Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine aspiring to a second term in forthcoming elections, has recently declared that Ukraine should submit an application for EU membership in 2024.
The majority of Ukrainians support membership, but it remains a distant and uncertain goal. This is partly due to Ukraine’s own limited progress towards meeting the criteria, but also to the bigger sources of turbulence surrounding the country: the EU’s own search for its future internal direction, Russia’s great power ambitions, and uncertainty about the US role in Europe all contribute to instability in Eastern Europe.
By 2024, 20 years will have passed since the Orange Revolution, when Poroshenko was on the “orange” side bringing Ukraine’s EU aspirations to the visible attention of the whole of Europe. The EU responded with the cold shoulder, offering the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), also launched in 2004. What the ENP proposed to 15 very different neighbouring countries was “friendship” and limited support for reforms modelled on the EU’s own system.
In subsequent years the EU started to prepare a new basic agreement with Ukraine. Member states engaged in fierce debate over whether it should refer to Ukraine’s possible future membership of the Union. Negotiations with Ukraine finally started in 2008 and eventually led to the Association Agreement signed in 2014, following the dramatic events of Euromaidan and annexation of Crimea by Russia. The agreement says nothing about membership, and the EU is still unable to agree on the longer-term strategic goal of the relationship.
Yet the Union has come up with new ways to support the development of its eastern neighbours and to build closer relations. This has been done through the Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy, created in 2009 within the ENP framework and covering Belarus, Moldova and three South Caucasus countries in addition to Ukraine. Now the EaP is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and relations have become closer, especially with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. These three countries have concluded association agreements that include “deep and comprehensive free trade”. The levels of trade, assistance programmes and student exchange have indeed increased.
The Eastern Partnership has obviously not achieved its goal of bringing more stability to the region. The war in parts of eastern Ukraine against the so-called separatists guided by Russia continues. In Georgia and Moldova, the conflicts over separatist areas, also maintained by Russia, remain unresolved.
The EaP was created at a time when the increased interest of some of the eastern neighbours in integrating into the EU had to confront a strengthened Russia, determined to keep those very countries in its sphere of influence. The fear of losing Ukraine pushed Russia to toughen its approach and eventually to annex Crimea and incite war in eastern Ukraine.
The EU was drawn into a geopolitical battle. From its perspective, however, this is not a battle over territories as such, but over something bigger: principles, norms and values. All of this, plus control over Ukraine, is also at stake for the Kremlin, which aims to redefine the European security order. Russia is trying to spread its political and social order, and the EU its own. One of the key differences stems from the question whether the countries in between have the right to choose their orientation. This principle is defended by the EU and opposed by Russia.
The EU has struggled to adapt to the rise of geopolitical competition, which has complicated and narrowed its efforts to support political and economic reform in neighbouring countries. However, the Eastern Partnership needs to continue precisely this work, including reform of the judiciary, to ensure that courts do not obey politicians, and tackle corruption, to block the flow of public money to the pockets of the elite. There is, of course, also work to be done in these fields within the EU itself.
The EU is not party to military conflicts in its neighbourhood, but it has begun to develop the means to strengthen the security of its partners to the east. The EaP programme includes work on preventing fake news and interference in elections, and strengthening cyber security. It also supports developing the infrastructure of neighbouring countries and with it better connections to Europe, which would reduce one-sided dependence on Russia.
For Ukraine, anchoring the country to the EU remains the only serious alternative that enables it to pursue its chosen path of development. The Eastern Partnership fails to answer big strategic questions, but it is needed as a pragmatic instrument to support a region of immense importance for European security.
This article was originally published in the Finnish newspaper Kaleva.