After a marathon of endless negotiations between the EU and Ukraine, it seemed almost inevitable that the two parties would come to an agreement and sign the so-called Association Agreement. With the Vilnius Summit one day away, last week’s decision by the Ukrainian government to halt the pursuit of closer integration with the EU has left little room to manoeuvre. Shocking as the government’s decision was, the truth remains that the internal, but mostly geopolitical, calculations lead us to assume that the recent developments have been nothing more than a logical consequence.
Ukraine is not the first, or last, nation-state to be offered a chance to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU. The legal basis for AAs can be found in Article 217 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU, which also sets out specific conditions under which such an agreement can be pursued. Those conditions encompass the both economic and political cooperation, including remedies concerning human rights and democratic principles.
When Ukraine embarked on the journey of its European rapprochement it committed itself to improve political and human rights. But two years into the negotiation process, we can see that the country is still failing to uphold single principles of a democratic and free society. It is yet to properly address issues such as corruption (e.g. here), adequate protection from discrimination for minorities such as the LGBT community, ill-treatment by law enforcement officials or selective justice which has recently (and some would argue unjustifiably) been hyped up by the personal and political story of Yulyia Tymoshenko.
Albeit important in its own right, the internal conflicts of Ukraine play a second fiddle in determining the country’s fate. The factor most relevant in explaining why Ukraine is considering to not sign the AA is the geopolitical situation it finds itself in.
There are external pressures and incentives arising from aligning with either Russia or the EU that will, in a crude but nevertheless realist way, determine what Ukraine will do next. One must ask him/her self whether the benefits offered by the EU would stand to outweigh the costs incurred by Russia’s bullish blackmail strategy. According to the EU’s own estimates Ukraine, upon signing the AA, would benefit greatly from savings on customs duties to the extent of EUR 500 million, and it would equally benefit from a total of EUR 796 million allocated for its institutional reform. A dream of a more westernised Ukraine cannot and should not be, however, reduced to material gains as the agreement would also lead to further solidification of democracy in the country.
Whether this is enough or not, it is a question which needs to be asked in the context of potential losses for Ukraine. Russia’s – and by that I mean Putin’s – intentions are to not allow Ukraine to further integrate into the EU sphere. Anything falling short of that goal would mean a public humiliation for Mr. Putin. Ukraine’s ‘yes’ to AA could eventually translate itself into a spiteful war-trade campaign against Ukraine costing billions of Euros. Moreover, the free trade element of the AA would also require significant changes to the country’s economy and its uncompetitive industries.
If Ukraine were to persist in its will to not sign the Association Agreement in Vilnius, as it has recently stated, the decision might just as well be an outcome, not of the country’s internal ideological or political differences, but rather of the political class being too receptive to the external realities present. And for that, they cannot be blamed.
In fact, leaving Russia’s aggressive behaviour aside, the failure to exploit the benefits offered by an AA and the lack of boldness or decisiveness on the part of Ukraine as well as the EU itself, have led to making the matters even worse, feeding Putin’s ambitions.
The Association Agreement deal put forth by the EU to woo Ukraine into a closer cooperation is a weak deal, and reflects the abysmal state of the EU’s external policy. It is weak because it does not substantially cushion the costs incurred by the necessary economic changes required that follow. Moreover, due to its lack of ambition, the AA also offers a perfect excuse for Viktor Yanukovych to backtrack on the progress already achieved. In a political system that is highly unpredictable and greatly dependent on a symbiotic co-habitation of the president, his family and the country’s oligarchs, Yanukovych is running scared of any potential political opponent – hence the fiasco with Tymoshenko. Further rapprochement with the West would ultimately undermine the president’s position, and would be a direct consequence of short-term economic hardship on the one hand as well as political pressures both from within and from without (i.e. the EU) on the other. It would eventually mean the end of the crony capitalism that is currently ravaging the country and the end of his reign.
It is in light of all of the above, that the words offered by Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman van Rompuy in a form of a press release on Monday (here) come too late. Urging Ukraine to sign the deal without recognising the realities which are bestowed upon it in the grand fashion of Putin’s spectacle betrays a lack of interest in Ukraine’s genuine integration into the EU’s structures. We need bold solutions and we need to act fast. But as of now, it seems that it is not Ukraine but the EU itself, which is neither serious nor ready to take the extra step to follow-up on the integration efforts in Eastern Europe.