14 August 2019

EU-Ukraine Relations at the beginning of the Zelensky era

Cristian Eremia

Several days ago, the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, created perplexity among those who attended the 21st EU-Ukraine Summit (July 8), stating that this could also be last summit with the EU. Initially, the statement was met with bewilderment, as the scheme for holding summits with the EU was set through the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, which is valid until 2025. Things were clarified only after Zelensky met with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, with the first insisting on the idea that Ukraine must become closer with the EU in the most accelerated possible rhythm, because he considers that “there is no more time left”. Zelensky added that “beginners” (referring, of course, to himself) bring luck, and that a 22nd summit will not be necessary because, in the meantime, “Ukraine will become an integrated part of Europe”.

Image source: Mediafax

In his final foreign activity of the kind while in office, President Tusk diplomatically apologized to Ukrainians that, for various reasons, he did not manage to achieve everything planned for Ukraine during his term, while at the same time expressing admiration for their resistance to challenges they have faced the past couple of years, despite the poverty in the country, the war, and difficulties with reforms of all kind.

A summit with practical results

Although this was initially considered to be a summit to familiarize Zelensky with the real problems of his country’s relations with the EU, he did not accept the presence of certain government members at the summit (such as the deputy prime-minister for Euro-Atlantic integration). The presidential signal for European partners was clear: from now, we will start working with new politicians, and not the ones who led things to the current situation. He promised for the first time to lift the economic blockade in the Donbass, if several preliminary conditions will be met.

In this new conjecture, Kiev received additional funding for its Western partners, with a notable fact that five important documents (1), maybe even landmark, were signed between the EU and Zelensky’s new Ukraine, for the implementation of which Brussels will offer a separate funding of EUR127 million:

- Additional agreement to modify the funding of the “EU support for Eastern Ukraine” program (by allotting a further EUR10 million). The EU’s additional assistance will aim to ensure improved access to social services for immigrants, including those in the regions near the contact line in the Donbass, measures to stimulate the development of SMEs, to support sectorial reforms and structural reforms in the fields of healthcare, education and critical infrastructure;

- Agreement to fund the “U-LEAD” project, which aims for the EU to grant assistance in order to stimulate the process of implementing a reform on the de-centralization of Ukraine’s public administration (EU funding within the agreement is higher than EUR40 million);

- Agreement on measures to support Ukraine in implementing key reforms, and also to implement the provisions of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreements with regards to the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), especially in the field of agriculture, the environment, public purchases, investments, the business environment and trade (EU funding worth EUR44 million);

- Agreement on funding the “Anticorruption Initiative” which aims to consolidate the independence of the judiciary and the construction of anticorruption institutions (over EUR23 million in funding);

- Agreement for supporting the development of civil society and culture institutions (EU funds worth approximately EUR10 million).

At the same time, Brussels confirmed its availability to provide its second instalment of the EUR500 million macro-financial assistance package, if the Ukrainian side will fulfil conditions imposed by the Union. President Zelensky particularly praised this gesture from the EU.

Ukrainian experts in the field claim that, for the first time, the EU would have considered and operated in the documents, almost fully, requirements from the Ukrainian side. These refer firstly to territorial integrity, sanctions against the “aggressor Russian state”, including possible sanctions to the Russian initiatives regarding “passports and visas”. Secondly, EU assistance was discussed for disadvantaged Ukrainian territories near the Azov Sea.

All of the decisions adopted and documents signed by Brussels with Kiev are certain proof that the EU was, is will remain by Ukraine’s side.

Ukraine after 10 years of Eastern Partnership

Beyond the objective to consolidate stability and security in the region, the main goals of the Eastern Partnership (EP) – a 2009 EU initiative for Ukraine and five other former Soviet states (Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) – were for the EU to grant technical and financial assistance, in order to accomplish economic and political reforms which would create optimal conditions for adopting the Association Agreement with the EU, to create a DCTFA, to liberalize the visa regime and, not lastly, strengthen the energy sector.

