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Ukraine in the EU: To Be or Not to Be?

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For better chances to join the EU, Ukraine should not only make necessary reforms but also convince those Member States that are more sceptical towards enlargement. It would be also a good idea to include an EU membership perspective into a new version of the Association agreement between Kyiv and the European Union, although this proposal might not sound realistic for the moment. These are some points that were discussed by several MEPs and Western experts at the conference Mind Mapping Ukraine in Europe: Where Does Ukraine Belong? A European Perspective organised by the Ukrainian Free University in Munich and the magazine Brussels Ukraїna Review to mark 100 years of the University. The participants also said that the EU should increase its pressure on Russia over Crimea and Donbas. In addition, they criticised Berlin’s position on building the Nordstream 2 pipeline.

Ukraine and its (possible) place in the EU club

Rebecca Harms, former “green” MEP: “The Association agreements now seem to be projects that cannot lead to EU membership. And I think this is wrong. I think the Association agreements have to be changed and they have to cover the perspective of membership. This is from my point of view the real weakness of Association agreements and the EU should decide on this. For me, this has always been the signature of the association agreement that has been the next step to do to get out of this discussion of whether there is a membership perspective or not. 

Michael Gahler, German MEP (EPP group), Rapporteur on EU-Ukraine Association agreement: “If there was such a thing as an ideal Ukraine, then on my part, I would say yes (to its EU membership – ed.). The European Union has not extended any specific invitation or confirmation to any state because of Article 49 of the Treaty of Rome, which suggests that any (European) state can become a member if it fulfils the particular criteria. I can imagine that the argument is not specifically Ukraine-related but circumstance-related. For instance, there has been, amongst many Member States and political stakeholders, quite a reluctance to discuss any enlargement perspectives towards any state, even in regard to the Balkans, which is surrounded by the European Union and not at its periphery.”

Roland Freudenstein, policy director at Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies: “Objectively speaking, there has been something we can call enlargement fatigue. In other words, it’s the feeling that the enlargements of the 2000s came too fast, too massively, too many countries joined at the same time and that the EU will need even more time than it has had to digest those. The backsliding on democracy and the rule of law inside the EU itself was taken by many enlargement sceptics as additional proof that we have taken too many and too fast and that we should be even more discriminatory in an objective sense. We should be more careful about further enlargements.”

Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, German MEP (“Greens” group): “The fatigue of enlargement is big. Not in the German delegation but apart from the Germans, now the Swedish – some of the Swedish – the Dutch, the French, are not very much interested. So, if we could give you a good recommendation: really try to reach out to different friends of Ukraine who are not so well aware of the situation and who sometimes speak about it with empathy but sometimes simply with ignorance, and are not very knowledgeable about the situation and it would help if we could integrate some other nations and some other member states of the EU a little bit into our discourse on Ukrainian’s future.

Michael Gahler: “Of course, we are working, step-by-step, to make Ukrainian accession more probable and a perspective is emerging. I wish that Ukraine, like many other countries, would put together all of the efforts of the many stakeholders, and the real reformers in civil society and even in the European Parliament that are keen on getting Ukraine to the point when it says that it wants to formalise the accession process so that in the end the EU would be able to accept another status for Ukraine than the current one.“

Roland Freudenstein: “If you ask a French, Dutch, Italian, or Portuguese person, the likelihood would be that this person would be highly skeptical about such a prospect (of Ukraine joining the EU – ed.) and would maybe bring forward arguments against. And then the Germans here, (at this conference – ed.) whose hearts beat more for the Ukrainian cause, would make counter arguments. So, with that, I’m trying to say that you should not always preach to the converted. You should tackle those in the EU and its institutions and those Member States and their representatives who happened or tend to be more skeptical, no matter whether it concerns western Balkans or east European countries…

I think it would be a good idea to write a perspective of EU membership into a rewritten version of the association agreement. But right now, I don’t see this realistically happening in the next couple of years.

