The European Pravda article with its appeals to the European Union not to grant Ukraine a visa-free regime brought to mind a long ago conversation. In 2013, before Euromaidan, I had the chance to talk with Western European experts and diplomats who were helping Ukraine carry out essential reforms. At that time, everyone was talking about the Tymoshenko affair and the Association Agreement, but the conversation then turned to a future more distant and issue more serious—EU membership for Ukraine.
It is hardly necessary to say that no one believed in this. True, by no means was it because of the high-profile cases then going on or the reforms and their failures. The experts and diplomats were confident that Kiev would finally manage to do everything Brussels demanded (and from this point of view, the travails around the visa-free regime are worthless). It was something else that worried them.
When assessing the Central and Eastern Europe countries’ behaviour, they paid attention to the “breaches of discipline” which began to manifest after accession to the EU: roll-back on reforms, ignoring recommendations, self-willed policies. Western Europeans assumed the same sort of scenario would play out in Ukraine.
The key nuance here is that the existing problems, the pace of reforms or their lacking are not, in the end, so very important. The unease was tied not to what there is there now, nor with doubts about the victory of democratic transformation, but with the possibility of sustaining this victory into the future.
At first glance, this might generate some disillusionment. It might seem that, in some sense, this puts an end to Ukraine’s full-fledged European ambitions. However, this is not quite the case. In fact, one can see great opportunities in the currently prevailing mood in Western Europe. And if Ukraine is stood alongside the Central European countries, then this means it can count on their support and interest.
And if you look closely, “new Europe” is also interested in Ukraine
Ukraine and “New Europeans”
“New Europe”, ten years ago an object of pride for Western European politicians, is openly revolting against Brussels’ positions on specific issues (immigration, multiculturalism, the supremacy of law). Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic (Croatia may also be mentioned) are claiming the right to make decisions regarding domestic policies independently, even when they diverge from the EU vision.
At the same time, contrary to popular conjecture, their aim is not at all to ruin the European Union. They are not seeking to undermine the institutional, economic or ideological unity of Europe. The reason and object of their dissatisfaction is political bias, when every initiative with a chance of being implemented (for taxes, deepening integration or defence) comes from within state-founders and is discussed and approved there, leaving the impression that “New Europe” is still considered a group of children needing education and nurture.
“Today old Europe means a Europe incapable of making changes … and there is another Europe… competitive, energetic, capable of renewal, searching for the answers to new challenges,” stated Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in June.
And perhaps the only thing they need more of is weight.
This is why Ukraine could be of particular significance for “New Europe”. Having a pro-European attitude, it is not only large enough in size and population to strengthen the voice of the countries in this part of the continent but it is also close to them geographically, historically, economically and in terms of mentality. In turn, it is “New Europe” specifically which could become Ukraine’s lobbyist in the European Union, smoothing over impressions about some of the national particularities of its state governance.
Such cooperation between Ukraine and its EU member neighbours does not yet, from the looks of it, exist. But why not start?