the Irish Red Cross Society also supplies a huge amount of clothes and humanitarian aid for civilians but I want to underline that what we need is medicine for wounded civilians and military personnel.
I will give an explanation on diplomats and, for instance, closing the seaports etc. By the way, many other countries - I do not remember exactly which countries - took the decision unilaterally to expel Russian diplomats; not only EU member states but also other countries. We have no time to wait. That is the main message. We do not have time to wait. Every day and every hour means dozens of human lives, both civilian and military.
For us, this is a defensive war. We are on our soil and our territory. We never invaded any other country. It is extremely important for us that not only EU member states, but EU member states in particular, make and take decisions more rapidly. It is time to act. It is not time to talk. I am sorry for saying that but keeping such a silence means that the country - it does not matter which country - is involved, not de jurebut de facto, in this war. We are paying a huge price not only for our freedom but for security in Europe in the European Union.
I am sure that all democratic countries now have to be stronger, take a firmer stance and act very rapidly. For instance, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Moldova in 1992. Many democratic countries have all this time been discussing what to do and what package of sanctions to impose against Russia etc. What we have now is an even worse war than the Second World War. It is time to act. Of course, we will use all possible means - diplomatic and any others - to find solutions to end this war. Many countries actually proposed to be mediators during these Russian-Ukrainian talks. We are ready to accept any assistance from many countries to stop this brutal and barbaric war.
As regards Chernobyl, on the second day Chernobyl was seized by Russian militarists. As far as I remember, 92 employees of the Chernobyl nuclear plant were detained as well as 130 Ukrainian military who secure the station. Then, I do not remember the exact date, the Russians destroyed the electricity line. One of the energy blocks was operating on an alternative energy system. Then our special service for Chernobyl station repaired this electricity. That is very important. There is the first energy block which was collapsed and there are three others. The third block in the absence of electricity and power will stop and explode. The situation is terrible. Then the Russians again broke this electricity line. Our employees repaired it again. It is up and down and we never know what happens next because not only the Ukrainian side but even the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, lost control. It would be a complete disaster, not only for Ukraine but for all of Europe and also Russia.
I am happy that Putin is in some kind of bunker. He does not care about anything because he does not care about his own population or about the young Russian soldiers, who are 18 and 19 years old. He used them like cannon meat really. It is very strange that the Russian mothers of these young soldiers do not care about them. Our special service has telephone records of talks between parents and these soldiers and some of them say, "Listen, it is pretty dangerous here and many other soldiers have been killed". The parents say, "Keep strong". It is unbelievable. As I said in my statement, the Russian side buried the corpses of its soldiers in a common grave or use crematoria and those parents never find any of the bodies, nothing.
Thank you, ambassador. Procedurally, we have gone well over time, although we probably will not have a more important meeting. If the ambassador will indulge us, and I know there is enormous pressure on her time, perhaps she could stay with us to allow other members to put questions. Is that acceptable?
Will the committee agree to allow each member to put questions? I hope we will also have the indulgence of the guests to come if they do not mind us, very understandably, taking additional time for this most critical and urgent testimony. Is that agreed? Agreed. I call Senator Doherty.
I thank the ambassador. I have to say that this is the most surreal meeting I have ever attended, and I am not that young anymore. What the ambassador described in her opening statement is barbaric and horrific. The stoicism and pride of the Ukrainian people and the courage they have displayed to the world is phenomenal. I wish to say that and not just talk about money, which I will concentrate on.
The most important thing the ambassador said is that we do not have time to wait. I agree with my colleague, Deputy Richmond. I do not know what we are waiting for or why we have to do things a bit at a time to see if something causes a little more pain to the Russians that will then allow them to react in the way we want. The ambassador said that the sanctions we have imposed to date have only cost €30 billion. For such an enormously wealthy country, that is a drop in the ocean. It will have very little impact. For the record, the fourth round of sanctions that the EU bloc announced last night do not go nearly far enough, in my opinion. The facts that we still have our ports open, that 100% of diplomats from Russia are still here and that an enormous number of incredibly wealthy countries are still doing business with Russia are not good enough. The time for talking has well come and passed. We should be jumping up and down and ensuring all those actions are taken, whether unilaterally or as an EU bloc. Obviously, it would be far more powerful if we all did it together. It should happen now. We all need to be far more vocal than we have been. Not to be disrespectful, the humanitarian aid and the generosity of Irish people are renowned, and we will continue to do that for as long as needed, but the ultimate aim here has to be that this war has to be stopped, by whatever means.
I hear loud and clear that the top item in Ukraine's requests would be to have a no-fly zone by NATO and to defend against any attack, but I can understand its reluctance. However, as Deputy Richmond said, I believe it will come. What are we waiting for? At present, all we are doing is watching the trauma and distress of the Ukrainian people on our screens on the hour every day. I still do not believe that we appreciate a fraction of what they are going through.
Not to just ramble on, I have a question for the ambassador. She said earlier that there are EU member states that have doubts about Ukraine's application to join the EU. What are those doubts and what can we do to help assuage our colleagues that they need not have doubts and that any of the stuff that cannot be box ticked because of the current environment will be? What can we do to help with that?
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
One of the countries that has doubts about granting us EU membership under this urgent procedure was mentioned here. I am sure that the Irish Government knows better which country it is because the Irish Government participates directly in such discussions, which are closed to the public.
What I ask, and what my country asks, is to push this country and discuss with this country how to advocate for our aspirations and advocate Ireland's stance with regard to this issue. Ireland's stance is very strong and we will be grateful for that.
These are unprecedented times. It is a tiny symbolic gesture but the Vice Chairman, with the support of us all, has torn up the rule book to allow us to finish this debate, which is most unusual. It also is most unusual that every member of this committee, including the Vice Chairman, is wearing the colours of Ukraine. There is no neutrality here. The question is how we can best help the ambassador's country in the most difficult of circumstances. I regret to say that I just do not see a solution in sight any day soon. I hope I am wrong.
A former Minister for Defence, and Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter, intellectualised the debate yesterday in an article in which he said that the West must "call Putin's bluff" and impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. I do not necessarily agree with that but I welcome contrarian views. Let us tease them out and have the discussion. Mr. Shatter's argument is, at least, a different view. In the absence of a solution, we, as democrats, could trigger a solution around the world by reminding people of what is in store. If NATO does not get involved, the ambassador's country - I hate saying this - will be left unprotected and facing a far bigger army. Despite the great morale of her country, this man cannot be trusted. Chemical weapons could be used and the country could be razed to the ground and obliterated as the rest of the world stands idly by. After that, Putin has an open book to do the same to any country. It is a double ace card and God help any such country if is not in the EU and not in NATO.
We must keep reminding ourselves of the cost of what is about to happen. As Senator Doherty said, sanctions are not enough and clearly are not working fast enough. People are dying and hundreds of thousands more could die. Senior people in the EU said yesterday that we must be careful the sanctions do not hurt us more than they do Russia. I do not agree with that. Provided we protect hospitals, essential services, schools and the vulnerable, people in Europe are willing to take pain. Whatever it means, people in good health are willing to suffer and take a tiny bit of pain that is not all commensurate with what the people of Ukraine are suffering. We need to work on that basis.
President Biden may announce on Thursday that he is coming to Ireland. If he does, would it be possible for a delegation from this committee to speak to him when he is in Leinster House and lean on him, as the so-called leader of the free world, to do more? He is a man I respect but he made a mistake at the start by more or less giving Putin carte blanche. Anyone can make a mistake and that is what he did when he said the US would not get involved in this war. He changed his tune a little afterwards. He is a decent, good man and Ireland is very well connected with him. Perhaps we can use that connection to help the ambassador.
I was very proud of my fellow parliamentarians across the water when they gave President Zelenskyy a standing ovation in the House of Commons. It is a small thing and I know he is very busy but would it be possible for Mr. Zelenskyy to give a short address to a joint meeting of the two Houses of the Oireachtas, in our capacity as a UN member? NATO is not doing the work and perhaps we need neutral countries to step up in other ways. An Oireachtas address could be a trigger whereby President Zelenskyy, and the world, would see another standing ovation. We must do more. I feel powerless that there is not enough we can do.
There is an important point I want to put on the record. In every debate in which I take part, we differentiate between the decent people of Russia and Belarus and that man who is in charge at the moment. I thank a modern-day Countess Markievicz, namely, Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at Channel One in Russia, whom I hope and pray we will see again alive. What she did yesterday was inspiring.
There is not much we can do but we should, when we go into private session, do our best to get an answer for the ambassador as to why only ten countries have signed the joint EU perspective on Ukraine's accession. Unfortunately, Ireland is not one and it is in good company, which is auspicious by the absence of other, large member states. What is causing that blockage? Is it that moving on it could provoke Mr. Putin? Surely things could not be any worse than they are at the moment. Acting on this might have saved Ukraine and given it some protection. It should not have taken an invasion but we owe it to the ambassador and her country to drill down and get to the bottom of this. I have asked the question on a number of occasion and I still do not know the answer. I accept that it is extremely difficult to get into the EU. It is a testing and challenging matter but we could, at the very least, psychologically nudge Ukraine's application forward.
In another small gesture, Senator Keogan, at short notice, put on a wonderful fundraiser in the Houses of Oireachtas last week. I never saw so many ambassadors in attendance, including Ms Gerasko as guest speaker. I assure her she is not on her own. We will do our best to work out, in a very tight situation and with our backs against the wall, how we can do more as a country that may be militarily neutral but is not politically neutral. The militarily neutral countries need to push and persuade other countries and Ireland has a great track record in that regard. We have household names in the world of peacebuilding, including Lord Trimble, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams, Liz O'Donnell and Professor Monica McWilliams. Have we, as a country, something to offer in stopping this abyss from happening.
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
I thank the Senator for his remarks and questions and the position he outlined. With regard to a possible address by President Zelenskyy to the Oireachtas, I am working on this issue. Members understand pretty well what the situation is and that he is very busy. I sent a request to him and I hope he will find time for such an address.
I thank the Senator for his proposal and idea regarding the preparation of talks with the USA to encourage it to set up a no-fly zone. As I mentioned, that is extremely important for us. Our army is very good on the ground but what we need is to close the sky and protect our civilians from more bombing attacks, artillery strikes etc.
Russian officials, Putin himself, the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr. Lavrov, and the east Russian propagandists say directly that Ukraine is not the final goal.
Ukraine is a step to attack further. Even in Putin's demands to NATO and to the USA, he does not intend to build the Soviet Union but to restore his power, including over eastern Europe. He demands the withdrawal of NATO troops, for instance, from Bulgaria, Poland and actually from the eastern part of the European Union.
Even yesterday, by the way, I watched one interview of a Russian Putin propagandist. He was angry because he lost real estate in Italy, and many funds also. He clearly stated that Ukraine is just one part of Russia's plan and Russia wants to invade Europe.
Talks, not only within the Europe but between democratic states on what to do or not to do, but not taking any real decision, means that Putin is approaching the EU member states. All democratic words allow Putin to kill our people and thousands of Ukrainian lives are at stake.
The sanctions are working, but they are not so harmful to the Russian economy because, after 2015, Russia redirected some funds to China, to the Chinese currency. Russia hid some funds from the world market also. It is not enough for sure.
I thank the ambassador. I admire the ambassador's strength and that of her people. It is amazing to see their resolve and their steadfast position. I will not cover what has been said. I have a small question. It is in the context of us, as individual public representatives, and the social media presence we have. How can we reach out to the Russian people and people in other sovereign states to appeal to them to bring this war to an end or at least help them hear and highlight what is happening? Which channels should we use to direct and target our position to those who might take notice and listen, and who may push from within as they are coming from the other side? I have been watching Twitter feeds and looking at videos of what is going on but I am not quite sure what to push back out. Who can I channel it back at, if I am pushing it out? Other people might get behind that, and the same with all of us. Are there channels that can be spoken to through the social media space to talk to other people?
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
I thank the Deputy so much. It is an interesting, good and important question. What we have is for sure a hybrid form. On what Putin does, he imposed a criminal responsibility even for using words against war or supporting Ukraine, etc. He has also blocked social media for now.
On methods, Facebook is very popular in Russia and in Ukraine. For instance, there is Twitter, etc. Only YouTube is available now in Russia. As for what we Ukrainians do, first of all, the Telegram app is very popular in Russia. We use this Telegram app also, and Telegram channels, and try to spread our information through this app. What our Ukrainians do is search for places on Google Maps, for instances, the Kremlin, and put on review photos of war in Ukraine, ruins, dead people, and captured Russian military and their documents. It means that if a Russian person, who lives, for instance, in Kazan, is searching for hospital or any place, this person will find such pictures, reviews, etc., like that.
What our Ukrainians do is call to relatives in Russia because, of course, Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union and many relatives live in Russia, etc. They try to call relatives and explain what is going on in Ukraine, and to tell the true story. Unfortunately, I have relatives in Russia. For instance, my brother sent our relative the pictures of our region - these horrible photos and videos. My brother explained what was going on and the response was that it was our Nazis - like suicide bombers.
Some of Russia's people do not want to analyse something. There is a huge problem. That is a result of a brainwashing machine and Russian propaganda. Many people are really scared to take to the street to protest. For instance, as I mentioned, the Russian side buried bodies of their soldiers in a common grave, etc., not even in Russia but in Belarus.
