How to save Ukraine

It was important to us to convince the Dutch and to ratify the association agreement, writes Konrad Szymanski, the Secretary of State for European Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In the April referendum organised by means of a civic initiative the majority of Dutch citizens voted decidedly against the Netherlands ratifying the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. This has implications not only on the possible collapse of this very agreement but also, in the immediate future, on its initial implementation.

Continued failure to ratify it quite simply means the collapse of the most advanced instrument of cooperation that exists between the EU and countries belonging to Eastern Partnership.

France and Germany have never regarded the agreement as anything more than the sum of literally understood provisions on trade policy and political reform. Only Warsaw maintained illusions on the matter. Other countries are also keeping a distance, much like Paris and London: Great Britain is currently busy with far larger problems and the Swedes pay much more attention than they would want to the problems of Ukrainian reforms and corruption.

The successful reform process in Ukraine is important for this country regardless of the issue of EU membership. Developing closer relations with Europe can take place on various political and economic levels and EU membership is not the only solution here. In particular, as the prospect of membership is not a derivative of the reforms, but the political will of each EU member state.

Since the Russian aggression on Ukraine even the EU’s cautious neighbourhood policy began to be perceived in Europe as bravado attempts to play with the geopolitical border marked out by Russian tanks.

This is despite the well-known – also in the Netherlands – fact that it was President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the association agreement that was the fuse that ignited the Maidan protests that led to bloodshed in the name of Ukraine’s European vocation. The Oder line appears to be limit for this argument’ appeal.

The increasingly cold attitude towards the East could be seen in almost all Western capitals during the seemingly hollow Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga last year.

I wonder what exactly were the "beneficial for Ukraine solutions pushed through then at the EU Council", referring to "the support of Germany and France"!?

Kaczynski the culprit?!

This does not prevent "Rzeczpospolita" from blaming Poland and the now 13-month old PiS government for being responsible for this adverse course of events. "Poland does not have partners in Brussels” and that is why it is in “most part useless” for Ukrainians, writes Jędrzej Bielecki, pointing out bluntly that the Ukrainians themselves do not know this yet.  

According to this logic, the Law and Justice government can in theory be blamed for every European crisis, refusing to take heed of the fundamental changes taking place in the capitals of EU member states.  This reasoning assumes that if it weren’t for the electoral victory of PiS, France wouldn’t have been tempted to come to an understanding with Russia, Great Britain wouldn’t have decided to leave the EU, Germany wouldn’t have discussed limiting social benefits for citizens of the EU’s 28 members and the Dutch would have welcomed an ambitious EU eastern policy with hearty enthusiasm.

However, I’m afraid that the wave of protectionism in the common market, the pressure to renationalise the EU budget and reduce the EU’s international ambitions has its roots in many EU capitals and they are more serious than the hypothetical fluctuations of sympathy for subsequent prime ministers and ministers in Warsaw.

The EU is going through many crises, but none of them has its source in Warsaw. On the contrary, Warsaw is a demanding but constructive partner. It was no different during the weeks of negotiations on a daring rescue plan for the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

Everyone knew the result of the referendum and why Dutch voters were opposed to its underlying premise. It so happened that none of the political objections directed at the agreement had any ground in its provisions. That is why there was no need to change it. However, this doesn’t make things any easier politically. It was necessary to prove that the allegations are irrelevant and to provide the Dutch with the appropriate guarantees.

The decision taken by the heads of government made reference to each of the four key topics in a businesslike and thorough manner. We knew what we wanted to say as well as what shouldn’t be said on this occasion.

With regards to the issue of accession, we resigned from the sterile discussion about the "road to the EU." In their decision, the heads of government merely stated the obvious fact that the agreement does not grant candidate status nor does it create an obligation to grant such status to Ukraine in the future. The text – also thanks to Polish efforts – has a strictly legal character, it does not in the slightest change the requirements of the EU accession treaty, for better or for worse.

After the entry into force of the decision, the issue of Ukrainian accession will be exactly at the same point that it was so far, that is strongly rooted in the treaties, but beyond the political agenda in the EU. The decision does not open the way nor does it close it, because the neighborhood policy is completely independent of the accession process. And the latter is governed by the principle of unanimous agreement of the member states.

Chances for an agreement

The agreement does not open the labour market, but it also does not prejudge the migration and labour market policies of the member states. The agreement does not constitute collective security guarantees, but it does not limit cooperation in security policy. Finally, the agreement does not create new budgetary commitments by member states, but it does not restrict support for reform of the EU budget and those countries that want it.

Three months before the incredibly sensitive elections in the Netherlands and with the immense commitment of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government, we have created together a good chance to save the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which is currently the most advanced form of cooperation between Europe and Ukraine.

Weakening this plan for one’s rhetorical convenience would be proof of the irresponsibility with regards to its potential, which is real. The smart use of the possibilities offered by the agreement by both the European and Ukrainian side would provide a chance to shift the Ukrainian economy and trade towards the West.

It offers opportunities to support reforms and thus to maintain the resistance against geopolitical pressure in the region. This will not happen automatically, but any rash movement on this issue during the last European Council summit would have buried any hope for the tightening of relations between Ukraine and Europe for years to come. That is why Prime Minister Beata Szydlo remained at the negotiating table regarding the Ukraine issue, but she did not overturn it.

In its conclusions, the European Council reiterates its commitment to international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine and points to the geopolitical importance of regional cooperation. The conclusions support the process of abolishing visas for Ukrainians. At the same time, we extended sanctions against Russia. The decision includes a reference to close and lasting relations between Ukraine and the EU.

The decision itself is directly embedded in the rules of EU treaties and therefore also those which concern expansion, but it is worth remembering that the subject is not on the EU agenda today. This has been the case for years, not just since last Thursday. Let me remind you that today the European agenda is becoming more narrow (Brexit) and not wider.

Today is the time to build an efficient state in Ukraine, with social ties with the West and a competent economy. In this case, the Association Agreement provides tangible opportunities.

It will be a difficult road, one that Ukraine is pursuing in extremely unfavourable conditions. Poland sometimes points this out to overly demanding European partners. However, the collapse of the agreement would mean a real blow for these processes for many years to come. It was negotiated for seven years, at a time that today seems idyllic from the European perspective. No colourful comparison to the status of Peru or a moving Promethean elevation will change this.

Konrad Szymański, the Secretary of State for European Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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