The EU and Ukraine: a tango with fading passion?

Posted on 11. December 2015

by Zuzana Novakova

Zuzana Novakova NEWThis time two years ago, protesters occupied Kiev’s centre in dramatic style. 21 months ago Russia’s parliament approved the use of force in Ukraine to protect Russian interests, followed by the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of a hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine. Now, 8000 dead and 1.5 million displaced victims later, the situation in Ukraine is no longer in the spotlight. Slowly but surely it has faded away from the front pages; no longer did it get much attention at this year’s edition of Berlin Foreign Policy Forum. In a world of competing issues, everyone’s attention span is limited.

The crisis in itself does not seem to have limitations. The Maidan protests were framed in many ways: from a rise of a society horrified by the violence of its own government or fed up with a corrupt system, to the confirmation of the EU’s attractiveness to societies outside its borders at a time when most of its own citizens seem to become disenchanted. Two years later, the ongoing Ukraine crisis highlights both the crucial role of the EU and its clear-cut limitations.

Last month’s review of the European Neighbourhood Policy did not hold many surprises and only time will tell what Ukraine can make out of this renewed framework. However, one point should be highlighted: while maintaining much of the framework developed back in 2003, the ENP continues to lack instruments that could adequately de-escalate conflicts. Ukraine faces war on two fronts: the obvious hybrid war in the east of the country and a less obvious struggle against its own dysfunctionality and endemic levels of corruption, for now remaining in the shadow of the former.

The EU has been present, offering financial support and tangible carrots. While the buzzwords of money, markets, and mobility might have lost their shine in the aftermath of revolts in the EU’s southern neighbourhood, they remain the magical formula in the East. The EU has pledged a 11 billion euro support package last year – and more than half of this money has already been mobilised for deployment in Ukraine. The EU’s Crisis Management Concept for Ukraine stresses that besides the Russia factor the crisis is also a result of a “deeply dysfunctional and corrupt domestic government structure”: a large portion of aid therefore targets state building and institutional reforms. Parts of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement will to be provisionally applied from next month onwards and the flag of visa liberalisation floats in the air.

All of this is happening amid a series of internal crises in the EU and in surrounding of a “ring of fire” rather than the “ring of friends” In a neighbourhood in turmoil which keeps spilling over to Europe’s internal affairs, in forms of humanitarian and security disasters

For now the EU plays a principal role in helping to heal some of the symptoms. But the root causes of the crisis cannot be ignored if the patient is ever to heal. The “Ukraine crisis” is not only about Ukraine. Any meaningful strategy would need to inherently include a strategy towards Russia. The EU rarely speaks with one voice on this front, with member states pushing and pulling in different directions. Germany goes ahead with North Stream, in agreement with Gazprom, Russian economy’s backbone, while EU sanctions are in play. France considers cooperation with Moscow in its fight against Daesh. Baltic states affirm a strong stance of keeping their distance from anything that includes cooperation with Moscow. A common EU strategy towards Russia is increasingly more difficult to imagine. To add up to the divergent positions of member states, there are the EU’s differentiated interests in the East and the South of the ’European neighbourhood’ — where Russia plays rather diverse roles. Still, only strategic engagement with Russia can help to de-escalate the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. How much can be achieved in the absence of a concerted strategy is very questionable, to say the least.

Six years ago, the Lisbon treaty entered into force with a vision for a politically stronger Europe. The EU might have earned its label of economic giant since, but it still remains a political dwarf. The crisis in Ukraine reminds us again that the Union needs to develop its own “identity” in relation to its outskirts, and this cannot be done leaving the troubled relationships with Russia aside. The Union remains the biggest common market and the biggest donor of development aid in the world. But is there more to the EU?