Ukraine in the EU? Western Europe and Russian influence stand in the way
Ukraine has had what it could from the EU. The current model for advancing relations with Brussels has been exhausted, with all strategic goals having been achieved except Ukraine’s membership in the EU. Meanwhile, the core EU states do not want to let Ukraine in, and there is no sign of this stance changing in the foreseeable future – for years, Western Europe’s political approach to Ukraine has maintained the primacy of Russian interests and a reluctance to further expand the Union. Given this situation, Poland and Ukraine should focus on smaller practical opportunities to act towards bringing Ukraine closer to the EU.
“Don’t annoy Russia”
Ukraine’s treaty-based EU-integration efforts have a 27-year history. The Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union (PCA) entered into force on March 1, 1998 (four years after it was signed). It was then that Ukrainian diplomacy, led by Borys Tarasyuk, went on an offensive for European integration, fighting for Ukraine to obtain status as an associated state with the EU as soon as possible.
The then-growing conflict over Kosovo that ended with NATO’s military pro-Albanian intervention offended the Ukrainian public’s mainly pro-Serb sensitivities based on its sense of Slavic-Orthodox solidarity, thus preventing the pro-Western camp in Ukraine from being able to promote a rapprochement with the West through NATO. The only option remaining was the EU route. Therefore, Kiev’s efforts at the time to obtain a signal from Brussels that the door to the EU was open were of extraordinary importance to the country.
This offensive was broken after the Finnish presidency asked the EU Member States about the limits on the Union’s enlargement (the so-called Saariselkä document). Flying in the face of Ukrainian hopes, the discussion of this issue was, de facto, ended in July 2000 with a joint statement by the German and French foreign ministries in a report published on the future border of a united Europe – that admitting Ukraine would mean isolating Russia.
Today, this story has a symbolic dimension. It illustrates the constant political line towards Ukraine taken by the EU core powers. It is founded on the primacy of Russia’s interests and a reluctance to further enlarge the EU.
Ukraine’s turbulent beginning to the 21st century did not get the country’s European integration off the start line for accession. Nor were Ukrainian hopes in this respect realised by the Orange Revolution or the Revolution of Dignity. After the former, in 2007, Ukraine was included in the EU’s Black Sea Synergy programme, and in 2009 it joined the Eastern Partnership. After the latter, it achieved significant successes in rapprochement with the EU (association with the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area [DCFTA], visa-free travel and a common airspace agreement).
Reluctance for EU expansion
However, there are no signs that this process will continue. Ukraine has gotten what it could. The current model for advancing relations with the EU has been exhausted, with all strategic goals having been achieved except Ukraine’s membership in the EU. The core EU countries do not want to grant the country membership, and there are no signs that they will change their position in the foreseeable future.
EU enlargement to include any less-developed country is rejected by voters in the union’s leading countries. In 2005, France introduced into its constitution (Art. 88-5) the principle of ratification by referendum for any future accession treaty with a country whose population exceeds 5% of the EU population. The French lack of desire to expand the Union is so great and evident that it motivated President Emmanuel Macron, hoping that it would bring him electoral gains, in 2019, to ostentatiously offend Ukrainians as undesirable immigrants in France. A French referendum on Ukraine’s accession to the EU would certainly end in the rejection of the accession treaty.
A similar outcome was reached by the not hypothetical but real 2016 referendum in the Netherlands in which Dutch society rejected the ratification of the Ukraine–EU association agreement. This action was consultative and had no binding force – it did not stop the association, but it reflects the mood of voters in Western Europe.
The chances of the EU opening up to Ukraine are further reduced by Russia’s ability to corrupt prominent European politicians and thus to also influence their attitude to Kiev. The list of leading EU politicians corrupted by Russia is topped by Gerhardt Schröder, but it also includes two former chancellors of Austria: Wolfgang Schüssel (a member of the board of directors of Lukoil since 2019) and Christian Kern (currently on the board of directors of Russian Railways). Other well-paid Gazprom lobbyists include former Swedish prime minister Göran Persson and former Finnish prime minister Paavo Lipponen. A recent example is the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria, Karin Kneissl, who in 2021 had already been given a seat on the supervisory board of Rosneft.
