Ukraine needs the Association Agreement to get its house in order

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

This article is part of our special report EU-Ukraine Relations.

I am amazed by the current discussion about the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement, about when, where, why to sign it or to sign it all in all. It’s a total confusion of goals and means and nobody is talking about it, neither in the EU nor in Ukraine, writes Pavlo Klimkin.

Pavlo Klimkin is ambassador of Ukraine to Germany. The op-ed was first published by EURACTIV Germany.

"I love fairy tales. I hope we all do. They make us who we are. This year we have the 200th anniversary of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. I got the first impression about mediaeval time in Europe through wonderful stories which are both funny and bit scary: real fairy tales. And what is important – all characters never been aliens for me or my friends when we were little.

I hadn’t read any of these books for years (and it’s a shame!) before I started to think, already as the head of Ukrainian team negotiating EU – Ukraine Association Agreement – what is Ukrainian European identity or better to say what makes European identity?

It was not just a sort of intellectual rubbish; we discussed the possibility of having an idea of Ukrainian European identity included in the text of the Agreement or another political document for five years. 

The recognition of Ukrainian European identity was considered as a sort of hidden European perspective for Ukraine. And here we touch the moment where modern Europe or better to say modern EU (I always make the point that these two things are not exactly the same) created their own political mythology and doesn’t like to be disturbed in this build-up of political convenience.

Let’s be honest. Recognition of a European perspective will bring about at least three clusters of efforts to the EU. Firstly, there will be a need to explain internally that a big country like Ukraine can become an EU member. And it’s not a point of paying for that – all understand Ukraine will pay off at the end of the day. It’s about necessity to publicly accept that all key EU policies – CAP, regional policies should be comprehensively reshuffled.

In the years to come, the EU will look pretty different from the one we now know, but the whole idea of Ukraine or Turkey with REAL perspective will make it clear. More to the point, it will make contentious very convenient to a lot of politicians' formula that an answer to many challenges is simply deeper integration and more and more policy coordination in all areas.

This mantra together with artificial weighing off: more integration – more enlargement is deeply entrenched in many minds. The crisis made many deeply suspicious about it.

Secondly, the EU with its tending to agree on lowest denominator policy is timid or, let’s be politically correct, cautious on foreign policy implications.  

The issue of Russia’s reaction to Ukraine’s European integration is critical for the decisive majority of EU politicians. Continuous repetition of the point that Ukraine should be dealt separately rather underlines than discloses that stance.  

In the 1990s we had a different EU, a different Ukraine and a different Russia. I still believe it was a fault of the then Ukrainian leadership to agree on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and not Association Agreement as all other Central European countries got it.

It’s a shame but you cannot rewrite history. And you cannot get back to the same enlargement drive which took place in the 1990s and the early 2000s. With a bit more strategic vision and political will, the EU could have sorted out lot of outstanding issues.

Thirdly, Ukraine as any other country can’t master EU integration.  She needs a lot of help, of different kind. In the same scale as other new EU member states.  There is just one important commitment which could significantly shorten resources which should be allocated: European perspective for Ukraine. And the more the EU will delay this commitment the more it will pay at the end of the day. Ukraine is fully able to implement important reforms herself – with reasonably modest assistance. But the goal should be clear.  Of course it’s far more convenient to keep saying: Ukraine is not ready for that but it steers us nowhere.

I am amazed by the current discussion about the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement, about when, where, why to sign it or to sign it all in all. It’s a total confusion of goals and means and nobody is talking about it, neither in the EU nor in Ukraine.

The signing of the Agreement is considered not as getting the set of means, but a goal in itself. If a neighbour is not a perfect one and his house needs some repair, do you say to him "I won’t give you a toolbox to repair the house?"

Have you heard about serious discussion on implementation of the future Agreement?  Both in the EU and Ukraine? Everyone talking about the 1.5 or 2 whatever thousands of pages the Agreement is comprised of.

But how to do it in practise remains enigmatic. One of my German friends put it in an exaggerated way: Ukraine doesn’t have resources to implement the Agreement and the EU doesn’t have resources to assist on that, and both feel Russia is there somewhere in the East so why hurry up?

Rather harsh point, but there is a point in it. Ukraine needs the Agreement as a toolkit to make her house a better place to live and to fully establish herself as an integral part of Europe and the EU.

In order to reach this goal, we all need the Agreement signed and implemented, at least provisionally before ratification, as soon as possible. And the EU should finally accept that the signing itself will not make Ukraine better, it’s all about implementation. There are no other ways forward even if it somehow contradicts existing EU mythology.

All that said it should in no way be understood as a sort of excuse for not fully delivering on important reforms in Ukraine. It lies fully within Ukraine’s and only Ukraine’s responsibility. But every reform has its goal and the whole reform efforts also should have a clear goal. We could play with terminology but these efforts would define European integration if the clear goal is the EU.

The crisis provides a unique opportunity to adjust the existing policy frame and proclaim that more engagement and political will are better recipes for credibility and self-credibility in this rapidly changing world.

We need to get rid of ever complicated nuances and conditionalities and prepare to explain what is more important to defend the European case. 

I like the old joke about Albert Einstein who was teaching at the Zürich Technical University and once held an exam in physics. He had distributed tasks among the students and one of them raised his hand asking Einstein: "Professor, but these are the same tasks we got two years ago?" "It’s OK," was Einstein’s answer, "but the answers are different now."

I believe it’s a good time to start thinking about different answers. We need critical voices from those who do care about Ukraine, but we also need more engagement. In fairy tales, it’s always about good engagement. Probably we can learn something from them."

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