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21 August 2017
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Ukraine and the EU: a border too far

Ukraine thinks it’s already in Europe but the EU, worried over Russian energy supplies, doesn’t endorse that presumption.And perhaps the EU has already grown too large, and too quickly, to retain its purpose and cohesion...

Ukraine thinks it’s already in Europe but the EU, worried over Russian energy supplies, doesn’t endorse that presumption.And perhaps the EU has already grown too large, and too quickly, to retain its purpose and cohesion.

It’s a cold, grey Saturday morning on the Polish-Ukrainian border. Chain-link fences enclose a channel that snakes to the Polish customs. Today this crossing is almost deserted, but a month ago it bustled with the many Ukrainians who regularly crossed into Poland to sell black-market cigarettes and alcohol. With a long-term Polish visa, obtained free in nearby Lviv, it was easy to do this.

With Poland’s entry into the Schengen zone on 21 December 2007 all that changed. Now Ukrainians need a European visa to visit Poland. “You used to be able to go over two or three times a day,” said a woman from the village of Noviskalova, just seven kilometres from the European Union. “You could make a good profit. Some people even built houses. Those days are gone for good.”

This cross-border trade used to provide a livelihood for more than 100,000. The Polish ambassador in Ukraine, Jacek Kluczkowski, is aware of the social impact of the new order. “The Schengen arrangements mean we can’t grant visas to people who don’t have a bank account. Those people are going to have to find other sources of income.” Easier said than done: western Ukraine is a rural region of the former Soviet Union that has suffered 50 years of neglect. Unemployment and poverty have been keenly felt here.

The harmful effects aren’t just economic: they also undermine the strong cultural and family ties between Ukraine and Poland. For centuries, the province of Galicia in western Ukraine has faced Poland, which ruled it from the 15th to the 18th century. It then came under Austrian rule before returning to Poland between 1921 and 1941. Ukraine’s borders assumed their present form in 1945. “Before the first world war there were lots of mixed families in the west who were deported in vast numbers by the Soviets,” said Tarass Wozniak, the editor of the independent magazine Ji, “so the Polish identity of the region is still very strong”.

To reduce resentment, the Polish and Ukrainian governments have signed an agreement setting up a special no-visa zone for citizens who live within 50 km of the border. This decision has still to be ratified by Brussels. But Wozniak believes that, whatever arrangements are made, communication will suffer as a result of Schengen. “Six-and-a-half million people used to cross the border in both directions each year. Today the links have been broken. This border is like a new Berlin wall.”

A superior class

Wozniak, like many fellow citizens of Lviv, has gone from being pro-European to eurosceptic: “Europeans now belong to a superior class and can travel wherever they want. Meanwhile, we’ve become second-class citizens and can’t visit our neighbours.” In fact, the EU – at the same time it was closing its own borders – was negotiating a visa-free scheme for its citizens who want to visit Ukraine.

The new border has reawakened memories of the cold war in Ukraine. Once again, the country feels trapped in its eternal role of good neighbour – but a neighbour kept out of the EU without clear prospects, wondering if it is a future member state or merely a candidate for application. Ukraine has made its desire for EU membership plain since the mid-1990s. Since the Orange revolution in late 2004, European integration has been the top foreign policy objective for its pro-western leaders. To convince Brussels, Ukraine has tried to strengthen its links with the West in the past few months. Having pushed through membership of the World Trade Organisation in early 2008, Ukraine secured guarantees of a free-trade zone with the EU. It has also, with US backing, approached Nato, although domestic public opinion is mostly opposed to this.

Ukraine’s scrappy Euro-Atlantist policy has irritated several EU states, and at the last Nato summit in Bucharest in April, consideration of the Ukrainian request for membership was postponed until next winter. The Ukrainians are undeterred and waiting for the French presidency of the EU in the latter part of 2008. Nicolas Sarkozy has often expressed his interest in Ukraine and his desire to “give fresh impetus to the European-Ukrainian partnership”, as his minister for European affairs put it.

For the moment France has avoided the issue of full EU membership for Ukraine. Brussels and Paris instead talk of consolidating cooperation. As Europe is well aware, however, Ukraine has three powerful suits: it is a transit country for Russian gas, an economic power with strong growth potential, and a significant trading partner. And its stability affects the EU’s security policy on the eastern border.

