2. Europe’s Unanswered ‘Eastern Question’
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The EaP has many critics who see it as doing too much rather than too little. Some are populists, who identify but exaggerate genuine bogeys of corruption and economic mismanagement. They also transfer proxy complaints about migration to a region where many fewer are currently on the move than in the Levant or Maghreb. Other critics are realists, who see the region as a diversion or see little positive to be gained from engagement in economic or security terms.
- The referendum in the Netherlands in April 2016 on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was a sharp reminder of the power of the populist impulse to affect the future of eastern expansion. Proxy arguments about migration dominated what might otherwise have been a fairly technocratic topic.
- Dutch voters worried about immigration in general focused on the prospect of new arrivals from Ukraine. Sixty-one percent of Dutch voters cast their ballot against the deal, on a turnout of 32 percent. Ahead of the vote, the prime minister, Mark Rutte, went so far as to say that Ukraine should never join the EU
- Dutch pressure was later behind the tough language in the compromise declaration reached between the Netherlands and the other member states at the European Council meeting in December 2016.
- The statement made clear that the Association Agreement “does not confer on Ukraine the status of a candidate country for membership of the Union, nor does it constitute a commitment to confer such status to Ukraine in the future”, nor any right for Ukrainians to “reside and work freely” in the EU, plus promises that member states were not required to offer security guarantees or additional financial support, and Ukraine should do more to combat corruption.
- The Dutch also objected to the reiteration of previous language acknowledging Ukraine’s “European aspirations” at the EU-Ukraine summit in July 2017.
If populists are stirring up ressentiment from below, their arguments often overlap with realist arguments from ‘above’.
Realist commentators argue that the transformation agenda is now effectively dead. Ukraine, or at least Ukrainian elites, are not capable of real reform – so the argument runs
Nor can the EU act as a security provider for the region. The EU should therefore treat Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova “as independent buffer states rather than as member-states-in-waiting. It will be particularly important not to set red lines that the EU is not willing to defend”
The EU should then concentrate on its own problems, and “distinguish between core and peripheral priorities” behind relatively hard borders.
It should either isolate itself from the ‘buffer states’ or insulate itself from the spillover of their problems into the EU. This overlaps with the view that may be dubbed the ‘sphere of influence’ argument – that the EU has no business being in Ukraine at all since it belongs in Russia’s sphere of influence. Or even that the EaP was casus belli for Russia in 2014, as British foreign secretary Boris Johnson has suggested.
Alternatively, some maintain that eastern Europe is a security vacuum, a zone of small states that sucks Europe into unnecessary conflict with Russia. Europeans need to save their time, energy, and resources for more pressing issues, like Donald Trump and the putative Franco-German reform drive. There are advocates enough for leaving Ukraine to one side. As one has argued, Turkey is “vital for the EU to decrease the flow of refugees into an increasingly unwelcoming and strained EU. Ukraine, on the other hand, is in a deep political and economic crisis. European leaders now have an all too transparent interest in curbing Ukrainian hopes for EU membership and soothing Russia’s strategic paranoia”.
The seeds of an isolationism vis-à-vis the former Soviet space are real.
For the time being the EaP remains in place as a programme that seeks to bring about transformation in its neighbours, whether to a greater or lesser extent. But the combined pressures of populism and realism may push the EU to scale back its commitment to eastern Europe, or ringfence the EaP with Dutch-style language to prevent it developing into a neo-enlargement policy.
Is Europe the only game in town?
Poroshenko embodies a number of the different ‘types’, as an anti-Russian reformer who has proved susceptible to anti-reformist forces. The dilemma is set to become even sharper for the EU as the president prepares to make ‘Europe’ the centre of his re-election campaign in 2019. Is he the right man for the EU to endorse, or would this result in the same mistake as in Moldova – backing self-declared ‘Europeans’ despite their corruption, and discrediting the idea of Europeanisation? The opposite scenario does not look good either – if ‘Europe’ fails at the polls, groups committed to rapprochement with Russia could take power.
‘Europe’ took centre-stage in Poroshenko’s speech on Independence Day 2017. Standing on the Maidan where protestors were killed by sniper fire, he said: “On the twenty-sixth year of Independence, we have successfully completed the struggle for ratification of the Association Agreement with the European Union”, despite “Moscow making more efforts to block the signing”. The same theme appeared, more obliquely, in Poroshenko’s celebration of the anniversary of another revolution: 1917.
Poroshenko, on the other hand, proclaimed lessons for the present day. These were internal unity, strength (i.e. the armed forces), and foreign support – “We have to look for and hold on to allies. A hundred years ago, we stood alone against Russia, only those new states that had proper external support survived”.With the EU, in other words, Ukraine can be stable and independent. Without it, Ukraine faces instability and even defeat.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at : eu/