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20 January, 2011  ▪  Спілкувалася: Olena Chekan

EU Reexamines Its Priorities

French political analyst and geographer Michel Foucher talks about Ukraine’s Euro-integration chances, the advantages of the soft-power strategy, and Europe within its new borders

At the time, when Lithuania was desperately fighting for the right to join the European community, in defiance of the wishes of the “older brother,” Michel Foucher was the French ambassador to this country. His experience as a diplomat and established expert in geopolitics is very interesting in the light of the growing rapprochement between Russia, France and Germany.

U.W.: At the moment, Ukraine feels betrayed: its European prospects are put off indefinitely, while Europe, relieved, believes or pretends to believe what our president says about his commitment to democratic values. Do you believe it?

Europe is experiencing such an important factor now as the financial and economic crisis, which has necessitated a pause in EU expansion. Some people, including myself, believe that the admission of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 was premature. Speaking about the future of the European community, we are now concerned about a multitude of unsolved problems regarding the Balkan countries and an expanding agenda with Turkey.

“Abandoning, betraying Ukraine — I wouldn’t put it this way. There is still the neighborhood policy; your country borders on four EU states; and there is Europe’s Eastern policy which permits making certain financial investments in Ukraine’s modernization. Finally, nothing prevents your country, as is the case with Serbia, from upgrading your laws and modernizing the rules of the economic game, because this is, above all, in the interests of Ukraine itself. My conclusion is this: the EU hasn’t changed its view on Ukraine’s possible membership in the European family in the near future, but the EU is reexamining its priorities at the moment.

Ukraine and Ukrainians need to understand that from the EU standpoint, the general European space cannot expand infinitely, requiring colossal funds. However, let me repeat that this does not in any way keep Ukraine from approaching the EU standards in all aspects of the country’s life: its economy, finances, rule of law, security standards, quality of living and education, etc.

“There is another nuance: your foreign trade. I’ve noticed that, for example, for Poland, the Czech Republic, and other Central and Eastern European countries, the EU is their main foreign trade partner, i.e., the European economic choice can be clearly seen there. But if you look at Ukraine’s foreign trade figures, they are more diverse: there is Russia and the EU there, but there is also China, India and Turkey. In other words, I don’t know whether the economic managers of Ukraine — you call them oligarchs — have made a European economic choice. This comes at the background of, I think, EU–Russia economic ties being more advanced than those of Ukraine and the EU.

“And one more remark: the states that want to be in the EU have an illusion that by joining the European Union they will solve all their problems and that prosperity awaits them here. This is not so. Let me speak about France. Now when the EU has taken over many functions that were previously the province of in individual states, France is forced, for example, to send reports to the EU leadership about its actions regarding the expulsion of the Roma or else it will face sanctions. And this is just one problem.”

U.W.: What does Ukraine mean to France on the level of an average man and the elite? Is there an understanding that Ukraine has its own ancient history and culture?

“There is still ignorance of Ukraine in France. When they look at the post-USSR states, the Russian factor predominates here. Even in Cold War times the France–USSR relations were rather positive, if we discount the strategic and military components. One can see here traces of a powerful tradition of relations with the Russian Empire. French people know about Russia. There are people of Russian origin who hold high offices in France, and the French have traditionally held Russian culture in high esteem. We have just seen the end of the Year of Russia in France and the Year of France in Russia. Over 400 various cultural events took place during this period, attracting a lot of attention. In this context, Ukraine is in a very difficult situation. Both average people and the French elite are failing to grasp how much your culture is different from that of Russia. Tellingly, when the Louvre hosted an exhibit called ‘Holy Rus'’ during the Year of Russia in France, the word ‘Ukraine’ was not mentioned there even one time: Kyivan Rus' was, but never Ukraine. This is what Russia’s policy is.

France tends to have good relations mostly with old countries; priority is given to old states. Ukraine is a new state to us. We are not in Poland, and the French are not Poles. If I were a Pole, I would speak about your country every day. But if I am French and I look at the east, I see Germany, Poland and Russia. I am now talking about the French perception of Ukraine rather than politics. To be exact, Europe, in particular France, learned about your country during the Orange Revolution. But it is over, and they stopped talking about Ukraine. However, even if they did speak, this was interest in the story of [Viktor] Yushchenko’s poisoning and [Yulia] Tymoshenko’s looks. When the powerful began to have tensions and problems of rivalry among themselves after the revolution and later dubious financial affairs were disclosed, Ukraine’s image, of course, somewhat deteriorated. We don’t like losers. Sorry for speaking so bluntly, but it’s true.”

U.W.: So, in what way can Ukraine be interesting to Europe?

“You have to find your place on the map of Europe as soon as possible. My experience shows that it will not be an easy thing to show what sets you apart from Russia. It takes time. Therefore, you need the soft-power strategy in communication. It means the state’s ability to attract attention and win admiration, get others interested and surprise them. This is an entire complex that includes science, culture and technical achievements. You have this kind of chance — Euro 2012. Without doubt, Ukraine will be spoken about when this championship takes place. So you don’t have to wait until someone shows interest in you; you have to come forward and show yourselves to make yourselves known to others.

“The main thing is that a country has to be attractive to investors in the contemporary world. This is an answer that comes from the real world, the way it is now. You have to become a country that has an appeal to business, like Poland and Slovakia do now, for example. This is true about not only Ukraine but also other states. For example, Turkey is economically attractive. You need to understand that we live in a competitive world. Investors always have a choice of where to go.”

U.W.: Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs do not seem to manifest state-oriented thinking.