People in Russia, including families, never get any true information about where their sons, husbands and so on are. The main reason for that relates to the fact that if Russians receive the corpse of their relative, whether a son or a husband, they will protest. We, at least, use such means. There are certain websites and applications in Russia, such as OdnoKlassniki and VK. They are prohibited and are similar to Facebook, but Russian.
I welcome H.E. Ms Gerasko and Mrs. Shaloput. I have been watching Ms Gerasko over recent weeks, and the strength she has shown to Ukrainian people in Ireland has been amazing. I thank her for that.
I apologise for having missed some of the contributions earlier. There was a call earlier in the meeting for medicines, which seem to be one of the most significant resources Ukraine needs. Many people in Ireland have given help and truckloads of goods have gone out. We can see from the pictures that a great deal of clothing is being dumped on the side of the road. It is not something Ukraine needs, whereas medicines are, as Ms Gerasko mentioned. There is a role for the pharmaceutical companies in Ireland, and there was a call in this regard earlier in the meeting, to up their game. While individual people can go to the chemist's and buy various medicines, bandages or medical goods that might be needed, the pharmaceutical companies have them to hand. I call on the pharmaceutical companies, not only in Ireland but throughout the world, to do their job and I ask our guests to reiterate that call.
With regard to the more than 5,000 people who have come here so far, how can we make matters easier for them? It will probably involve the Polish and Romanian border areas. Can we work closely with the authorities in those areas, perhaps through the Department of Justice here, to set up some sort of pop-up unit in those regions to make it easier for people to make the decision to come here? We should ensure that whatever those who are fleeing need can be given to them on the Polish or Romanian borders. I am not sure whether other speakers have complimented the Polish people but they have been simply amazing. All the countries that border Ukraine have shown unbelievable hospitality and solidarity to the people of Ukraine. As a formerly oppressed nation, we can see the significance. The Polish people, too, were oppressed at one time, and their helping hand is there for the Ukrainian people.
In respect of the people coming here, does the embassy have weekly meetings with, say, the Irish Red Cross or other NGOs in Ireland that are looking after the placement of Ukrainians? Does it have regular meetings with some of the Ukrainian nationals who live here, or with people from other the eastern bloc countries who are living here, who may want to do their bit in Ireland for the families travelling here? What is the embassy doing to support those NGOs in trying to place people here?
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
I thank the Senator for her great suggestion to communicate with the pharmaceutical companies. I am working with some such companies already and we have received humanitarian aid in the form of medicines, given people alone cannot provide the required volume of medicines. We have a list of what is needed and there are many specific requirements, such as blood and so on. It is not just about collecting goods from people. I would appreciate it if the Senator could contact other pharmaceutical companies or put me in touch with them.
We are working closely with the Departments of Justice and Social Protection and other Departments. We do not have regular meetings with the NGOs but we have set up a project with some of them and with some corporations. They have weekly, or even more frequent, contact with the leaders of our Ukrainian community and they are very supportive also. The consul of our embassy is in daily communication with representatives of the Department of Justice, for example. There are some issues that have yet to be resolved, although I understand Ireland is facing its own challenge in regard to setting up a new procedure for granting international protection status. It is a new procedure, so the Department of Justice needs to organise a process for issuing such certificates. That is just one problem we face.
As for what else can be done, everything is concentrated in Dublin Airport, but Ukrainians are arriving not only there but also to Shannon Airport and elsewhere. We need more points in different airports, as well as more translators. We are working with our community to find translator volunteers to work on behalf of our immigrants.
I forgot to say, in response to Deputy Brady regarding the idea of chartered flights from Poland, that we would be very grateful for that. It is very difficult to buy tickets from Warsaw or Krakow to Dublin. Moreover, we addressed this issue to Ryanair, given it has raised its prices.
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
It is immoral. I am waiting to have a meeting with the Minister for Transport, where I will be sure to raise that issue. Unfortunately, our letter of request, which we sent to Ryanair one week ago, has not received a response. If the Senator can assist us with a list of NGOs that are ready to become more involved in facilitating assistance, I would appreciate that.
I thank the ambassador. I am not a member of this committee; it may be somewhat relevant, now that we are talking about Ryanair, that I am a member of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. I was out the morning of the first attacks and met Ms Gerasko and the Polish ambassador at the gates. As the convenor of the Ireland-Romania interparliamentary friendship group, I had met the Romanian ambassador the night before. We were talking about Ukraine, of course, but I do not think any of us thought that within five or six hours of leaving each other on the Wednesday evening, attacks would start on Kyiv.
Every parliamentarian and person in Ireland felt shock and disbelief that first day. We are equally shocked but more believing of the awful trauma people are going through. I pay credit to the ambassador and her team for all they have had to do and deal with in the last two weeks. I think I met her almost every day last week. I was at the Russian Embassy on the Sunday and then I met her on Monday, Tuesday and so on. All of us know an awful lot more about Ukraine now than we knew a month or two ago. We all stand with Ukraine as a nation and as a parliament. Ukrainians are defending not just themselves but the free world and democracy against totalitarian regimes. I have been in Estonia where there is a fear. I am convenor of the recently formed Ireland-Moldova interparliamentary friendship group. I never thought when I was asked to be convenor of either of these groups that they would be so topical and relevant in this awful, traumatic way.
I do not want to repeat the points that have been made. It is really important that the message goes back from all of us as individuals, parties, members of the Government or Opposition that there is no party politics in this at all. We are all here doing everything and anything we can. Right around Ireland, as a country whose people had to flee and go abroad for all kinds of reasons in the past, we understand that people are going because of push factors, not pull factors. Many who are coming here would obviously much prefer to be in Ukraine and hope to be able to go back there. Everything we can do, we should do, and more. The ambassador should reach out to us every time she can.
No more than certain other people asked the pharmaceutical companies to step up, my understanding is that Ryanair was the single largest operator in Ukraine prior to the conflict. It flew more flights per day in Ukraine than Ukraine International Airlines and has a much bigger fleet. It was flying far more services in and out of Ukraine and ran a successful business there. Ryanair is a successful commercial airline. On this one, it needs to know when to step up and deliver. It would be a message to Michael O'Leary and Ryanair, with over 400 aircraft operating, that it could provide services out of Poland, Romania and Moldova to various European countries and other safe havens free of charge. I do not think it would be beyond Ryanair's capability to do that. Many of us who use and appreciate Ryanair would appreciate if in this traumatic, war situation, it would say to the Governments of Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Moldova and various other countries close by that it would fly services at minimal or preferably zero cost to bring people out of these countries.
As a country with a population of about 5 million, for us to even fathom that almost 3 million Ukrainians have had to flee with nothing except the clothes on their backs, maybe a small suitcase and a couple of toys for their children, it is just beyond comprehension that this can happen on EU borders in the 21st century. The message should go back from this committee about Ryanair and other airlines, for that matter, but particularly Ryanair, which did a lot of business in Ukraine and hopefully will again in the future when the country rebuilds itself as a free, democratic and independent State.
Most of my questions were answered and the ambassador deserves a little break. We are all on her side. We are all with her. She must reach out at any opportunity for any and all of us to help her. In the last two or three weeks people have been asking me how they can help; those in business, publicans, restaurateurs are asking if people want work, if they can feed them. Everybody is wanting to help. People who are trading with Russia do not care about their trade. They are abandoning trade with Russia. They have said it is one of their biggest markets but they do not want or need it; they will live without it. Ireland is 100% with Ukraine and on its side. The sooner the ceasefire comes and this devastating war caused by Putin more than by the Russian people is stopped, the better. I thank the ambassador for everything she is doing.
H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko:
I thank the Oireachtas Members for their support and for their interesting ideas. Their ideas and support are very concrete and not just about things in general. Of course we need to do a lot to facilitate our Ukrainians here and to accommodate them. One issue which is very important for Ukrainians is access to the labour market, not only de jurebut de facto. Many people also came to our embassy and ask where they can find the vacancies, for instance, or how they can find them. It would be great if some web resource was created listing job vacancies for Ukrainians. Many are disorientated after such suffering and travelling the long way to Poland and then to Ireland. Sometimes they do not have English language skills and they are a little frustrated. It is very important.
We are grateful to Ireland for a firm stance with regard to our EU membership. As I have mentioned, we would be very grateful for Ireland's leading role in this process and in respect of the no-fly zone. Thank you so much.
I thank the ambassador. Her contribution has given us a broad agenda for our private meeting on which we can make concrete decisions and see what we can do to be of assistance. In the meanwhile, slava Ukraini!
I welcome, on behalf of the committee, H.E. Mr. George Zurabashvili, ambassador of Georgia to Ireland, and his colleague; and H.E. Mrs. Larisa Miculet, ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to Ireland, who is with her colleagues. They are all most welcome. I thank the witnesses for staying with us. I think the committee was of one mind that the powerful testimony of H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko, ambassador of Ukraine to Ireland, had to be heard in full measure. It was as impactive on the committee as any evidence we have heard to date.
We are now moving on to the second session. I am afraid I have to re-read the note on privilege. All witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech which might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative they comply with any such direction. For witnesses attending from outside the Leinster House campus, there are limitations to parliamentary privilege. They may not enjoy the same level of immunity from proceedings as a witness who is physically present. All witnesses who are participating in this committee session from outside the State should be mindful of the domestic law that applies there.
With those housekeeping rules repeated, I call H.E. Mrs. Miculet to give her opening statement.
H.E. Mrs. Larisa Miculet:
At the outset, I ask the Vice Chairman and members to allow me to express deep gratitude for the opportunity to address and brief this respectable committee on Moldova's application for membership of the European Union.
As this is the first official appearance of the ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the Oireachtas with my team since the opening of the embassy in Dublin 2019, before moving on to the topic of today’s discussion, please allow me to state the following.
Diplomatic relations between our countries - we will mark the 23rd anniversary in September 2022 - are strong and are based on mutual values and support. The opening of the embassy by my government shows a significant interest in promoting further our bilateral ties between the two states, strengthening friendship and diversifying our co-operation. I welcome also the recent establishment of the Ireland-Moldova Parliamentary Friendship Group, which will serve as a valuable vehicle in developing stronger ties between our Legislatures. Although Senator Horkan is missing at this moment, I want to deeply thank him for accepting the role of convener. One can see that it could not be more timely to have this parliamentary friendship group.
Today’s discussion is of tremendous importance for my country and unfortunately is taking place in a very complicated context of regional security. The leadership of my country, the Republic of Moldova, has strongly condemned the Russia's military aggression against the sovereign country of Ukraine and stated that Moldova fully respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence within its internationally recognised borders.
The Republic of Moldova immediately turned its solidarity into concrete actions, where it has a greater impact, in helping refugees. I hope that later, in answering the committee members' questions, I will be able to elaborate a little bit more on this very important topic for us and I would be very glad to share with the committee how proud I am of the Moldovan people who opened their houses on the first day of the conflict. On the first day of this aggression, more than 5,000 people entered the Republic of Moldova and by the end of the day, these were hosted in Moldovan houses in different places in very dignified conditions. I hope to have another chance to talk about this later.
Despite the regional and very complicated situation, the Government strongly follows its goal of EU integration and has reiterated its firm commitment to continue the reform process, to fight corruption, to reform the judiciary, to develop the infrastructure and to strengthen democracy. We have high-level visitors every day to our country, including by ministers from the EU and from the US. The Ministers, the President and the Head of the Government have stressed this point.
We are working now on two important fronts. We are helping with this conflict and at the same time we are following our agenda because for 30 years our main goal has been to gain membership of the EU. It is a long and difficult road but we have never stepped back and are going ahead in a different situation now.
Therefore, on 3 March 2022, the Republic of Moldova submitted the letter of application to join the EU. This was a major step forward on our European journey, a journey that was not always easy and smooth, but with a very clear destination: EU membership. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration and Deputy Prime Minister, Nicu Popescu, said that the next generation of young Moldovans will be very proud of this day when the decision was taken by our leadership.
Today, after 30 years of independence, during which we experienced many steps back, we have achieved important successes and learned the hard lessons. The Republic of Moldova is ready to take the opportunity and responsibility for a prosperous and peaceful future in the European family.
There are two dimensions I want to bring to the committee's attention today as to why we did that on 3 March. The first one relates to our fundamentals. Moldova declared firmly its European choice as the only way to ensure the development and prosperity of the country. There is no other way and only one way ahead for us. Our European ambitions are strongly rooted into our common history and culture. More than that, we speak a European language already and share common values and principles with EU member states. Moldova is at the border of the EU, is part of Europe by virtue of its geographical position and location, and, by definition, we are Europeans. Our future is destined to be European.
We are undergoing a transformation process aimed towards irreversible changes in our society, economy, and governance. We remain focused on consolidating democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as indispensable elements lying at the heart of EU political and economic integration.
Starting from 2014, the EU-Moldova Association Agreement stands at the core of our bilateral dialogue and is a valuable guide of our reform agenda. We continue to make progress on transposing and implementing European standards into national legislation and working towards true transformation in a broad spectrum of areas of common interest.
Over the years, together with our European partners, we have achieved notable successes on our European path. The implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area resulted in an increase in the number and volume of trade transforming the EU into the most important trading partner of Moldova. More than 60% of our exported goods go to the EU market and over 40% of imports to our country are sourced in the EU.
The second dimension of our important step towards approaching EU lies in the current regional context. There are many risks for my country. The Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine and the continuing military conflict created a new political and security environment in the region and, let us say, in the whole world.
There are important decisions that must be taken quickly and decisively, especially now when all of us are confronted with a changing landscape in the world. Our EU membership application is one of those examples where one has to be decisive and make quick decisions.
