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Just why are Ukrainians more pro-European than citizens in many EU member states?

Ukrainian protesters see the European Union as a great hope in tackling long-standing domestic problems like a poor economy, corruption and ineffective governance but many already in the European club take an opposing view – writes Dr George Kyris

So now in December 2013, Ukrainians wave the European Union flag during large-scale protests against the government’s decision to halt discussions for an association agreement with Brussels. A year earlier in the Greek capital of Athens, protesters burned the very same flag in yet another rally in the crisis-hit country.

The rise of Euroscepticism is one of the most talked-about issues at the moment. The matter has been popular with the media and politicians alike because of the upcoming European Parliament elections, where Eurosceptic parties are expected to win many seats. Yet, the reasons behind this increase of scepticism towards the EU vary throughout Europe.

For example, in the United Kingdom growing Eurosceptic political attitudes are most vividly depicted in the surging popularity of UKIP. This builds on a deep-rooted tradition of scepticism towards Brussels. What the UK has seen in more recent years is a heightening of this anti-EU feeling largely because of the worsening economic conditions that are also linked to fundamental aspects of integration – such as migration from other member states.

In the south of the continent, Euroscepticism is a newer phenomenon. It mainly comes in the form of frustration with austerity measures that are allegedly trying to deal with the eurozone crisis. Indeed, images of Greeks and Spaniards protesting seem even more obscure because of the long history of pro-EU feelings in those countries. True, the seeds of pro-Europeanism were first planted during the 1970s and 1980s when the EU was seen as a central element to the democratic transition of southern European countries. As such – Spain, Greece and Portugal are good examples of how the union has historically been a popular ‘destination’ and partner for countries outside its borders.

More recently, the same happened with the addition of Central and East European countries into the EU family. At the end of the Cold War, the effort of the union to expand and play an important role in its neighbourhood was welcomed by ex-communist states – which embarked on a long mission to join the EU and ‘return to Europe’. For all of those states the EU bore the promise of development, prosperity and better rule.

The completion of enlargement in 2004 and 2007 offered a powerful example for other countries in the wider European periphery: many of Ukraine’s neighbours, despite challenges, saw the end of a long process of accession into the EU. In this sense, the union could advocate a much clearer plan on how to help Eastern Europe in comparison to others – like Russia.

In this sense, Ukrainian protesters see the EU as a great hope. They feel the union could help exit long-standing domestic problems like corruption, ineffective governance but also Europe could prove to be an attractive ally in the region and vis a vis Moscow. Against Russia and all its uncomfortable memories for some, the EU represents a rather different form of power: based less on traditional state assets – like the military – and more on economic power and the values that aspires to promote.

So while on the inside of the EU states negotiate the implications of their membership and the eurozone crisis triggers national feelings, or opposition to certain policies, Europe continues to be a touchstone of attraction in its neighbourhood. This is especially true with states that try to come to terms with their transition into stability – in the aftermath of the Cold War. Like Ukraine, for example. One explanation for this might be that the attitudes towards the EU depend on the understanding of short-term benefits or costs of integration. You would think that the eurozone crisis might harm the appeal and influence of the union in its near abroad. Although the pro-EU protesters, who are camping in Independence Square in Kiev amid freezing temperatures, make us think twice.

Dr George Kyris is a teaching fellow at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom

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