“Perhaps so. But this was the case also in the USA in the 19th century. Rockefeller said: I stole my first dollar, but I will honestly earn the second one. What you have so far is very crude accumulation of capital. Hopefully, the situation will change for the better with time.”

U.W.: When you were France’s ambassador to Latvia, did you sense Russia’s pressure on this country?

“Of course, every day. We needed to accompany Latvia during that transitional period when the Baltic States wanted to join the EU. The Scandinavian countries took this task upon themselves, but Germany and France were also there to help. Jacques Chirac was very much interested in the Baltic States and tried to convey this idea, even as he spoke with [Vladimir] Putin.

“I was there when the Latvia–Russia border was being negotiated. The pressure of the ‘Russian brother’ was very palpable. There was no oil or gas there, but there was memory of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, and it is very effective, because it is based on pain. When states become sovereign, history and geography are very intertwined.”

U.W.: What can you say about Latvian society: was it more consolidated than Ukrainian one? Was it the main factor in Latvia’s breakthrough to Europe?

“Yes, it was indeed. Most Russians that live in the Baltic States also wanted badly to find themselves in the European Union. This was a certain Europeanization laboratory for the Russian-speaking population. However, it should be said that the Baltic Russians are very different from the Russians that live in the Russian Federation. And, of course, the 20-year-long experience of statehood in the Baltic States between the two wars was the key factor. Those were golden years for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and the fact of successful independence lived in national memory. These countries were also present in European memory — in  Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, and perhaps even France. However, in France when they talk about simply the Baltic States they confuse Lithuania with Latvia, and I always get asked in what city I was posted: Vilnius or Riga. The French don’t understand this geography. Europe has changed, new states have emerged, but in our mentality this geography is changing with difficulty. Ukraine so far does not exist in the French perception of geography. The countries that have gone through a war — Serbia, Kosovo and Croatia — are there. Fortunately, Ukraine is never spoken about in this context. However, there is a growing feeling now that your country is returning to Moscow’s sphere of influence, returning to Russia.

“However, I believe that Ukraine will nonetheless be coming closer to the European Union and that more mutually beneficial agreements will emerge between the EU and your country. Ukraine will do good to keep the status of a cooperating country in the next 10 to 15 years. This is a normal term. For example, Poland was knocking on the door of a united Europe as far back as in the late 1980s, but became a full-fledged member of the European family only in 2004, a little more than 15 years later. However, it had far fewer problems than Ukraine is facing now, if only because the Polish state has existed since 1918, while you still have to build your state.”

U.W.: In your opinion, which borders are the hardest to overcome: mental and geographical ones as in the European Union or traditional ones with frontier markers and barbed wire?

“What regards traditional borders, there is a theory now that in the globalization era they will gradually erode. I believe this thought to be false and dangerous. Europe is an old continent with extremely rich history, while geopolitics is a brand new thing. In the past 20 years, more borders have been set up in the world than since the First World War — over 27,000 kilometers of borders on land, above all, in Europe and Eurasia, where the geopolitical division continues. This happened so because many peoples wanted their own states. However, even where states existed, border delimitation was quite dramatic because of old grudges and misunderstandings. Many countries were forced to agree based on the status quo, for example, Hungary with Slovakia and Romania. There the process was completed peacefully, while in the Balkans, a true war erupted.

“Regarding Ukraine, this territory was historically shaped, both in the Russian Empire and then in the USSR, in a fragmentary fashion. The Ukrainian people on different sides of the border had different mentality, traditions, etc. due to living in different empires and historical conditions for long stretches of time. However, these differences are ironed out in one country: common goals unite people.

“The geopolitical map of Europe has not stabilized yet. The sea space is now being delimited. New borders may appear also on land. I am speaking about the Basque, Fleming, and other peoples. In other words, there is a constant historical movement, and the map of Europe is changing. There is a complicated problem in Moldova. It may be called frozen, but it is there. The situation in Georgia is also complex after the military conflict with Russia.

“However, I still think a border is not a barrier. I am not Ukrainian. I don’t know Ukrainian. But I’m here, we’re talking and seem to understand each other. As my friend says: When I invite you to come to my place, I open the door. … I think we are most divided by cultural and mental borders — they’re the most difficult ones to cross, for sure. These differences possibly play the key role in the Ukraine–Russia relations.”




Michel Foucher, b. 1946 in France, is a historian, geographer, politician, and diplomat.

1968 — graduates from the geographical faculty at Sorbonne

1986 — doctor of philological and humanitarian sciences (Sorbonne)

1989 — professor.

Mr. Foucher has taught in Lumière University Lyonthe École normale supérieure in Paris, the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (Paris Institute of Political Studies), and the College of Europe in Natolin.

1997–2000 — counselor to French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine

2002–2006 — ambassador of France to Latvia

2009 — professor at the Institut des hautes études de défense nationale (Institute of Higher National Defence Studies)

At different times, he served as a member of the Foreign Affairs Council, director of the Analysis and Forecasting Center in the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, director of the development program for Central and Eastern Europe, and consultant to the European Commission.

He has authored and edited numerous publications about European politics, in particular such books as L' Europe et l’avenir du monde (Europe and the Future of the World, 2009), LEurope entre géopolitiques et géographies (Europe: Geopolitics and Geography, editor, 2009), L'Obsession des frontières (The Obsession of Borders, 2007), Fronts et Frontières, un tour du monde géopolitique (Fronts and Frontiers, an Geopolitical Overview of the World, 1988, 1991).


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