A few days before the long-awaited Vilnius Summit (29-30 November), Ukraine took everyone short by turning its back to the European Union and moving closer to Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, as The Times wrote. On 21 November, the Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov signed a decree suspending the negotiations with the EU to „ensure the national security of Ukraine” and to „restore lost trade volumes with the Russian Federation”. The EU was warned through its special envoy in Kiev, the former Polish president Kwa?niewski, who said earlier that day “the deal with Ukraine is over”. Some commentators have seen the Vilnius Summit as a “moment of truth” for the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). In the context of Ukraine declining to dance with the European Union, what will be the consequences of the EU’s Eastern Partnership? The political reactions of Ukraine’s partners, the rationale of the Ukrainian decision and the probable consequences for the EU’s ENP will be also discussed.
When you invite someone to dance and the one declines, you are the one everybody looks at. This reaction has been received badly by the EU’s top political figures. Particularly Commissioner Stefan Füle was in an uncomfortable position. The day before the Ukrainian PM signed the decree, he issued a press release noting the “considerable progress which have been made during the last month […]” and sending the clearest message possible by stating that: “[t]he door for such a qualitative step forward [in EU-Ukraine relations] is open”. The EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, in addition to her time-cosnuming negotiations in Switzerland on the Iranian nuclear program, also reacted. She issued a press release underlining the benefits the Ukrainian economy would have taken from an association with the EU: the signature of the agreement would “sent a clear signal to investors worldwide as well as to international financial institutions that Ukraine is serious about its modernisation pledge and becoming a predictable and reliable interlocutor for international markets”. Commissioner Füle did not futher react. If one could have thought that this cold shower would have lowered the Euro-enthusiasm for the Ukrainian deal, it is not what happened. Peter Stano, Füle’s spokesman, recently announced on Ukrainian TV that the EU is ready to discuss “on a bilateral basis” with Ukrainian’s neighbours if they have any questions regarding the deal. It is an echo of a demand to hold trilateral talks that would include Russia. The meeting between the two rivals to determine who has the biggest ring to offer to the princess did not take place. The idea behind this meeting was surely to raise the amount of financial support granted to Ukraine as its Prime Minister recently declared about the one billion of help that would be given by the EU: “But what is one billion euros? This is nothing. This is to say, helping a beggar on the porch„.
The situation is very differently perceived in Russia. As The Economist wrote, “Ukraine served Vladimir Putin a foreign policy triumph”. Putin is now in a dominant position, and he is aware of it. It is one of the reasons why he invited Ukraine’s and EU’s top political leaders to hold the mentioned trilateral talks. The Director of Carnegie Europe analysed that the aggressive stance of Russia the European Union drawn from a wrong assessment of the situation. Russia’s top political leaders are convinced that Europe is a hostile force with the ambition to undermine Russia’s power. Moscow is clear about its big plan: the “no” given by Ukraine is a step forward towards a stronger Customs– and in the future – Eurasian Union union that has been described by former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as “a move to re-Sovietise the region”.
The decision to freeze the negotiations was largely discussed not only in international fora, but also in the Ukrainian public sphere. Beyond the political game, the element that draws much attention is the reaction of the Ukrainian population. The Kyiv Post, Ukrainian English-speaking newspaper, is organizing a constant coverage of the so-called “EuroMaidan”. During the night of 21 November, crowds of people gathered in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, a famous square in modern Ukrainian history for having been the theatre of the Orange Revolution. The protests aim at continuing until the Vilnius Summit, gathering a crowd estimated at 50.000 persons protesting against the Russian choice of the elites. This reminds us how attractive the EU can be. It is often stated that we are not enough aware of the things we take for granted. Seeing people getting down in the streets to express their will of Europe is something – from a Western-European point of view – rather surprising. There is also something about the narrative that could be said. Ukrainian media establish a strong link between the agreement with the EU and the Orange revolution. For example, Anastasia Forina and Oksana Grytsenko recently wrote: “Moods comparable to that of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which ended Viktor Yanukovych’s attempt to rig a presidential election that year, have returned to Kyiv”. The latter is often referred to as a romantic moment – expression of a vox populi that is not corrupted by political leaders who “stole the revolution”. The revolution, which was leaded notably by pro-European voices.
Without endorsing the choice of Ukrainian Government, it has to be recognised that the country has been under constant high pressure the last weeks. On the one hand, the EU was repeating that no Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement would be signed without Ukraine being in complete compliance with the political pre-conditions imposed by the EU. Additionally to the country’s real progress, still a lot remained to be done, notably the release of Yulia Tymochenko. In sum, the EU was offering economic stability in exchange of political modernisation. It is the rationale underpinning the ENP. On the other hand, Moscow has adopted a more “stick-based” approach. During the last weeks, political messages towards Ukraine have become more and more numerous. The most threatening one was without doubt the probable cut of Russian exports towards the Ukrainian market, heavily reliant on Russian products. Russian leaders also promised 20 billion dollars as a help. This would prevent Ukraine from entering negotiations with the IMF for a new bailout that would lead to several packages of austerity measures. There are two visions of diplomacy struggling here, and the choice clearly went to the easier way.
The arm wrestling ended in favour of Russia this time. For the EU, the consequences can be bigger than just this isolated case. As stated by the European Commission: “[t]he European Commission put forward concrete ideas for enhancing our relationship with: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. This would imply new association agreements including deep and comprehensive free trade agreements with those countries willing and able to enter into a deeper engagement and gradual integration in the EU economy. It would also allow for easier travel to the EU through gradual visa liberalisation, accompanied by measures to tackle illegal immigration”. On these six countries, two have already chosen their Eastern neighbour instead of the EU. Indeed, Armenia gave up its negotiations in September and chose to enter the Russian-led Customs Union. As Nicu Popescu, Senior Analyst at the European Union Institute of Security Studies, stated, “[i]t was not Armenia’s decision per se that shook the EU foreign policy community, but a fear of the possible shape of things to come – and a feeling that a multipolar world is emerging not only at the expense of US power, but also of EU influence”. It is indeed a big lesson that Russia is giving to the European Union: for many years and for many countries, the EU have signified the only credible regional integration. The EU internal market, the biggest of the world, has loss it attractiveness by a too “carrot-oriented” policy. The fear of sanctions is now more attractive than the potential economic benefits of a stable economic situation. The Eastern Partnership needs to reinvent itself. Political reforms in exchange of access to market is nomore a formula that works, because of the big and influent Eastern neighbour – Russia. As this situation only exist at the East of Europe, it can be argued that there is no ENP anymore, but two different policies, focusing on two regions with different tools as the needs are different. What works for one side of the EU does not work for another.
There are several lessons that should be drawn from the Ukrainian case. The EU still represents a “better place to be” for the population (recent polls show a 60/40 split in the population in favour of the EU) and can be the motive of protests. Political ties are predominant and the economic sanctions of an impressive neighbour are more convincing than the promise of economic stability. The conclusions of a recent paper of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace seem here particularly relevant: if for many years the EU has tried to avoid any direct confrontation with Russia, there is now a de facto geopolitical competition that the EU has to face and to carry. On a strategic way. The EU did not get this dance, but the orchestra’s show is not over yet and the next dance partner may be one of the Prom Queens.
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Graduate from the Faculty of Law and Political Science, University of Liège (MA, 2012) and the Department of European Political and Administrative Studies at the College of Europe in Bruges (MA 2013). Intern at the European Movement Belgium (2010) and the Group of Research and Information on Peace and Security (Brussels, 2013). He is since associated researcher at GRIP and member of the political cabinet of a Belgian Minister, dealing with European and International Affairs.