A “Plan B” for Brussels’s Policies towards Kyiv

After the manipulated elections to Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada in October 2012, Brussels’ relations with Kyiv are in deadlock. Ukraine is not fulfilling the conditions for signing the already initialed Association Agreement with the EU. Against this background, we outline an eight-point plan of further and alternative actions. We recommend (1) a clearer EU statement on the preconditions for signing the Association Agreement, (2) leaking the Agreement’s text, (3) signing Association Agreements with Moldova and Georgia, (4) offering these two countries conditional EU membership perspectives, (5) accelerating the visa liberalization process with Ukraine, (6) supporting current Ukrainian efforts at sectoral approximation with the EU, (7) engaging with some of Ukraine’s “oligarchs,” and (8) creating a Ukrainian research and information center. We conclude with a brief reminder on the geopolitical relevance of Ukraine.

In summer this year, Ukraine and the European Union finally initialed a far-reaching Association Agreement. Apart from paving the way for a close political association between Kyiv and Brussels, this unique treaty text includes extensive provisions for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. If signed, ratified and implemented, the Association Agreement—the EU’s largest ever treaty with a non-member state—would make Ukraine part and parcel of the European integration process. The Agreement would put the relations between Kyiv and Brussels on entirely new grounds, and provide for a comprehensive “Europeanization” of Ukraine’s economy, political system, and public administration. It could one day be seen as having been the first step towards a full membership of Ukraine in the EU.

In view of how the Ukrainian parliamentary elections of October 28, 2012 went, the prospects of signing the Association Agreement anytime soon look now, however, dim. After the last EU-Ukraine Summit of December 2011, Brussels had repeatedly made clear that the quality of these elections will be decisive for the future of the EU-Ukraine relationship. Two further conditions, namely ending selective justice against political opposition leaders, and implementing the reform priorities—above all legal reforms—outlined in the bilateral Association Agenda were also voiced. Yet, the vague language and cautious communication of these conditions indicated that the EU also wanted to leave some room for maneuver, in case not all of them would be fully met. Unfortunately, however, extensive manipulations took place both, before elections day, and during the counting and tabulation of votes leading the deputy head of Ukraine’s Central Electoral Commission Zhanna Usenko-Chernaia to admit that the October poll was the “dirtiest [parliamentary] election in the history of independent Ukraine.” This leaves little freedom of action for Brussels ahead of the foreign ministers meeting where the fate of the Association Agreement and future of the EU’s policy towards Ukraine is to be discussed.

What should the EU now, that the Association Agreement seems off the table, do? Below, we present a list of concrete steps that the EU should consider undertaking soon. We are here not repeating general calls for more support of civil society initiatives, closer people-to-people relations, or intensifying academic exchange. These suggestions are valid, to be sure. Yet, not only have they been made before and are partly self-suggestive. They will also take effect only in the mid or long term. What is now needed are urgent steps that have the potential to re-intensify EU-Ukraine relations, in the short run. We therefore suggest to:

1. Set out, in a single and clearly formulated written document, the conditions Ukraine has to fulfill for the EU to sign the Association Agreement! So far, there has been a cacophony of EU representatives’ statements on this issue, including in writing. As a result, it is unclear what exactly Brussels expects from Kyiv in order to make association and free trade between EU and Ukraine feasible.

The exact formulation and mode of communication of these conditions are important. Such a document should reiterate the EU’s commitment to association and outline priority reform areas which are prevalent, in the short-term perspective. These could be human rights and fundamental freedoms, the functioning of the judiciary and public procurement procedures, as well as the business climate. Those are areas which have seen significant deterioration, but in which acts of political will could also bring swift improvement. The issue of selective justice is more sensitive and requires special attention. On the one hand, the EU cannot simply ignore the fact that the leaders of political opposition are still in prison. On the other hand, this condition might never be fulfilled and the EU-Ukraine relations will be stuck indefinitely. We suggest that the EU mentions in the document that Ukraine should ensure that decisions of the European Court of Human Rights are implemented (the revelant cases are under the ECHR consideration) without further specifications and continue pressuring Ukraine’s authorities on this issue via diplomatic channels. The EU’s statement has to be made public and be presented as an appeal to the society as much as to the political elites. In that way, such a document could become a common reference point and instrument of domestic advocacy for various civic and political actors in Ukraine.

2. Leak the text of the Association Agreement—preferably, its Ukrainian-language version—to the public! So far, the EU’s offer has been a pig in the poke: There is much talk about the treaty, yet very few people have ever seen it. To be sure, the Agreement’s text is reportedly very long, heavy reading, and full of technical terms. It is not to be expected that millions of Ukrainians will start examining the text when it becomes freely available. Yet, once leaked, journalists, politicians, business people, lawyers and academics will start reading and analyzing those sections that interest, and could become relevant to, them. While, perhaps, being fully studied by only very few Ukrainian experts, the published Agreement text may, as a reference point and quotations source, substantially change Ukrainian public discourse about European integration and Ukraine’s role in it.

3. Sign and ratify the Association Agreements with Moldova and Georgia once negotiations are concluded, and do not wait for Ukraine! This way, the EU would kill two birds at once: First, Brussels will show that its announced More-for-More Principle does indeed apply, which should strengthen the credibility of its Eastern Partnership policy. Second, an EU association with Moldova and Georgia will embarrass the current Ukrainian leadership, in the eyes of Ukraine’s pro-European elites, if not parts of the population, at large. Ukraine had, under President Yushchenko, been the first country to start Association negotiations with the EU in 2007. If now, however, Moldova and Georgia get Agreements that have been modeled on the Ukrainian one, and start implementing, as well as benefiting from, them, this would further undermine the legitimacy of Yanukovych’s erratic foreign and domestic policies. Obviously, in the case of Georgia, signing the Association Agreement should be made dependent on the Ivanishvili government’s continuation of democratic reform policies, and strict observation of the rule of law.