The current dramatic circumstances forced us to accelerate these important steps that inevitably would have been taken in the future. We consider now to be the appropriate time to match our strong ambitions with concrete actions. We understand that our decision may have taken European countries, including Ireland, by surprise but I assure the committee that all partners that work with Moldova know how strong our commitment is and how hard we worked to move ahead quickly.
Following this important decision, we are fully aware that we need to move fast by decisively executing internal reforms, proactively implementing reforms in good governance, anti-corruption, rule of law and other areas in which we know we have some weaknesses. We are working on those areas.
At the same time, I wish to stress it is obvious under these very difficult circumstances that old formats of co-operation with the EU might not prove as efficient as they did. We sense that is true. We now need approaches centred around a concrete and credible membership perspective for aspiring countries. This should also materialise in more robust programmes and initiatives aimed to bring Moldova closer to the EU. We are ready and determined to identify new avenues to deepen our relationship with the EU.
As an immediate priority we look forward to scaling up the integration efforts in the following directions, the first of which relates to trade. The EU is the main commercial partner of the Republic of Moldova. That is already the case. The implementation of the deep and comprehensive free trade areas, DCFTA, agreement has triggered a profound transformation of the economy and the way of thinking and functioning in terms of the quality of goods, competitiveness and management. We have already learned the requirements of the EU. We are passing this chapter.
For Moldova, the economic implications of the current military conflict in Ukraine are expected to result in disrupted supply and value chains with and through Ukraine. We are feeling that already. It is happening in other ways too but is mainly related to Ukraine. We cannot make estimations. At the moment, we can only anticipate that there will be many other implications. We must take decisions about where to go and what are the correct things to do. We are considering those matters. We had to identify immediate measures to reorientate the commercial flows and transport routes. However, in the longer run, we will need to do more together to ensure the economic and financial stability of the country.
Transport is another area in which we are ready to work more closely and deeply with the EU. We continue to focus on the implementation of the trans-European transport network, TEN-T, that will enable greater transport connectivity with the EU. The development of strategic and priority transport corridors will lay the way forward to progressive integration of Moldova into the EU market.
Energy is a topic of great importance to us. We are still in the energy crisis that has followed decisions that have been made and of which the committee is aware. Strengthening energy resilience is one of the key elements of co-operation with our external partners. This is an existential issue for us. Our efforts are currently channelled towards two priority dimensions, namely, gas and electricity interconnection with the EU and the diversification of supply. We hope for an accelerated process of full synchronisation of Ukraine and Moldova with the EU electricity system. This is urgent. At the same time, we continue to work closely with our partners to overcome the challenges posed by the gas crisis and reduce dependency on a single source of supply. That is the reality for Moldova now. We have only one source of energy supply.
Security is another element. The current military conflict has highlighted the importance of the security dimension. In the current circumstances, our priority to raise to a new level the security and defence co-operation with the EU is even more stringent. We look forward to launching the high-level political and security dialogue with the EU that was agreed at the Association Council in late October 2021. We seek the EU's support in promoting security sector reform and deeper co-operation on hybrid threats, strategic communications, cybersecurity and information sharing. We welcome the assistance offered through the new European peace facility instrument which, in 2021, was directed towards strengthening the capabilities of our military medical facilities and engineering corps, and we look forward to enhancing this co-operation in future.
I reiterate that we are all facing a totally new reality, which makes us even more determined and convinced of the need to develop new ways to support reforms and ensure the development of countries in the eastern neighbourhood that aspire to become fully integrated into the EU. Moldova’s firm choice is a European one and it is directed towards becoming part of the big European family. In this context, I kindly ask for the humble support of the committee and Irish society in general in our determination to advance on the path of EU membership. I thank committee members for their attention and I am ready to answer their questions about Moldova. It was timely of the Moldovan Government to open an embassy in Ireland, which has allowed us the chance to interact with the committee members, to discuss the concerns of Moldova and to bring to the attention of the committee the concerns of my small country. We hope for the support of Ireland in the future.
H.E. Mr. George Zurabashvili:
I thank the Vice Chairman of the committee, Deputy Howlin, who I see in person in the committee room. I also greet the Chairman, Deputy McHugh, who I see on the screen, and the distinguished members of the Oireachtas committee. I warmly greet my colleague, Ms Larisa Miculet, who is sitting next to me. I also greet Ms Anna Sochaska, the Polish ambassador, and the Romanian ambassador, Dr. Laurentiu-Mihai Stefan. I thank Ms Marysa Gerasko for her lengthy testimony, which lasted for more than two hours and was very interesting.
First, I thank members for this opportunity to brief them on the challenges that Georgia has, the ongoing Russian occupation, and to share the progress Georgia has achieved towards further EU integration. I appreciate the growing interest that committee members might have particularly after Georgia has officially submitted an application to join the EU family. The current severe political circumstances oblige me to emphasise the vocal and strong support of the Georgian Government and the people of Georgia towards the brave Ukrainian people and their respectful leadership. We stand together with our Ukrainian friends as they fight for freedom, for independence and for a European future. We support Ukraine as much as we can in all international arenas of our competence, such as the UN, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, and the ICC. We contribute thousands of tonnes of humanitarian aid worth millions of euro, provide shelter and assistance for those Ukrainians who were stranded in Georgia or fled the war zones. It is obvious that the world must resist, and is doing so, the brutal Russian regime aiming to invade and enslave neighbours through massacre, mass destruction and devastation.
We all pray and hope that the wisdom of peace and constructive dialogue will succeed and the end of this nightmare finally arrives. The European Union and the international community should make Russia accountable for breaching international law, as in the modern world the rule of law must govern and justice must prevail. However every end has a beginning. The Russian aggression against its neighbours, European values and the world order, started from Georgia first in the early 1990s and then leading to the Russia-Georgian war of August 2008, when Russia conducted a large-scale military aggression against sovereign Georgia on land, at sea, by air and by cyberspace. Russia has occupied both Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions of Georgia, has created illegal, proxy regimes in both of the regions thus keeping 20% of the overall territory under the Russian occupation. As the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights states, Russia has established effective control over the occupied regions. Throughout the 30 years of Russia-Georgia conflict from 1991, the Georgian people have undergone exactly the same suffering and pain of mass murder, torture, rape and pillage, of atrocities and brutality by the Russian army as nowadays, we all and the whole world are shocked to watch on breaking news on TV with horror and fear. As a result of three massive waves of ethnic cleansing for which the Russian Federation is responsible, half a million of internally displaced persons, IDPs, or refugees who have been expelled from their lands in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions of Georgia, are still dreaming of returning to their true homes.
Sadly, the times when the Berlin Wall divided Europe are not over. The barbed wire fences along the occupation line in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions of Georgia are dividing families, restricting the locals from seeing each other, keeping the farmers apart from their farming lands and relatives parted from their loved ones. Gradually Russian occupational forces move the occupation line deeper into the country capturing more land and bringing more tragedy for the local population. Those who have not escaped atrocities and have remained in Tskhinvali and Abkhazia regions are constantly subjected to massive human rights violations and are forced to take Russian passports. Nowadays, as Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues, Georgia remains a target for more conventional or hybrid threats from Russia, which has illegally established two military bases in the occupied territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. They provoke the local population living beyond and along the occupation line through frightening, kidnapping, torture and murder.
These threats against Georgia are real, alarming and have consequences. It is crucially important to call for our international partners to keep focus on Georgia along with Ukraine, and to make Russia withdraw the occupation troops from the Georgian indigenous territories. Georgia appreciates the support and contribution of the EU and its member states to the process of peaceful resolution of the Russia-Georgia conflict through the EU mediation of the ceasefire agreement of 12 August 2008, as well as launching the EU monitoring mission, where seven Irish observers serve on the ground. Equally we are grateful to Ireland for supporting the EU’s non-recognition and engagement policy. Despite these efforts, unfortunately, the response of the European Union and the world against the Russian aggression of 2008 war against Georgia, an attempt to change the established borders in Europe, was not strong and decisive enough to defend the principles of the international rules-based order, to make Russia respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a European state and to hold Russia accountable for aggression against its small neighbour.
Russia’s aggression against a sovereign neighbour with the main intention of keeping Georgia under its direct political influence and domination aims to undermine the economy, compromise democracy, shake statehood with the intended consequence of ending our sovereignty and derailing Georgia from European Union and NATO integration, as Russia considers sovereign, free, European and democratic Georgia to be a threat to its own regime. We have withstood the occupation, provocations, hostility, hybrid measures, disinformation and other coercive tools from Russia, which continues nowadays. We have made all the efforts within our power to progress our European and Euro-Atlantic integration and, at the same time to pursue the policy of peaceful resolution of the Russia-Georgia conflict.
A few years ago Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine as associated EU countries have set up the Association Trio with the purpose of working together for our integration into the European Union. We took this step together, as our three countries have the same European aspirations. We have the same goal of becoming members of the European Union. We possess the same tools, signed Association Agreements including the DCFTA with the EU, to achieve these goals. Georgia was considering submitting the application by 2024 but the rapidly changing new reality has opened a momentum for all of us to submit our official application for EU membership now. EU membership application is a concrete response to the long-standing choice of the Georgian people. It unites the whole population, brings all political parties under one goal to support further Georgia’s EU integration. The last poll shows that 86% would vote for EU membership. On top of this, a prospect of a free, democratic European state on the path towards EU membership will prove a powerful attraction for our people living in the occupied territories and eventually will serve as the most effective tool to achieve reconciliation in a unified Georgia. We welcome the decision by the Council of the European Union, followed by the statement of the Heads of State or Government of the EU member states, in Versailles, to invite the European Commission to submit its opinion on the applications of Ukraine, as well as Georgia and Moldova. We fully understand the main purpose of the meeting to show a united stance and solidarity with the EU towards Ukraine and its people in these most horrible times for them.
At the same time, it is critical that decisions taken on Georgia and Moldova are synchronised with those regarding Ukraine, and the trio is not split apart by reacting differently on the application accession process. Otherwise, leaving us or any of the trio countries behind in this process will be understood as a negative answer of the EU and will bear a devastating effect on our society, while giving a green light to Russia for unpredictable destructive actions and will definitely close this once-in-a-lifetime momentum for membership. In the meantime, we continue implementation of the Association Agreement and the DCFTA, approximately 40% of which we have already fulfilled. Further consolidation of democracy, strengthening the rule of law and good governance, as well as human rights remain on top of our European agenda. After signing the EU-Georgia Association Agreement in 2014, we have advanced political and economic integration with the EU.
Two working groups were created under the state EU integration committee to ensure regular follow-up on the implementation of the association agreement and the deep and comprehensive free trade area commitments. Since 2017, visa liberalisation has allowed Georgian citizens to benefit from visa-free travel to EU Schengen states, with more than 600,000 Georgian citizens having enjoyed visa-free travel since then.
With the aim of approximating national legislation with the EU and aligning its institutional framework closer to EU standards, Georgia has successfully transposed a big part of the EU legislative acts and has established various new regulatory institutions. Almost 56% of legislative acts have been transposed into Georgian legislation. As an example, in the sanitary and phytosanitary area alone, the Georgian legislation has been amended with 149 EU legal acts.
The export of national products from Georgia to EU markets has increased by 15% and the EU has become Georgia's main trade partner, with more than 850 Georgian companies exporting their products to the EU market. Co-operation with the EU in the energy sector led to Georgia’s accession to the European Energy Community Treaty in 2016. Georgia is actively co-operating with European agencies such as Frontex, Europol and Eurojust. Georgia is part of EU framework programmes such as Horizon Europe, Creative Europe and Erasmus+, in the context of which Georgia is ranked sixth by activity among 141 partner countries. Joining the Single Market, the single euro payments area and a single telecommunication space as well as incorporating into educational domains and transportation networks are part of our European agenda.
Georgia possesses huge potential for green hydropower generation. We are closely studying the project to construct a novel Black Sea underwater electricity transmission line to supply the EU with badly needed green energy. In the world of digitalisation, the Internet cables stretching along the seabed are among the top priorities as currently the Black Sea has turned up as a sea of connectivity.
We call on the EU to further shape co-operation with Georgia as with a candidate country. Being defined as a candidate country will be a sign of big support for Georgia’s democracy and will certainly further consolidate Georgia’s democratic and economic reforms. The time has come for the European Union to demonstrate its own values of liberty, equality and fraternity to support our countries, which have a decades-long history of struggle for European values, freedom and democracy.
On the bilateral level, the increasing relations require reciprocation by the Irish Government. The opening of the Irish embassy in Tbilisi will definitely contribute to the Irish global footprint policy, benefit Ireland as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and open new horizons for Irish businesses. Combined, this will contribute to our bilateral friendly relations. Georgia is ranked sixth by the World Bank in terms of the ease of doing business. We hope Ireland will join the decision of EU Schengen states to open borders and will provide visa-free access to Georgians. That will contribute to our people-to-people relations, as people are the main asset any nation has. We are immensely grateful to the Irish Government, the Oireachtas and the Irish people for their unvarying support for our sovereignty and territorial integrity and for advocating our further integration into the European Union.
