Saturday

28th May 2022

Opinion

The EU's invisible helping hand in Ukraine

  • Ukraine approaches crucial polls on 30 September (Photo: Wikipedia)

It has long been argued that Ukraine is a country at the crossroads. Over the past three years, a rollercoaster of internal developments, Russia's increasing assertiveness and, most importantly, the EU's continued ambivalence have arguably made this assessment justified.

Over the past year, however, Brussels' position on Ukraine has achieved a reasonable, if understated, level of consistency. As Ukraine approaches crucial polls on 30 September, it may then be useful to spell out what Ukrainians can realistically expect from it.

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Many in Kiev rightly feel that the EU owes it to Ukraine. The EU's Neighbourhood Policy was originally conceived for Europe's Eastern flank and seemed an enticing offer. But by the time it came to being in 2004, the Policy had expanded to include the Mediterranean basin, thus considerably watering down its strategic significance for Ukraine.

After the Orange Revolution spectacularly toppled the powerful, Russia-friendly elite in 2005, Brussels response was also somewhat bland. Then came the failed referenda on the EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands, and the subsequent inward-looking mood in Europe, which further hampered Ukraine's aspirations.

Surely, with a shaky constitutional balance, an opaque system of economic governance, and the old establishment partly back in power, Ukraine's domestic situation remains highly volatile. Moreover, Russia's influence on the country is cultural and societal as much as it is political and economic, a factor that has to be reckoned with regardless of the level of EU support.

Even so, Ukraine is a far more pluralistic country than most post-Soviet states. It has -at least in its Western part - a consistently pro-European population, and is placed in a strategically crucial position: all of which has warranted a more substantial stand from the EU.

Starting with economic integration

Economic integration is an obvious place to start. The EU - Ukraine's first trading partner - has put forward the idea of a 'deep' free trade agreement. In Eurospeak, this implies that Ukraine will gradually adopt the EU economic standards and regulatory norms.

It remains to be seen to what extent the Ukrainian leadership will be able to implement costly and complicated EU-styled reforms. But this is in itself a largely welcome proposal, because it will set concrete benchmarks to anchor Ukraine to the EU's internal market.

Connected to this is Ukraine's role in the EU's fledgling common energy policy. The infamous row between Ukraine and Russia over gas supplies in early 2006 made Ukraine's position as a key transit country only more apparent.

Ukraine will be encouraged to integrate its energy market, particularly gas and electricity, to the European one. This is precisely what the Energy Community Treaty between the EU and the Western Balkans is for, and should be extended to Ukraine.

The movement of people is just as crucial to foster exchanges and a sense of inclusion. On 18 June, the EU and Ukraine signed a deal on visa facilitation and, crucially, readmission (which means that Kiev agrees to take back illegal migrants entering the EU from Ukraine, even if these are not Ukrainian nationals).

Admittedly, the new system will make a tangible difference only for certain groups of people (like students, journalists and businessmen) and, judging by the difficulties of the current regime, is bound to present serious challenges of implementation. Yet, given the levels of border control in Ukraine and the sensitivities on this matter inside the EU, Kiev cannot realistically aspire for more for the time being.

Foreign policy

The EU also suggests that Ukraine aligns its position to EU foreign policy declarations and enhances its participation in crisis management operations carried out under the EU flag. The outlook here is quite promising: Ukraine already subscribes to the vast majority of EU declarations and has contributed substantially to some EU operations, most notably in Transdniestria, Moldova's breakaway statelet, which Ukraine borders.

Moreover, after enlarging to Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, the EU has become a fully-fledged actor in the Black Sea and has launched a regional ‘Synergy'. Ukraine is a heavyweight here, not only as one of the largest littoral countries, but also as the promoter of a number of regional initiatives.

Brussels' strategy in this context should be aimed at bringing its Black Sea Synergy closer to Ukraine's foreign policy priorities, particularly in the field of democracy promotion at the regional level. Not incidentally, the first ministerial meeting of the new Synergy will take place in Kiev next January.

EU membership prospects

Lastly, there is the elusive question of Ukraine's EU membership aspirations. Last March, the EU and Ukraine opened negotiations on a new 'Enhanced Agreement' which will bind legally many of the issues mentioned above. The new agreement will not answer the membership question and, given the continuing introspection inside the EU over enlargement, Ukraine might as well refrain from asking it.

At the same time, the items characterising Brussels' Ukraine agenda are geared to tie Ukraine firmly to Europe. They may not make the EU position visible or particularly bold. But depending also on the conduct and the outcome of next week's election, they could in due course do the next best thing: make the membership question an elephant in the room.

The author is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

Disclaimer

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

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