Friday, February 08, 2013

EU-Ukraine: He who has ears, let him hear.

Yanukovych's conduct may actually be making it easier for the EU to talk of eventual membership

The word füle translates into Hungarian as 'ears', and EU Commissioner on Enlargement and the Eastern Partnership Štefan Füle is clearly hoping that someone on Bankova is finally going to start listening. In his speech to the Verkhovna Rada, Füle pulled few punches (metaphorically speaking it must be said) as to the EU's misgivings with the current goings on in Ukraine, now laying into the regime publicly over unconstitutional proxy voting ('piano playing'), procurement law and other areas, rather than allowing the selective justice issue to be the sole broken record.

If his words to parliament were scathing, those to staff and students on a visit to Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Kiev's fiercely independent liberal university (on whose European Studies course I had the good fortune to be a lecturer) seem to have been rather more encouraging. There is now a clearer acknowledgement of the status of the Eastern Partnership countries as potential applicants under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, that any European country can apply for membership, if it meets the criteria, and a clear differentiation now being made between the eastern and southern neighbourhoods in this respect.

The pressure on Ukraine to 'make a choice' between Russia's Customs Union and the EU's free trade deal is mounting from both sides. Having gone as far as concluding the agreement, one senses the EU would like to close the deal. Ukraine's civil servants are resigned to the prospect of intense trade pressure from Russia if progress with this continues, most likely across many areas. Arguably, with the $7bn gas bill, it has already started. What doesn't help Russia's case is that you can never be sure that it won't behave in such ways even if Ukraine were to enter the CU. A track record of such behaviour hardly builds trust. Ukrainian officials hope that Russia's excesses might be limited by it having joined the WTO.

Another theme running heavily through this process now is conditionality. Indeed, Füle has now given Ukraine 19 key indicators that it needs to work on. The chances of Ukraine satisfying 19 separate concerns looks pretty low. That's a lot more than satisfying the vague 'back of an envelope' Copenhagen Criteria that the 2004 and 2007 entrants needed to meet, and which Yushchenko and Tymoshenko at least had half-convincing pretences of attaining. The everyday  reality of Ukrainian political life is clearly a million miles away from any such criteria. Yanukovych's primary policy seems to be keeping Tymoshenko behind bars, and there is no sign whatsoever of this abating. Recent news continues the trend, with concerns now spreading, for example, over internet freedom. If Ukraine's governance, rule of law, and overall behaviour are more akin to those in the CU, reason follows that they will find it very difficult not to end up there. With that in mind, it is paradoxically easier for the EU to talk about eventual membership. For years the EU entertained the idea of Turkey joining simply on the assumption that Greece would always obstruct it, hence the awkward situation since Greece changed its mind.

In a sense, the EU can almost rely on Ukraine to fail for now, but in the long term the suggestion is that successful implementation of the DCFTA might yield a membership perspective. For those that joined during the previous decade the Association Agreements already contained this membership perspective, and successful fulfilment brought candidate status, so this mechanism basically builds in an extra stage, a longer road which is perhaps in everybody's best interests. As long as the door can be opened for trade, and for Ukrainians to travel, other matters are less imperative. The EU needs to itself recover, and for the Polands and Spains of this world to develop to potentially join the net contributors that would help to pay for further enlargement; clearly a long way off. However, it would be in the interests of all the stakeholders in Ukraine's future to finally start listening.

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