Ukraine's Thorny Road to Association

On March 30, John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Kiev and now director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University in Washington, wrote on these pages that the anti-democratic policies of the Yanukovich administration in Ukraine were holding up signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, and that the “most persuasive step” Kiev could take would be to free two imprisoned opposition leaders, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko (“Ukraine can’t have it both ways”). Ukraine’s ambassador to the E.U. offers Kiev’s position.

See also Ukraine Can't Have It Both Ways.

A year has passed since Ukraine and the European Union initialed the Association Agreement. It has been a difficult time and is unlikely to become any easier in the run-up to the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit in November when the Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (D.C.F.T.A.) agreement, should be signed.

Following the Ukraine-E.U. summit in February, Kiev and Brussels are building upon a common understanding that Ukraine needs to demonstrate determined action and tangible progress on a number of key issues. We have already started to deliver.

Unfortunately, the E.U. remains hesitant, which raises two questions: Who will win if Ukraine and the E.U. fail to sign the Association Agreement? And will European capitals assume responsibility for the consequences of not signing the Association Agreement with 46 million Ukrainians?

First, not signing the Association Agreement will be a clear “lose-lose” situation for both the E.U. and Ukraine. It will be an illogical and tragic missed opportunity, a huge disappointment for Ukrainians who are truly Europeans, and a significant geopolitical failure for E.U. foreign policy. If the E.U. cannot rise to the challenge in its neighborhood, how can it expect to be taken seriously elsewhere in the world?

Second, the D.C.F.T.A. matters not only for Ukraine but also for the E.U. For the Union, it will open a promising new market, which is of critical importance at a time of economic recovery. By rejecting the deal with Ukraine, the E.U. would in fact punish European industries, enterprises, investors and businessmen, depriving them of lucrative opportunities.

Third, the Agreement will provide instruments to start building Europe inside Ukraine. The judiciary is a good example. Would an ad hoc solution to the cases that are of particular concern to Europe bring Ukraine any closer to European standards of the rule of law?

To address a problem and prevent its recurrence one should fight its roots rather than its consequence. The Association Agreement with its binding mechanisms would provide the needed tools to eradicate systemic shortcomings that are on the Union’s wish list — including the cases of special interest, election law, corruption, the rule of law, and so forth.

Fourth, failure to sign the Agreement risks affecting the security situation in the region. The Association Agreement contains political guarantees for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Those who are against the Association Agreement challenge the notion of an independent and stable Ukraine, a key factor for regional security.

Fifth, the E.U. must not ignore public opinion in Ukraine. Determination to conclude the Association Agreement has united Ukraine’s political parties, including prominent opposition leaders and the diaspora. The Agreement is also broadly supported by Ukrainian civil society, and the reason is simple: It is an instrument for public control over the government, motivating it to implement reforms.

Last but not least, the Agreement will put an end to the innuendos and speculation regarding Ukraine’s choice for the future. The scale and significance of a formal association between Ukraine and the E.U. are the reasons behind an increase in attention to the issue from both supporters and opponents.

The closer we come to signing, the more opposition we face. I believe, and I hope I am wrong, that the road to the Agreement’s entry into force will be ever thornier.

Unfortunately, so long as the European Union fails to take a decisive strategic decision on the place of Ukraine in its foreign policy priorities, there will be endless pretexts to delay bringing Ukraine closer. My words should not be interpreted as rejecting the need for Ukraine to deliver on reforms. We are committed to that — not to win praise in Brussels, but for the sake of our citizens.

With the Association Agreement in force, this transformation will take place faster and more efficiently, turning it into a catalyst for systemic reforms and the democratic transition of Ukraine from a post-Soviet to a modern European state.

We are destined to sign the Agreement this November. While today the key to the Association Agreement is in Kiev, there are duplicates in some E.U. capitals. We need to be robust, resilient and strong enough to turn these keys together, and anchor Ukraine within the Union.

Kostiantyn Yelisieiev is the ambassador of Ukraine to the European Union.

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