The Ukraine is one of those countries in the world, with whose name you have to use the definite article. That is not really of any significance, but it might have been a sign to the European Union to have a more active policy towards the East European state.
In the recent elections in the Ukraine, the pro-Western (and now former President) Yulia Tymoshenko lost to the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich. Ms. Tymoshenko served her four-year term attempting to stabilize the country and create closer ties with the EU, possibly leading to official accession. Now, whatever hope there was of joining the bloc has vanished and it was the citizens of the Ukraine who decided.
To a very large extent, the EU’s policies towards the Ukraine are to blame for the election of a pro-Russian president. The promise of accession, which is the Union’s greatest soft power bargaining chip in foreign relations, has always been a mirage in East European state. There was no offer on the table in the last few years and even though the relationship between the two has generally been very positive, the lack of a certain promise drove the people to make a change.
So, why didn’t the EU ever formally propose the idea of Ukrainian membership? The main arguments would seem familiar to anyone who has been interested in Turkey’s application for accession. First, the question of democracy and the rule of law in the country remain questionable, especially after the 2004 Orange Revolution which created political turmoil in the state. Second, the size of the Ukraine’s population (46 million) would give it a very dominant position in the Union’s political structures – something that the member states are not prepared to accept. Also, expanding so far East would bring the Union not simply into Russia’s back yard, but directly to its doorstep. That would cause a lot of geo-political clashes with the large Eastern neighbor. In addition, an acceptance of the Ukraine would cause uproar from Turkey as to why it is not allowed to join despite its statistically better economic performance. Simply, it would have been a foreign policy catastrophe for the Union.
At the same time, not giving the Ukraine even the slightest hints of possible accession has also resulted in an EU policy blunder. They have lost the positive attitude of Ms. Tymoshenko, which now leaves them to deal with an unfriendly president. The one big question in recent EU-Ukraine relations has been the transfer route of natural gas and oil supplies from Russia. The gas crisis of January 2009 still remains a painful memory for many European politicians and citizens. Yet, it remains to be seen whether this situation will become better or worse. Even before his official inauguration, Mr. Yanukovich has proposed a joint Russian-Ukrainian gas consortium (between Gazprom and Naftogaz, respectively) which could lead to either a positive or negative outcome for the EU member states reliant on the transit route for their energy resources.
Although the EU’s foreign and enlargement policies can be heavily criticized for not exercising more preferential soft-power towards the Ukraine, it cannot be completely discredited. It has been obvious for some time now that the objectives of the Union are to expand in the Western Balkans and possibly bring peace to the strongly divided region. With Croatia being the most imminent candidate and Macedonia following close behind, the EU will probably comprise of 29 member states before the decade is over. The possibility of accepting Serbia within this time-frame is also an option, depending on many different factors.
In the short-term future though, the EU has lost the Ukraine. Whether relations between the two will become similar to the bloc’s cold attitude towards Belarus or will remain on good terms is hard to determine. It will also depend on how far collaboration between the Ukraine and the Russian Federation extends. There are definitely problems to be solved and bridges to be built between the two and it will all be at the EU’s expense. All the bloc can possibly do is stand and watch as the large Eastern European country slips from its sphere of influence.
On the whole, the European Union has managed to keep itself out of major international politics yet again. By refusing to commit to a large and important country like the Ukraine, it has possibly lost a significant partner. Yet, it continues to focus on the smaller, and not unimportant, states in the Balkans. Whether we can weigh the loss of the former to the potential benefits to be gained from the latter is a question for the future. This is just another reminder to the EU that it is a large international actor with the power to influence events outside its borders. We can only hope that it will live up to its responsibility in the end.