What if… the EU had offered a membership perspective to Ukraine?

Commentators rue the “missed opportunity” of 2004 and present the membership perspective as a panacea. Instead, they should be asking what functions and demands the EU approach should fulfil and only then, whether a membership perspective would be suitable.

A decade ago in Ukraine, protests triggered elections and a change of leadership. With Viktor Jushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko at their head, pro-European forces took over key political positions, fuelling interest amongst Ukrainian elites and wider society in integrating with the European Union. Russian influence and the Russian model waned, and support for EU-inspired reforms was high – despite widespread awareness of the painful trade-offs in the short to medium term. There was even talk of a potential ripple effect across the whole post-Soviet region.
But EU members resisted offering Ukraine an explicit membership perspective. Brussels was focused on Ukraine’s technical compliance, and the EU-25 had little interest in integrating yet another problem-country. Soon enough, the Orange Revolution forfeited its reputation as an expression of an active civil society, as its leaders revealed themselves to be typical Ukrainian politicians with their own interests. Change stalled, and frustration about the EU and politics in general increased across Ukrainian society. Member governments felt vindicated.
Today, however, commentators increasingly rue the fact that the EU missed the opportunity in 2004 to reinforce the new dynamic in Ukrainian politics and achieve a breakthrough in the reform process: had the EU offered a membership candidacy coupled with immediate benefits (like easing visa restrictions for the required reforms), Ukraine’s civil society would have been strengthened, along with the EU, in turn, keeping up the momentum for change. It is an argument often heard in the current debate, especially in the aftermath of the failure to conclude a trade deal with the country – but does it hold?
A membership perspective for the Orange Revolutionaries: the EU’s missed opportunity?

2004 was indeed the first time in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history that both elites and society had a serious interest in EU integration and were willing to accept the attendant conditions. But since Ukraine’s new leaders were too weak to implement fundamental reforms, the EU’s membership perspective would have been simply too demanding a carrot. While the narrative of the membership perspective as a driver of fundamental reform is very appealing, therefore, in the case of Ukraine, this would have meant a history of broken promises on both sides. What the EU needed back then was instead a strong mechanism of incentives and engagement below the level of membership.
In its absence, the reformist agenda lost momentum and a once-united front split into rival camps. Finally, in 2010, Victor Janukovich, the loser of the 2004 election, exacted his revenge by winning the presidential election. This was a failure not just of the Ukrainian elites but of the EU itself: while the leaders of the Orange Revolution had certainly stumbled over their own egoism, the EU had misunderstood the role that was being demanded of it and had ignored the reality of post-Soviet politics. After all, it was not the ruling elite that was capable of bringing change but Ukrainian society, and this civil society needed finally to grasp its power. Ukraine’s political elites have no interest in a fundamental economic and political reform that would challenge their privileges.
Since 2010, of course, the EU has tried to beef up its engagement below the level of a membership perspective. It has done so within the framework of the negotiations on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), on the table since 1999. Yet the discussion in the EU quickly became stuck in a rut, increasingly focused on questions of conditionality – in particular, Tymoshenko’s release from prison. And while the EU formulated with Kiev the most ambitious free-trade agreement in its history, it thereby failed to provide any answer as to how this would actually be implemented with reform resistant Ukrainian elites. For Janukovich, an opaque political and legal environment is more lucrative than a normative framework dictated by the EU, while the release of Tymoshenko would pose a challenge to his re-election in 2015.
Indeed, Janukovich’s interest in the DCFTA was motivated above all by his desire to balance two opposing pressures – on the one hand, a section of Ukrainian elite and society agitating for further integration with the EU and on the other, a section militating for Russia. The DCFTA is the perfect tool for squeezing credits from Russia in a tight economic situation. And such manoeuvres by the Ukrainian elites in turn reinforced the presumption on the EU side that failure to “win Ukraine” would push the country into the Russian sphere of influence. In reality, Ukraine’s elites have no interest in ceding sovereignty to Russia, preferring to play the EU and Russia off against each other. And it is the renewed Russian pressure that is now the main force driving Ukrainians into the pro-EU camp.
This of course is no cause for complacency. In other geopolitical contexts, the EU’s lack of preparation and clarity would perhaps be unproblematic, but for a country wedged between the EU and Russia, it presents nothing but a halfway house, leaving plenty of leeway for the Kremlin to destabilise Ukraine. Today, the EU can only build its leverage over the Ukrainian elites if it puts an offer on the table that dispels the understandable doubts about the bloc’s seriousness and passes to Ukrainian politicians serious responsibility for their society’s lack of fulfilment.
Breaking the circle: form follows function