As I come to the end of my remarks, I invite the Chairman, the Vice Chairman and members of the committee to visit Georgia and get a better introduction to Georgia’s profound aspirations towards EU membership as well as the huge progress achieved. They will exchange views with government officials on the future of Europe, particularly in the context of Georgia, to get a comprehensive understanding of how we can contribute to the safety and security of Europe. They will be able to meet the Irish observers from the European Union monitoring mission and visit the occupation line where they will witness the devastating impact of the Russian occupation. Further, they will meet ordinary Georgians to look in their eyes, introspect their souls, witness how strongly we Georgians are Europeans and how crucial it is for us and the future of Europe that our European Union membership is accepted.
I thank the Vice Chairman. I am open for questions members may have.
I thank the ambassador, H.E. Mr. Zurabashvili, for his comprehensive opening statement and kind invitation. I will now open the floor to members in the order they indicated to me. Due to the time constraints, I ask members and the ambassadors to be as concise as possible while also being comprehensive.
My first questions are for both ambassadors. In the assessment of their countries, how far along are they in terms of achieving the Copenhagen criteria? What do they consider to be a credible, albeit expedited, timeline for the ultimate accession of their countries, alongside Ukraine, to the European Union? I fully agree with the contention of H.E. Mr. Zurabashvili that it has to be a tripartite accession. That has worked most favourably in the past. The separation of prospective member states has delayed the accession of countries that should be in the European Union.
It is not a question I like asking, but how greatly does the country of H.E. Mrs. Miculet fear a possible Russian invasion? To what extent is the European Union providing support in her country's very generous welcome to and provision for those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine?
I have a slightly more specific question for H.E. Mr. Zurabashvili. He has given good detail on the illegal occupation of his country. To what extent is the Russian Federation using proxies in illegally occupied Georgia to fund its war in Ukraine? Does he have evidence of that? Has Georgia been able to relay that to the EU to expand European sanctions on Russian financial institutions?
H.E. Mrs. Larisa Miculet:
I thank the Deputy for his questions. On the issue of criteria, we are very realistic. We understand it is going to be a long journey. We are very encouraged by the Council decision that already expressed to us this European perspective. As I stated, we know it will be a long way with several stages. I reiterate we are ready to work hard. We understand new approaches are needed and new robust programmes are needed bilaterally with the EU, Moldova and all countries that we will follow and will achieve those criteria. At the moment at least, all assessments, evaluations and reports by the EU in respect of Moldova implementing all obligations according to association agreements and so on are very positive. It has been indicated we have to work deeper on certain matters, such as the judiciary and the rule of law.
I can assure the committee that, even today, I saw the statement of our President that in one area a good result required by the European Union was achieved. It is a work in progress. The majority of our Parliament is now very pro-European. We have a very committed and pro-European Government. Of course, our President is pro-European. Together, they are aligned and we are working day by day to that goal. As I stated, we are realistic and we understand it will be a long way and a lot of hard work.
As I said, one of the reasons we opened an embassy here was to benefit from Ireland's experience. We are very interested in how Ireland absorbs European funds and uses the money to develop parts of its economy that need it most. That is hard work and we are ready for that. We are committed to that. At the moment we need Ireland's friendly support in encouraging us to follow. We have a clear European perspective in following all the steps stipulated by the EU for accession.
The Deputy asked a very timely and hard question regarding the Russian invasion and Moldova. Moldova, like Ireland, is a neutral country. At the beginning of my statement, I outlined our diplomatic position that we stand with Ukraine. At the same time, I reiterate that we are a neutral country. As a small neutral country, we understand that we can count on international law. We can count on international support and solidarity and our neutrality status.
Our state agencies and state bodies are assessing at this moment and are consulting widely with international partners with greater assessment capabilities. Our leadership has stated many times during this conflict period that we do not have grounds at this moment to think that the invasion is prepared. We do not have grounds at this moment to say that there are some movements or clear intentions definitely of military forces that are in Transnistria or in the Transnistrian segment in general. At the same time, we are all aware of what is going on. We recall that we counted so much on diplomacy, as Ireland said intense diplomacy, but it did not work unfortunately.
At this moment, it looks like there are no different movements that can make us more nervous. However, we understand that there are big risks. As our president said signing this, how can we not be afraid or take into consideration these risks when in our capital, Chiinãu, we can hear the bombs in Ukraine. We are the most fragile country, bordering Ukraine.
We are vigilant. Our leadership has stated many times that we have been considering different scenarios for many months. We do not speak about them publicly but as with every country, we are considering them. We know that we can count on us. We can count on international law and the international community.
The Deputy asked about refugees. Today we have heard that 2.7 million Ukrainians are in refugee status. Approximately 340,000 Ukrainians have entered into Moldova through our crossing points. One can imagine the pressure at a crossing point in Moldova. Such a crossing point was capable of getting 100 or 200 people a day into the country. Even to open the passport or the document of just one person is a great big pressure, but we managed. Today, of the 340,000 refugees who entered the country, 103,000 refugees are staying. It is still a big number. Our agencies estimate these people represent 4% of our population right now.
As I said at the beginning and as my colleagues said, our state agencies and our people have shown we are Europeans by sharing European values. In the first two days ordinary people mobilised and went to the crossing points 200 km from the capital. They rented cars and small buses. All those people were brought to the capital. Some 90% of these people are hosted in our homes. People shared everything. As one journalist here stated to me, Moldovans are not rich people. While we are not a rich country, we have a big heart. Moldovans share everything with the refugees. That is the status.
Many members asked me and H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko what we need. I have had rounds of meetings and at 3 p.m. today I was supposed to have a meeting with the head of Irish Aid. I have shared with them our needs. At this moment we have two priority needs, one of which I discussed with Irish officials and I count on their support. We are developing a mechanism to relocate some of these 100,000 refugees in Moldova to other European countries that opened their doors. We want to relocate them in a very dignified matter. At this moment, they are in accommodation in our country in very dignified conditions and we want that. We ask Ireland for support because others are coming and we just need to give them space. I do not want to speculate, but if, God forbid, that front line moves farther to Odessa, it means there is only one crossing point to Moldova. They can go farther to Romania which has also kindly opened all crossing points and the Romanians are helping a lot. We can expect that there will be a big flow. I do not want to speculate. I count on diplomacy and on diplomatic solutions. However, we need to evaluate that.
Our second main request at this moment is to ask countries and NGOs to help us directly and bilaterally for some financial support. I will have three meetings with the Red Cross and other big NGOs here in the next two days.
We ask for help through the bilateral directing to us of some financial support. I will explain why I say financial support. Our estimation is that one third of all the assistance that goes to refugees, which totals about €2.5 million per day, goes from our budget. We need to transport them from all the crossing points to the capital city. We need to strengthen our health systems, given many women in our country have recently given birth, while other people have other needs. We also have to put kids in school. A total of 47,000 of the people in question are kids and they have immediate needs. We have done everything we can but, to be frank, our capabilities are not as great as those of other countries. We have recently undergone two economic crises, namely, the recession after Covid and another downturn as a result of the current energy crisis, whereby prices are increasing under a contract we have with Russian companies. In short, we are in very difficult circumstances and that is why we need the supports.
To return to the question on offering a dignified way of relocating people, I might clarify what I meant. Our airspace is currently closed because we have declared a state of emergency. I have said to Irish officials that, please, our countries can respond together. We will help from this side and they can help from their side. Ireland can probably organise some chartered flights. Ireland has certain capabilities, and the Irish probably have even bigger hearts than we have. I follow what is going on every day. We will probably first need to transport the refugees by chartered bus to the airport of a nearby country, perhaps Romania, from where they can be taken to other places. We depend on these supports. We do not want such a large flow of people that we will have to open tent cities, with people living outdoors. It is winter in Moldova and it is very cold. We are trying to accommodate people and we have opened every building possible, such as indoor sports facilities and so on. I have seen people expressing their gratitude for us and that makes me proud of my country. Of course, the European Union has been a help. Every day, we have visitors and they come bilaterally, so we support the EU mechanism.
H.E. Mr. George Zurabashvili:
Deputy Richmond asked about the Copenhagen criteria. As I recall, there are three pillars, relating to democracy, macroeconomic stability and governance. Of course, we are working on that but it is a long and hard journey. We are not capable of walking the journey by ourselves because there is a lack of expertise, experience and financial resources, which is very important at this time. The human resources we need are also lacking. We are working on that. I cannot say exactly where we stand right now but it is a journey that will require much effort from both sides to meet the criteria. We are very grateful for the support of the European Union and all member states but we need more support to match those criteria when the time comes.
As for the occupying forces stationed in our country, there are two occupied territories, namely, Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Following the 2008 war, Russia illegally opened two military bases, with 10,000 soldiers between them. Furthermore, there are 2,500 FSB-KGB agents who are controlling the occupation online. According to our intelligence, Russia has very sophisticated military equipment stationed on its military bases. I do not have knowledge about its involvement in the aggression against Ukraine but I have been told it has put the base in the Abkhazia region on high alert.
This is the reality and it is alarming. We need to be very cautious in dealing with the occupying forces because we are aware of the brutality, both from our experience and from watching on television what is happening Ukraine. On the other hand, we are supporting Ukraine as much as we can. We have some limits but we are doing our best. As I mentioned earlier, we provide humanitarian aid and support to the likes of the UN, the OSCE, the ICC and any other institutions in any way we can. It is true we are not subject to the sanctions, but they affect us indirectly along with the Russians. For example, we do not have any flights or transactions over international banking systems and so on.
I thank our guests for attending. H.E. Ms Miculet spoke about 340,000 refugees coming to a country of about 2.6 million people, and that is phenomenal. Might there be more detail for the committee following the meeting in order that we can facilitate matters in any way? She outlined two priority needs, namely, the necessity to relocate people, which will involve chartered flights and other resources, and straight-up financial support, whether via the State, NGOs or whatever else. We will need detail in that regard. Both ambassadors spoke about the Copenhagen criteria, and H.E. Mr. Zurabashvili might give us a bit more detail on the human resources, the expertise and the experience Georgia needs. It is a fair ask from anybody. What is the roadmap and where can the EU and its member states facilitate Georgia on that journey? Both ambassadors detailed specific difficulties that do not necessarily exist at this point in this more western part of Europe.
Some questions, regarding the fear of an imminent attack on both of our guests' countries, have been asked, and time will tell what Putin wants long term. We are all guessing at this point. Outside of physical attacks and the specific issues our guests have, there is the threat of hybrid or cyber attacks. Will they comment on that?
Finally, how worried are our guests in regard to food security and energy security on the basis of both the sanctions and the impact of the attack on Ukraine?
H.E. Mr. George Zurabashvili:
I thank the Deputy.
Regarding support on this EU journey, that was very much a specific question but I will answer it in a general way. We have representation in Brussels, which is dealing with the EU institutions on resources, be they human or financial, and any other expertise. We have good relations with the Commission and our representation is working in tandem with it, but the support and expertise of Ireland would be crucial for us because we are like-minded countries and perhaps it is possible to find topics of mutual interest where Ireland can support Georgia on this journey. Ireland has achieved fantastic results on its journey since joining the EU and we know how supportive Ireland is of small nations. Working together might be interesting for both of us and, at the same time, beneficial.
We have discussed the threat from Russia, but today's is a different approach. It is not just military aggression, but a hybrid approach, as the Deputy mentioned. A hybrid war means that the tools and arsenal are diverse, including disinformation, propaganda and misleading society. I am grateful to the EU and the world for banning the propaganda machine of the Russian Federation, for example, Russia Today, which was brainwashing millions of people. That move was fantastic. Unfortunately, with the propaganda and social media available nowadays, any individual can create the news compared with how it was done in old times. This means that the outreach of the propaganda machine was vast and wide. It also did not miss any country, in that it was well networked in all European states and across the world. As such, the sanctions against its broadcasting will be helpful.
Regarding food, Ukraine is one of the largest producers of wheat for flour. I cannot speculate what will happen in future, but we are satisfying ourselves at the moment and are not dependent on products from the Russian economy. We have more or less stability in our energy resources. We have excellent relations with Azerbaijan, which is our strategic partner, and most of our energy resources are coming from there. We get our crude oil from there - we collect our share while it is being transported via Georgia. The Deputy might know that there are a few pipelines carrying crude oil and gas from the Caspian basin into European markets via Georgia. Approximately 5% of the world's crude oil flows via Georgia. We are a green country when it comes to energy generation and are more or less self-sufficient in terms of electricity. However, the future is still to be shown.
H.E. Mrs. Larisa Miculet:
I will try to be brief this time. I thank the Deputy for his words of support for meeting our needs. I have with me details of a bank account that our Ministry of Finance has opened for Ukrainian refugees. For example, if someone donates to the UN Refugee Agency, he or she can concretely stipulate that part of the donation go through this. I will leave the details for the committee. We are discussing other needs permanently with the EU.
Regarding the supports we need from Ireland to meet the Copenhagen criteria, we discuss them weekly. When I arrived, I opened our embassy from scratch. I will be proud of that legacy. When I met Mr. Zurabashvili, he told me to explain our priorities and that this was a European country, which was the first thing we needed. That was true. We are here because Ireland is a European country and has a great deal of experience. Daily and weekly, we discuss our needs with it. We also discuss our needs in terms of transport, fighting hybrid threats, cybersecurity and so on with international partners - EU member states - under different initiatives, for example, the Eastern Partnership. One of its pillars has to do with resilience and we are being helped in that regard. We are dealing with these matters daily and are asking for concrete things.
In general, we hope that the Irish voice will be loud in all European structures. Ireland has the right to criticise us, but while criticising us, please support us. We will react to criticisms, but we need them to be supportive.
