EU and Ukraine: closer ties despite backsliding?
The political situation in Ukraine remains tense.
Last autumn’s parliamentary elections were supposed to be a litmus test, a chance for Ukraine to show that it is on track towards European integration.
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But restrictions in the election run-up and manipulation of vote counts took place on a massive scale, seriously damaging the country’s image. The election watchdog, the Vienna-based OSCE, and the EU observation mission concluded that the vote constituted a step backwards compared with those of 2008 and 2010.
The new electoral law virtually invites manipulation.
Access to the media was not equal, particularly in the case of Ukraine’s top information source - television. Leading opposition figures are still in prison, with Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko as the prime examples.
But at the same time, the strong approval for two totally new parties reveals a desire to turn away from the old elites. The Ukrainian people want leaders who are ready to think of their country first.
Unfortunately, the members of the governing elite of this country, home to 40 million people, are thinking of themselves, and of ways to sideline their political opponents.
The flow of fresh accusations and charges against ex-PM Tymoshenko and, recently, her lawyer, Sergei Vlasenko, exarcebate the situation further.
Ex-interior-minister Lutsenko, sentenced to a four-year prison term for a questionable minor offence, also remains in prison despite being seriously ill.
Add to this, the exertion of direct influence over the work of the remaining free media: the case of the axed political talk show at TV broadcaster Inter, for instance, or the case of online news agency Unian, which is under threat of closure.
This is why a far-reaching, previously-negotiated EU association agreement, with an accompanying deep free trade agreement, has been put on ice for some time.
The EU has attached three conditions to the signing of this pact, which is important for both sides: electoral law reform, including implementation of the OSCE and Council of Europe recommendations, additional major reforms and an end to politically motivated justice.
None of these conditions has been met.
The EU must not simply sit and watch as the country is misused to benefit a corrupt elite.
It must act to strengthen pro-European forces and offer other forms of assistance to the country to tackle problems with rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
The EU has compiled a list of a dozen specific issues on which Ukraine must take action by May in accordance with previous agreements.
These include reforms in the justice system, in criminal law, in the criminal procedure code, the fight against corruption and the implementation of the recommendations of the Cox-Kwasniewski mission.
The European Parliament charged Pat Cox, its former president, and Alexander Kwasniewski, a former president of Poland, with investigating the politically-motivated proceedings against Tymoshenko and others.
The findings of the election observations and the European Parliament mission have now resulted in specific demands placed on the Ukrainian leadership.
In the eyes of the EU, these are non-negotiable. If Ukraine wants to sign the association agreement at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November, it must finally demonstrate the necessary political will and take action on the agreed reforms as swiftly as possible.
But for its part, the EU should better communicate the advantages of closer ties and promote people-to-people contacts.
This would entail, for example, publishing the text of the agreement with an explanation of the advantages and development opportunities it entails for Ukraine. Once the Ukrainian people and civil society understand what is at stake, they will put more pressure on the elite.
A good visa agreement is also necessary.
In the coming weeks, the European Parliament will approve visa facilitation for certain groups, such as students, scholars and business travellers.
But the actual application of the existing visa regime remains at the discretion of the EU member states, and here there is considerable need for improvement, in Germany, for example.
Despite this, it is primarily delays on the part of the Ukrainian government which stand in the way of progress towards the complete elimination of visa requirements.
A roadmap to visa-free travel has already been agreed, it calls for important new legislation, such as data protection directives and anti-corruption and anti-discrimination laws.
Not only has this legislation not been enacted, but, in clear contrast to the call to ensure protection against discrimination, there are two laws targeting “homosexual propaganda” in the pipeline, laws which would violate people's rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
The EU should also engage more actively in co-operation in the energy sector, for example, on energy efficiency or the diversification and modernisation of Ukraine's decrepit power grid, as well as in the difficult negotiations with Russia over a new gas agreement.
Extending the Erasmus student exchange programme is also important, because it gives students in particular the freedom to travel to countries where they can see democracy at work.
We cannot and must not set aside our values and standards. On the contrary: we must give people the opportunity to come to understand and appreciate freedom and democracy so that they will demand it in their own country.
Werner Schulz is a German Green MEP, who sits on the foreign affairs committee and the EU-Ukraine parliamentary committee on co-operation