Today, the EU is dealing with a Ukrainian president with his back to the wall and a Ukrainian society frustrated about indecisive European engagement and the lack of a political alternative at home. To many Ukrainians, European priorities appear to be skewed and even hypocritical, focused on freeing an opposition politician who is seen neither as a democrat nor as a reliable politician – an approach that seems to confirm that the EU has no interest in integrating Ukraine. Brussels has, moreover, become bogged down in a struggle with Russia for which it is not prepared. True, Russia has no roadmap to modernise the region and offers no real model for Ukraine or the other Eastern neighbours. But the struggle between the two actors sends unfortunate signals to elites across the Eastern Neighbourhood.
In all this, the debate in EU capitals has become more about form than function. Commentators rue the “missed opportunity” of 2004 and present the membership perspective as a panacea. Instead, they should be asking what functions and demands the EU approach should fulfil and only then, whether a membership perspective would be suitable. With this in mind, the EU should apply the following three-pronged strategy:
First, offer a clear integration perspective to Ukraine. The EU must make up its mind about what kind of relationship it wants with Ukraine. The basic rationale should be obvious. Even if the EU is still struggling with a messy internal debate about the emergence of a euro-core and with the aftermath of previous rounds of enlargement, it must see that the promotion of security, stability, and democracy in the Eastern Neighbourhood is a vital interest. Moreover, the EU’s internal debate about different speeds and circles of integration actually opens up scope for Ukraine’s integration. The current reforms of EU internal and foreign policies should therefore also include new integration frameworks for the eastern neighbours. Still, clarity about the EU’s vision for itself and the region should drive this potentially complex new arrangement, or it will become the basis for compromises with elites that undermine the bloc’s credibility.
Second, stop posing unwitting conditions on Ukraine. As the debate about the signing of the DCFTA and European Association Agreement shows, the release of Yulia Tymoshenko should never have been the main condition. The EU should rather focus on the “hidden conditionality” of whether the agreement actually has a chance to be implemented. The signature of the DCFTA could only ever be the beginning of a difficult process. In order to change the situation in Ukraine sustainably, the EU needs to define clear criteria and benchmarks and put into place a monitoring mechanism so that success can be rewarded and failure punished. The EU’s closest modernisation partner in this is Ukrainian civil society: it has an interest in better living conditions and in a functioning public sphere that does not serve the interests of a small group but the broader public. Change will not come from outside; rather, it will come when Ukrainian society understands that only they have the power to change the country.
Third, focus on economic support before liberalisation. The EU needs to help Ukraine resolve its economic crisis. Until the end of 2014 Ukraine will have to pay back foreign debts of $10.8 billion, while, in the face of expected 0 percent growth, its foreign reserves have fallen to around $19.7 billion. With an eye to the presidential elections at the beginning of 2015, it is unlikely that Janukovich would be willing to increase domestic gas prices in 2014, which he needs to do if he is to meet IMF conditions for financial credit. The EU is unprepared, even unable, to fulfil these expectations. There is, however, scope for a greater role for the EU in modernising the Ukrainian economy, for which the EU needs to develop technical instruments and a clear communications strategy that make the conditions for financial support more transparent as well as the failure of the government to fulfil them.

This commentary was first published by the Polish Institute of International Affairs on 2 December 2013.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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