Ukrainian people seem to believe they will wake up as Europeans and find work and money the day after the country signs its association agreement with the EU. But this is simply a wrong impression, says Dmytro Tabachnyk, who compares Ukraine’s EU integration process to Turkey’s.
Dmytro Tabachnyk has been Ukraine’s minister of education and science since 2012. He spoke to EurActiv’s publisher and editor, Frédéric Simon, in Vilnius.
How confident are you that Ukraine will sign the Association Agreement and Deep Free Trade Agreement at the Vilnius Summit in November?
We are absolutely sure that Ukraine has strong political will to sign the Association Agreement in November because this position is shared by the president of Ukraine, the government of Ukraine, and a majority in the Ukrainian parliament. And I strongly believe that this agreement will be signed.
What are the remaining obstacles in your view?
There are a few very difficult law projects being adopted in the Ukrainian parliament, especially the creation of a new function of general prosecutor and a few new ideas on criminal trials. We want to synchronise our national law according to the conditions and views of the European Commission.
What opportunities could the agreement offer for research and innovation in your country?
I do believe that our close cooperation with the leading countries of the EU on science and innovation is an opportunity to raise our own level of expertise not only on research but also on development and innovation, which is very important for Ukraine, including issues on transformation our scientific results into real market products.
It is also very important that Ukrainian companies can find the right partners in the EU because frankly speaking it is cheaper to innovate and produce in Ukraine. And this will help Ukraine improve its competitiveness.
If a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement is signed in November, do you believe that Ukrainian companies will be able to cope with competition from EU companies?
I believe that Ukrainian companies will be successful in business competition with European companies.
For example, eight years ago in Ukraine, Kryvorizhstal, the largest steel plant in Ukraine, was taken over by ArecelorMittal. Before privatisation, we had a project with the Ukraine national technical University near the plant, per year on 16-19 millions of hryvnia, it’s near 2.5 million of euros. After privatisation, all scientific projects were relocated in Liège, Belgium. And the situation, although not a disaster, is very difficult for our university.
In future, we hope that our university will have the possibility of having closer contact with the Liège university. And this cooperation will give us an opportunity to raise the competitiveness of the Ukrainian university and the steel plant to the EU level.
Currently, Ukraine has more than 65 billion dollars of exports per year to Russia and 47 billion per year to the European Union. This is the strongest sign that Ukrainian companies are competitive.
Do you expect a wave of mergers and acquisitions to result from the free trade agreement?
Of course we realise that we will face a lot of difficulties after the agreement will be in force and not all our plants will be competitive enough. Maybe some of them will be bought by European companies but this will also bring advantages because it will give us access to new technologies, for example to lower our energy consumption and that will also improve our competitiveness.
Do you see the association agreement as a step towards eventual accession to the EU? When do you see accession taking place?
I think this agreement is a very important step towards closer association with the EU. We had proclaimed independence in 1991 and adopted a new constitution in 1996. So now this agreement is another important step, which starts a very big and difficult process of association for the Ukrainian state but also for society in general.
A majority of Ukrainian people tend to see the EU through rose-coloured glasses. They seem to believe that they will wake up as Europeans the day after the association agreement signed, find work and money.
This is a wrong impression about the agreement. Integration with the EU will require a long and continuous process of transformation, including of our society and political structures. The transformation of our local and central political power will take 5 - 7 years. When that process is finalised, we will have an answer to your last question. And we will know ‘where we are’.
Turkey has also experienced a very long road towards closer association to the EU and during that time, Turkish politics and society have changed tremendously, although it took more than 40 years. Maybe Turkish people are not so happy staying as a candidate for so long time but the transformations that they did were beneficial for the state and for society anyway.
The main point of that those changes is that Ukrainians need them. We do not do this to please the Europeans, we do it for ourselves.