4. Consider giving Moldova and, possibly, Georgia too a conditional and long-term, yet, nevertheless, unambiguous EU membership perspective! Formulate this offer in a way as to make clear that it is, in the case of Moldova, unrelated to Romania’s pressure, and, in the case of Georgia, not due to US demands, i.e. in neither case an extra-ordinary decision. Indicate that such offers may be made to other Eastern Partnership countries which respect common values and show adequate political will, in the future too. This way, Ukraine’s elite and society may finally understand that there is a real chance to join, one day, the EU—if and only if Ukraine starts implementing substantive reforms. Today, there are many people, even in the Ukrainian experts’ community, who do not believe that Brussels will ever give Ukraine a serious chance to try entering the EU. Explicit future accession prospects for Moldova or/and Georgia, however, will be seen as an implicit membership perspective for Ukraine too—without binding Brussels, in any way.

5. Accelerate the visa liberalization process as much as possible! In a first step, the European Parliament, should, sooner rather than later, ratify the already agreed amendments to the Visa Facilitation Agreement. Second, the EU member states’ consulates should become more customer-oriented. The EU’s current restrictive visa policies hurt ordinary Ukrainians. These policies’ often arbitrary implementation in many consulates across Ukraine have already heavily discredited the European Union in the eyes of tens of thousands of Ukrainians. The EU consulates’ complicated visa application rules, heavy processing fees, and sometimes inconsistent, if not ridiculous decision-making on travel or work permits contrast sharply with Russia’s liberal migration regime with Ukraine. Oddly, the EU consulates’ policies are frequently slowing down and, sometimes, even hindering Ukrainian-EU cooperation aiming to promote those reforms that Brussels is expecting to accelerate. Third, the EU should reiterate that entirely visa-free travel will become reality once Ukraine has implemented the reform program outlined in the Visa Liberalization Action Plan.

6. Support Ukraine’s approximation efforts in those sectors that are important for the future Association Agreement and where no resistance from particularistic interests to their execution already today exists! Down-to-earth technical standards will, in any way, have to be implemented at some point. If it is possible to move forward already now without yet having the official framework of the Association Agreement, the opportunity to achieve instant progress should be grasped. Energy cooperation requires special attention. East European energy security, diversification and savings as well as modernization of Ukraine’s gas transportation system should be the EU’s particular focus for the next years. Concurrently, implementation of the Russian South Stream project in the Black Sea—aimed at devaluing Ukraine’s major strategic asset, her pipelines network—should be prevented.

7. Engage more actively with some of Ukraine’s so-called “oligarchs”! Politics in Ukraine is, like in other post-Soviet states, a two-level game: What is happening in the public domain is only the tip of the iceberg of what is going on under the carpet. Often substantive decisions in Ukraine are predetermined behind the scenes by actors who may not hold any significant official posts, but control significant parts of Ukraine’s GDP. These “oligarchs” include a variety of personalities—some of whom are more dubious, and some less so. With a selected circle of the latter, the EU should seek a dialogue concerning what the EU wants from the Ukrainian government, and what the Association Agreements means for Ukraine’s economy.  More communication with some of Ukraine’s grey cardinals could facilitate closer relations in the official realm. Yet, the EU needs to make sure that such communication is not perceived as an attempt on the part of the EU to support non-transperant structures in Ukraine. We only suggest diversifying channels of communication with Ukraine to include actors who might be interested in bringing Ukraine closer to the EU.

8. Create a Ukraine research and information center providing competent political, economic, social and legal consulting, on current Ukrainian affairs! This center could be publishing a weekly analytical bulletin as well as a monthly or, at least, bimonthly specialized journal on Ukrainian politics, business, history, society etc. Such a center may also hold annual conventions, monthly expert round-tables, irregular public conferences, or occasional press conferences which would bring together academic researchers, policy analysts, journalists, social activists, and decision-makers dealing with Ukraine.

Much of what went wrong in the EU’s policies towards Ukraine over the last twenty years has to do with the shockingly scant knowledge across Europe about the territorially largest European country. Even high-level bureaucrats in European foreign ministries, chief administrators in major international organizations, influential journalists in leading media outlets, or policy experts in top notch think-tanks often operate with common places, stereotypes, and travesties when it comes to Ukraine. No European country has a center equivalent to the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute in Massachusetts, or the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies in Alberta. Europe needs at least one analytical center that regularly produces and publishes topical investigations and in-depth research, on contemporary Ukraine. While such a center could also be partially or fully financed by the Ukrainian side, it should be made sure that its scholarly competence, professional reputation, distance to particularistic interests, and position above politics are beyond any doubt.

If implemented swiftly and simultaneously, these measures could produce tangible results in EU-Ukraine relations within a relatively short period of time, e.g., within the next three to five years. They would not cost the EU much, but could strengthen domestic pressure in Ukraine on the current authorities that resist reforms, improve mutual perception between the EU and Ukraine, and consequently change the atmosphere in relations between Kyiv and Brussels. Ukraine is a pivotal country in the creation of a new transatlantic security structure. If Ukraine’s transformation is successful, this will have positive effects across the post-Soviet space and in the Black Sea area. Should the Ukrainian state-building process fail, the repercussions would be felt far beyond Ukraine’s current borders.

A version of this article was first published in Europe, in IP: The Journal of the German Council on Foreign Relations [web edition], 20 November 2012 (https://dgap.org/en/ip-journal/topics/eu-ukraine-relations-after-ukrainian-parliamentary-elections), and the Kyiv newspaper Dzerkalo tyzhnia. An excerpt appeared earlier on the websites of the EUobserver and New Europe.