London MEP Charles Tannock: Ukraine’s geopolitical pendulum swings east

  • London MEP Charles Tannock: Ukraine’s geopolitical pendulum swings east
Issue 21, February 2010.

 The European Union has never entirely taken Ukraine to its heart as a future member. Although Ukraine is undoubtedly European in an historical, ethnic and cultural sense, it is considered by some EU policymakers as a step too far: not necessarily because Ukraine does not merit or qualify for EU membership but because such a move might unduly antagonise Russia.

Unable to build on Orange optimism

In some ways Ukraine itself is to blame for the EU’s reluctance. After the Orange Revolution hopes were high in Brussels that Ukraine would move seamlessly into the pro-Western camp and further away from Moscow’s grasp but member states were ultimately left disappointed. However, it is also true that the EU should have made a much greater effort to encourage and reward Ukraine for its embrace of democracy, however imperfect that democracy turned out to be. The promise of EU membership is undoubtedly the strongest incentive for any country to consolidate its democracy and reform its economy – nowhere is this more apparent than in Romania, Bulgaria and the Western Balkans. Ukraine was never given that promise by the EU’s national governments.
Russia was only part of the reason why: there were also concerns about Ukraine’s population size and vast agricultural and industrial potential, which would make it one of the EU’s most influential countries. ‘Absorption  fatigue’ was also cited – the oft-repeated excuse that EU citizens were turning against further enlargement  following the rejection of the EU constitution. The flimsiness of this excuse was exposed by the fact that the EU constitution was rapidly repackaged as the Lisbon treaty and enlargement continued apace, with Bulgaria and Romania joining in 2007 and other countries joining the queue. Instead of firm assurances, Ukraine received vague pronouncements about a ‘European perspective or Euro-Atlantic integration’, and some politicians even used the term ‘privileged partnership’ – a phrase that is most often used as an alternative status for Turkey by opponents of Turkey’s EU membership. Sadly and wrongly, Ukraine was never afforded the status attributed to the Western Balkan countries where even Albania has been deemed a “potential EU candidate”.

Russian relations remain EU priority

Much of the scepticism over Ukraine’s EU membership comes from France and Germany. Chancellor  Angela Merkel has placed great emphasis on strengthening bilateral ties with Russia, to the point that this relationship continues to undermine the EU’s efforts to create a common EU external energy security policy. France, meanwhile, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, considers Russia an important partner in that forum to balance a perceived Anglo-American hegemony. Moreover, both Paris and Berlin are resolutely opposed to Turkey’s membership of the EU and have repeatedly proposed privileged partnership status for Ankara.  They therefore prefer to oppose all further eastern enlargement other than the western Balkans. There are many rational reasons to oppose Turkish EU membership rather than Ukrainian membership. Questions still abound as to whether Turkey qualifies on many different levels as an indisputably European country. Such questions are much easier to answer for Ukraine, and both Sarkozy and Merkel know it They have deliberately cultivated
an air of ambiguity with regard to Ukraine’s future status partly because they are so determined to keep Turkey out. Openly favouring Ukraine at Turkey’s expense would, however, have risked permanently alienating Ankara and exposing the EU yet again to the now-familiar accusations from Turkey and others of being an exclusive ‘Christian club’ (although Turkey, as an OIC member, is part of an exclusively Islamic club).

Relief in Berlin and Paris

Yanukovych’s apparent victory as Ukraine’s new President removes this thorny dilemma from the minds of the foreign ministries of Germany and France, because EU membership is undoubtedly off the agenda in Ukraine for years to come as Yanukovych will be perceived as only paying lip service to EU membership. Policymakers in Paris and Berlin are therefore delighted that the quandary of saying ‘yes’ to Ukraine but ‘no’ to Turkey has been extinguished, and extinguished by the democratic will of the Ukrainian people. Not only that, but if the idea of a privileged partnership between the EU and Ukraine – based on a deep free trade agreement currently being negotiated – takes root, it could serve as a sounding-board for such an agreement with Turkey. So the result of  Ukraine’s presidential election is by no means the disaster for the EU that some had feared. Yanukovych is undoubtedly a typical homo sovieticus personality with little charisma or nuance in his politics. But he will be received courteously by EU leaders who will seek engagement on the basis of mutual interests, not least energy security. Ukraine may also turn out under Yanukovych to be the springboard to a stronger EU-Russia relationship.Yanukovych cannot ignore the EU as a strategic and economic trading partner and neither can his oligarch backers such as Rinat Akhmetov.

Ukraine’s continued democratic progress

In the wake of this election result, many commentators have said that the Orange Revolution has turned full-circle. I have hopes it will not turn out like that. If anything, Yanukovych is, ironically, heir to the Orange Revolution. Fears abound that he will now strip Ukraine of its nascent democracy and become a pseudodictator in the Lukashenko mould. But it is precisely because he was himself fairly elected by a majority of Ukrainians in an election lauded by observers not only as satisfactory but as impressive that he will now be obliged to maintain and burnish Ukrainian democracy. I have continued faith that the Ukrainian people, now used to a free media, and the added formidable political opposition of Yulia Tymoshenko, will ensure a democratic future for Ukraine very differentfrom the authoritarian Putin regime in Russia. This is particularly so as Yanukovich’s margin of victory was so slim. We cannot in the EU however be totally optimistic as bridging the east-west linguistic and political divide remains a deeper challenge than ever. Whatever happens (the most probable outcome remains maintenance of the status quo), the EU and the US must try and ensure that any constitutional changes proposed by the new administration must occur peacefully and by widespread consensus.

Author: Charles Tannock, Conservative Party MEP for London. Since election to the European Parliament in 1999 Mr. Tannock has taken a keen interest in EU enlargement issues and was deputy head of the European Parliament’s election observer mission to Ukraine during the fraud-marred 2004 presidential campaign which led directly to the Orange Revolution.