Regarding border crossing capacity, we started speaking with the EU lately. I can share with the committee that we are asking about the need to strengthen border controls and security. We need an additional 600 people if the work there is to be done in the dignified way that is expected where people face such tragedies in their lives. We also need to enhance our capacity in civil protection and emergency situations. The Deputy asked about our threats and risks. We need to enhance our asylum and migration capacities because 4,000 people have already asked for asylum in our country. We need to strengthen those capacities quickly.
I hope I have answered the questions.
I welcome the ambassadors to the meeting. Mr. Zurabashvili is a regular attender at our meetings and around Leinster House. We appreciate his briefings. I also welcome Mrs. Miculet. I am delighted that the embassy is open. It will provide an opportunity for an exchange of views and information, which is welcome.
Ireland supports enlargement of the EU. It always has and always will as a general principle. I was a member of this committee prior to 2004 when, every month, potential member state after potential member state came in and made the same plea that our guests are now making. It all came to pass in 2004. There is hope and I have a sense that history is repeating itself. I hope that their applications come to a successful conclusion.
I wish to ask a question on Moldova.
I note that a formal application was made on 3 March, but there was some opposition from the Transnistria region. I do not wish to be difficult. I want to ensure that is not going to be a problem. Tied into that is the domestic support for the EU. I am aware that H.E. Mr. Zurabashvili said there is 86% support for EU membership in Georgia. I would welcome the views of the ambassadors on that.
To take up some of the issues that were raised by other Deputies and Senators, the humanitarian effort and the challenge facing Moldova is quite extraordinary. Looking at a map of Moldova, it is surrounded by the big bear. It must be a very frightening prospect. Moldova's generosity has been commented upon. I have heard the calls that Moldova has made to Irish Aid following the meeting that took place earlier today for financial support and support in relocating people throughout the EU. I have a specific question on humanitarian support. A fund for assistance was mentioned. Are there any particular NGOs working on the ground that we could support in that context, apart from the support that the Government might give?
I will conclude by saying that the invasion of Ukraine has changed everything. As Yeats said: "All changed, changed utterly". We all need to rise to the occasion and meet the challenges. The ambassadors have our support in that regard.
H.E. Mrs. Larisa Miculet:
I thank the Deputy for his support. I will pass it on to the country today. It is going to be very encouraging. I ask members to allow me to share an anecdote with them. On the afternoon of 3 March, I met with management and Moldovans at a meat processing factory in Nenagh in County Tipperary. There are 100 Moldovans working there. When I was talking to them, I was asked to share with the people the fact our country had just signed the application to join the EU. I shared that with them. I wish the members had had the chance to see how the people applauded and welcomed the announcement, and to witness the joy that was there. The feelings among the diaspora here are the same as among the people of Moldova. The Deputy's points are very encouraging. It will encourage both Moldovans in Ireland and the people in Moldova.
On the issue of Transnistria, it is true that in our country there is a frozen conflict. There is a settlement process which follows the 5+2 format. The EU is also an observer. We dealing strongly with this conflict through the format. We also count very much on the OECD, where we have the support of the member states. I know we have the support because I spoken to many officials around here. Currently, the settlement process has been paused. It is understandable, given the current situation. We were supposed to have our next meeting in May, but it will be postponed.
I wish to make another point. We understand this situation as we move forward with our application to join the EU. As I said in my opening remarks, that is why we have to enforce the security component and co-operation with the EU in different ways and through different programmes. We will see what will come. At the same time, I will repeat the point I made previously that all the actors understand the standard best processes of European integration and conflict resolution have their own dynamics. We are working hard on both of them. We hope very much that when we expedite the process of joining the EU, the settlement process will also advance.
On the issue of Transnistria, I wish to add that people in Transnistria already feel the benefits of working closely with the EU. Companies in Transnistria can export goods through Moldova legally and officially. The people of Transnistria have Moldovan passports and can travel. They know there are a lot of benefits. There are days when they see more progress being made on coming closer to the EU. We are absolutely sure the Tranistrian settlement process will also progress more quickly. The general feeling among the people there is that they support Ukraine. They are calm. The general feeling is they do not want war in the region. That provides good grounds for a settlement and working towards conflict resolution. It is encouraging.
The Deputy asked about NGOs. We tried to engage with NGOs, but they were very busy. I have meetings planned with the Red Cross, the Irish Emergency Alliance and Oxfam. I have three meetings. All of the NGOs have told us they are already working in the surrounding countries providing assistance. They are working in Moldova in particular. I will meet with those NGOs personally to discuss in more detail their needs, where we can help, and how we can work together to emphasise these efforts. We are very grateful to them. We know what they are doing. Generally, we are aware of the unbelievable response of Irish people in providing help and so on.
H.E. Mr. George Zurabashvili:
I thank Deputy Haughey for voicing his support for Georgian EU integration. I am grateful not just to the Deputy, but to the committee members, the Oireachtas, the Government, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish people. This is what we need. It is exactly how we see ourselves as future members of the EU. There is 86% support for EU membership. Why is that the case? It is because we see the EU as a values-based institution. That is most important. We share the same values as the EU. We share exactly the same approach to the values. Nature is never static; it is always dynamic.
If the enlargement of the EU and its values does not happen in the future, it will shrink. We believe the enlargement of the EU will strengthen the EU itself. It will not only be good for us, but it will be good for the EU as it is, as an institution that carries the fundamental values of democracy and freedom. It is the biggest point of stability. We can see that the most stable countries are those where those values are achieved well. These values will be achieved well once Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine become members of the EU.
We are more than sure, and I strongly believe, that the threat coming from the east will not exist any more because we will be able to resist as a strong democratic country with a strong economy. I again thank the Deputy for the support.
I will try to be brief as many questions have been covered already. I welcome both ambassadors. I had the honour of meeting Mr. Zurabashvili previously before Covid-19 struck. I have not had the privilege of meeting Mrs. Miculet until today. She is very welcome to the meeting. It is her first time to address the committee and I welcome the fact that Moldova has opened an embassy in Ireland.
I wish to raise a few points. I will start with Mrs. Miculet. She addressed the issue of Transnistria, and there has been a lot of focus on that. I believe Russian peacekeeping forces are still stationed in Transnistria. It might be a low number of perhaps 2,000, but there are concerns. I have concerns. Given the strong defence that is being put up by the Ukrainian people, the Russians probably have not made as much progress as the Russian military had anticipated. One of the key ports there is Odessa. Taking a strategic view of what the Russians want to achieve in terms of curtailing imports through the Black Sea into Ukraine, that would be one of the primary focuses from a military perspective. What concerns are there that the Russians may use Transnistria as a staging post to move from there to Odessa, given the slowness of the military advances due to the staunch defence by the Ukrainians?
Second, the ambassador might not be aware of it, but the Irish Government has announced, following a Cabinet meeting this morning, that it will take in 500 refugees from Moldova. That news is only breaking now. It is welcome news, but it appears to be a very low figure. The ambassador gave a figure of 340,000 refugees in Moldova, which means that 4% of the population is made up of Ukrainian refugees. The 500 that Ireland has agreed to take in is only approximately 1.5% of the Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. It is a very low number and I am really concerned about that. I do not expect the ambassador to have all the details because the news is only breaking now, but the initial figure of 500 seems extraordinarily low.
Then there is Georgia and the ongoing occupation by Russia of 20% of its territory. The ambassador and I have spoken about this previously. Obviously, there is a similarity in Russia's approach to all these countries, whether it is Crimea, Transnistria or Georgia. It stages an attack on a country, occupies it and then tries to annex it. While there are UN peacekeeping troops there - Ireland has boots on the ground there - what more does the ambassador thinks the UN Security Council should and could be doing, given the position held by Ireland on the Security Council?
There is a final point. The ambassador mentioned in his opening statement the prospect of an Irish embassy opening in Georgia. What are his thoughts on that? Where does he think that process is? It would be hugely beneficial in terms of Georgia's incorporation and inclusion in the overall EU project. Perhaps he could give us an analysis of the current position of the process for opening an Irish embassy in Georgia.
H.E. Mrs. Larisa Miculet:
I thank the Deputy for his questions. I want to say at the beginning that Georgia is in a better position today. I was eager to meet all the members, but Covid worked against it. Two weeks after we opened the embassy the lockdown was installed here. However, I am going to work very closely with the committee.
Regarding Transnistria, it is well known that there are still Russian forces there. The number is well known. It is approximately 1,400. Of this number, 400 are peacekeepers. As regards the peacekeepers, our position is that they achieved their goal already and in the new situation there is a need for a new format. I will stop there. With regard to the Russian forces that are not peacekeepers, we always call on Russia to withdraw these according to international obligations. What I want to say today especially is that we still are in that very dangerous environment, with high risks. I reiterate that the situation remains calm so far. There is no visible involvement of Transnistria or Russian forces in the conflict. The risk remains high. A lot will depend on developments in Odessa. I hope from the depths of my heart that there will be good developments or no developments at all and that the situation will be maintained in my country in that region as it is today.
With regard to the 500, I probably work well in this country as I already knew about the 500, but I was waiting for official confirmation. I thank the Deputy for confirming that. Yes, I hope that even today or in my future meetings we will be able together to increase that, perhaps, but let us start from something. We are already very grateful for such example and such assistance. I was asking for this when talking to officials. Again, I thank the Irish Government and Irish society for the €20 million package of support that went to the UN Refugee Agency. I know some money will also go to Moldova. It is going to be a great humanitarian and political support to Ukrainian refugees and to my country, which is helping and supporting in this process and, by the way, performing its obligations as a member of the international community. It is right to do it.
H.E. Mr. George Zurabashvili:
I wish to say a few words to my colleague, Mrs. Miculet. She got some insight from the Government so that shows it is achievable for people.
I thank the Deputy for his question. The European Union monitoring mission was launched after the 2008 war was over. It was launched with Irish help. Deputy Micheál Martin was the Minister for Foreign Affairs at that time, if I am not mistaken. The decision was made by all EU member states and the Irish contribution is absolutely fabulous, with seven Irish serving on the ground in Georgia. It is a non-military observer mission. The members of the mission cannot fulfil their obligations fully because the Russians do not allow them to cross the occupation line, regardless that this is a part of the ceasefire agreement, the Six-Point Agreement.
In answer to what in addition can be done by the United Nations or the European Union, I will say first of all that the ceasefire agreement was achieved by the mediation and help of the European Union, which was by that time under the French Presidency. There absolutely will be a big necessity to hear more vocal support and calls by the European Union to make Russia fulfil the obligations it has signed. There is the Six-Point Agreement, including the condition that it does not allow the human rights violations that are happening in occupied territories and, of course, the withdrawal of the Russian occupied troops.
As for the United Nations, of course, that will be the same, with the vocal participation of United Nations members and especially the Security Council members and Ireland in particular. Where we are right now, I can see that the opening of the Irish Embassy in Georgia will even have a very specific impact on Ireland's stance in the Security Council. It will have first-hand information once it has an embassy in the country that is occupied and that is a problem from where the conflict is coming. It will also be very helpful from the perspective of relations between Georgia and Ireland. Again, it means absolutely easy access for Government officials. Rather than just listening to me, the Government will have its own source of information coming out.
The Embassy of Ireland that covers Georgia is in Sofia, Bulgaria. Members will not believe that, unfortunately, we do not even have direct flights to Sofia, although we hope we will. On the other hand, it also creates some obstacles for people-to-people relations because Georgians need visas to travel to Ireland. That is for any passport holders, including diplomatic passport holders. Some visits have been postponed or skipped due to that reason. It takes time and energy to send the passport to get the visa. It is, therefore, a huge obstacle to building relations.
Regardless of how well the Governments do at government level, we need to encourage people to travel for any reason, be it leisure, pleasure or business. We are trying now to encourage Irish businesses to travel to Georgia to see what possibilities it offers them. We can offer opportunities to extend their businesses not only in Georgia, because it is a small market, but from or with Georgia further into the region, to central Asian republics or neighbouring countries. Again, however, these obstacles exist. I hope that opening the Irish Embassy will be absolutely beneficial for both of us.
I thank Mr. Zurabashvili very much indeed. I am very conscious of time. There are three remaining speakers, all of whom have indicated they will be very brief. I will, therefore, take all three together and then let our colleagues respond. Senator Keogan will be followed by Deputy Duffy and Senator Horkan.
The ambassadors, Mr. Zurabashvili and Mrs. Miculet, are both very welcome today. Many of the questions have already been asked. I will not, therefore, go over some of the stuff that has already been dealt with. I am overwhelmed by the generosity of the Moldovan people with regard to the Ukrainian crisis. They have shown incredible generosity; 90% of those displaced are living in the homes of Moldova. We are all very aware of the financial constraints on Moldova. We know it is not a wealthy country.
What we need from the EU is something like a Covid-19 response to this war. Almost 4 million people have already been displaced and that number is going to grow. We need to call on the EU to do more to support countries like Moldova, which at this moment receives no funding from the EU. Nothing is coming from the EU to Mrs. Miculet's country to support the refugees. Moldova had 340,000 refugees. Of the 143,000 refugees who stayed in the country, 47,000 are children. It is getting no financial assistance from the EU at this moment. Is that correct?
I know there are many Moldovans In Ireland. We have approximately 4,000 Moldovans in this country.
There are 30,000; I know many of them. I can tell everyone they are extremely warm and welcoming people. They have set up great lives in Ireland and contribute to our communities. They will be a great asset to our country when they come here. I thank Ms Miculet for that. I would like to know what exactly the EU is doing.
