Pawel Swieboda: “If Ukraine fails to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, it will have a hard time returning to negotiations”
The Ukrainian Week discusses Ukraine’s European prospects with Pawel Swieboda, formerly EU Advisor to the Polish president and currently President of DemosEUROPA Centre for European Strategy
Kyiv is now facing a civilizational choice between the EU and Russia head on. Despite the efforts of the Viktor Yanukovych regime to walk a fine line while pursuing a diplomacy vacillating between Brussels and Moscow, the space for choice has closed to a critical minimum. At the same time, Ukrainian society has been increasingly supportive of European integration with the latest survey by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation showing a 59-per cent support rate. The Ukrainian Week discussed Ukraine’s European prospects with Pawel Swieboda, former EU Advisor to the Polish president and Department of the European Union in the Polish Foreign Affairs Ministry. Swieboda recently gave a speech at the Ye Bookstore in Kyiv as part of the “European Experience: Poland” project run jointly by The Ukrainian Week and the Polish Institute in Kyiv.
U.W.: Do you think the current Ukrainian government has no need for European integration as such because it is incompatible with the ruling officials' system of values? Are we merely seeing empty declarations from them and their search for a counterbalance in relations with Russia?
The Ukrainian government is doing its utmost to convince its EU partners that it has an alternative in the form of rapprochement with Russia or more intensive contacts with rising powers, especially Turkey and China. It is also downplaying the importance of the EU system of values, thinking that, given its current economic crisis, the EU will pursue a cap-in-hand policy in which democracy and respect for human rights are of secondary importance. This type of strategy is very risky. A democratic legal system is the essence of the European community. Without it European integration would not be what it is. As it competes with new powers, the EU will not abandon democracy, because democracy is its main asset. Those who expect otherwise are deeply mistaken. Moreover, Polish experience shows the huge importance of attracting foreign investments for modernizing the economy. These investments were the initial source of new technology and higher efficiency in the country’s economy. In the case of Ukraine, there is no need to search for a better argument for an economic rapprochement with the EU and signing the Association Agreement.
U.W. Will the European “door of opportunity” close before Kyiv for the near future if it fails to comply with the conditions Brussels has stipulated for signing the Association Agreement and the free-trade zone agreement? How big is the risk?
The door will not be closed, but Ukraine will waste a lot of time. If the agreement gets postponed for several years, it will have to be re-negotiated. EU legislation does not stand in place. We have an ambitious project of completing the programme for creating a common market. All of this will mean that the Agreement with Ukraine will need to be re-evaluated and perhaps amended. Meanwhile, we are having an intensive wave of bilateral trade and investment agreements across the world. The EU may be in a crisis, but its trade policy is definitely not. We have recently signed documents with South Korea and Singapore; we continue to negotiate with Canada and have just launched talks with the United States. This will change the balance of power in the world. Ukraine has to get on the first wave of new trade agreements. Otherwise it will have a much harder time resuming negotiations, because the EU will soon be seriously tackling deeper trade relations with other partners in the world.
U.W.: At one point, you worked on institution reform in Poland at a stage when it was joining the EU. In your opinion, what are the main issues facing Ukraine that cannot be resolved without fundamental reforms?
The most important things are institutes and procedures that have direct impact on the business environment. This means the entire life cycle of companies – from their creation to bankruptcy. The moving force in Polish transformations was entrepreneurship which was given freedom not only through liberalization but also through gradual improvement of the investment climate. The business financing system and availability of credits and loan instruments are also of tremendous importance. But in Ukraine’s case, fighting corruption is the number one issue. If we are speaking about factors that scare away businessmen the most and block investments in your country, these include above all corruption and frequent changes of legislation, particularly tax legislation.
U.W.: Why is Ukraine so important to a crisis-stricken Europe? Can Ukraine, with its post-colonial and post-totalitarian traumas and problems, add to the European project?
Europe sank into crisis, so to speak, “of its own accord” in the sense that it made mistakes when introducing the common currency and let debt problems accumulate. This means that the European community will for some time be busy sorting out its own issues. But when it returns to play, it will be enriched by the experience of fighting the crisis. We see even today that the EU is becoming increasingly competitive, and that South European countries are exporting more. However, there is of course a challenge that is hard for the EU to tackle: obtaining social support for difficult and expensive changes.
Despite the crisis, the EU’s attitude to its closest neighbours remains unchanged. If Ukraine returned to the path of European integration, it would help preserve the open nature of the continental project and prevent the European community from closing on itself. I have no doubts that the power of the European Union lies in its external influence. Today, Kyiv is a test for the EU in terms of how attractive Europe can be to others.
U.W.: It seems that the thought is being gradually established in Poland that Kyiv can be integrated into Europe even under Viktor Yanukovych’s quasi-authoritarian regime and in spite of its selective application of justice and violations of the rule of law and democratic principles, only for the sake of keeping Ukraine as a buffer zone between Poland and Russia. How productive can this strategy be?
No, today it is not about the function of a buffer with regard to Russia. Moreover, Warsaw has had fairly good, albeit not ideal, relations with Moscow. Russia is less of a concern for us now, even though the policy of the Russian government, especially concerning the opposition and the democratic movement, leaves much to be desired. If Poland believes that the Association Agreement with the EU has to be signed regardless of the character of Yanukovych’s presidential rule, it is because we know from our own experience that this agreement, if efficiently implemented by both parties, will cause profound changes for the better in the system of national governance and in economic policy. In its turn, this will improve democratic standards. We may be too optimistic about what rapprochement with and later accession to the EU has changed in Poland, but why wouldn’t you use a tested method? Negotiations with the EU were a colossal challenge for us, too. Many people doubted their success, but the effect is astonishing also because we have been extremely demanding of ourselves in this process. We have been able to improve internal discipline and at the same time preserve our own character.
U.W.: It seems that some lobbyists of Ukraine in the EU have been condoning the Yanukovych regime. Doesn’t this contradict the principles of democracy and the values on which the EU is trying to build its neighbourhood policy?
The European Union is capable of unbiased appraisal of the situation in Ukraine and does not need the opinion of lobbyists. After all, the main things can be seen with the naked eye. The EU has, no doubt, a clear division between those who believe that the policy on Russia should be uncompromising and those who believe in the efficiency of cooperation with the EU and that of internal changes which will secure the Association Agreement. However, without significant proof of major shifts in Yanukovych’s thinking, the latter group will find it somewhat difficult to convince the former.
Pawel Swieboda is the president and one of the founders of the demosEUROPA Centre for European Strategy. He served as the EU Advisor to the Polish president in 1996-2000 and later headed the Office for European Integration in the Chancellery of the President.
In 2001-2006, he was Director of the Department of the European Union in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he was responsible for EU accession negotiations and subsequently institutional reform in the EU and negotiations on the Financial Perspective.