If you look at the EU-Ukraine agreements, starting with the association agreement but continuing with basically every declaration after a summit: They all contain this formula “Ukraine has a European perspective.” This is the beauty of eurocratic Brussels: that terms like this are what you want them to be. Nothing more and nothing less.

For some Member States, like Poland, the Baltic states and other countries in central Europe, ‘European perspective’ is a code for future membership. For other countries such as France, Austria, and Germany, the European perspective means everything else but not membership. And this is Europe in a nutshell: constant compromise. ‘European perspective’ is what everybody can agree on, whereas if someone proposed to write future membership into such a declaration there would be a bunch of member states that would immediately protest against it.

So, I think (we need) to keep the door open, to say that, aside from official declarations, of course, there is article 49 (of the treaty of European Union)  and, of course, every European country that fulfils the criteria has a chance at becoming a member. But, we have learned that to give timelines or to make definite promises before decisive progress has been made in at least coming demonstrably closer to the acquis communautaire of the European Union, was a mistake and these mistakes were made in the 2000s, by the way. And we believe that we have learned a lesson from that. Of course, Ukraine is a European country, no doubt about it… Moreover, there are no biological reasons why Ukrainians cannot build a functioning market economy, the rule of law, functional checks and balances.”

Ukraine and its homework on European integration

Michael Gahler: “I am telling Ukrainians that if you do want to be accepted, then make yourself look chic for this event and prepare thoroughly. And at some point, I am convinced that decision-makers at the European Union will say: we would be foolish not to accept such a strong, stable and attractive state, because it would not be in our interests not to have Ukraine inside.

However, we are not there yet, and we are focusing on other issues, whereas enlargement, irrespective of the state, is not that attractive. I would say that it is not because of Russia that we are having this discussion, but it is because of the general circumstances of the situation and, of course, a lot has to be done before we can speak of an ideal Ukraine.”

Rebecca Harms: “The Ukrainians should ask the EU what happens if they fulfil all the requirements. But this question would be much more serious and would be taken much more seriously, if the Ukrainian partners in the Association Agreement would not always, again and again, based on the agreement, do two reform steps forward and then three steps back. Or one step forward and half a step back. It depends a bit on different fields of reforms… So, to get this positive response from the EU for Ukrainians there is this membership perspective. This is much more realistic if Ukrainians become more reliable in the reform processes.

I know it is not easy, that these are very demanding and difficult processes in different sectors, but it’s Ukraine also who wanted to have this agreement. It’s a country’s desire. For me, it’s worrying to observe how difficult, for example, it is to do the reform of the judiciary. It’s really a key reform for the country to function better, for all its citizens. And the debate on judicial reform started not on the Association agreement but already during and after the Orange revolution. And still, we are in a very problematic situation when it comes to the influence, the political influence in the judiciary and the lack of clear rule of law, procedures reliable for every Ukrainian.”

Roland Freudenstein: “The signals that have been given by the Ukrainian government in the last couple of years have been mixed in this sense. We’ve had back and forth, we’ve had ups and downs, we’ve had two steps forward/one step back, but there is no clear movement toward a systematic approach in fighting corruption, in strengthening of the rule of law, in strengthening the independence of the judiciary and in bringing Ukraine closer to the point after which it is a possible for the EU to say ‘Yes, you have a membership perspective, we are going to start negotiations.’ Sorry to sound overly pessimistic, but I’m giving you the nature of things in Brussels and in most capitals of the member states. This is where we are, and we need to make the best of it and, again, I emphasise there is no reason at all that one day in the future Ukraine should not become a member state.”

Alexander Motyl, Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and The Ukrainian Free University in Munich: “Participants mentioned the halting reform process – one step forward, one step backward, two steps forward, one step backward and that, of course, is true. And, at the same time, it conceals, I think, a certain reality. Namely, that despite this kind of hesitating, hesitant forward and backward movement, if you look at Ukraine’s progress over the last 20 or 30 years, there’s no question I think that it’s a far better country today than it was 30 years ago. Despite the fact that there seems to be kind of an implied status, an implied inability to move forward, and yet, Ukraine moves forward. It somehow or other manages to do this, so perhaps the situation isn’t quite as hopeless as it might seem.”

