The European Union must ensure that it has a realistic and effective policy towards its East. And entering into agreements which encourage greater integration and cooperation with these countries is the only way of doing that.
This is, to put it very simply, what the agreement between the EU and Ukraine on deep and comprehensive free trade is all about, together with the arrangements in place with other countries to the East of Europe.
However, in the discussion prior to the consultative referendum in the Netherlands that will take place on 6 April, the forces rallying against the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement are saying “no” to all of this, but without offering any alternative. They want a European Union without a policy towards our East – probably because they don't want any European Union at all.
It's a dangerous illusion to believe that we could simply isolate ourselves from the issues to the East of Europe, and claim that these are “far-away countries” of which we know little. Turmoil and conflicts in the region are bound to impact us in the EU, not only in terms of huge numbers of refugees, but also in terms of endangering peace and stability in Europe.
Ukraine is a large and significant European country, albeit one with a complicated and sometimes even contested history. Historically speaking, what is today's Russia has its origins in the old Rus of Kiev, but during later centuries the two countries diverged in their development, with Western influence obviously being much stronger in the Ukraine that emerged.
Ukraine’s history during the Soviet period was tragic. It suffered enormously during periods of mass starvation and terror under Stalin, and together with Belarus, bore the brunt of Hitler's devastating onslaught.
As the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine faced the task of building its own independent state, but the decades since then have been a mixed picture.
On the positive side, and in stark contrast to what we have seen in Russia, in one sense Ukraine has kept firmly to the democratic path. On the negative side, it has failed to undertake the necessary reforms that have made it possible for other former Soviet satellites to prosper. West of the Urals, Ukraine now competes with Moldova for the title of the worst governed part of the former Soviet empire.
But pressure for reform and change has been building up in the country, driven by the young generations wishing to see a complete break with a Soviet past, and wanting to welcome a future of freedom and integration with the other democracies of Europe.
The Orange Revolution in 2004 was a clear expression of this, although its aspirations could not be fulfilled. Nonetheless, Ukrainian administrations since then have sought closer cooperation with the European Union in order to both gain economic advantage through trade and to give impetus and inspiration to the reform processes.
When the EU launched its Eastern Partnership in 2008 it was an attempt to give greater weight to the Eastern dimension of its Eastern Neighbourhood Policy, and to give these countries the same possibility of cooperation with the EU that had been offered to Russia.
For a long time the Eastern policy of the Union could best be described as a policy of “Russia First”.
An ambitious Partnership and Association Agreement has been in place with Russia since 1994, a policy of four pillars of cooperation was launched in 2003, and in 2009 it even developed into a possible Partnership for Modernisation. We envisioned a potential future in which there might be free trade from Lisbon to Vladivostok. There were two summits every year between the EU and Russia – more than with any other country.
Unfortunately, the leadership of Russia gradually moved off in another direction. Today, you hardly hear the world modernisation uttered in Moscow, and the emphasis there is rather on barriers to Europe and the outside world.
But this was their choice – certainly not ours.
The agreement on a deep and comprehensive free trade area between the EU and Ukraine was initialed as early as 2012 and was perfectly compatible with existing free trade arrangements between Ukraine and Russia. Mexico has a free trade agreement with both the US and the EU, and Serbia has one with both the EU and Russia.
But evidently the Kremlin feared the democratic and reformist spirit of Kyiv, and decided to do whatever it would take to stop the cooperation with the EU that was and is so important for these efforts. This is what is at the core of the current conflict that has escalated into Russian military aggression against both the Crimea and the Donbas regions of Ukraine.
Were the European Union to turn its back on Ukraine and tear up the agreement – which is what the “No” side in the Dutch debate wants – there is little doubt that this would encourage further Russian destabilisation of and aggression against Ukraine. Instead of moving step by step towards reforms and democratic stability, Ukraine would risk descending into a conflict-ridden zone of profound instability.
The short term consequences for Europe of further instability in Ukraine might well be large number of refugees. There are already 1.5 million internally displaced people inside Ukraine after Russian aggression in the east of the country. If Russia destabilises Ukraine further, the existing displaced people and many more are highly likely to start moving further west.
The long term consequence of this will almost certainly be a more revisionist and militaristic Russia. Where this might take our Europe tomorrow is, I fear, anybody's guess.
Ukraine is a country of talent and potential that has a lot to contribute to Europe as a whole.
It will certainly take time for Ukraine to push through its reforms and get back onto the path towards growth that we saw after the profound reforms that took place in Poland or the three Baltic states two decades ago. As a democracy, Ukraine is likely to go through different governments and challenges in the process. There will inevitably be ups and downs.
However, Ukraine is a country of talent and potential that has a lot to contribute to Europe as a whole. A Ukraine with a stable democracy and a growing economy will be an asset to us all – and I'm convinced that over time it will also serve as an inspiration for the reforms that Russia will sooner or later have to embark on.
The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement is made in the best European tradition of free trade and democratic cooperation. It is clearly in our collective interest to go ahead with it.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.