Distilled Magazine The Art of the Possible

On February 25th 2013, the 16th European Union-Ukraine Summit took place in Brussels. We could say that these summits have become a tradition in recent years, but strangely enough there was no 2012 summit. How did it happen that a perfect – or so it seemed – example of international cooperation has changed into a simple exchange of opinions? Why did ambitious plans turn out to be not very important, and why was the Association Agreement between the two (which just needed to be signed) postponed as if it was completely useless?

The 2013 summit was carried out in accordance with all the unspoken rules concerning this kind of event: the meeting was hosted by the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, Herman Van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso, while Ukraine was represented by President Viktor Yanukovych. Both parties' representatives called for a closer cooperation and expressed their concern about the perspectives of mutual cooperation. They also expressed the belief that organizing a meeting after a year's break demonstrates the ability of the partners to break the deadlock in their relationship.

The February summit was therefore considered by most observers to be the ordinary, almost standardized meeting between the EU and the Ukraine. However, the only concrete decision taken was the obligation to provide Ukraine with financial assistance. Although the amount itself is not high (610 million Euro), the transfer is subject to a number of conditions that Ukraine must meet, meaning that the EU has gained a certain influence on Ukraine.

Ukraine's relations with the European Union over the last several months may indeed be described as bland. While in 2011 an acceleration of the integration process and the development of cooperation in all possible areas was still expected, from the beginning of 2012 the enthusiasm faded. This is due to Ukraine's difficulties to decide whether it wishes to be closer to the European Union or to the Russian Federation. President Yanukovych currently does not want to make any essential decisions regarding Ukraine's future – he still seems to believe that it is possible to seek closer cooperation with both Russia (through the Eurasian Union and other institutions managed by the Federation) and the West (through the European Union). Yanukovych explicitly expressed this belief on a press conference in Brussels, where a journalist asked him whether or not he believes it is possible to advance on two fronts at the same time. Alas, as neither Russia nor the European Union would accept this kind of disloyalty, the president’s enthusiasm is not well-grounded at all.

It is however not only Ukraine that has put integration on the back burner: the EU also focuses on other problems and only occasionally comes back to the unfinished Ukrainian case. For example, there was virtually no attention paid to the country by the European Council during the EU's foreign policy debates in November 2012. The February summit was a chance to change these cold relations, but the European leaders lacked the courage to take serious decisions. This might result from a lack of desire for further cooperation, or, even worse, from lack of will to deepen the existing cooperation.

Prospects for Improvement

But there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Both sides expressed the interest in signing the Association Agreement during autumn 2013 and, despite some uncertainty about this actually happening, its conclusion would mean assured improvement for both. From an economic point of view there are without a doubt more advantages than disadvantages for Ukraine.

From a political perspective things are much more complicated. Signing the Agreement would be a clear signal that the Ukrainians give priority to the EU over Russia. The arrangement will irritate Moscow, but can be recognized as a decision from which there is no turning back. If we however take into account that Ukraine is a beneficiary of Russian financial help, it is no surprise why Kiev has so many doubts about the Agreement. And it's not only the politicians who aren't sure about which type of cooperation is better for the country. The Ukrainian citizens also remain divided. The latest polls show that 52% of Ukrainians are in favour of membership of the European Union, whereas only 34% are against and 14% have no opinion. At the same time, 41% supports the idea of a joint state composed of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

An extra problem for the relatively good EU-Ukraine relationship was the decision of a court in Kiev to sentence ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison for crimes committed during her time in power. As the EU judged this sentence to be politically motivated, it led to additional unwillingness to progress with the signing of the Association Agreement. Both parties are however responsible for bringing affairs to such a bad condition. The European Union on the one side requires President Yanukovych to intervene and change the conviction so that Tymoshenko would be freed from the penal colony she is convicted to. Yanukovych on the other keeps replying he is unable to do so as no mechanisms exist that can alter the judgment of an independent court – an independence which is from an EU perspective questionable in itself. If Yanukovych cannot change the court's sentence, the EU suggested that he should adapt the Criminal Code. This idea was not well-received by the Ukrainians, who consider the EU's actions as imposing solutions without prior discussion. Surprisingly, it seems that the EU politicians have not figured out that these continuous demands do not bring the EU and Ukraine closer. Although Ukraine announced earlier that cooperation with the EU is a top priority, it started negotiations with Russia concerning the Federation’s projects (the Eurasian Union, the Customs Union, etc.) and slowed down its attempts at democratization.

