What if the EU had offered its neighbor a membership perspective in 2004?
by Stefan Meister, Polish Institute of International Affairs
In the sixth contribution to the PISM/DGAP counterfactuals series, ECFR’s Stefan Meister examines the lost opportunities argument and presents a three-pronged strategy for drawing Ukraine closer to the EU.
A decade ago in Ukraine, protests triggered elections and a change of leadership. With Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko at their head, pro-European forces took over key political positions, fuelling interest amongst Ukrainian elites and society in integration with the EU. Russian influence and the Russian model waned, and support for EU-inspired reforms was high – despite widespread awareness of the painful trade-offs in the short- to medium-term. There was even talk of a potential ripple effect across the whole post-Soviet region.
But EU members resisted offering Ukraine an explicit membership perspective. Brussels was focused on Ukraine’s technical compliance, and the EU-25 had little interest in integrating yet another problem country. Soon enough, the Orange Revolution forfeited its reputation as an expression of an active civil society, its leaders revealing themselves to be typical Ukrainian politicians with their own interests. Change stalled, and frustration about the EU and politics in general increased across Ukrainian society. Member governments felt vindicated.
Today, however, commentators increasingly rue the fact that the EU missed its opportunity in 2004 to reinforce the new dynamic in Ukrainian politics and to achieve a breakthrough in the reform process: had the EU offered a membership candidacy coupled with immediate benefits (like easing visa restrictions for the required reforms), the position of Ukraine’s civil society would have been strengthened – and in turn the EU, keeping up the momentum for change. It is an argument often heard in the current debate, especially in the aftermath of the failure to conclude a trade deal with the country – but does it hold?
A Membership Perspective for the Orange Revolutionaries: the EU’s Missed Opportunity?
2004 was indeed the first time in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history that both elites and society had a serious interest in EU integration and were willing to accept the attendant conditions. But since Ukraine’s new leaders were too weak to implement fundamental reforms, the EU’s membership perspective would have been simply too demanding a carrot. While the narrative of the membership perspective as a driver of fundamental reform is very appealing, in the case of Ukraine this would have meant a history of broken promises on both sides. What the EU needed back then was instead a strong mechanism of incentives and engagement below the level of membership.
In its absence, the reformist agenda lost momentum and a once-united front split into rival camps. Finally, in 2010, Viktor Yanukovych, the loser of the 2004 election, exacted his revenge by winning the presidential elections. This was a failure not just of the Ukrainian elites but of the EU itself: while the leaders of the Orange Revolution had certainly stumbled over their own egoism, the EU had misunderstood the role that was being demanded of it and ignored the reality of post-Soviet politics. After all, it was not the ruling elite that were capable of bringing change, but Ukrainian society, and this civil society needed finally to grasp its power. Ukraine’s political elites have no interest in a fundamental economic and political reform which would challenge their privileges.
Since 2010, of course, the EU has tried to beef up its engagement below the level of a membership perspective. It has done so within the framework of the negotiations on a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement (DCFTA), on the table since 1999. Yet the discussion in the EU quickly became stuck in a rut, increasingly focused on questions of conditionality – in particular, Tymoshenko’s release from prison. And while the EU formulated with Kiev the most ambitious free-trade agreement in its history, it thereby failed to provide any answer as to how this would actually be implemented with reform-resistant Ukrainian elites. For Yanukovych, an opaque political and legal environment is more lucrative than a normative framework dictated by the EU, while the release of Tymoshenko would pose a challenge to his reelection in 2015.
Indeed, Yanukovych’s interest in the DCFTA was motivated above all by his desire to balance two opposing pressures – on the one hand, a section of the Ukrainian elite and general society agitating for further integration with the EU, and on the other a section militating for Russia. The DCFTA is the perfect tool for squeezing credits from Russia in a tight economic situation. And such manoeuvers by Ukrainian elites in turn reinforced the presumption on the EU side that failure to “win Ukraine” would push the country into the Russian sphere of influence. In reality, Ukraine’s elites have no interest in ceding sovereignty to Russia, preferring to play the EU and Russia against each other. And it is the renewed Russian pressure that is now the main force driving Ukrainians into the pro-EU camp.
