EU-Ukraine: The next chapter

A few days ago campaigning for Ukraine’s 28th October Parliamentary elections began. It seems set to be quite a battle with emotions running high. It may prove to be one of the most important elections in Ukraine’s history. Not only will it represent a litmus test for democracy, it may also be a defining moment for EU-Ukraine relations.

Today the EU and Ukraine are passing through a difficult period. For a long time Ukraine was the “star” in the EU’s Eastern neighborhood. All the other countries in today’s Eastern Partnership have gained from Ukraine’s labours. Kyiv pushed for Association Agreements, Free Trade Agreements and visa liberalization. Unfortunately today “the star” has lost some of its shine. The Association Agreement, including an integrated Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which Ukraine and the EU spent more than four years negotiating may not be signed due to EU concerns over democratic values and the rule of law. The EU has made further economic and political integration dependent on improving democratic standards, ending selective justice, serious reform and carrying out free and fair elections. Ukrainian efforts to justify events in the country have fallen on death ears, with a negative trend towards Kyiv prevailing in Brussels.

Dialogue of the Deaf

While the answers to today’s problems lie, rightly or wrongly – mainly with Kyiv, at the same time history has shown that Ukraine’s relationship with the EU has never been a really satisfactory one. Ukraine has always wanted more than the EU has been willing to give. For most of the past fifteen years the EU and Ukraine have been carrying out something of a “dialogue of the deaf”. While Ukraine has talked incessantly about obtaining an EU membership perspective, the EU has spent most of this time trying to avoid this eventuality.
Unfortunately, for the most part, Ukraine has been burdened by incompetent leaders more interested in furthering their own interests than those of the country. Transforming the country has been more wishful thinking than concrete actions. This has led to “development stasis” and sadly, for a country with so much potential, today’s Ukraine scarcely differs from that of ten years ago. Meanwhile, the EU has never really embraced Ukraine, failing to develop a policy that could stimulate and encourage reform by giving strong support to the reformers in the country. The EU has seemingly been quite content for Ukraine to remain in a sort of grey zone.

Ukraine has watched many of its neighbours enter the EU. It also witnessed, almost ten years ago, the countries of the Western Balkans receive a membership promise even though the region was far from meeting EU values of democracy, freedoms and human rights. Meanwhile Kyiv has been consistently told it is “different” and needs to get fit, both politically and economically, before a membership perspective may be considered. The combination of Ukraine’s lack of capacity and weak leadership, together with the EU’s lack of strategy and inadequate support has made EU conditionality, the core element of its European Neighborhood Policy, virtually ineffective in Ukraine. Yet, while Ukraine may seem like a country unchangeable in its habits, these habits were broken with the 2005 Orange Revolution. Unfortunately, the Yuschenko-Tymoshenko duo failed to deliver. While one cannot pin the shambolic and wasted “orange years” on the EU, more may have been achieved if the EU had been more generous and visionary in its approach in the revolution’s aftermath. Unfortunately the EU failed to harness the momentum, maintaining the same mediocre policy and Ukraine slipped back into bad habits.

While undoubtedly Ukraine is a complicated country, burdened by a Soviet past and continually struggling with identity issues, it is unmistakably a European country. Yet at times some member states, for example Germany, have resisted recognizing this fact.  Why has the EU done this given the EU defines Ukraine as a “priority partner”; the most important country in the region. Rather like the case of Turkey, the EU has always been divided over Ukraine, although for different reasons. Big countries which would one day have a significant share of power are not particularly welcomed even though they have the potential to make the EU stronger and more globally competitive. Indeed, if Poland had not been part of a group of ten, its membership may have been far more difficult.
Ukraine’s situation is further complicated because of Russia, and the interesting relations some member states have with Moscow. Ukraine was always the biggest jewel of the Soviet Union, and for Russia “losing Ukraine”, would be like having a limb severed. Moreover a modern, prosperous and democratic Ukraine, grounded in European values would serve to undermine Russia’s current style of governance. Therefore today Ukraine has turned into a battle-ground, with Moscow trying to persuade Kyiv, one way or another, from pursing closer ties with the EU, and join Russia’s Eurasian Union instead.

What Lies Ahead?

While efforts in the reform arena have shifted up a gear including the establishment of an EU Coordination Centre, launching of a broad package of EU demanded reforms and intensified dialogue with civil society, it is not enough to guarantee the signature and ratification of the Association Agreement by EU member states. If Yulia Tymoshenko remains in prison the status quo will probably prevail. Much will depend on the report of the EU’s Special Envoys, Pat Cox and Alexsander Kwasniewski, who are monitoring the Tymoshenko appeal. At the end of the hearing a report will be submitted to the EU based on their findings.

The 28th October Parliamentary elections, the crucial pre-election period -and its compliance with international standards, including on issues such as media freedom which has recently come under fire, will also be key. Indeed the EU would be well placed to create a special media monitoring commission, as they have done in Georgia which is due to hold parliamentary elections on 1 October.

If Ukraine does not deliver the Association Agreement and DCFTA, which have the potential to anchor Ukraine onto a track of reform and modernization as well as support the reformers in Ukraine’s government, will be shelved. Considering how much effort went into negotiating these agreements it would be a big loss. It also leaves them open for renegotiation at some future point, if there is a change of leadership. The visa liberalization negotiations will probably continue, as blocking this would have a negative impact on ordinary Ukrainians, seriously damaging the EU’s image.

However, relations will not freeze, Ukraine is not Belarus: the two partners are entwined in too many different sectors including energy, transport, biotechnology, airspace, security and defence, for this to happen.  Yet a Ukraine left to “float” and “flip-flop” in the “grey zone” is not in the interests of either party, nor will it contribute to greater regional stability. Unfortunately, today’s EU is neither courageous or visionary, and it is therefore more than likely Ukraine will be left to drift, even if that drift risks Kyiv finally succumbing to Russian pressure.

Yet, even if Ukraine delivers, it is unlikely Kyiv will receive it’s much sought-after membership perspective, more so because of the current climate of economic malaise and depression in Europe. However, even without the EU membership carrot Ukraine needs to step up and introduce European standards: first and foremost for its long suffering but ever patient population.

Unfortunately today the EU still does not know what its ultimate objectives are for this region. It has failed with Ukraine and its neighbourhood policies are still waiting for a real success story. The EU needs to have a serious discussion over how it sees its future relations with Eastern Europe. Whether the final outcome will reflect the position of Poland or the UK -if you achieve certain criteria you will join – or whether it will be nearer to the German position – Russia first and foremost – remains to be seen.