The “Window of Opportunity” for European Integration Will be Closed by Ukraine
The EU is signalling that it is prepared to soften its requirements for the Association Agreement with Ukraine, but Kyiv seems to be willing to abandon European integration altogether
There are increasingly frequent demands in the West to hold Viktor Yanukovych more personally responsible for the situation in Ukraine. Former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine Steven Pifer, John Herbst and William Miller have urged new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to avoid meeting President Yanukovych. The diplomats have pointed out that the slightest contact between the Ukrainian president and an American official (even just one simple photograph together) are widely disseminated by pro-government mass media outlets as convincing proof of warm relations between Kyiv and Washington.
In its turn, the European Union shows that it is prepared to be flexible in negotiations on the thorniest of questions but is also sending signals: the “window of opportunity” for signing the Association Agreement may close if it is not concluded at the Vilnius Summit of the European Union in November 2013.
Against this background, attention has been focused on the recent visit of European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle, which has been viewed as preparatory not only to the EU-Ukraine summit scheduled for February 25 in Brussels but also to signing the Association Agreement.
The agreement can either be signed in November 2013 at the Eastern Partnership Summit or else no sooner than 2016. This was the main message of his visit to Ukraine. “Deadlines like December 2013 or January 2014 do not exist,” he emphasized. In 2014, elections to the European Parliament will be held, and in 2015, the presidential elections are scheduled in Ukraine, so this will not be the most favourable time for negotiations. Even in 2016, they may fail to be resumed if the Ukrainian presidential race does not meet democratic standards. Even the very text of the agreement, the refinement and translation of which took many months, will be out of date by then and the process will have to be restarted almost from scratch.
Concurrently, Brussels is also sending other signals: the EU is prepared to make concessions on the most difficult questions and indeed sign the Association Agreement if official Kyiv takes real steps to fulfil at least part, but a significant part, of the requirements.
On 8 February, the Council of the European Union confirmed that it was ready to sign the agreement “fully in line with the conclusions of 10 December 2012”. According to information obtained by The Ukrainian Week, Füle’s visit was related, among other things, to the first round of evaluation of Ukraine’s progress in the direction of European integration, i.e., its fulfilment of the conditions set by the EU and expressed in the so-called 19 criteria. The first stage is scheduled to begin in mid-February and the second one in mid-May. The basis of evaluation is the expanded list of EU conditions formulated based on the conclusions of the Council of the European Union of 10 December 2012.
The list, which was leaked to the mass media, may be viewed as an attempt to decrease the weight of the clause “immediate resolution of the issue of politically motivated verdicts” as a precondition for signing the Association Agreement. It used to be one of three conditions and now it is one of 19. In this way, there is room for recognizing further “progress”, which Füle actually did during his visit by saying: “Compared to my previous visit to Ukraine five months ago, there has been certain, albeit quite limited, progress in important areas.” Even though the European Union never tires of emphasizing that the Ukrainian government must show progress in all areas without exception to be able to sign the Association Agreement, Brussels cannot fail to understand that Kyiv will not have time to meet all the requirements by November and even less by June, when the EU-Ukraine Cooperation Council is scheduled to meet. This meeting will largely shape the agenda for the November summit. Despite the EU adopting a categorical stance on the issue of political prisoners, if Ukrainians authorities meet the requirements related to improving the election system and carrying out other reforms, there will still be a possibility of concluding the agreement.
ANOTHER CES INSTEAD OF THE EU
Another important message voiced during Füle’s visit was that the EU flatly rejects Kyiv’s simultaneous membership in organizations like the Customs Union and a free-trade zone with the EU. “Ukraine’s membership in any structure that delegates the authority of setting tariffs and determining the trade policy to supranational bodies will mean that it will no longer be able to implement the Free-Trade Zone Agreement with the EU,” Füle said in a commentary on numerous speculations generated by Ukrainian politicians in an effort to find a formula for “simultaneous” rapprochement with both the EU and Russia. However, a question arises about whether Ukrainian powers-that-be are able to adequately interpret the position of the EU. “We indeed had very constructive talks with the European Commissioner, Mr. Füle… but you should not think that it was about one country teaching the other. In our turn, we expressed our [critical] remarks addressing them to the European Commission,” Mykola Azarov wrote on his Facebook page. “The European Commissioner is a realist and is perfectly aware that cooperation with the Customs Union is a necessity for Ukraine, while the particular forms of cooperation are the sovereign right of Ukraine, and it is only up to us to decide what they will be.”
Meanwhile, Minister of Foreign Affairs Leonid Kozhara has gone one step further by vigorously arguing for what is essentially a rejection of European integration and by emphasizing a rehash of the old thesis “going to Europe together with Russia”. This time, the rhetoric is based on the concept promoted by Vladimir Putin: “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. This would exclude the influence of the United States, and Moscow would then play first fiddle. The “Ukrainian” version is to promote the idea of another “common economic space” (CES), this time between the EU and the Customs Union.
This thesis was clearly voiced by the new Foreign Minister of Ukraine at the lunch given by Viktor Pinchuk in Davos and then repeated on several occasions in Ukraine. In particular, Kozhara said at the Ukraine-2013 forum: “We are decisively in favour of a common economic space between these two powerful economic unions. I have a question: Why haven’t the European Union and the Customs Union, which have a common border and a trade volume of US $446bn, even started talking about easing trade, to say nothing of a full-blown free-trade zone? In my view, this is nonsense.”
The Yanukovych regime seems to have become accustomed to the contemporary condition of international isolation and thus has no intention of adequately reacting to European gestures that suggest a readiness for compromise. Putting more pressure on the Ukrainian government to fix its policies is unlikely to bring results. More realistic is the replacement of the government itself. Further concessions on the part of the EU will be perceived by the Ukrainian leadership as a sign of weakness, the long-awaited shift in the principled stance taken by European structures, i.e., as a signal that the Ukrainian government can continue to ignore the EU as it builds its “family” model of the state. After all, the post-Soviet space is more convenient for this purpose, so it is not surprising that the most recent statements and actions by Yanukovych, Azarov and others suggest that they have chosen the integration plan being promoted by Russia.