Wednesday

19th Jun 2019

Opinion

Europe's failure on Ukraine: Three lessons

  • Brussels: The EU has been slow to respond to the new geopolitical competition over the eastern neighbourhood (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU hopes to bring its eastern neighbourhood into the fold suffered another setback last week.

Just days before inking agreements on political association and free trade, Ukraine suspended its negotiations, snubbing the EU, just as another neighbour, Armenia, did some weeks ago.

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Two more countries, Georgia and Moldova, are set to initial such compacts with the EU next week. The remaining neighbours, the dictatorships in Azerbaijan and Belarus, are plainly unfit for upgraded relations with the EU.

As it convenes for a major summit devoted to its Eastern Partnership, the EU is effectively left empty-handed and faces the near-complete failure of its policy.

Chances are that the entire neighbourhood will be off European course and find itself in the grip of the region’s erstwhile hegemon, Russia. Avoiding this requires the EU to reset its eastern policy, closely examining what went wrong with Ukraine, the largest and most important of the six neighbours.

To be sure, the EU cannot be faulted for not having tried hard enough.

Over six years, it negotiated the most comprehensive association and trade agreement yet.

For more than a year, it engaged in intensive shuttle diplomacy and no week passed without a visit of EU commissioners, special envoys or foreign ministers to the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

It extended deadline after deadline to make it possible for the Ukrainian government and parliament to meet EU conditions, displaying an unusual readiness for last-minute decisions. Still, all these efforts came to nothing. Why?

First of all, the EU was duped by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

While full of pro-European rhetoric, he used his control of the government and the parliament to drag out any decision required by the EU. This gave him the bargaining position and time to see whether the EU would make concessions on Ukraine’s poor democratic, legal and human rights record, if he could extract the finances necessary to ease Ukraine’s massive economic and financial crisis, and whether Russia would swallow an EU-Ukraine rapprochement without major resistance.

Seeing that none of this was the case, Yanukovych dropped the accord. Insiders in his party hinted that he might do so six months ago. The EU clearly needs better judgment on whom to trust.

Secondly, there was a clear mismatch in expectations between the two sides. The EU intends for its agreements to have long-term effects, whether improved governance or bolstered trade.

These come at a price in the short run, as painful reforms and adjustments are needed in state institutions, society and markets. However, the Ukrainian side, and President Yanukovych in particular, desperately need short-term benefits – the country’s economy and finances are on the brink of collapse and a presidential election looms in two years.

Obviously, this gap was not bridged by what the EU offered.

Thirdly, the EU has been slow to respond to the new geopolitical competition over the eastern neighbourhood, into which it is being drawn by Russia.

Eurasian Union

Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s plan of a Eurasian Union, to be launched in 2015, is nothing less than the return of former Soviet republics to the hegemony of the Kremlin.

In pursuit of this project, Russia spares no effort. Where neighbours seem willing to join, it lures them with access to its market, cheap oil and gas, political support and security guarantees. Where neighbours turn to Europe instead, Moscow answers with debilitating sanctions.

Ukraine-Russia ties have been marred by trade wars for years, although recently it has been purported that Russia would provide billions in financial assistance if Ukraine ditched its agreements with the EU.

Brussels, by contrast, has not so far factored in this competition. As a result, it has neither been ready to match Russian offers nor to support neighbours bullied by Moscow.

In all these respects, the breakdown of talks with Ukraine holds critical lessons for a revised EU eastern policy.

While the association and trade agreements with Kyiv are likely shelved for years to come, urgent attention must be paid to upcoming negotiations with Georgia and Moldova.

The EU still has a fair chance of successfully associating with both countries, frontrunners as they are in their reforms to democracy and market economy.

At the same time, Europe must not give up on those four countries that seem to have left the path of European integration, whether recently like Armenia and Ukraine or a long time ago as is the case for Azerbaijan and Belarus.

Neighbourhood policy

Instead, the EU must adjust its neighbourhood policy by drawing several conclusions from the Ukrainian disaster. It clearly has to be more careful in choosing its partners inside the countries.

Rather than relying solely on negotiations with the powers-that-be, the EU needs to engage directly with societies to build a solid pro-European momentum from the bottom up. This includes swift visa liberalization to make Europe more welcoming of its neighbours than it has been to date.

Exchange programmes on all levels, from young people and students to civil servants, academics and entrepreneurs can enhance people-to-people contacts. And substantial support has to be given to civil society, which has long been the independent motor and multiplier of much-needed reforms and European integration.

Moreover, the EU must provide more generous assistance to help meet short-term economic and social needs. So far, European conditionality has been strong in detailing the reforms required from eastern neighbours but weak in assisting countries to meet these demands.

If it really wants its expectations to be fulfilled, the EU has to mobilise financial, institutional and otherwise support on the same generous scale that it readied in Central Europe in the 1990s, ideally even in form of the very same Phare programme that remains one of the most successful EU instruments to date.

Here, it may be worth remembering that this programme was originally designed for Poland and Hungary to deal with the financial breakdown of their unreformed economies, a situation very similar to the one faced by Ukraine and other eastern neighbours today.

Finally, the EU must be ready to ward off Russian interference.

The Kremlin is clearly determined to use all means necessary to keep Eastern neighbours within what it sees as its exclusive sphere of influence. Europe must make it unmistakeably clear that the choice of European, or Eurasian, integration is the independent choice of neighbouring countries and societies alone.

In order to facilitate this independence of choice, the EU should help Eastern neighbours to overcome their often one-sided dependence on Russia and to diversify their energy supplies, export markets and security arrangements.

In so acting in the wake of the Ukrainian failure, the EU can lay the foundations for a more effective policy that can return the Eastern neighbourhood to Europe.

Deprived as it is of some of its original agenda items, the upcoming Vilnius summit provides ample space to start this re-orientation of policy.

The writer is an eastern Europe expert with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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