Maidan recommends: On Ukraine, the EU has made too many misjudgments

Dec 15th, 2013 | By | Category: European Union, Germany, In Depth, Politics

Maidan recommends a highly characteristic interview with Gernot Erler, a German MP from SPD who is influential in the field of foreign affairs (“From 2005 until 2009 he served as the Minister of State in the Federal Foreign Office. From 1998 until 2005, he served as Deputy Chairman of the SPD parliamentary group in the Bundestag, responsible for foreign, defence, development policy and human rights. He was reappointed to this post in 2009”, see SPD will control the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the new, Grand Coalition, government in Germany.

Mr Erler clarifies the policy of “Russia friends” in the EU. To summarize, the idea is that trilateral talks shall be conducted between Ukraine, EU and Russia (Russia already insisted on this, and the current Ukrainian government called for this as well; EU rejected this so far but now we can see who are promoting the idea in the EU). It is probably the first time when the goal of the trilateral talks is made clear: to negotiate another agreement between Ukraine and EU instead of the Association Agreement, which (contrary to the currently agreed Association Agreement) would not exclude the possibility for Uktaine to join the newly created Great Russia currently known as Eurasian customs union.

Mr Erler also explains why the will of Russia shall be respected by Germany and EU due to the positive influence by Russia to the situation in Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.


“On Ukraine, the EU has made too many misjudgments.”

Interview with SPD foreign policy expert Gernot Erler

12/12/2013 | by Rachel Herp TausendfreundBettina Vestring

Category: German Foreign PolicyEuropean UnionEastern EuropeUkraineRussia

The fight over Ukraine’s international orientation – a tug of war between Russia and the EU – has led to massive demonstrations in Kiev. We ask Social Democrat and Russia expert Gernot Erler about where Europe went wrong with Ukraine. He warns that German and European politicians are making a mistake by clearly take sides with the Ukrainian opposition.

© STRINGER/Reuters/Corbis

IP: Mr. Erler, the news is dominated by events in Ukraine. Germany’s President Joachim Gauck has just announced that he will not attend the Olympic Winter Games in Russia. You are well known as a Russia expert and friend…

Gernot Erler: …that sounds almost like an accusation.

IP: No, that wasn’t intended. But we would like to ask you to explain Russia to us. Have Germany and Europe chosen the right tack?

Erler: The continuity on Russia is much greater than is the public sometimes realizes, both in Germany and at EU level. For many years, successive German governments have pursued essentially the same policy on Russia. Economic cooperation is the first of three contributing factors. Every German government has, together with the business community, always had an interest in strengthening economic ties. The second factor is based on our need for Russian cooperation on certain international tasks. There is the issue of transit rights for German soldiers, for instance. The Bundeswehr is planning to bring back a good part of its equipment from Afghanistan over land. Recently, Russia has also played a very constructive role in dealing with international conflicts.

IP: Please explain.

Erler: Russia has made a constructive turn-around on Syria. That has done much to make it possible to have a Syria peace conference in Geneva in January. Without Russia, Syria would not have relinquished its chemical weapons, either. Russia has played also an important role with Iran. It remains true that we will only be able to deal with global challenges like climate change, energy security, water resources or food security if we work with countries like Russia or China. That’s the third pillar of continuity. That’s why Germany and the EU have a strategic partnership with Russia.

IP: Yet Russia’s domestic policies are becoming ever more questionable.

Erler: Here, there is a lot to be criticized. There are the constraints on civil rights, the discrimination of minorities and the attempt to criminalize part of the opposition. This darkens Russia’s public image. We continue to need a critical dialogue with the Russian government about these issues. But none of that really changes the political realities I have listed. That’s why the main lines of German and European policy remain unchanged.

IP: What role does the conflict over Ukraine play?

Erler: The situation in Ukraine has reached an impasse. Very possibly the EU did not recognize the problems in time.

IP: Could you explain?

Erler: It all began with the Eastern Neighborhood Program in 2009, which was initiated by Poland, with strong support from Sweden. Warsaw wanted to open the EU up to giving Ukraine an accession perspective. From a Polish point of view, that was very understandable. But the other EU countries did not go along. They rejected giving Ukraine any perspective of EU accession.

IP: Instead, Kiev got offered an association accord.

Don’t forget the intention behind all the EU’s neighborhood policies: the EU wants to foster cross-border cooperation out of its own historical experience. The Eastern Partnership was meant to improve regional cooperation so that progress could be made on the dangerous frozen conflicts in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abchasia and Nagorno-Karabach. But that didn’t work. None of these conflicts have been solved. Instead, intense work started on the association accords. The EU offered Ukraine a very far-reaching free trade agreement to compensate for not giving it an accession perspective. It was meant as a kind of sweetener. But in Russia, this set off alarm bells.