I thank the ambassadors for coming in. I will point to Moldova's role with the refugees. It is quite heartwarming to see what it is doing in that regard. I congratulate both countries on their bravery in their David versus Goliath scenarios. We all know the experience, having ourselves been in that situation as a country.
My question comes back a little bit to Deputy Ó Murchú, who noted the difficulty with respect to the EU membership. I find that personally as a politician, it is difficult to advocate for something if I do not know exactly what I am advocating for. If the ambassadors were to perhaps come back to us on a future date and go through the difficulties and where the hurdles are, that would help us then go forward and push that agenda on whatever difficulties we can help with.
The fact that we are all here in a non-sitting week speaks volumes. I am not a member of this committee but I really wanted to be here. I know both ambassadors very well. Indeed, I acknowledge the Romanian and Polish ambassadors, who are awaiting their turns for their session shortly. While I am not a member of this committee, I am certainly a supporter.
I met Mr. Zurabashvili previously. He is probably one of the longest-established diplomats of the diplomatic corps in Ireland at this stage. He has been here more than six years or thereabouts. I have known Mrs. Miculet probably since she was here back in July 2019 when I was asked by the Ceann Comhairle to be the convenor of the then newly-established Romania-Ireland friendship group. Mrs. Miculet then asked me to arrange to set up a Moldova-Ireland friendship group. Never did I think when I became the convenor of either the Romanian or Moldovan friendship groups that they would be as relevant as they are at the moment.
The fact is that Moldova is such a small country and has done so much for this awful situation we have been in this last three weeks. It is not rich in financial resources but it is very conscious and doing absolutely everything it can. Through the Transnistria situation, and other reasons as a former Soviet state, it knows the challenges of dealing with a large next-door neighbour. As was referenced by others, we have a bit of a consciousness of how that sometimes works, in that we have a big neighbour nearby with whom we do not have perfect relations all the time.
Certainly, I wanted to be here as a non-member of this committee to express my 100% support for both Moldova and Georgia. It is really important, not just for EU membership but for the three countries - the Association Trio, as Mr. Zurabashvili referred to them in his speech - that one would not get priority over another and that they would all go in tandem.
We joined the European Union as a very poor country back in 1973 along with Denmark and the United Kingdom at the time. Membership has tended to come waves, as we know, with ten countries from 2004 and 2005 and then two more, namely, Bulgaria and Romania, and then Croatia. By and large, groups of countries join. The fact that the three countries are all former Soviet Union states means there is an affinity and synergy there. They all understand the dangers and challenges of being so close to a very large neighbour. I would not like to see any of them left behind over any of the other countries. That is a message that we as a Parliament and a country should be sending. We got a lift back in 1973. It fair to say that it transformed our country in every way - economically, socially and financially. As a society, we became more open and willing to travel and became more integrated. It was not just travel emigration-wise but the ability to go abroad, come back and bring people here.
The benefits of EU membership are absolutely clear to all of us in so many different ways. It is very much in our nature as a country to bring people in, and not draw up the drawbridge once we are in. Ireland was never like that. There are politicians here now who are related to other politicians, the names of whom I will not mention, who were very involved with German reunification and EU expansion. Other members of my own party and other parties were involved in this back in the early 2000s is in making sure that those countries all joined in that big wave, which has transformed not just eastern Europe but has also transformed Ireland in a very positive way. There are so many Polish people and Romanian people here now. There may not be as many Moldovan or Georgian people here but they are certainly very welcome. Ireland is a better society for all of those people being here. I just wanted to put this on the record. I do not have a lot of questions because many of my queries have already been answered. I was watching the statements and the contributions from my office. I support the Moldovan and the Georgian ambassadors and their countries in their journey towards EU membership. I look forward to it happening sooner rather than later, and to welcoming them into the EU community. They are already welcome to Ireland.
H.E. Mrs. Larisa Miculet:
I thank members for their words of support. Please allow me also to express our gratitude. I was following Senator Keogan's personal efforts and it is very much appreciated. The Senator was joined by Members of the Oireachtas in that support.
With regard to funds from the EU, the EU mechanism of support was immediately activated. Moldova was announced as one of the countries to be supported by this mechanism. The news that was announced today will also go into that channel. As I have said, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Mr. Josep Borrell, together with the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, visited Moldova. They also announced the provision of support of €15 million. I do not know yet how this will work but it is a support. Support is also coming bilaterally through different mechanisms. Moldova is not being left alone. Every day, hundreds of people come into the country. We must take care of everything for them. This requires capabilities. With that support our capabilities will be strengthened and I hope it will continue to the end, when we will see what and how these people are doing. Some of them are already employed in Moldova in some ways.
On the second question, I will allow our Georgian colleague to respond first and then I will follow.
I express our gratitude also to Senator Horkan on behalf of our country's embassy for his accepting our invitation. By what Senator Horkan said today, I believe that he has already set an agenda for our meeting with the friendship group in Moldova. Our parliament definitely does a lot of work and it has a big responsibility in this process of European Union integration. I am sure that the Senator and the members of that committee will share a very consistent discussion and agenda for how to help and how to support that process.
H.E. Mr. George Zurabashvili:
I thank all members for this very informative meeting. We all skipped the lunch but we fed each other with good information about us. I very much appreciate the time and energy that members have given to us. Our thoughts are how we can integrate further to the European Union and how we can strengthen our democracy, but of course our hearts remain with the Ukrainians and with Ukraine. As an embassy we are trying to do something for those who really need humanitarian aid. Tomorrow evening at 6 p.m., we will co-sponsor a fundraising event at the Stephen's Green Club, together with the honorary consul of Georgia, Mr. James Bridgeman, SC, among others. It is very challenging times, but whoever is available we will we would very much welcome Oireachtas Members there.
I thank the Vice Chairman very much. I wish all of the members a very happy St. Patrick's Day. I wish you all good health and especially to the Chairman, Deputy Joe McHugh.
Let peace reign. We hope that peace will come back to Ukrainians and that all we will be talking about will be European Union integration, without the other side of the occupation and the threats coming out of the Russian Federation. I express my words of gratitude to all of you. Thank you.
H.E. Mrs. Larisa Miculet:
I was responding to questions previously, but if this is now the stage of finalising our engagement, I feel guilty that I did not answer other questions also, which I can discuss later with Deputy Duffy.
In conclusion, please allow me to express my gratitude for today's encouragement. All of us follow the activities in both Chambers of the Oireachtas. We have heard a lot of words of support and we express our deep gratitude. I reiterate that small countries must support one another. We can count on our solidarity on international law. I ask for the committee's support in that regard.
I will also take this opportunity, that in this room are also the ambassadors of Romania and Poland, who are our great supporters. There are many others too but they are here today. I thank the ambassadors of Romania and Poland for their countries' support in this journey, as well as, definitely, Ireland. We have always said that we already had a lot of Ireland's support. I thank the committee for this glimpse of hope that we got today. I am quite sure this united message that we heard here, will be heard by and directed to the government that is implementing this EU membership process. We have great co-operation with them. I say this because finally this is enhancing European security, European market and European stability. Given our location, Moldova is in Europe. There is no way to be different. I thank the committee.
I thank Mrs. Larisa Miculet and Mr. George Zurabashvili for such comprehensive statements. Thar ceann an chomhchoiste i gcoitinne, I wish you all a very happy St. Patrick's Day. Lá Fhéile Pádraig faoi mhaise daoibh. Most of all, collectively, we wish peace to our Continent, and peace in particular to the people of Ukraine.
We will suspend the meeting for a few minutes, with the indulgence of our dear guests.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome H.E. Ms Anna Sochaska, ambassador of the Republic of Poland to Ireland, and her colleague; and H.E. Dr. Laurentiu-Mihai Stefan, ambassador of Romania to Ireland, and his colleague. They are all very welcome to the committee today. I thank them for their patience in being in attendance and listening to the very powerful and important testimonies their colleague ambassadors have given to the committee over the course of the day. I think the witnesses were here when I read out the note on privilege, so with the indulgence of everybody, I do not propose to read it for a third time. However, the advices and admonitions still apply.
I give the floor to H.E. Ms Sochaska and invite her to make her opening statement.
H.E. Ms Anna Sochaska:
I thank the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs for the opportunity to make this address. It is an extremely difficult time for Ukraine, Poland and, indeed, for all of Europe. Poland has been vocal about the rising Russian threat, but unfortunately our warnings have often been dismissed as unfounded. It is a very good time to recall the words of the late President of Poland, Professor Lech Kaczyski, in 2008 at a meeting of the presidents of central and eastern Europe in Tbilisi following the invasion of Georgia, "We know very well that today it is Georgia, tomorrow it will be Ukraine, the day after tomorrow the Baltic States, and perhaps the next one in line will be my country, Poland." I emphasise that statement was made in 2008. Today, it is 2022 and we are now afraid we can expect the worst from Russia and its leader, Putin, whose name now rightly appears alongside that of Hitler and Stalin. As the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, has recently said, Russia may resort to a chemical weapons attack, since the plan to capture Ukraine quickly has failed. My only hope is we will not go back to business as usual after the ensuing tragedy of the Ukrainian nation.
In terms of the EU reaction and the Polish position, we must introduce tough sanctions and make them work. Measures adopted by the European Union were unprecedented, but so far they have not been strong enough to stop efficiently the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The real sanctions against the Kremlin will be removing European dependence on Russian oil and gas. We have to suspend the import of coal, oil and petroleum products from Russia. For years Poland has advocated against the Nord Stream 2 project. Its construction has shown how many politicians were prepared to sell our values for the chance to make a good deal. While Poland is glad to see it blocked now, Nord Stream 1 must also be closed. Billions of euro go through Nord Stream 1 to Russia. Let my quote my Prime Minister who said, “You must remember that it is not just gas that is flowing through the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines but also the blood of soldiers, mothers and children.” For the moment we must do our utmost to support the war refugees fleeing the Russian invasion. More than 2.5 million people have now fled war-torn Ukraine, among them more than 1.7 million who have crossed the Polish border. Among the refugees who came to Poland in connection with the armed conflict in the Ukraine, only a few percent are citizens of third countries, that is, other than EU member states and Ukraine. Most of the refugees are women and children who left the country in a hurry and need shelter, food and warm clothes. However, there are also orphans, people in need of urgent special medical assistance and people with disabilities. The Polish Government has introduced a very swift system of taking care of the refugees as soon as they reach the border, providing them with food, clothes, SIM cards, necessary medical aid and then providing buses and trains free of charge to take them quickly away from the border so as not to clog up the flow of refugees. There are also many non-governmental organisations helping on the ground, as well as Poles who just decided to come over and help spontaneously. I cannot express my pride and admiration for my compatriots. Polish people and increasingly those of other nationalities come to the border offering lifts and accommodation expecting nothing in return. Because of this kindness and generosity we did not have to build a single refugee camp. All who needed shelter have been accepted into private homes, hotels, guest houses and resorts, an example that was mentioned by my dear colleague Mrs. Larisa Miculet, Ambassador of Moldova.
I would also like to commend the overwhelming response to the humanitarian crisis caused by Russia of the Polish community in Ireland. The Polish community in Ireland has reacted very swiftly to the plight of the refugees. Organisations have gathered donations of food, clothes and money and delivered them to the Polish border. Some are now concentrating on helping here in Ireland those who have come to seek refuge here. I am very proud of the Polish diaspora here in Ireland selflessly doing their utmost to help. We in Poland know all too well what war and occupation are, what devastation they cause and therefore, if we can help we always will. In September 1939, Poland was almost at the same time attacked from the west by Nazi Germany and from the east by the Soviet Union and nobody helped us. That is why we are so sensitive and have so much empathy when it comes to Ukraine and Ukrainians. We have the slogan, Poland was First to Fight and now we are First To Help. However the refugee influx is likely to place enormous pressure on my country. We could see 2.5 million refugees coming to Poland, experts estimate the total number of those fleeing Ukraine could be more than 5 million. Five million people as members know, is the population of Ireland. Poland will not be able to sustain this in the long term, as our capacity to absorb refugees will diminish. Therefore we need the help of other countries like Ireland which is already opening its borders and doors to Ukrainian refugees. I am amazed at the goodness that flows from the Irish people, the funds they raised, the donations they gave, the number of people who offered their homes. I offer my sincere gratitude to the Irish Government and the Irish people who once again prove that Ireland truly is the land of a thousand welcomes.
Wherever we live in Europe we must be aware that Ukrainians are defending not only their independence and sovereignty, but also Europe as a whole. As the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said:
Ukraine is fighting not only for itself but for the whole of Europe. I appeal to all leaders and citizens of the EU: this is our common cause and our shared responsibility. Together, we must help the war refugees.
I thank members for their attention.
H.E. Dr. Laureniu-Mihai tefan:
This is an important moment in the history of Europe. Before I start to read my opening statement let me express our hope that we will meet in other circumstances where we can discuss normal business, that is, business as usual. To resume our visits, I am preparing a visit of the delegation of the Committee of European Affairs to Ireland in June and hopefully we will have members of the committee travelling to that part of Europe, to Romania and to Poland. Stop on the way to Georgia and to Chisinau. Hopefully at some point when peace will come to Ukraine, you will visit Ukraine. A special thank you and hello to the Chairman, Deputy Joe McHugh, who has a dominating figure on the screens here. He is everywhere. I have been in touch with him over the past couple of weeks and I noticed his concern. I am sure he was talking on behalf of the whole committee. We are very grateful. I think I can speak on behalf of Ms Sochaska and the other ambassadors for the fact that he put this meeting on his agenda, and his concern and desire to help.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss with the members of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs Romania’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and to the ensuing humanitarian crisis. Romania is extremely worried about the pace at which events are unfolding in Ukraine. As we speak, circumstances continue to aggravate, with more and more civilian casualties. This completely unjustified, illegal, unprovoked Russian aggression on Ukraine is a very serious violation of international law and of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is a turning point in recent European history, but its impact goes beyond Europe. The seismic consequences of the Russian invasion have ripple effects on the entire globe. It is also an outrageous violation of the international agreements to which Russia is a party, including the UN Charter, the Budapest Memorandum, the Helsinki Final Act, and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe.
