Ukraine’s Association Agreement: a bird in the hand, not a crane in the sky

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

Kostiantyn Yelisieiev

Some could say that the signature of the political chapters of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which took place at the EU summit last week (20-21 March), is not enough. But let’s not forget that the European Union is a complicated body, writes Kostiantyn Yelisieiev.

Kostiantyn Yelisieiev is a career diplomat. He has previously worked in France and served as deputy representative of Ukraine to the EU. Yelisieiev has held the position of deputy foreign affairs minister since 2007.

On 21 March in Brussels the process of signing the Association Agreement between Ukraine and EU was launched: we have signed the political part of the Agreement.

Frankly speaking, I expected ambiguous reactions to the chosen formula. Different kinds of thoughts are being expressed. Some consider that Ukraine has refused the EU membership and buried its European choice. Others affirm that signing of the political part of the Agreement without the economics part gives us nothing. Some think that due to the direction we have chosen, we will never sign the trade part of the Agreement. Some point out that there were no celebrations during the signing ceremony.

Here is my response.                                                                                                            

We’ve finally made the first important step. Its scope is as substantial as it is possible, taking into consideration the circumstances both in Ukraine and the EU. Three weeks ago the EU did not have any intention at all of signing anything with Ukraine before the presidential elections. However, as the result of intensive work, the compromise decision to sign the Agreement in two phases has been agreed between Ukraine and the 28 EU member states. One integral Agreement – two signatures.

What does it give us?

In the course of the deepest social-political and economic crisis in the whole modern history of Ukraine, which is accompanied by military intervention from Russia, the EU, both on institutional level and on the level of its member states, has demonstrated its solidarity with Ukraine and aspiration for building further relations with our state on the political association basis.

This is support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. This is closer cooperation in the sphere of Common Foreign and Security Policy. This is the declaration of Ukraine’s commitment to the strengthening of the rule of law and adherence to human rights and fundamental freedoms. This is the affirmation of the Ukraine’s intention to ratify the Charter of the International Criminal Court, after the introduction of certain amendments to the Constitution. Finally, this is formal confirmation of Ukraine’s civilizational choice in favor of the European democratic values. By the way, by signing the Agreement, the EU has taken responsibility for the stable democratic development of Ukraine.

Some could say that this is not enough. But let’s not forget that the European Union is a complicated body. The decisions on relations with third countries are taken not by the majority of votes, but unanimously.

Some of our partners are concerned about internal instability in Ukraine. Some of them are sensitive to Russia’s reaction to the decisions taken by the EU regarding Ukraine. Some of them are affected by the Russian propaganda. One has too complicated internal procedures to allow for an agreement on a mandate to sign all parts of the Association Agreement just in three weeks. And some are just indifferent to Ukraine.    

It is a reality for which we can criticise the EU for a long time, but in doing so Ukraine will not come closer to membership.

However, over the last weeks Ukraine de-facto made the EU wake up and enter into an extraordinary mode of work. It will just suffice to mention that during two weeks the European Council was convened twice, with the participation of the prime minister of Ukraine, taking into account that it was unprecedented to invite representatives of third countries to the EU summits in the post-Lisbon practice.  

Yes, the Association Agreement is not perfect, but this document is hard won. It is a result of a super–complicated compromise. 

In the course of five years of negotiations, our team was insisting on including a clear-cut European perspective for Ukraine in the Agreement. However, among the EU member states there has been no consensus about this issue neither then nor now.    

In my opinion, we are overestimating the inclusion of a European perspective in the Association Agreement. Leaders could provide one in any following summit of the European Union. Furthermore, the EU member states have already hinted in their last Conclusions on Ukraine that the Association Agreement is not their final goal for the relations between Ukraine and the EU.

Although I use any opportunity to stress the importance and transforming power of the European perspective, I believe that it is not logical to postpone signing of the Association Agreement so as to wait for a more favorable moment. Croatia is an ample example of it. This country signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2001 and only two years later it received the European perspective together with other Western Balkans countries.

Of course, one could resent the inability of the European Union to recognise Ukraine’s European perspective. But we have to remember that the European integration first of all starts with internal policy, systemic reforms and transformations. Qualitative reforms sooner or later will bring us to such a point when the issue of  European membership will become a formality.  

Today we have a new responsible government, the programme of which contains a number of provisions consonant with the requirements of the Association Agreement. There are no obstacles to fulfilling the Agreement before it is signed. 

According to the common vision of the parties, the trade part of the Association Agreement should be signed after the presidential elections in Ukraine. Doubts as to whether Ukraine and the EU want to complete the signing of the Association Agreement, I think, are groundless.

Firstly, during this period the EU introduces a package of autonomous preferential trade measures for Ukraine, which essentially means the unilateral opening of EU markets for Ukraine in accordance with the provisions of the Deep and Comprenhensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) part of the Association Agreement. The positive effect of opening the EU markets to the Ukrainian economy is estimated at 500 million euros per year.

Secondly, we get time to stabilise the financial and economic situation in the country with the assistance of the EU and the IMF, to conduct comprehensive consultations with the EU on the implementation and risks of the DCFTA, to develop, in close cooperation with the EU, an effective national programme for implementation of the Association Agreement, as well as to establish a national mechanism of coordination of the respective work.

Thirdly, we get an opportunity, in interaction with the EU, to finally disprove the myths which remain in Ukrainian society about the alleged negative impact of the DCFTA on the Ukrainian economy. Suffice to recall the myths regarding the need to replace the entire Ukrainian railway track due to its incompatibility with European standards, or the need to legalise gay marriage in Ukraine, disseminated despite the absence of a common approach to these issues even within the EU itself?

In this regard, I would like to appeal to those looking for the hidden meaning in the decision to separately sign the Association Agreement: we have to get rid of the habit of undue criticism for the sake of creating sensation.

This solution is not ideal, but it is pragmatic. This is a bird in the hand. It’s not intended as an alternative to a crane in the sky, but as a temporary compromise for few months. There is a clear guarantee that Ukraine will get her crane, the EU’s decision to apply unilaterally the DCFTA.

In today’s difficult circumstances, the one who criticises the decision to sign the Association Agreement now plays into the hands of those who want to discredit Ukraine’s European choice.

I suggest believing that today Ukraine has come one step closer to her dream and has found the new energy needed to continue working towards its implementation.

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