Exhausting the prospects afforded by focusing on Germany
Since 2014, in its policy towards the EU, Ukraine has focused on Germany. However, this approach exhausted its potential after 2017 (i.e. once the association agreement came into effect), and 2021 saw Germany become the main promoter of EU cooperation with Russia (e.g. on Nord Stream 2). The result of the German elections, with the most votes being won by the Social Democrats headed by Olaf Scholz, and a likely coalition government, does not bode well for any revision of Germany’s current policy in this matter.
The security situation in Central Europe, including for Ukraine, is deteriorating rapidly. Berlin’s insistence on completing Nord Stream 2; French President Emmanuel Macron’s insistence on resuming EU cooperation with Russia; the EU’s PR disaster associated with Josep Borrell’s visit to Moscow; the declaration by Heiko Mass, Germany’s foreign minister, of Germany’s refusal to supply arms to Ukraine; the German–French attempt to invite Putin to the EU summit in June 2021; the German and French condemnation of Ukraine’s defense of itself (Ukraine’s use of a Turkish drone to suppress Russian artillery fire) – all bode ill for Kiev’s ability to obtain support from Berlin and Paris for Ukraine’s further rapprochement with the EU.
Polish possibilities to support Ukraine: six practical recommendations
Poland’s dispute with the Brussels mainstream often serves as „evidence” for the claim that Poland has lost its ability to effectively promote Ukraine’s European integration. This view is incorrect. Poland is opposed to the centralisation of the EU, and a decentralised EU will expand more quickly than a centralised one dominated by Germany and France, who want a reset with Russia.
In the short and medium term, Ukraine’s European integration has been halted, not for reasons of this dispute, but for those reasons indicated above. Given that this regression may persist for any length of time, Poland and Ukraine should focus on a select set of present tasks.
There are many, and most are not part of the European integration process. However, there are several practical options for action to bring Ukraine closer to the EU.
1. Structural dialogue between the EU and the Associated Trio. The Armenian–Azerbaijani war and the social revolt in Belarus divided the Eastern Partnership countries more clearly than ever into those turning away from the EU and those turning more squarely towards it. In the summer of 2021, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – three countries of the latter group – created the Associated Trio (A3) with the intention of intensifying contacts with the EU. Even if building a structured dialogue (meetings between the EU Council presidency and, possibly, specially appointed A3 presidencies; interparliamentary committees) only served as a shelter in which to weather the storm, it would be worth the effort.
2. The development of transport and communication infrastructure between Ukraine and the EU’s eastern flank (the Three Seas Initiative). Ukraine is already cooperating on numerous Three Seas projects, and joining new ones tasked with changing the region’s infrastructure would constitute concrete and desirable action.
3. Notification of and pressing for (together with Poland) the proposal to include Ukraine in the EU mobile roaming zone. The scale of Ukrainian immigration to the EU would make this solution a significant convenience for millions of people.
4. Using the EU police mission in Ukraine (EUAM Ukraine) to transfer Finnish, Estonian and Polish experiences in performing border service and police defense functions to Ukraine in the event of a state security threat.
5. Setting up a Polish–Ukrainian blood bank in the event of war or major disaster. The societies of Poland and Ukraine have very similar distributions of certain blood groups and such an institution would be of both symbolic and practical use.
6. Joint international promotion of Central Europe’s civilisational and systemic achievements since the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, such as: its civic, pro-freedom, republican, parliamentary, constitutional traditions; the religious tolerance of the „golden age” of multi-ethnicity and multi-faith; presenting the traditions of its peoples (Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Belarusian) as old democracies – admittedly altered by the difficult past brought about by Russian and German aggression, but having very strong native traditions.
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