In our vicinity, the Republics of Moldova and Georgia are already extremely vulnerable and next in line for Moscow’s aggression. Our most important mission now is to act and prepare in the long term to safeguard Euro-Atlantic and global security and the rules-based international system. That is why it is important for all like-minded countries to remain in close contact and to act within the framework provided by the various international organizations, in order to uphold democratic values and international law.
A strong message of unity was sent by the Vice President of the United States of America, Kamala Harris, who paid a visit to Bucharest on 11 March, on which occasion she met with President Klaus Iohannis and Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuc. The meeting is part of close allied and transatlantic co-ordination efforts to manage the security situation, especially in the Black Sea, with an impact on Euro-Atlantic security. Romania is the NATO and EU member state with the longest border with Ukraine, of 640 km by land, in addition to a de facto maritime border with Russia since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Furthermore, Serpents’ Island, illegally occupied by Russia on 24 February, is close, at around 44 km, which is less than 24 nautical miles from Romanian shores. Our NATO and EU memberships do not mean we should take for granted we are sheltered from the impact of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. That is why Romania’s Supreme Council of National Defence has agreed to increase the percentage of GDP allocated to defence expenditures from 2%, as it is at present, to 2.5% in the future.
As a neighbouring country with Ukraine, Romania has received a high number of refugees and numbers are increasing by the hour. In these dire circumstances, Romania and Romanians have showed kindness and provided support. Romania was among the first states to respond to the activation of the EU’s civil protection mechanism, sending the first shipment of medicines and medical equipment as early as 25 February. An EU civil protection logistics hub was set up on 9 March in Suceava in the north east of Romania. The hub is meant to collect and channel international humanitarian aid to Ukraine, similar to the existing hubs in Poland and Slovakia. The inauguration took place in the presence of the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Janez Lenari.
From the first moments in which a massive influx of refugees began, Romania opened its borders to all Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war. As of 14 March, more than 412,000 Ukrainian citizens have entered Romania and, of these, more than 85,000 remained in Romania and more than a third are children. Many others are assisted to travel to other destinations. There is an unprecedented mobilisation of the Romanian authorities, as well as of private entities and non-governmental organisations, to offer support to all those seeking refuge in these difficult times. The national authorities have undertaken measures to ensure Ukrainian citizens who decide to remain in Romania have access to health care, education and shelter. Measures have been taken to help them integrate into the workforce and for students to continue their studies. We are trying to do our best for them to feel safe and comfortable.
In the first days following the invasion, the Romanian Government supplemented the budget of the Ministry of Home Affairs with a total of €41 million from the national emergency reserve, and the government approved an aid package worth €3.4 million for Ukraine. Complementing the effort of Romanian authorities, the solidarity and willingness to help of Romanian citizens and non-governmental organisations were outstanding. The online platform “Ukraine – together we can help more” has recorded more than 6,600 offers of support in medicines, food and lodgings. More than 12,000 Romanians have donated blood in the first days of the campaign initiated by the Government to support the needs of those in Ukraine. Romania also accepted to receive the wounded for treatment in our health facilities.
A great deal of work has been done relating to the Republic of Moldova to support its capacities, which are stretched to the limit, as we have just heard. Romanian officials are working with the authorities in Chisinu to create green corridors to help them with the transfer of refugees from Ukraine to Romania.
Ukraine is not alone. Romania will continue to support fully Ukraine’s sovereignty, its territorial integrity and its democratically elected representatives. We should continue to defend its right to choose freely its own foreign policy. The same applies in the case of the Republic of Moldova and Georgia. At these exceptional times, Romania considers that the European Union should recognise the European perspective for Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and Georgia.
Irish officials and Romanian officials are in close contact. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has had a phone conversation with the head of our emergency unit that is in the first line of organising the humanitarian effort. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will travel to Romania and will meet with the Minister of State with responsibility for emergency situations on Friday, when she will visit a refugee camp. Therefore, on a bilateral dimension, our two countries have started to work increasingly closely and it is hoped this will be only the beginning. I thank members for their attention.
I thank H.E. Ms Sochaska and H.E. Dr. Stefan. I apologise for the dreadful pronunciation but I usually get away with it because people generally mangle my name also.
I want to thank the people of Poland and Romania. In fairness, the one beacon of light in all of this has been the solidarity and the fact people have done all they possibly can from the point of view of ensuring they are saving lives and taking people out of what is an absolutely dreadful situation. We have all been very clear that the responsibility for this lies with Vladimir Putin, and it is as simple as that.
With regard to what the two ambassadors have spoken about, there is obviously a fair amount of governmental communications. We are dealing with a huge humanitarian crisis that is only going to get worse. We know we are talking about millions of people on the move, in large part women and children. Beyond that, we could be talking of the movement of 4 million right up to 12 million people, or possibly even more. I imagine services within their countries and other countries have to be at the absolute end of their tether. It is about how that system will be able to operate when the numbers increase. What are the asks? I want to put on the record here what we can do to facilitate what is needed, where there are blockages, where there are difficulties and what else needs to happen.
Beyond that, obviously, the Poles know better than most about war and occupation. We all know that at the beginning of the Second World War there was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Poland was ripped asunder and it went from terrible to even worse and beyond comprehension for most people. I guess that will add a certain prism to how the Poles see this.
With regard to the world in which we now find ourselves with this Russian aggression, while we are all hoping for a diplomatic outworking of this and hoping there is a chance for peace, I want to know what the thinking is within Poland and Romania in regard to where this goes. We are all taking guesses in regard to where Vladimir Putin is, what a win looks like for him and where the endgame is, and I am not sure anybody has come up with that answer. Will the ambassadors comment on that and on any specific preparations that are being made. I accept they cannot go into all of them and they probably would not be aware of all of them. Given the situation in Ukraine, however, we are talking of a fear of further escalation and that chemical and nuclear are never that far off the agenda.
H.E. Ms Anna Sochaska:
I thank the Deputy. First, in terms of assistance, our colleagues have referred to that and I would just add that what is important is targeted aid. Of course, we saw the media coverage of Ireland’s very good reporters reporting from Poland that there is no need for clothes and that what we really need is medicines, or if we need clothes, they should be-----
H.E. Ms Anna Sochaska:
Yes, they should be of good quality. I would not like to criticise. Somebody probably had a really good heart but did not think about whether the thing was really needed. We need good quality, warm clothes, long-life food and nappies, but mostly donations. I would say, and Dr. Stefan probably agrees with me, that people on the ground know best what is needed. If they have money, they will know best what to buy and what to provide to all of those people.
When Senator Craughwell was in Poland, he wrote on Twitter that these are not poor people, these are people who had to leave their country with one case; they are people who do not need old clothes. I will underline targeted aid and donations. That is the most important.
In terms of how we read the security situation, both Poland and Romania are NATO members, thank God. Yesterday's bombarding of a military centre 30 km from the Polish border really shows us that Putin's way of doing things is going step by step and checking what the reaction is going to be. Of course he is aware of the fact that the NATO Secretary General and the American President have said we will defend the territory of NATO. Of course, we do not want a conflict. NATO is a defence organisation. It did not do anything to harm Russia. We are not comfortable with the bombardment of places close to the Polish border. It is really hard to say what the next step is going to be.
H.E. Dr. Laureniu-Mihai tefan:
I think there are now three European hubs in Poland, Romania and Slovakia, if I am not wrong, which means better co-ordination. Ireland could direct some specific items like those enumerated by H.E. Sochaska to one of these countries. Again I emphasise, as I said in my opening remarks and as members heard an hour ago, the need to help Moldova. Moldova is in need of logistical support. We have mature democracies and our systems are ready to take on board and co-ordinate efforts. We greatly need them, that is for sure. Of course, better co-ordination at European level and focused assistance is still necessary but attention should be on Moldova because it is taking a huge inflow of refugees. H.E. Miculet has told the committee they are overwhelmed. The political situation is also critical there; they have Russian troops very close to the border. I would focus a lot of attention in terms of the political dimension, providing the European perspective to Moldova, but also help by going into the field, taking a delegation to Chiinu and to Georgia as well. I am not saying Georgia is not important or is not under fire. Maybe we are much more sensitive to Moldova because we have a lot of refugees coming via Moldova to Romania.
There is a need for public attention. Sometimes we ask for specific help but attention, visits and discussions like this one, public awareness, are very important. As we speak here we are in the midst of a hybrid war. Of course Ukrainians are having the malchanceand unhappy situation of fighting a real war. We are fighting a hybrid war and we have to have our public opinion with us and we have to support Ukraine. We have to let Ukraine and countries like Georgia and Moldova know that we share the same values and we stand publicly and look at means to help them. I am sure visits from officials from Ireland, a country that is small in terms of size but very influential at the global level, would make a difference. That is why I am insisting on going as is the Georgian ambassador. Just go and see the country, talk to people; it would be easy for Irish representatives to take the message back home.
In terms of the assessment of the situation, as H.E. Sochaska said, everybody is concerned. It is unpredictable. Clearly Putin is hurt by the reaction of the Ukrainian people and the strong reaction by the European Union and NATO members. I am sure it was a shock for him to see all these like-minded countries acting together; his reactions may be improvisatory. I am not sure whether he would use chemical or nuclear weapons, God forbid, but as we just saw, he is trying to stretch the limits of armed physical and hybrid aggression also. We have to be prepared. We have to be prepared to stick together. As someone said, if you want peace, prepare for war. This is not something I would like to say but more troops to Romania, Poland and Baltic countries will be necessary because we have to be prepared if we want to defend. If this is what we want we have to be ready.
I thank the ambassadors for giving us an insight. It has been amazing today to receive the insight of all five countries in that part of Europe about what is going on. I have heard something but maybe it is not true; I am sure people in eastern Europe can speak English. Are there problems with medication being sent in packaging that is in English? I would not have thought it was problematic but I have heard that.
Are the ambassadors allowed to talk about whether there have been talks or diplomatic conversations with Belarus? That is right along the Polish border. Is there any communication or conversation with that Government?
H.E. Ms Anna Sochaska:
I have not heard about those problems with medicines. I can double check but I have not heard about it. There is no communication whatsoever with Minsk. I think our ambassador was recalled to Warsaw. There is no communication. We have over 1,000 political prisoners in Belarus, including Polish people. It is very difficult even to talk about those things.
H.E. Dr. Laureniu-Mihai tefan:
In Romania and I am sure in Poland authorities and NGOs provide translators for Ukrainians. Maybe there are not enough but they are available. I did not hear about these cases. Most of the public messages are in Ukrainian so they should get the information they want. That is my feeling at least.
I thank the ambassadors for their comprehensive presentations and strong words, which are warranted at this time. Some years ago I had the honour of going to Warsaw for the St. Patrick's Day celebrations and was warmly received by the Polish people, such friendly people. It certainly made a lasting impression on me. Long may that friendship between our two countries continue.
On the humanitarian responses from Romania and Poland, we are in awe of their responses, the generosity and solidarity. We are slightly geographically removed as the ambassadors will appreciate but solidarity is at the heart of the European Union. When we had smaller problems in respect of Brexit and so forth there was solidarity shown to us. Now there is unprecedented solidarity being shown by the EU countries in respect of the situation in Ukraine and that is at the very heart of the European Union. I hear very clearly the ambassadors' point that sanctions agreed by the EU to date are not enough. Several other speakers today said the same thing and made specific recommendations in that regard.
This may seem like an academic question given the scale of the war that is under way at the moment, but I raise the matter of a common security and defence policy at EU level. Both Poland and Romania are in NATO and that has very specific connotations and obligations. There have been calls from the French President for more strategic autonomy in energy, defence, security and so forth. As regards calls for enhanced security and defence at an EU level, arising from the invasion of Ukraine, how do the witnesses see the EU evolving in that process? What would they like to see?
H.E. Dr. Laureniu-Mihai tefan:
I fully agree with Ms Sochaska. The European Union needs more investment and attention. From what I know, it is increasing programmes, and I think Ireland would like to increase the presence of these European programmes for a European security and defence policy. We welcome the increased contribution by Ireland to these policies and programmes. The EU is looking into expanding and that is one way of upgrading the EU mechanism. I fully stand with what Ms Sochaska said, that is, that any development inside the European Union should complement or be in line with what NATO is doing. Regardless of the leadership in Washington, NATO will remain strong. There was some hesitation when Trump took over but I am proud to say that when President Iohannis visited Washington and had his first meeting with the United States President, it was then that Donald Trump committed to Article 5 of NATO. He did not say anything about it until that visit. It is about more than a person and a leader. It is about the establishment and the whole mood and articulation of a strong institution. NATO is at the stage now where it does not quite depend on the will and whims of some leaders. That is my personal take.
