Is the EU ready for Ukraine membership?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

When the scar-faced Viktor Yushchenko emerged from the bowels of the Orange revolution as the new president of Ukraine in 2005, it seemed like Europe was at his feet. Today, Ukraine is standing at the geopolitical crossroads again, writes Ainius Lasas.

Dr. Ainius Lašas is a lecturer in political science at the University of Bath. He is a former senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and a postdoctoral fellow at the United Nations University in Tokyo.

When the scar-faced Viktor Yushchenko emerged from the bowels of the Orange revolution as the new president of Ukraine in 2005, it seemed like Europe was at his feet. The leaders of the European Union were eager to sing high praises to the new hero of the Western democratic order. Yushchenko used this popularity to convey a simple message – Ukraine wants to become a member of the European Union. The more he repeated the message, the more it became apparent that Europe was not ready to commit. At the 2006 EU-Ukraine summit, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso was quite blunt: “Ukraine is not ready, and we are not ready.” Instead, the European leaders offered an enhanced cooperation agreement, which fell far short of Ukrainian expectations.

Today Ukraine is standing at the geopolitical crossroads again, but its political and economic situation is more fragile than it was in 2005. It faces challenges that need a new kind of response of the European Union. Financial aid and the association agreement is not enough to secure Ukraine’s return to Europe. The country desperately needs the prospect of EU membership.

The time has come for the European Union to act decisively and to bring this offer on the table along with the demand for a fair and transparent investigation of the bloody confrontations in Ukraine. The glimmer of hope for a better Ukrainian future within Europe can keep the country together. It can safely back Ukraine from the cliff edge of economic bankruptcy. It can provide sufficient motivation for all Ukrainians to work together and go through painful economic and social reforms. The example of the Baltic States stands as a witness of such a successful transformation.

When the Baltic States regained their independence in 1991, many analysts foresaw the possibility of ethnic conflict in Estonia and Latvia and even the territorial split of Estonia along the ethnic lines. Both of these countries had a significant percentage of Russian speakers, who were settled there during the Soviet area. However, despite some tensions, these fears never materialised. In fact we saw a gradual normalisation of interethnic relations during the 1990s and early 2000s. To a large extent this was due to EU membership prospects for the Baltic States, which motivated the candidates to work along OSCE monitoring missions on minority and citizenship related issues.

Already in August 1991, at the European Community’s formal recognition ceremony of the Baltic States, German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher offered to plead on behalf of the Baltic States for their speedy association with the European Community. This was a clear signal that Europe was ready to walk along the three ex-Soviet republics during the process of transition and to eventually absorb them as the full members of the Community. The prospect of the EU (and NATO) membership united most voters and most political parties in Latvia and Estonia, discouraging the escalation of ethnically based internal friction.

Similar examples can be drawn from the Balkans, where the prospects of the EU membership have done much to bring stability to the region. The work is far from complete, but these examples clearly demonstrate why enlargement is still the most effective tool of EU foreign policy. There is no reason why it should not work in Ukraine as well. But is the EU ready to step up to the plate and to fulfill its original calling – to foster peace and reconciliation in Europe? I do hope so. At least as a response to the indomitable pro-European aspirations of the Ukrainian people. 

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