No matter how complicated mutual relations are, what we have to keep in mind is that the EU and Ukraine need each other, although they tend to say they do not. Despite its political shortcomings and failure to respect certain principles of the free market and fair trade, Ukraine remains a very attractive partner for the EU. It offers a large, capacious market, an extensive industrial base (though one requiring modernization), and a cheap but qualified labour force. Due to all of these advantages, the EU has not withdrawn the proposal to sign the Association Agreement, but only postponed it.

For Ukraine, the integration could bring many benefits such as the deepening of economic relations, a flow of financial aid (direct and indirect), and visa facilitation. Thirty percent of Ukraine's foreign trade depends on the EU countries, while the trade with countries of the Customs Union under the aegis of Russia represents a comparable value (around forty percent). Additionally, every now and then Ukraine is involved in so called 'gas wars' with Russia. Whenever the Russians are dissatisfied with the current energy collaboration, it heightens the prices of gas or threatens to reduce the supply. So far Ukraine has always been in a weaker position in the negotiations following these trade wars – mainly because it was the only country to face this kind of threat. If the Association Agreement were to be in force, Ukraine would automatically become a partner that needs to be taken more seriously by Russia in any negotiations. This means that signing the Association Agreement would help Ukraine to better shape its relations with its powerful neighbour, a perspective that definitely should be welcome by all Ukrainians.

The Future Looks Promising

Despite the above mentioned problems, the future seems brighter. A return to the pre-2012 relationship is possible, but both sides must agree on certain compromises. The EU must finally stop refusing to talk with Ukraine as long as Yulia Tymoshenko is imprisoned because this will not result in letting her free: the legal system just does not work this way. Obviously, it would be desirable if Tymoshenko was given a another chance in a fairer trial, but the EU should not expect this to happen anytime soon. What is more, shortly after the sentence was issued it came to light that Tymoshenko may not be as honest as European politicians want to see her. New pieces of evidence show she might be liable for political murder, which is going to be verified by the prosecutor. If this turns out to be true, the EU will have an image problem as it refrained from integration on the basis of wrong premises. Of course, Ukraine can be accused of other faults, primarily its human rights violations and the insufficient pace of democratization. Yet, the question related to Tymoshenko was being repeated over and over again and demonstrated to be the most significant one.

Another reason why the EU might try to keep good relations with Ukraine is its fear that Russia will mould Ukraine into a new bastion for its own security. It is clear to the EU that Ukraine is too weak to function outside alliances and that its choice is limited to two players. Having in mind this fear, as well as the plausible gains from cooperation with Ukraine, it seems clear that it is not in the best interest of the Union to give Russia exclusive rights to the use of these facilities.

It is therefore absolutely possible that the Association Agreement will be signed later this year – at least the parties seem to be more and more convinced to make it happen. To please the EU, the Ukrainian authorities decided to pardon Yuriy Lutsenko, former minister of internal affairs and a close ally of Tymoshenko, who had been sent to prison for four years for abuse of office and embezzlement. He was detained in December 2010 and was due to be released at the end of 2014. This gesture definitely pleased EU, but still does not fully satisfies its demands. This decision shows Yanukovych is determined to conclude the Association Agreement, as the EU very clearly expressed that if no progress is made and the work on the Agreement is not completed this year, the case will be postponed for a couple of years.

Assuming that the Association Agreement is signed this year, it however does not have to mark out the trace for further cooperation. The prospects for its development are largely dependent on how both sides decide to fulfil the intentions set out in the Agreement. It may happen that the parties will treat it very instrumental – they might appreciate the fact that it is concluded, but will not take obligations deriving from it seriously. This is a worst-case scenario, but is it also a possible one? To some extent yes, because the EU unfortunately tends to forget that Ukraine has been a Soviet state too long to be able to adopt democratic principles overnight. If Brussels accepts the Turkish attitude towards to EU principles, maybe it should also be more flexible when it comes to the Ukrainian case. Ukraine will learn democratic rules, but it just needs more time to do so than for example Poland or Lithuania did. It seems to me that the EU needs to work out the right way to motivate the country and its politicians in order to persuade them to change their attitude towards democratic institutions.

In any case, the final decision concerning the Association Agreement must be made soon. This will not only be a decision on signing or rejecting it – this will be a decision concerning the future of the entire Ukraine–EU relationship. Both parties seem to be making steps toward the conclusion of the Agreement which is, in my personal opinion, the right decision. I strongly believe the EU will benefit from cooperation with one of the biggest European countries, as Ukraine will likewise feel the positive effects of the agreement. Hopefully the most serious crisis in mutual relations is nearly over, and the 17th European Union-Ukraine Summit will be a time to discuss promising perspectives for the future.