Viola Von Cramon-Taubadel: “I think that everything that comes to the e-procurement is a big step forward. And it has actually impacted what we would like to see. There’s more transparency and policy. There’s also more fairness in terms of where the taxpayers’ money goes. There’s different, and in some parts, even a different generation of politicians, because they understand that it’s not just about earning money in politics. It’s about serving the people, serving the citizens. So, that made a big difference, and also when it comes to the e-declaration, of course, maybe that’s sometimes a little bit too tight, because that’s a little bit disputable, but in general that was also a big step forward.”

Roland Freudenstein: “Ukraine managed to keep the economy stable and stabilise the hryvna. It is not strictly speaking a reform, but it certainly is something without which any reform is completely impossible. So, hats off to Ukrainian economic savoir-faire.”

Rebecca Harms: “My favourites are the reform of the police, the reform called decentralisation. Both are still ongoing. I also very much appreciate the creation of this pillar of anti-corruption institutions in the judiciary. It is always again and again under attack, but it is huge. And what I always mention as a huge step is the making of the Ukrainian army. This is always forgotten, but it didn’t exist when Russian aggression started, and it’s a huge thing what happened and also from the European perspective quite an important achievement because what would Ukraine look like if Ukrainians would not have been able to do this? And so there are many, many smaller decisions, smaller creations with the support of government institutions in the field of culture, urban planning and urban development. So, I know that Ukraine has changed a lot even under aggression and even in difficult conditions.”

Roland Freudenstein: “I think the cutting edge in what think-tanks are now advising EU institutions and member state governments to do is to generally incentivise the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian institutions for further reform and for a steadier reform course through the “more for more,” but also “less for less” principle. In other words, a stronger conditionality on all additional forms of assistance, of help, of support that can be given to Ukraine but also concerning market openings and so on. So, in other words, all this should be much more strictly conditional upon clear and steady progress in strengthening the rule of law.  I`ve just looked at a paper from the German Council on Foreign Relations authored at the end of last year, which claims exactly this and which has, by the way, two female Ukrainian authors. Further and stronger conditionality by the EU tied to concrete progress is not punishment or discrimination or something directed against Ukraine. It is, in fact, the only viable tool of achieving some progress and also progress in bringing Ukraine closer to the EU.”

Viola von Cramon-Taubadel: “I maybe would like to see this a bit differently; I wouldn’t be too mild. While we see that people around Zelensky are people returning from Russia, having close ties to the Kremlin, and we shouldn’t be naïve. Those people have an influence on Zelenky’s policy and politics. So, there is a shift in the direction, there’s a shift in the reforms agenda, clearly, and what Roland Freudenstein has said with “more for more” and “less for less” is necessary because we would like to see this country being on the right track and being in the right direction and not turning back and making sure that this development is really irreversible.

And we have seen how quickly this can change, how quickly this could be taken back into the hands of a very few oligarchs. Even Zelensky tried to prevent this from happening. There are many people around him who are surely on the ticket of very, very rich businessmen . I would like to make sure that the few achievements in terms of reforms, which could be done and could be achieved, we succeeded together with the civil society and with some of the Maidan activists during the Poroshenko era to achieve reforms. This is what we owe to the civil society and to the western oriented people. That’s not about punishing somebody; that’s about clear conditionality.

I don’t want to spend any taxpayers’ money in Ukraine which will then land in the hand of some of the oligarchs, to make it very blunt and to say it very, very directly. And when I see, for example, this highly corrupted minister for health, what he has done in the first week of his being in office, this is highly corrupt, and I don’t want to see those people being in place. And when we give money to Ukraine, to buy and to procure technical equipment for COVID, I don’t want to see this money spent three times higher on high prices while the minister takes part of this for himself. And those things need to be considered and needs to be said loudly and the people of Ukraine should know this and this is in our interest and this is in the interest of the Ukrainian people.

