Josh Black highlights a difference of interpretation between Western and Central European interpretations of the Eastern Partnership.
The otherwise well-informed Standard Chartered economist Tim Ash contributed an interesting guest article to the Financial Times a few weeks ago, explaining for readers who are only casually acquainted with the negotiations between the European Union and Ukraine what is at stake in the run up to the Vilnius Summit at the end of this month. There, a decision is likely to be made on whether Ukraine should be allowed to sign an Association Agreement that extends the European free trade area in return for the maintenance of certain political and regulatory standards.
Towards the end of his article, in his last and least important justification for signing the agreement, Ash writes that
“[T]here is a desire for the DCFTA to be signed to ensure that Ukraine stays out of the Russian fold, is protected from Russian bullying and keeps a European perspective. I think, however, that the European perspective is all about the protection of basic democratic rights, which is centre stage in the Tymoshenko case.
“Concluding, I would argue that the Tymoshenko case is actually not about an individual but about a key principle at the very foundations of the EU and everything it stands for: the protection and indeed promotion of basic, democratic rights. I would contend that the Tymoshenko issue should indeed be linked to the DCFTA and that this is key for the future of democracy in Ukraine and of the EU and its global partners.”
Many with even a deep knowledge of the case against Ukraine’s former Prime Minister would be inclined to agree. The re-emergence of the Tymoshenko issue in recent months speaks to this use of conditionality in European decision-making, and most Western politicians are agreed that Ukraine should not be rewarded for poor decisions.
However, the quotation also evidences a Western European solipsism that is worth investigating. This account, which views the EU’s approach to its Eastern Neighbours as largely transactional, is somewhat at odds with another European perspective, more prevalent in member states that joined after 2004.
Speaking at the European Solidarity Centre’s 2014 conference on Europe’s future, the Lithuanian philosopher and MEP, Leonidas Donskis said that the problem with Europe’s Eastern Partnership programme (aimed at developing links with Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), lay not within these countries but within the EU itself. Noting that Lithuania had significant human rights issues seven years ago, he believes Ukraine could overcome some of its political problems with greater incentivisation. “For newcomers to the EU,” Donskis said, “it is obvious that the Eastern Partnership exists to bring non-EU countries closer to Europe. If left to their own devices, these countries would not strive for new horizons.”
That is a subtly understanding to Ash’s, as Donskis confirmed afterwards in an interview. “This is about security because if we don’t make Ukraine part of Europe, Russia will continue to play that [geopolitical] game for ever.” With Lithuania in the driving seat as the current incumbent of the European Council’s rotating Presidency, it is natural that the focus is on this part of the world. As Donskis says, “We try to fill the gap because we understand that Eastern Europe is not a priority [to the likes of France and Britain]. They don’t understand the pressure we’re under… and it could be years before the next opportunity presents itself.”
As for whether the Agreement will indeed be signed, Donskis has no insider information. Now is the time to exert pressure on Ukraine’s leaders, but he hopes that Poland and Lithuania will prevail in their attempt to convince Germany that Europe can still harden its attitude to Ukraine’s political weaknesses after the summit. One school of thought is that visa liberalisation, by paving the way for young Ukrainians to experience the superiority of Europe’s more settled democracies, could have a more lasting effect than the salvation of one discredited politician. Wednesday is rumoured to be Europe’s deadline for President Victor Yanukovych to give his decision. By the end of the month, a clearer view of Europe’s foreign policy will emerge.