IP: How did Moscow react?

Erler:  In 2011, Putin proposed setting up a Eurasian Union, a kind of customs union of Eastern countries. But that creates new problems. Mainly for technical reasons, it is not possible for Ukraine to join the Eurasian Union while being part of a far-reaching free trade agreement with the EU. One of the reasons is that Kazakhstan and Belorussia aren’t members of the World Trade Organization. Yet the EU never raised the point that Eurasian Union and EU agreement were mutually exclusive.

IP: Until the Vilnius summit.

Erler: Yes. Ahead of that summit, Putin put the screws on. Gas prices were one example. Ukrainian chocolate which had been exported for decades, suddenly turned into a faulty product. At the same time, however, the International Monetary Fund also intervened. It suddenly imposed new conditions on Ukraine for further credits. In turn, the EU had made its lending commitment contingent on an agreement between the IMF and Ukraine. This meant that Ukraine suddenly caught fire from both sides: from the East and the West.

IP: In the end, President Yanukovich renounced signing the EU association accord.

Erler: That’s true. But Ukraine isn’t going to join up with the Eurasian Union immediately, either. That would mean slamming the door on the EU. What will happen instead is Yanukovich continuing to seesaw. And we should use this time of see-sawing to investigate whether there can be any kind of a middle road. Whether there are ways of granting the Ukraine substantial trade advantages without alienating Russia’s interests. That’s a technical process which needs to be clarified.

IP: But the real issue is Ukraine’s independence from Russia. That’s not a technical question.

Erler: Of course not entirely. One basic problem is the Russian view. Russia sees the rapprochement of Ukraine toward the EU as a kind of border violation. You can’t just ignore the centuries of relations between Russia and the Ukraine. That isn’t something that can be fixed through a technical process. But the first thing is to get out of the current cold war-type situation. We need steps toward détente, steps that get us out of this problem of mutual exclusiveness. People in Kiev believe that demonstrations can force the government to sign the EU association accord after all. But if that happens, Russia will take considerable measures. How do you get out of this situation? Not by increasing pressure. Not by saying every day that the door is open. It’s obvious that the door is open. We would do better to talk about how to make the Eurasian customs union and the EU‘s free trade agreement compatible.

IP: Should Russia be included in these talks?

Erler: That’s what Russia has demanded. The EU had been negotiating with Ukraine for years, and both sides were just about ready to sign. And then Russia came and said: let’s have trilateral talks about all of this. In this immediate situation, the EU could not possibly give in to those demands. In the longer term, however, one will have to include the Russian side in the mediation process.

IP: At this point in time, mediation doesn’t look very likely. Germany and the EU have very clearly taken the side of the Ukrainian opposition.

Erler: I think it was wrong that Mr. Westerwelle visited the demonstrations. If you visit a country, it is normal to meet representatives of the opposition as well as people from the government. But to go out into the street and join a demonstration – that’s unusual. Quite apart from the fact that Swoboda (“Freedom”), one of the parties in the Ukrainian opposition, is clearly a nationalist and far-right organization. If Mr. Klitschko works with them, that’s his business. Mr. Westerwelle should have looked more closely.

IP: The EU’s Top Diplomat Catherine Ashton also visited the demonstrations.

Erler: There is one thing I do not understand: how can you offer to mediate and, at the same time, clearly take one side? That lacks credibility. On Ukraine, the EU has made too many misjudgments. The EU also thought that it could impose a precondition for signing the association agreement, namely getting Yulia Timoshenko released. But due to Russian pressure, among other factors, Ukraine didn’t intend to sign anyhow, so there wasn’t any way of imposing conditions.

IP: Timoschenko will remain in prison?

Erler: That’s what I assume, at least as long as the current government is in power.

IP: If you consider the enormous expectations that Ukrainians have vis-à-vis Europe: Will the EU to be able to continue saying no to Ukraine’s wish for accession?

Erler: That’s what it will do. Right now, there is absolutely no support in Europe for new promises to other countries. It would be unrealistic to expect anything different. And it would provoke the Russian side even more if the EU didn’t just offer association and free trade, but accession to the EU, The political class in Russia would see this as absolute provocation and do anything to stop it from happening.

Interview conducted by Rachel Herp Tausendfreund and Bettina Vestring.


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