How much blame should the EU share for Ukraine crisis?

Ukrainian priests and protesters carry a coffin with the body of one of two protesters who died of gunshot wounds in Nakonecne, Ukraine, Jan. 27, 2014, photo: CTK

The European Union’s Eastern Partnerships have been a cornerstone of Czech diplomacy with Ukraine and five other countries from the former Soviet Union. But Ukraine’s dramatic refusal to sign a new European Association Agreement has cast a shadow over the EU’s attempts to tie the countries to the West and sparked the latest crisis in Kiev. While Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych and Russia are often blamed for the descent into chaos, some believe the European Union should shoulder its share of blame as well.

Ukrainian priests and protesters carry a coffin with the body of one of two protesters who died of gunshot wounds in Nakonecne,  Ukraine,  Jan. 27,  2014,  photo: CTK
Ukraine now appears on the brink of civil war after the worst violence since its independence in 1991. Protests in Kiev, where at least four people have died, have spread to the provinces and a state emergency is increasingly looking like the only way for Ukraine strong man, President Viktor Yanukovych, to stay in power. The president bought the wave of protests upon himself when he took the surprise move of refusing at the last minute to sign a new agreement with the European Union. EU leaders had appeared to believe the deal was in the bag. Violence flared up when tough steps to clamp down on demonstrations were later declared.

Ukraine was supposed to be the most important foundation stone for a series of new agreements with half a dozen countries from the former Soviet Union. But while Brussels was finalizing a complex and lengthy procedure to get rid of customs duties a pave the way for free trade, with a time lag of 10 years in some problem areas for the EU such as agriculture, Russia was taking a more direct approach.

A series of Russian import bans had been increasingly hurting Ukraine’s struggling economy since last summer. On the eve of signing the Europe agreements, the country was faced with a debt crisis with only Moscow offering to step forward and meet the bill with a $15 billion purchase of Ukrainian debt and sharp cuts in the prices Ukraine pays for Russian gas.

And Moscow has meanwhile been dangling the prospect of an alternative Euro-Asian customs union to Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus and Moldova. Peter Havlik is an economist at the Vienna Institute for International Studies who focuses on foreign trade, economic integration, and EU-Russian relations. He maintains that the European Union did not make sufficient preparations for the agreement with Ukraine in the first place and failed to react adequately when it collapsed. We spoke following a discussion held last week in Prague about Ukraine’s way forward.

Peter Havlik,  photo: archive of Vienna Institute for International Studies
“Certainly, the European Union made a lot of mistakes in the final stages before this Vilnius, Eastern Partnership Summit at the end of November. And it also made a lot of mistakes afterwards. It did not react appropriately by starting an immediate dialogue with the existing political powers in Ukraine and, also, in Russia. I always claimed that, for different reasons, there was a need for negotiations and for representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the European Union and other representatives of the Eastern Partnership to sit at a common table to solve the current stalemate in the relations between these different European powers, ” Havlik said.

Havlik echoes widespread criticism of the EU’s disjointed foreign policy priorities which are reset every six months when a new country takes the helm as president of the EU’s Council of Ministers. Lithuania was in the hot seat when the Ukraine agreement was supposed to be sealed. With the current crisis now unfolding, its place has been taken by Greece. But there is consistently a pull between those countries favouring better ties with the non EU countries around the Mediterranean and those looking towards Eastern Europe. I asked the economist whether the EU’s heart was really in the deal with Kiev.

“I would doubt whether there was a real interest in the European Union on one side. One has to take into account that the European Union now has 28 member states with very different political priorities, trade and economic structures, and political and geo-political interests. There are just a few EU member states that have a more substantial economic interest in Ukraine. These are Poland, Germany, the Baltic States, partly Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But the rest of the European Union, France, Spain, not to mention the United Kingdom, Greece, and others basically do not care.”

So I asked Mr Havlik if president Viktor Yanukovych was essentially faced with immediate and urgent problems but without any European Union response to them in the form of financial help or tangible short term gains from the association agreement when he arrived in Vilnius?

Viktor Yanukovych,  photo: CTK
“Briefly speaking, this is correct. There would have been immediate costs for Ukraine, not only, let’s say losing some preferential trade treatment from Russia, but costs that would be required by the implementation of European Union regulations, norms, the so-called acquis communitaire, which was part of the agreement. In my view, most of these requirements were not economically justified especially because a country like Ukraine does not have a clear prospect for EU membership. So, these were immediate costs and the benefits would have been in place in the medium and long term with the benefits stemming mostly from the improved investment climate, from the more stable political and economic situation and from a more predictable environment that would stimulate Western investments which would then contribute to the restructuring and modernisation of the Ukrainian economy, which is extremely important. Unfortunately the current events have thrown Ukraine backwards in this respect. There is no wonder that probably no prospect for increased investments in the coming months or years, unfortunately.”

Libor Rouček is a Czech Member of the European Parliament and sits on its foreign affairs committee. He has had frequent meetings over the last months with members of the Ukrainian government dominated by President Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions. He says the European Union simply could not match Russia’s offer at the end of last year to deal with Ukraine’s financial crisis.

“At the end, in an unfortunate way, the Ukrainians came with the demand that they need money and I think here that the European Union, the Member States, were not ready to reflect this need to come with money without any conditions.”

But he admits that the EU has failed to send positive signals to Eastern European countries over a longer period and Brussels compares very unfavorably here with Moscow.

Libor Rouček,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“It does not concern Ukraine only, but also countries like Moldova, or Georgia and other countries in the Eastern Partnership, and this is the liberalisation of visas. Because the Ukrainians and the Moldovans, they rightly say, look when we go to Russia we don’t need visas, sometimes we don’t even need work permits when we go and work there. But in the EU, even 20 years after the collapse of Communism, is not able to give us a visa free regime and I think that is what we have to think about, not so much the EU as a whole, but in some member states it is understandable that public opinion is against this, the interior ministers. But if we want to be more credible towards those countries in the East we have to deal with this issue.”

With some countries, such as Britain, creating fears about an influx of workers from established EU countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, and the anxiety being echoed in Germany and other counties, there is little prospect of more friendly visa regime being offered soon to the East. Rouček goes further and says it is difficult to understand why EU membership is being offered to Turkey, albeit accompanied by almost endless negotiations, but not to a country such as Ukraine.

Czech Štefan Füle is Commissioner for Enlargement and the European neighbourhood policy, which includes relations with Ukraine. He was sent by the Commission to Kiev as its ‘firefighter’ on Friday and Saturday and urged talks between the government, opposition and protesters. The protesters turned down offers of government posts and promised concessions by the present so the stand off continues.

The Commissioner’s spokesman told Radio Prague on Monday that no interviews are being given about the delicate situation in Ukraine and he was not immediately available to answer criticisms about the EU’s policy towards the country and region over recent months.

Protesters attend a march in Kiev,  Ukraine,  Jan. 27,  2014,  photo: CTK
Few would differ with the assertion made in the past by Winston Churchill that “to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war” but the Ukraine negotiations don’t seem to be going anywhere at the moment. Libor Rouček again:

“There is a huge gap between the current government and the opposition, and the demonstrators. But as I said, if we don’t want to see some civil conflict, civil war, there is no other way than to sit down and talk and discuss and find compromises and look for solutions that would be good for the country, for Ukraine. ”