If Europe has been cool to Ukraine’s advances, it is because these have provoked major differences of opinion. This was clear at the EU-Ukrainian summit in Kiev in February. The Ukrainian vice-president, Grigoriy Nemyria, who is responsible for European relations, openly expressed his pleasure that “the door to Europe is at last open”. He was applauded by delegates from the eastern European accession states, especially Poland, which has ardently lobbied for Ukraine to join the EU in the medium term. The western European founder members were cool. Rainder Steenblock, the German representative, said: “The door may be open, but it’s on the seventh floor, and at the moment Ukraine is still at ground level.”

Far from the Orange revolution

It all seems far from 2004, when European representatives were caught up in the Orange revolution in Kiev’s central square. The vision of Ukraine at the heart of Europe has been dropped, along with many other hopes from those days. Despite genuine advances in the country’s democracy and liberal reforms which have been dictated by the EU and implemented rapidly, it is still hard to be convinced that Ukraine is truly stable. ‘Post-Soviet practices are still widespread in politics and the economy,” according to Nemyria. “The elites favour continuity, and the dynamism that would bring change from within is lacking. These are the causes of the Ukrainian malaise.”

Nico Lange, head of the Ukrainian branch of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, feels Europe’s attitude has also contributed to Ukraine’s inertia: “It’s true that reforms haven’t been carried out effectively, but it’s the EU’s role to hold out the prospect of membership in order to facilitate the necessary reforms. This type of policy works when the EU has a true desire for a country to join and that’s what Ukraine is lacking.”

There is a risk that Ukraine’s geographical and historical position between Europe and Russia will make it the eternal buffer state and thwart its European aspirations. The EU is dependent on good economic relations with Russia, especially for energy supplies. According to Gérard-François Dumont, professor of geography at Paris-IV Sorbonne, strengthening ties between Brussels and Kiev could be seen as a serious provocation by Moscow, which believes former Soviet republics belong to its sphere of influence.

When European politicians make speeches about Ukraine, they have one eye on Russia. “We are not prejudging anything, and are not ruling out Ukrainian membership, but of course we must bear in mind the stability of the continent,” says Jean-Pierre Jouyet, France’s minister for Europe. “We must give substance to the cooperation between the EU and Ukraine and at the same time cement a strong partnership with Russia.”

This will be quite a balancing act, since Russia and Ukraine have been antagonistic for three years over recurrent gas crises, threats to the Russian military base at Sebastopol on the Black Sea and Moscow’s opposition to Ukraine’s membership of Nato.

While handling Russia carefully, the EU is becoming more involved with Ukraine, especially through its European Neighbour Policy, launched in 2004 and now including all the countries that border the union. Founded on Romano Prodi’s slogan of “everything apart from institutions” (1), this allows states such as Ukraine to benefit from the internal market and take part in certain EU policies, in exchange for making progress in “shared values” such as democracy, law and liberalisation.

Ian Boag, head of the EU delegation in Ukraine, sees it as a way of “preventing the creation of a new Iron Curtain in Europe a few hundred kilometres from the old one”. But the Ukrainians worry they are being relegated to the status of perpetual neighbours.

“For us it is clear, since it’s the spirit and letter of the Treaty of Rome that every European country can put itself forward for membership,” Grigoriy Nemyria insists. “Ukraine is clearly a European country and we want to join the EU in the future.” He emphasises that they don’t want to “rush things and be members tomorrow or the day after. We are aware that Ukraine is not currently ready for membership, but we see that Europe isn’t yet ready either.”

Ukraine’s persistence reminds us of the EU’s own doubts about its aims, shape and identity. Ukrainian membership would mean further dilution of an already weakened European project. It would also raise the question of future Russian membership.

Enlargement fatigue is discernible: the EU is having trouble absorbing 12 new members and is deeply divided over applications from Turkey, Macedonia and Croatia, all of which are ahead of Ukraine in the queue. “No one knows where the union is heading,” the Ukrainian philosopher Konstantin Sigov agrees. “From Kiev to Lisbon, Europe is in disarray. But . . . for Ukrainians, Europe is already here.”

By Mathilde Goanec, Le Mond diplomatique

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