This of course is no cause for complacency. In other geopolitical contexts, the EU’s lack of preparation and clarity would perhaps be unproblematic, but for a country wedged between the EU and Russia, it presents nothing but a halfway house, leaving plenty of leeway for the Kremlin to destabilize Ukraine. Today, the EU can only build its leverage over the Ukrainian elites if it puts an offer on the table which dispels the understandable doubts about the bloc’s seriousness and passes to Ukrainian politicians serious responsibility for their society’s lack of fulfillment.
Breaking the Circle: Form Follows Function
Today, the EU is dealing with a Ukrainian president with his back to the wall and a Ukrainian society frustrated by indecisive European engagement and the lack of a political alternative at home. To many Ukrainians, European priorities appear to be skewed and even hypocritical, focused on freeing an opposition politician who is seen as neither a democrat nor a reliable politician – an approach which seems to confirm that the EU has no interest in integrating Ukraine. Brussels has, moreover, become bogged down in a struggle with Russia for which it is not prepared. True, Russia has no roadmap to modernize the region and offers no real model for Ukraine or its other Eastern neighbors. But the struggle between the two actors sends unfortunate signals to elites across the Eastern neighborhood.
In all this, the debate in EU capitals has become more about form than function. Commentators rue the “missed opportunity” of 2004 and present the membership perspective as a panacea. Instead, they should be asking what functions and demands the EU approach should fulfill, and only then whether a membership perspective would be suitable. With this in mind, the EU should apply the following three-pronged strategy:
First, offer a clear integration perspective to Ukraine. The EU must make up its mind about what kind of relationship it wants with Ukraine. The basic rationale should be obvious. Even if the EU is still struggling with a messy internal debate about the emergence of a euro-core and with the aftermath of previous rounds of enlargement, it must see that the promotion of security, stability, and democracy in the Eastern neighborhood is a vital interest. Moreover, the EU’s internal debate about different speeds and circles of integration actually broadens the scope for Ukraine’s integration. The current reforms of EU internal and foreign policy should therefore also include new integration frameworks for all Eastern neighbors. Still, this potentially complex new arrangement should be driven by clarity about the EU’s vision for itself and the region or it will become the basis for compromises with elites that undermine the bloc’s credibility.
Second, stop posing unwitting conditions on Ukraine. As the debate about the signing of the DCFTA and Association Agreement shows, the release of Yulia Tymoshenko should never have been the main condition. The EU should rather focus on the “hidden conditionality” of whether the agreement actually has a chance to be implemented. Signature of the DCFTA could only ever be the beginning of a difficult process. In order to change the situation in Ukraine sustainably, clear criteria and benchmarks need to be defined and a monitoring mechanism put in place so that success can be rewarded and failure be punished. The EU’s closest modernization partner in this is Ukrainian civil society: it has an interest in better living conditions and in a functioning public sphere which does not serve the interests of a small group, but rather the broader public. Change will not come from outside, instead when Ukrainian society understands that only they have the power to change the country.
Third, focus on economic support before liberalization. The EU needs to help Ukraine resolve its economic crisis. Until the end of 2014, Ukraine will have to pay back foreign debts of $10.8 billion, while in the face of expected zero-percent growth its foreign reserves have fallen to around $19.7 billion. With an eye to the presidential elections at the beginning of 2015, it is unlikely that Yanukovych would be willing to increase domestic gas prices in 2014, which he needs to do if he is to meet IMF conditions for financial credit. The EU is unprepared, even unable, to fulfill these expectations. There is, however, scope for a greater role for the EU in modernizing the Ukrainian economy, if the EU develops technical instruments and a clear communication strategy, making both the conditions for financial support as well as the failure of the government to fulfill them more transparent.
STEFAN MEISTER is senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.