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The EU needs to do more for Ukraine

Today’s Ukraine is a nation of special attention for the European Union writes Mikhail Minakov . The war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and transnational separatist movements in Eastern Europe are sources of immediate risks for the security of EU member states. The precedent set by Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and the success of democratic reforms in post-revolution Ukraine are of strategic significance for the entire European continent and neighbouring regions.

EU foreign policy toward Ukraine is currently inadequate. The EU’s approach must become more proactive to meet all of its aims and prevent new problems on the EU’s Eastern borders.

Officially, the EU focuses its Ukraine policy on two major objectives: de-escalation of the conflict in the east and support for reforms. Both objectives reflect local needs and the EU’s best interests. Yet they do not cover all the threats and risks emanating from Ukraine.

To realize its policy toward Ukraine, the EU has a scarcity of tools. The set of available instruments consists of the soft-power tools of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and the Eastern Partnership as well as the somewhat harder-power tool of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which creates a framework for political and economic cooperation.

However, none of these instruments can adequately de-escalate the conflict. For that reason, Berlin and Paris had to step in to become more effective peacemakers in the Donbas war. Together with their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, the French and German leaders created the Normandy format aimed at ending the fighting.

These EU tools are not enough to support Ukraine’s reform process either—and neither is the EU’s permanent delegation in the country. The EU delegation in Kiev is probably good at maintaining communication with the Ukrainian president and government, but it seems weak at ensuring the implementation of official and unofficial agreements with Ukraine’s ruling groups. Compared with the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, the EU delegation looks uninfluential.

A good example of the inadequacy of the EU delegation was when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko decided in September 2015 to delay reform of the country’s civil service. The ambassadors of both the EU and the United States publicly criticized this decision. Yet theEU delegation downplayed its criticism almost immediately, while the Americans urged the need for reform. Pro-reform civil society and expert groups in Ukraine rely more on U.S. support than on EU backing.

The EU Association Agreement has huge significance for both sides. If implemented, it could be a part of an important strategy to help Ukraine develop and become a safer neighbor for the EU as well as set an example of democratic development for other post-Soviet countries.

Yet the agreement addresses rather long-term goals. While Ukraine’s balance of trade has shown a mixed picture since the accord was signed in 2014, Kiev is addressing the political part of the agreement at a slower pace every month. The EU has financial instruments to put pressure on Ukrainian elites to carry out a joint program of reforms, but these instruments seem to lose their importance as internal political conflicts grow in Kiev.

At the same time, the Association Agreement is an area of competition between the EU and Russia. As a result of Moscow’s hybrid tactics of blackmail, war, and diplomatic pressure,implementation of the agreement has been delayed until December 31, 2015. This move has also slowed the accord’s process of ratification by EU member states. Greece has yet to begin ratifying the agreement, and the Netherlands is to hold a nonbinding referendum on whether to support ratification.

The ENP also fails to hit the mark in Ukraine. The policy was constructed in the good old times to bring Ukraine closer to the EU. It was based on an unspecified, overgeneralized vision that saw non-EU countries to Europe’s East and South as cohesive and similar. The ENP’s blurred optics made it impossible for EU decisionmakers to notice the growth of conflict in the neighborhoods. The policy was a good bureaucratic tool to deal with unimportant issues. Since the annexation of Crimea, the ENP is not a useful instrument at all.

This mismatch between the goals and tools of the EU’s policy toward Ukraine, as well as the tools’ inadequacy to the situation in Ukraine, is highly problematic. It seems that the EU is missing the point in its Ukraine policy.

EU foreign policy toward Ukraine and Ukraine’s expectations of the EU reveal a difference of perspectives vis-à-vis cooperation. For the EU, foreign policy is the art of the possible. For Ukraine, European integration is a demand of the impossible. For the EU’s bureaucracy, the Ukraine policy is just another one among many. For Ukrainians, the EU is a surrogate vision of the country’s collective future.

The Euromaidan protest movement started with the frustration created by former president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision in November 2013 not to sign the Association Agreement. During the protests, the hope of EU membership was among the key motifs of the civic revolt. Now, EU leaders must make a clear decision regarding Ukraine’s possible EU membership, open their borders to Ukrainians, and specify the aims and tools of their Ukraine policy.

Ukrainians’ faith in the EU is utopian. Yet such confidence can fuel the construction of a contemporary Ukrainian polity with democratic politics, a free-market economy, balanced cultural rights, and peaceful international policies. The EU may decide to deny Ukraine membership. But it must take into account the impact of such a decision: a lack of trust in a European future may decrease Ukrainians’ support for democratic reforms in their country.

Another fundamental problem in working with Ukraine is the absence of one reliable partner. The EU cannot automatically replicate its methods of dealing with post-CommunistCentral Europe for a post-Soviet country. Ukraine’s formal government institutions are weaker than its informal power institutions.

For the sake of efficiency, the EU needs to establish a variety of partners in Ukraine to mitigate the risks of financial and political groups sabotaging the commitments that official institutions claim to make. Here, direct contacts with local governments and pro-reform NGO networks can help. EU actors must also create unofficial channels of communication with pro-Western financial and political groups. The EU mustn’t keep missing the point in Ukraine.

Mikhail Minakov is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and editor in chief of the Ideology and Politics Journal. This article was first published by Carnegie Europe (

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