The ambassadors are very welcome. They gave very informative opening statements, which are much appreciated. I commend their countries ON all they have done so far. Countries opening up their borders when a humanitarian crisis is still unfolding is a testament to them. What Polish and Romanian nationals living here in Ireland as new Irish have done in supporting the effort is also commendable.
There is so much goodwill in the Irish response. The people sending high heels were well meaning. People want to do something. They do not know what they have to do but they want to do it. We are hearing stories of children selling cakes and buns and raising thousands of euro. There is so much goodwill there and it is just a case of directing people to the right thing to do. The message is getting out that cash and money is what is needed. The organisations on the ground know exactly what is needed and that message is now getting out to people. As we speak, there are local people in my county of Wicklow filling up vans with medical supplies. I am hearing the message loud and clear that medical assistance is critical. We need ambulances and pharmaceutical companies to step up and do what is expected of them. The UN now estimates that more than 3 million people have left Ukraine as refugees. I imagine the figures both ambassadors provided will change on foot of that. The UN estimates that 1.4 million children have had to flee Ukraine. That is shocking and frightening.
I will deal with Poland and Romania separately. Some 1.7 million people have now crossed over into Poland. I welcome the swift system that has been implemented to meet people, give them the essentials and move them further into Poland to ensure continuity and there is not a backlog at the borders. We heard from the Ukrainian ambassador that some businesses are seeking to profiteer off this humanitarian crisis. Ryanair was mentioned because the cost of flights out of Poland has dramatically increased. Any business seeking to capitalise on the back of a humanitarian crisis is pitiful. It is despicable and they need to be called out for it. This committee should write to Michael O'Leary and Ryanair voicing our serious concerns. The Joint Committee on Transport and Communications should go further and call them before it. Any business or company anywhere in the world seeking to capitalise on people fleeing for their lives is appalling. I do not want to the put Ms Sochaska in a difficult position but she might comment on the generalities around that. Is that something that is happening and is it causing difficulties for people trying to get out of Poland?
Are there figures on how many of the 1.7 million who have come from Ukraine into Poland are still in Poland? How many have left to come to Ireland, other EU countries or elsewhere? Does Ms Sochaska have a rough estimate of how many of the 1.7 million are still in Poland? Dr. Stefan stated that of the 412,000 who have come through Romania, there are about 85,000 left there.
This is a more general query. Here in Ireland, Covid figures are starting to increase again, unfortunately, and hospitalisations have gone up in recent weeks. In the midst of this humanitarian crisis, how does Covid fit in? What concerns are there in that regard? I am sure trying to deal with a pandemic on top of a humanitarian crisis and so many people moving is an impossible task. I ask for a brief overview of that.
H.E. Ms Anna Sochaska:
Most of these people - 1.7 million people - are in Poland. Even before the war, 1 million Ukrainians were already living in Poland but they were people who came to Poland because of our rather liberal policy. They work and study in Poland and are very well integrated. This was also a very important factor in terms of receiving this flow of refugees. I know some people left Poland but I do not have the exact numbers. I suppose the majority of them stay in Poland.
It will be a significant burden on the Polish health sector and not just in terms of Covid. We offer those people free access to our health system, education, the labour market etc. so the demand will be huge. I have not heard about a sharp increase in cases of Covid but I suppose it is a risk. It could happen.
When I heard about the rise in ticket prices, I was shocked. My first reaction was that I would need to contact Ryanair asking it to change its policy because there are so many airlines that do not do such things. If somebody tries to use a situation involving very vulnerable people to make a profit, it is really disgraceful. We all agree it should not take place.
H.E. Dr. Laureniu-Mihai tefan:
We have not heard of such cases. On the contrary, businessmen are offering hotel rooms and transport companies and the national rail company are offering free tickets to Hungary or whatever direction people wish to travel. Regarding the opposite situation, perhaps somebody thinks it is not on the public agenda because so much attention is being paid to the voluntary effort and the willingness of people to host people in their houses and offer food and other supplies.
According to all the messages I have received from Bucharest, vaccines are offered all the time so there is no concern about this health problem. Some people, particularly in the camps, are checked and offered vaccines so we do not see any increase in the number of cases but we take the necessary measures
I welcome the ambassadors and thank them for their opening statements and for answering all the questions put to them. People in Poland are hosting people in their houses. Poland has no refugee camps, which is absolutely incredible. The Polish people should very proud of their government and all the volunteers on the ground doing this great work.
How is the transfer of people from Chiinu to Romania taking place? That is a no-fly zone at this moment in time. Romania has set up some refugee camps. Could the ambassador tell me a bit about them, for example, about capacity and what help is available to refugees in those camps? I was struck by Ambassador Stefan's humility in basically saying that Romania does not need much help but that its neighbour and friend Moldova does and asking that Moldova be helped. I was really struck by that and I compliment Ambassador Stefan on that. I thank him for showing his humanity as well today.
As I mentioned previously, I am not a member of this committee but I really wanted to be here today, not just as the convenor of the Ireland-Romania inter-parliamentary friendship group but also because I have met Ambassador Sochaska a number of times and I think the work that is being done by many countries in eastern Europe but particularly Poland and Romania is outstanding. It is awful that it takes something like this for us to acknowledge and appreciate just how amazing both those countries are along with others. It is fair to say that both ambassadors are the representatives of two of our largest new Irish communities. We will have a census on 3 April but I think the number of Romanians and Poles who have made their lives in Ireland is in excess of 100,000, respectively, and they contribute in towns, villages and cities all over the country. In the same way as Irish people went abroad, they are here and are very much appreciated. I thank the ambassadors not just for all the work they do in respect of this crisis but for all the work they do for their communities in Ireland and all around the world.
I acknowledge the enormous response. I did not appreciate that 1 million Ukrainians were already living in Poland. Is it fair to say that quite a number of the Ukrainians who have entered Poland are living with those Ukrainian families or people with whom they would have family or historic connections? I would like to think we would all do it if people were living in England and we had evacuate here. We probably would not go to England if we were being evacuated but the ambassadors know what I mean. We would go to where our families were and that is possibly a reason for what is happening in Poland. In respect of the level of support the Romanian and Polish governments are giving to those families and individuals to integrate them, we will be doing the same here and it is very important that we do so.
Poland and Romania are former Eastern Bloc countries that were behind the Iron Curtain and are more familiar with the Soviet-Russian influence than we would be. I am not taking any side of the argument but I think Ambassador Sochaska might have said "both Poland and Romania are NATO members, thank God." People of a particular persuasion are saying it is all NATO's fault but would it be fair to say that if Ukraine had joined NATO, it would either have precipitated the row earlier or the row would not be happening at all and the Russians may not have gone into Ukraine because it would have brought about all the associated challenges? Hopefully, that is a reason why the Russians will not go any further.
I was struck by the points about visiting Romania and Moldova. Certain people have gone over and have been criticised for grandstanding and looking for publicity but the ambassadors are suggesting that it is useful to highlight what is happening on the ground and what needs to happen in a humanitarian context in Romania and Poland and maybe on the border to see the sheer horror and terror. We have so much social media that we did not have 50, 60 or even 20 years ago really to highlight the absolute devastation. We all see it every night on television and the sheer extent of it - the idea that 3 million people have been displaced. That is 60% of the population of this State. I know it is a smaller percentage of a big country but the idea that 60% of this country would just leave and go somewhere else is mind-boggling. If there is value in any of us travelling without putting a burden on the system, I would be more than willing to participate or get involved in something just to expose and put on show all the good work that is being done but equally the horror of war. A lot of it has been covered in terms of what else we can do but if there is something the ambassadors have not thought about or that has not been mentioned already, could they let us know? We spoke about pharmaceuticals, money and the fact that people are generally quite well-educated and resourceful and were living in a First World country not even three weeks ago.
Ryanair has a very significant operation in Poland - what was called Ryanair Sun and now is called Buzz. A lot of Ryanair planes were re-registered from the Irish register to the Polish register. Again, this is not about an airline trying to make a bit more money flying people home on Christmas Eve.
It is a war situation. I would like to think those at the top of Ryanair appreciate this is not a situation to use an algorithm that dictates that when the plane is three quarters full, the price is banged up. It is a completely different thing. Let it be the case that Ryanair steps up, puts on flights and works out with the Red Cross, other agencies and the Polish, Romanian or Moldovan Governments that it will fly people from A to B at zero or minimal cost. If I can get a flight to Cyprus for €10 under the algorithm, Ryanair should be able to fly a significant number of people to areas of refuge at no cost. These people do not want to have to travel. They would much prefer to remain in Ukraine.
I do not have many questions but I ask our guests for their thoughts on NATO and Ukraine. They may not be able to comment on that. I thank them, their countries and their citizens living in Ireland for all they do for us and for their help in this conflict.
H.E. Dr. Laureniu-Mihai tefan:
We do have refugee camps. There are more than 400 of them throughout the country. Basically, there are three hotspots. One is at Siret in northern Romania, close to the hub. It is on the northern border between Romania and Ukraine. The European hub is close to the airport, so it is very easy in terms of access. People are coming by road from Ukraine. It is a different situation in the context of the Republic of Moldova because there are two ways. One is a green corridor, with buses taking people from the Moldovan border and bringing them into Romania. Basically, Moldova is spared from getting involved with this transportation. Otherwise, we increased the number of train connections between Chisinu and Iasi. There are free rides for people coming from Chisinu. Many of those who reach the border by road or on foot are brought to Iasi by train. They then spread out depending on their destination. Some of them wish to go to Bucharest or Timisoara or to the airport for onward travel to Ireland or other countries. Most of the refugee camps are in buildings such as sporting facilities, hotels and things like that but there are some temporary camps. The army set up 15 camps that are quite comfortable. They can host 400 persons and have huge waiting rooms of 200 sq. m. There is a similar facility at Otopeni airport, where there is a special line for people who come from Ukraine. I hope that answers the Senator's questions.
I again acknowledge the support of the Romanian community. Many of them have made collections. A transport company run by a Romanian immediately collected goods from all over Ireland and shipped them to the border area and even to Ukraine. There are some tracks going into Ukraine in the area near Chisinu.
Building on what Senator Horkan has said, I again emphasise my remarks in respect of visiting the area and seeing what is happening. Sadly, the war in Ukraine has brought the attention of Irish officials and the Irish people to the region, which may not have been known previously to that extent here. My mission, along with the Georgian and Polish ambassadors, is to open the eyes of Ireland more and more to these European countries that will join the European Union at some point. As we are discussing at our various meetings, Europe is shrinking and, especially with the increasing number of flight connections, we will very soon become neighbours in the metaphorical sense. We have to look after each other. Ireland will have certain needs in terms of cybersecurity and defence and it may need Poland and Romania at some point in that regard, although I hope it does not. In terms of co-operation, however, these are areas in which our countries can bring contributions.
We thank the committee for its continuous attention to the issues in Ukraine. Of course, we stand with Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and Georgia. We will continue to work together and I hope we will be able to organise visits of Romanian officials to Ireland, but also of the committee members and their colleagues to Romania and neighbouring countries.
H.E. Ms Anna Sochaska:
Of course, many Ukrainians who have relatives in Poland are staying with them. That is a good opportunity for us also.
I refer to the appeal of the Polish First Lady, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, who wishes to send a message also to Ireland concerning disabled children because, of course, our capacities will come to an end one day. There is a strong need to invite or take in those poor children who are traumatised by war and are also sick. That is her appeal.
It is important to state that Poland, along with Sweden, was the initiator of the eastern partnership policy. I was very sorry to see how some EU countries are hesitant in terms of discussing the Council conclusions and even using the wording "European vocation". I think we should really focus on that point and offer European Union candidate status to all those countries. These are European countries. European Union candidate status does not hurt. It takes time to become a member of the EU but it is a very important process that is a part of this policy of providing security and stability in Europe.
I encourage the committee to use the potential of the Polish and Romanian diaspora in Ireland. In the case of the Polish diaspora, the language element is important because our languages are very similar and it is so for us easy to communicate with Ukrainians who do not speak English, for example. I wanted to say Irish. It would be great if the committee could use that potential.
Last but not least, I wish to bring the attention of the committee to the visit of my Prime Minister to Ukraine. He is in Kyiv now, having left Poland by train. I do not know the results of the meeting. He is there along with the Czech and Slovenian Prime Ministers. It is another example of the psychological importance of such visits. It sends a message that, "You are not alone; we are together." We need European solidarity in this respect.
I thank the ambassadors. On behalf of the committee and the Irish people more widely, I make the point that we are truly in awe of the response of their nations and peoples to the unprecedented crisis that has unfolded because of the viciousness of one individual. I hope the discussions we have had today will be the start of an ongoing dialogue because, while we have gathered an enormous amount of information, this situation is going to evolve and we will interact again. The ambassador, H.E. Ms Sochaska, referred to selling our values, and that resonated with me.
In recent times there has been a propensity to allow obviously tainted money to come into our exchequers, across our financial systems and to be invested in football teams. The values that underpin what Europe is have been degraded and devalued by that. When the ambassador was speaking, the words of Yeats struck me:
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
We need to reflect on that and ensure there is no space in Europe for tainted money. The ambassador spoke about ensuring energy independence for Europe, an important matter that we must reflect upon. I thank the ambassadors for their presentations and for bearing with us. We are most grateful for that and we look forward to interacting again.
Before formally closing the meeting, I pay a personal tribute on behalf of us all to our staff, who have endured many hours here without even a tea break. It was not intended but we really are grateful to them for that. Of course, I blame the Chairman.