That’s why it is important not to look away when it comes to the fight of corruption, and I would like to see that people of Ukraine believe in the EU institutions and that is why we have to stay committed on this path and this right direction. There are many, many, many examples that we have seen during the last weeks and months where there are figures now on the stage in Ukraine which are not sober- which do not have, which do not share the same values and which have a different interest when it comes to energy, when it comes to other structural reforms… Poroshenko had started a very well received health reform. Michael Gahler is very much aware of that, and he has mentioned many times that it could have been really a successful project. But Zelensky himself was being influenced by many people around him and not really convinced about this. I don’t want to go into more details but that has to do with some business interest of directors of clinics and so on. And if we do not stop this behaviour, this will harm the ordinary people, the ordinary citizen, and then they have to pay bribes, even more now, and this is what we have to prevent.

Alexander Motyl: “There was recently a decision made by a constitutional court with a series of decisions, which effectively rolled back a number of the anti-corruption measures. I’m not a fan of President Zelensky nor am I his harshest critic, but he faced a dilemma. I mean what are you supposed to do when the constitutional court acting constitutionally subverts the country and its efforts to become more European. And he immediately responded with a series of measures that were arguably non-constitutional. Other people have said well you’ve got to convoke as the equivalent of a kind of National Assembly where everybody would be assembled and they would essentially rewrite everything. Well, I suppose it’s possible, but again strictly speaking, that too might be unconstitutional.”

Rebecca Harms: This is not only the problem of President Zelensky but of all the presidents: they face the situation when they want to do and have to do something and often I thought that they were right. And they did it against the rules or against the constitution. This would normally mean that afterwards you change the law, especially if you have the overwhelming majority behind you or the majority corresponding. But this never happens.

You can see the recent decision on the cancellation of licenses for Medvedchuk on the television channels and the whole story of how they did it. I am completely fine with the cancellation, but I think it would be much better if Ukraine could start to make these decisions based on rules and based on the law. And why is this? Why does this happen again and again that the president or the government are acting against the rules? This is because you have not achieved a situation in which the lawmakers can really independently and out of the group of some big players in industry or economy leave them to do what is necessary. I think this is still for Ukraine a major step to go to split, to keep the direct influence of oligarchs on political decision making.

For the judiciary: I know not only cases in and around the Constitution court. I followed these over the decades also because people involved me even if I didn’t want it. I followed some of the cases in which Ukrainians or also German citizens faced: local courts or regional courts in Odesa or in Dnipro or in Bakhmut. So, it is the same situation today in many courts as in hospitals: without paying bribes you will not even have a session of the court if you need it. And this reflects that the independence of the judiciary and working according to the rules and based on rule of law is still a step to be done in Ukraine.

Ukraine and (de)occupation of Crimea and Donbas

Rebecca Harms: As a member of European Parliament, I worked a lot on Turkey and Cyprus and I am not sure whether the EU will once again or would once again agree to have a member with conflict along its borders or on its territories. I would say probably not, they won`t. But the EU and also NATO have to become more serious on the question of how to deal with the perspective of Donbas and Russian aggression and occupation of Ukraine. And I am, since the very beginning, convinced that saying that there must be a political solution – it’s good and ok. But if there is, after seven years of war, no political solution, then also the EU and NATO have to revisit their strategies and how they increase the pressure on Russia. Michael Gahler is right: the Kremlin should not decide who is a member of the European Union or who is not. But with this occupation and the war or on-going conflict, Russia and the Kremlin have a huge impact on the future perspective of Ukraine in the EU.”

Viola von Cramon-Taubadel: “Maybe it sounds very hawkish but I would always say to increase the price for Vladimir Putin that the occupation might be much more costly than it is now.  But this is true for all of the so-called frozen conflicts. Most of them are not really frozen; people are dying. In Georgia, they are taking each night a square meter or a square kilometer of Georgian territory. They do the same in many other countries. And so we see now they have boots on the ground in Azerbaijan; they have it everywhere.

