The EU is leaning towards signing an Association Agreement and Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine but ratification will depend on whether political repression stops
The crisis in Greece potentially followed by one in Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy has put talks of EU enlargement on a back-burner for the time being. The idea of solidarity between the poor and the rich used to be interesting only for idealists in better times. Currently though, the realistic prospect of lending more cash to Greece, Spain and Portugal is met with little enthusiasm by Old World tax payers, making it more difficult for European politicians to pass unpopular decisions through parliaments. Keeping power and ensuring a safe political future is also becoming a challenge.
In such a turbulent context, the issue of Ukraine is in second or third place. Most often, it comes up in debates about relations between Kyiv and Moscow and the premonition of a possible gas war. The second most important issue is undoubtedly the political persecution of opposition leaders. The Ukrainian government has failed to convince the world that Ukrainian judges are “completely independent.” The pathetic attempts to blame conflicts with the Kremlin on Western leaders who “are far too critical of Ukraine” have been a fiasco as well. Official Kyiv continues to hamper Ukraine’s progress towards its declared European choice.
EASTWARD FROM THE EAST
“The average person in France knows very little about Ukraine,” says Daniel Desesquelle, host of Carrefour de l'Europe (The Crossroads of Europe), a popular program on Radio France Internationale. “Generally, the French think of Ukraine as a European suburb somewhere behind Poland, Eastward from the East. This country generates very few symbols. Moscow has its Krasnaya Ploshchad (Red Square), Rome has the Capitoline Hill, Berlin has the Brandenburg Gate and London has its Big Ben, while the person on the street have no idea what Kyiv is known for”.
“Perhaps, older people remember Ukraine as the producer of a lot of coal and fed the whole USSR with bread,” says Valérie Serère, a communications expert. “Chornobyl is another symbol. But for most people in France, Belgium and Spain, Ukraine is like a faceless individual. Reluctant to spend extra cash, Europeans are afraid of new expansion eastwards. They all remember how much it cost them to bring East Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic up to the Western standard. They simply have no available cash for Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia at this point.”
Searching for a way out of its own crisis is itself quite debilitating for the EU. Gerhard Schröder, ex-Chancellor of Germany, currently employed by Russian Gazprom, suggests that Europe should turn into the United States of Europe. “This is the best way to withstand competition from America and Asia,” Mr. Schröder comments. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are proposing the creation of a “real European government”. Behind the scenes EC members are thinking about the establishment of a common finance ministry, which would report to the European Parliament.
Obviously, the Greek crisis has clear political consequences in addition to financial and monetary ones that directly affect Ukraine’s prospects. Only a few years ago, Western diplomats said that the Eastern Partnership program should be seen as a warm-up before the competition to join the EU. Today they open their eyes wide in private conversations and claim that “it would be wrong to make a link between Eastern Partnership and candidacy.”
“Ukraine is not Croatia. It has 47 million people, not 7 million,” explains an MP from France’s ruling Union for a Popular Movement defensively. “As long as 27 EU members do not agree on security, foreign or monetary policy, nobody is in a rush to invite new members.”
This is all true, yet there was less talk of Ukraine’s population in 2009 when the Eastern Partnership project was approved. “I have always said what the West should have admitted a long time ago: Ukraine is 100 times more European than Turkey,” Bernard Lecomte, a writer and publisher, insisted back then. “Europe without Ukraine is a historical and geographical misunderstanding!” What has changed since then? “Our door must have shrunk,” a French MP admitted.
SYMBOLS AND PRACTICES
Most European experts expect the EU to sign an Association Agreement and an FTA with Ukraine at the end of 2011 as planned, despite the furious statements of Western leaders about no agreement as long as Yulia Tymoshenko is behind bars. Also, they claim that signing alone does not launch cooperation under new rules.
“The ratification of agreements by EU-member parliaments will be a big test for Ukraine,” says political analyst Maurice Dupré. “Keep in mind the words of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alain Juppé, that the ratification, not the signing of the Agreement is impossible until Ms. Tymoshenko and other leaders of Ukrainian opposition are set free and all groundless charges are lifted.”
It makes little sense for Brussels to slam the door in Kyiv’s face. The gesture of signing the Association Agreement does not take much effort. The implementation, though, might serve as grounds for profound dialogue on real compliance with European values, not a pretense thereof. In this case, the wolves would be sated and the sheep wouldn’t be touched.
There is another factor that clearly affects the dialogue process: the coming winter and the anticipation of a new gas war, something Moscow is insistently preparing Western consumers for.
“European capitals prefer to keep some of their cards out of Russia’s reach, just in case,” claims economist Gabriel Dufour. “That said, the EU still has no common energy policy. But it’s not only Ukraine, but Poland, Germany, Greece and Italy as well, that seek to review their contracts with Gazprom however they can”.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government is inexhaustibly giving interviews to the Western media, delicately blaming current conflicts with Russia surrounding gas contracts on those who have been criticizing official Kyiv for manipulating the judiciary. “Your criticism encourages Russia to think we’re in a weak position and gives us ultimatums”, complains Mykola Azarov in an interview for Le Figaro.
“The Party of Regions takes every opportunity to stress that political repression in Ukraine is none of Europe’s business”, Olha Herasymiuk, a member of Ukrainian delegation to PACE and Member of Parliament, told The Ukrainian Week. “They have been showing up more often at PACE Committee meetings just in case they have to defend themselves. They do so even when the issue of repression is not on the agenda”.
Ultimately, signing a new agreement with the EU is important for official Kyiv, at least symbolically. However, that doesn’t mean that the government will rush to add any practical sense to the document. What for? The agreement is a perfect chance for those in power to advertise themselves prior to the parliamentary election, and what they will do next – we’ll see later.
As for the EU, the test of its attitude towards Ukraine, as well as Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Armenia, will be participation of the Eastern Partnership summit on 29-30 September in Poland. Although Angela Merkel has already promised to attend, the French government has been hinting that Mr. Sarkozy will probably not go to Warsaw, but in all likelihood, will send his Prime Minister François Fillon. Also symbolical, isn’t it?