The refusal of Ukraine to sign the Association Agreement (AA) at the third Eastern Partnership Summit in 2013 provoked heated debates on the rights and the wrongs of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in general and the provisions of this specific document in particular. After the February Revolution in Kiev, the EU and Ukraine’s provisional government signed only the political provisions of the AA that commit both sides to a relationship based on common values. Signing economic provisions is up to a new elected government.
It is certainly the case that the discourse on norms and values maintains a high profile in the Union. The Commission’s Strategy Paper on the ENP made the level of ambition and the pace of development of the EU’s privileged relations dependent on the extent to which the norms and values are effectively shared. Therefore, both those in power and in opposition in third states routinely resort to normative rhetoric proclaiming their commitment to the liberal norms and values promoted by the EU. In reality, the vocal normative commitments should go hand in hand with the resolution of important pragmatic issues in accord with the Union’s expectations and interests. Against this background, it is curious to hear the voices from Brussels accentuating the Union’s principled stance and “moral superiority”. While the EU eagerly uses its “normative parlance”, it somehow remains more obscure as to the underlying pragmatism determining the EU-Ukraine engagement.
The thorniest challenges of Ukraine
It appears that repeating the customary normative rhetoric all over again may no longer disguise the fact that Ukraine is unlikely to be welcomed into the EU any time soon. In fact, Kiev is deeply disappointed over a) the absence of visa abolishment prospects, b) insufficient promises of financial assistance, and c) the lack of a provision for prospective full membership in the middle term.
But why might Ukraine’s “European dream” be a nightmare for Western Europe? Poverty, national debt, corruption, economic inefficiency, unemployment rate and deep social cleavages are among the thorniest challenges of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the focus of the AA is free trade, structural readjustment, and austerity policies but not reducing poverty there at large. The EU is already experiencing corruption problems and fears their proliferation. The future of Ukraine’s European aspirations is further complicated by continuing economic strains in the EU itself, which has succeeded neither in placing its crisis states on a stable financial footing nor in producing clearly positive market growth trends. More urgent for the EU is the need to open up and exploit new markets through transposing its regulatory framework to the outside, thus achieving the desired degree of legal harmonization and control, but omitting the undertaking of further obligations.
Conflict between dreams and reality
Last but not least, the general unemployment rate within the EU has generated widespread aversion to labor migrants. Few Ukrainians would make a secret of their plans to follow the example of Poland in making full use of the provisions on the freedom of movement within the Union, should it be introduced one day. However, the mere idea of an influx of labor migrants from a country even larger and poorer than Poland may be horrifying Brussels. The unprecedented labor migration from Poland to the UK has put the British job market and welfare system under substantial strain and fueled resentment among the local population towards the migrants from Eastern Europe.
Confronted with the issue, David Cameron recently announced that migrants from poorer countries that join the EU should be banned from moving to Britain. He urged new restrictions to avoid repeating the “mistake” of allowing 1.5 million immigrants from Poland and Eastern Europe to enter Britain in 2004. Should other EU member states follow suit and enact such restrictions, compelled by economic hardship and deteriorating employment situations, one of the major incentives for Ukraine to join may disappear into thin air all by itself and reveal a conflict between dreams and reality.