So, the strategy towards Russia will be discussed in the near future. I think, once again, especially after all the domestic developments within Russia, which we could witness within the last weeks and months, but also the support of Lukashenka and everything that takes place in the neighbourhood, and we actually see only one winner. We see only one, so far, being in place as if nothing had happened before. While I don’t think it is the strength of Russia, it is the weakness of the European Union and us not making clear what is the price for this, as long as we just extend the sanctions and are ready to speak about and give press conferences as Josep Borrelll has done in February.

I think it’s clear for Sergei Lavrov and Vladimir Putin that they’re on the right track. It’s fairly easy, and that makes our life very difficult. There is a broader majority in the European parliament, which is increasingly unhappy with the situation as it is and especially due to this hybrid war, this disinformation campaign – the situation around the vaccination. Everything is so obvious and it’s so orchestrated and it’s so frustrating.

Speaking to the Ukrainian prime minister a couple of months ago, of course, we have to support Ukraine in terms of vaccination much more offensively and much more swiftly. While, of course, Putin has sent a couple of those to the occupied territories in the East and now they question the western Ukrainian: ‘Where are your friends? Where is the US? Where is the EU? Who does support you? We at least get Sputnik V.’ And so these little bits and pieces show a lot that Putin does use every and each opportunity to destabilise the situation even more. He has no interest, not a single interest, to solve the problem. So, when you ask me, how can we look for a solution; it is not in our hands, at least not – let’s say – in a civilised manner. We have to put more sanctions and much more economic pressure on him. It must be explicitly explained what it means to occupy and to annex Crimea. To occupy the east of Ukraine and all the other territories.”

Rebecca Harms: “The next case of the enlargement decision will not be a positive experience. I am convinced that Russia’s occupation of some parts of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine is connected also to this interest of distortion of a possible enlargement process. Therefore, I would always think that the EU has to be more serious while saying it is not Moscow who decides who becomes a member and not. If they mean it seriously, they need to stand more robust in the way in which they deal with Russian aggression and Russian invasions. “

Ukraine, Europe, and the new US President

Rebecca Harms: “I think many of the decisions taken in Washington since the inauguration day show that the relations between the partners in the West will improve and have already improved. They are also considering the EU’s interest. There are many, many names among the nominated people in offices now in Washington which know the EU, which have always been defenders of the good relations in the West. To say it in brief, and I think this all looks very good and much better than I had expected before the elections.

There are also some differences in interest, and the real question will be how Washington and Brussels, and the capitals of different member states will be able to deal with different interests and different priorities, also in external action. But I think for Ukraine we will return to a very good cooperation which existed before Trump. So, the Western ambassadors, the EU’s, Washington’s, Canada’s ambassadors had a very close cooperation for many years on all the different issues, and I think there will be a kind of reconnection in this cooperation and Russia’s war as a problem for Ukraine and Eastern Partnership. I think for the EU it will be good that the United States will be more demanding on this issue and a bit more clear and outspoken. As this is a real problem.

It’s already for the Germans to see Nord Stream 2. The United States have not changed their position but are keeping the line and are also showing the limits of acceptance. So, I am optimistic that for Ukraine this will be a refreshment of support. And what I, on the other hand, sometimes fear is that Ukrainians immediately think that the real ‘allow’ for us is Washington, is the US. If you really check who is doing what, then you can easily recognise, based on the figures, that the EU and also some of the member states are by far more important as supporters than the United States. What makes the difference is maybe the delivery of heavy weaponry and this is against something that the EU should consider as important and maybe also should consider its own weakness on Europe’s support on Ukraine facing this war.

