A strong union, where we can participate

Click for a 32-minutes video from the My!Europe webinar in Riga, Latvia

By Ole Aabenhus
Asked about what a “European dream” would be in the Baltics, one answer at the My!Europe conference in Riga on December 10-11, was delivered by Alexander Aidarov, from the ministry of cultural affairs in Estonia.

“We see Europe as a strong Union, where Estonia can participate – in internal as well as international affairs. We see ourselves as an active member state, and we are interested in participation”.

The underlying contradiction was clear: Once upon a time, not so long ago, Estonia was ruled from Moscow. Now Estonia was an equal member of an international community. But it was stressed time and again during the webinar, that this new status also carried new responsibilities.

“Maybe the most difficult thing is for people in these three Baltic countries is to understand the refugee crisis. They have a memory of suppression and occupation. But now we have been independent for 25 years, and it’s time for us to realise our own potential and take on our responsibility, also in relation to issues that are related to the whole of Europe, not only to the individual state”, Alexander Aidarov said.

The conference, which was organised by the Danish Cultural Institute in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, brought a total of 140 persons together, from 14 different countries – most of them young people. Of these, 110 took part in the main conference, and another 30 joined the conference for an evening cultural event.

“Europe is a civilisation project, not just something on the map”, said Mirca Raipu, a Romanian who had an Erasmus scholarship to a university in Tallinn, Estonia. “The 28 states should decide by what is right and what is wrong, and in the EU they have a voice to address the world”.

Refugees and migration were the basic themes of the conference, which was the second in a series of eight conferences in 7 different countries, which make up the My!Europe project, supported by the Europe for Citizens programme of the EU.

Many at the conference felt that populist politicians are basically out of touch with the people. One person, who represented “The Future Institute of Latvia” wrote on one of the postcards that functioned as a conclusion of a group work: ”Brussels has imposed a solution on Latvia, and we have no way to protest. There are refugees here already, but the Government lies to us – we do not trust them”

Alexander Aidarov expressed the feeling of the concluding webinar: “It is very important that such concerns are heard, and opinions discussed. We should not negate problems related to migration. Sceptics help us to address the weak points. They are to be taken serious, just like those of optimists”.

Sanda Segleniece felt that there is fear in the population, because of unanswered questions.
“The solution is respect, in both directions”, she said, “We should respect those who come in, but those who come should also respect the values of the country, where they arrive”.

Alexander Aidarov: “In the case of the refugee problem we should not only listen to, but also directly involve the people”.

Based on a post on Facebook, where those who followed the webinar live could pose questions, there was a discussion in the webinar, if the reaction to refugees in Baltic and other Central/East European countries was really a “fear of the unknown”.

But are the “others” so unknown? Mirca Raipu said no. “I have noticed that you have quite a number of students from Uzbekistan here. And they live perfectly here. So you can integrate people from other cultures”.

Stuart Sweeney (Great Britain) followed up later: “40 years ago the Netherlands had a refugee problem with the Indonesians. They had 350.000 coming over 6 months, and they choose to distribute them all over the Netherlands – a little like the EU is now trying. But the question is if they will stay in the place where they have been allocated”.

This could cause a problem to the Schengen, and some at the conference meant that it might also cause a problem to the euro. “But”, Stuart Sweeney continued, “as someone from outside, I would ask, is it really so bad if the Schengen is temporarily held up? It would take a bit longer to get in and out of a country, but I am not convinced at all that a whole lot of other playing cards would fall over”.  

But the Schengen seemed more than half of the European dream to one of the panelists in the webinar, Jan Capek from the Czech Republic: “My European dream is already a reality. When I grew up, crossing a border was a criminal act. Today, I can travel without showing a passport to Spain or even to the Canary Islands”.  

At the conference, there were many who expressed, that politicians are often populist, where the population has a more positive attitude towards e.g. refugees. Why is that?

“I think that in some states, the politicians are not up to date, when it comes to their societies. Elections may be needed to solve that problem, but there is also room for NGOs”, was Mirca Raipu’s approach in the webinar.

Adewale Ayantoye, from Nigeria, now a student at the technical university in Estonia, felt that there is a built-in problem in democracy: “Before the elections, there is close communication between the politician and his/her voters. But as they sit in their offices, a huge gap seems to develop. So they tend to govern on the basis of the kind of information they had when they were elected”.

The moderator referred to one of the presentations at the conference, from Mana Balss (“My Voice”), an NGO in Latvia, which has been set up to organise a access for grass roots to parliament.

The Mana Balss (“My Voice”) system permits people to formulate a theme for a new law or to amended an existing law, and once the theme has gathered 10.000 votes, there is a law that the issue shall be taken up for discussion in Parliament (more on this here)

Jan Capek: “I miss that the politicians admit that we do not have only advantages from the European Union, we also have some duties. And now is the time when we should fulfil our duties”.

In Estonia we have quite a few people who go abroad, Alexander Aidarov explained. They work, they marry, or they go for studies.

But, he continued, in what was almost a policy statement, “We should keep our own skilled people, if at all possible. Refugees may come to work, but they will not solve the structural problems in society. It is a kind of irony that we create facilities for our own people, but then they leave the country. Now we bring in refugees, and we are to offer them opportunities”.

The webinar was recorded by the video team of the University of Latvia. They actually streamed the entire conference live. Their recordings can be found on Youtube here.


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