Ukraine’s next challenge

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.

Only a short time ago, nobody believed Ukraine could deliver on Euro 2012. In the event, Ukraine rose to the challenge and, together with Poland, hosted one of the most successful tournaments ever. Now Ukraine’s leadership must rise to another challenge. It must demonstrate in actions rather than words that it is committed to European integration, argues Amanda Paul.

Amanda Paul is a policy analyst at European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels.

"Only a short time ago, nobody believed Ukraine could deliver on Euro 2012. There were fears over stadiums not being finished, poor infrastructure, a shortage of beds and problems with racism.  In short, there was a great deal of fear that the Ukrainian part of the championship was going to be a flop. 

In the event, Ukraine rose to the challenge and, together with Poland, hosted one of the most successful tournaments ever. Thousands of people were warmly welcomed, and treated to a feast of Ukrainian hospitality. Euro 2012 gave ordinary citizens a reason to feel proud. It united the country – not an easy task – and strengthened Ukrainian identity. 

Now Ukraine’s leadership must rise to another challenge. It must demonstrate in actions rather than words that it is committed to European integration. That Kyiv’s geostrategic choice of “Europe” is more than just a slogan.

By now it is well-known that Ukraine’s relationship with the EU has hit rocky terrain. Kyiv has been told that unless there is visible progress in improving democratic standards and ending selective justice, the Association Agreement, including an integrated Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which the two partners spent the last four years negotiating, and which was initialled in March, will not be signed. 

This is principally a consequence of the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and other members of her former cabinet, which has been labelled politically motivated. The EU has made further economic and political integration dependent putting an end to this democratic backslide. 

Over the months the EU has upped the ante. Most recently this included a boycott of Euro 2012. Now the stakes may be raised further following a suggestion by German MEP, Elmar Brok, that visa liberalisation negotiations should be halted.  

Brok touched on a sacred issue, an issue which is of crucial importance for ordinary Ukrainian citizens, and it is for this reason that hopefully it will not go any further, unless the EU wants to turn Ukrainian society against it.

A divided EU

By issuing ultimatums the EU is putting itself into a position that will be increasingly difficult to wind back from. It needs to keep its Ukraine policy “under review”. The EU is divided over what do to about Ukraine which reflects a lack of strategy and the different priorities of member states towards this region. 

This extends beyond member states, to the EU institutions. For a long time the European Parliament has acted more like a tribunal rather than an independent body. Moreover, in the External Action Service, there also seems to be no united approach.

There seems to a hardline group which believes Ukraine should be told do what the EU says or take the consequences. A second group seems to support that strong dialogue and engagement need to be maintained, that ultimatums and isolation are a road to nowhere and will certainly not serve the EU’s goal of creating an area of stability, security and prosperity in its eastern neighbourhood.

This division also extends to Ukraine’s relations with Russia. Some believe the EU should “call Ukraine’s bluff,” that Kyiv is exaggerating over pressure coming from Moscow, while others deem this to be a legitimate concern, and feel the EU should take it and the possible consequences more seriously.

Germany has taken a particularly hardline position, which reflects the country’s foreign policy and business priorities in this region.  Chancellor Angela Merkel has compared Ukraine to Belarus. 

While Ukraine has problems, it is not Belarus, where autocratic President Alexander Lukashenka continues to rule with an iron fist. 

Ukraine must step up

However, whatever divisions exist in the EU, or whatever short-sighed policy the EU may have, in the short term the way ahead is in the hands of Ukraine’s leadership. The EU has called on Ukraine to demonstrate its commitment to European democratic values and principles and Ukraine must do this. 

As Stefan Füle, European commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, recently stated in Strasbourg, “It is time for Ukraine to carry out concrete actions and deliver… to make good on explanations and promises". 

The EU has urged Ukraine to speed up reforms, hold free and fair parliamentary elections on 28 October, and address selective justice. 

Ukraine has re-launched reforms following a government reshuffle and the creation of the EU Coordination Department. Steps have been taken to improve the business climate, including the creation of an anti-corruption body following consultations with GRECO and the EU. 

There has also been a decision taken to unbundle Naftogaz. A new Criminal Procedural Code was adopted to ensure reforms in the criminal justice system; judicial reform is also under way whilst dialogue with civil society has greatly intensified. 

While these developments have been welcomed by the EU, and are important in meeting the EU’s demands, they are not enough by themselves. The second two criteria must also be adequately met. Tymoshenko is currently appealing her sentence in the Court of Cassation.

The case is being monitored by the EU’s special envoys Pat Cox and Alexsander Kwasniewski, who were invited to Ukraine by the prime minister. The two envoys will submit a report to the EU based on their findings, the judicial process and final judgment of the Court.

Equally important are the 28 October Parliamentary elections, including the pre-election period, and its compliance with international standards. This is election may prove to be one of the most important in the history of the country. 

Ukraine’s leadership has pledged they will meet international standards and tens of thousands of international observers have been invited long before beginning of electoral campaign. If the poll falls short of European democratic standards, Ukraine can wave goodbye to Association Agreement.

We must wait and see

Over the years Ukraine has shown itself to be predictably unpredictable. Therefore while many commentators and experts have already declared the worst case scenario will happen: elections will be fraudulent and Tymoshenko will remain behind bars – I prefer to wait and see. 

There seems to have been a slight change of approach from Kyiv – reforms are moving; the EU is now involved in the Tymoshenko process; and the new EU Ambassador in Kyiv, Jan Tombinski, has a better relationship with Ukraine’s leadership than his predecessor.

Moreover, if the EU is serious about its objectives in this region, Ukraine remains key to this process. It simply cannot be disregarded. The EU needs to lock Ukraine, the most important country in its Eastern Partnership, into helping meet these objectives. This means maintaining focused and continuous dialogue and strengthening ties in as many different areas as possible.

Clearly the best way to achieve this remains via the Association Agreement and DCFTA. While it would not be the end of the world for them to remain on the shelf, it would be a shame for both partners which put a lot of time, and effort into negotiating these documents which have the “potential” to anchor Ukraine onto a track of reform and modernisation. 

Yet without them, relations will not freeze; the two partners are two entwined in too many different sectors for this to happen. But of course there are risks because the country will remain more of a “loose cannon”. 

Furthermore, while it is not in Ukraine’s interests to further integrate with Russia there is of course a chance that Ukraine may succumb to Russian pressure and join Vladimir Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union. Or Kyiv may just choose to do nothing at all and continue to exist in the “grey zone” for the time being which will be beneficial to neither Ukraine nor the EU."

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