Roland Freudenstein: “I would have never thought I’d live to see the day in which a green politician advocates arms exports. But I totally subscribe to what Rebecca Harms said, and I also think that these are good times for transatlantic cooperation in astern Europe – not only Ukraine but also Belarus. Concerning Russia, the elephant in the room as it was called, I think the recent trip by High Representative Josep Borrell to Moscow actually served a purpose. You know, I mean it really changed the tone, at least in Brussels. I`m not 100% sure about some member state capitals such as Paris, but in Brussels it is now impossible to talk about some kind of reset, or that more talking to Putin will somehow help. No one is saying this anymore. So, in that sense, I would say we`re in a very good situation with very good conditions for better transatlantic cooperation on Ukraine and its neighbouring countries.”

Viola von Cramon-Taubadel: “So far, the first moves of the young administration were already very valuable and you could see there and there some pushes and pulls in the administration, very helpful. That’s the big difference, and everyone is aware of this shift and of this different attitude towards Ukraine. On one hand, there will be much more empathy, there will be much more interest, but there will also be this form of conditionality that we definitely need, so that we definitely have support when it comes to the fight against corruption and the rule of law and restricting.

And I’m fully in line with Rebecca Harms. I mean Berlin is not helpful with keeping the Nordstream 2 pipeline… This project has no other intention than financial and geopolitical harm to Ukraine. And we recently had a very interesting hearing in our committee for industry technology research and energy and the general directors, that very openly and repeatedly said that there is no common and joined interest in this project, and it’s not to increase the energy security of the European Union. So, it stays like a business project that harms the interests of the European Union. And I hope that we find a possibility without real sanctions, but with the support of Washington to stop it, to have any kind of a compromise, which then would have an impact on the relation towards Russia and this would strengthen and surely have more leverage on our foreign policy in Berlin, and also Brussels.

So, I see a huge difference from now and the time during Trump’s term and I do hope we can continue. We had already had some talks with people in Washington and this is overall only positive. That’s very constructive. These are people who are experienced, diplomats, think tankers. So, you cannot compare the situation with the one several months ago.”

Ukraine and wishes from its friends in the EU

Viola von Cramon-Taubadel: “I really love Ukraine. I’ve been involved with Ukraine since 1996. And, in the long run, there is a big difference from where we’ve started after independence and so on. And I see new faces, I mean the decentralisation made sure we have more women in politics. I would like to see more women also in a decision-making process, especially in the hard things such as energy and security.

So, we see there are good developments, no matter how critical we sometimes are in Brussels. But we all love Ukraine; it’s our common interest that we move together in the right direction. That even if we are outspoken and direct and blunt and critical, that doesn’t mean that we do not love your perfect country and that we would like to see that even more perfect. And when it comes to, for example, science and research, we see that the new horizon 2020 program has just evolved and maybe also in that context we would like to see closer ties, more exchange, more cooperation in innovation technology and in terms of energy efficiency, in terms of charging a battery development or everything where Ukraine is really strong and when it comes to independence of fossil fuels. Especially for us “greens,” this is crucial. This needs to be tackled much more seriously than it is now, especially in the current government. So, all these kinds of increased sector policy would be nice if we could be supported by politicians and civil society and the business community.

Rebecca Harms: “I wished we could help the Ukrainians to regain a positive view for the future. I think what I find a bit frightening right now is seeing that so many Ukrainians have to deal with, day by day, with the feeling of uncertainty. I saw some recent figures published on these problems, fears of losing your job, and I think the initiatives taken by the European Union should be strengthened. I personally think that Horizon 2030 is good for the young people and for the students. I very much hope that the ideas of greening the economy and the ideas of a Green deal will help to push some visible innovations, which also increase the appetite of Ukrainians to engage in future-oriented innovative projects.”

Roland Freudenstein: “Firstly, try to engage those in the EU who are skeptical about any enlargement, let alone Ukrainian joining. Secondly, another compliment: Ukraine has beautifully managed the cooperation with the expat community of Ukrainians in the west, encompassing several generations, and that community got its act together to help the Ukrainians back home. Having lived in Poland for several years, I know that it doesn’t always work that well. So, that works much better in Ukraine than in some other countries. And thirdly, Slava Ukraini!”

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