Despite this, in the 10 years of EP, Ukraine became the fifth of the six partner states, with conflict zones on its territory and conflict areas with its larger eastern neighbour (Donbass, the Azov Sea, the Kerch Strait). Furthermore, Ukraine lost Crimea in 2014, illegally annexed by Russia, and immediately after, in June of the same year, signed its Association Agreement with the EU. This was the first notable realization, which also shows the success of Eastern partnership actions in the Ukrainian case. It should be noted in this context that the EP project severely bothered Moscow, which also labelled it as “another intrusion and violation” by the EU of its tradition influence neighbourhood. Of course that many of the later serious evolutions of the region’s security situation, particularly in the Ukrainian space, is due to this fact.

As was expected, the EP’s most important effects for the Ukrainian side were found in the economic aspect. Ukraine’s trade balance with the EU reached in 2018 a level which would have been outside any imagination some years ago (2), with the share ratio of Ukrainian exports in the total structure at 42%, while imports are at 43%. Experts also note that the development of the DCTFA does not have a positive effect only for Ukraine, but also made possible the improvement of foreign competitivity of Ukrainian commercial societies which implemented the EU’s standards.

In order to access the advantages of an association agreement and open perspectives to integrate into Euro-Atlantic structures, Ukraine partially used the mechanism of the Eastern Partnership, but also launched a comprehensive internal reform program. The speed of absorbing democratic changes, reform, modernization or transition processes, as well as the solid results of constructing a new stable and reformed statehood have not, however, lived up to the West’s expectations.

Western states, the EU and NATO offered the necessary support to Kiev, but the level of political commitment and internal efforts exclusively depended on the Ukrainian side. This level remains, in itself, an issue which should be debated. Towards the end of the former president’s term, Kiev was openly criticized for its extremely slow pace of implementing reforms, with several Western reports indicating evolutions in Ukraine as invariably marked by labels such as “stagnation”, systemic inertia, or “reform crisis”, “faking” the fight against corruption, reduced budgetary discipline and a defective privatization and foreign investment stimulation program. All these caused a severe reduction in the enthusiasm of many EU member states to accept a clear perspective for Ukraine’s accession to the EU (we must also mention the fact that Hungary, for example, has been systematically blocking the participation of Ukrainian officials to NATO for some time).

By contrast, Poroshenko’s Ukraine openly stated its discontent towards the approaches of the EP format and towards the fact that Brussels is not accepting an acceleration of Ukraine’s integration into the EU, even as its current state profile is marked by evidently incomplete transformations in all fields. It was even suggested to establish different EP platforms centred on the particularities and ambitions of each partner state, or on groups of partner states.

Klimkin, the current foreign minister, said that the EP’s current approach is not working anymore, with his political expectations reduced to the fact that it “offers more European Union and less Kremlin”. Surprisingly, former Ukrainian leader Poroshenko criticized Western Europe before this summit for making the first step towards recognizing Crimea as a Russian territory, as Russia was re-admitted into the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly.

For the moment, the EU is of course avoiding to give an answer for Kiev’s false demands, only indicating the fact that the EP will be concentrating until 2020 on accomplishing the 20 objectives set in 2017, with the accent to be put on developing strategic partnership, continuing democratic reforms, developing institutions which would ensure the respect of human rights and liberties, and also the fight against corruption.

The new president’s starting vision on the EU

The Ukrainian president invited European partners to assess the manner in which the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement was implemented and bring the necessary adjustments, on the assumption that an association agreement should be a flexible instrument, which should take into account in its details the current realities and the Ukrainian states’ real potential, as well as the new framework of relations between Ukraine and the EU. He considers that the priority should be the sectorial integration of Ukrainian markets into the union in the fields of energy, justice and home affairs (JHA), the digital market and trade. Another priority should be a gradual integration into the Customs Union.

The new leader in Kiev promised somehow that, under his and the upcoming government’s leadership, Ukraine will be determined to make substantial efforts, including efficiently using the opportunities which appeared. Zelensky also stated at the even the following: “I am happy to hear from our European friends today that their stance on Russia’s behaviour remains clear and unchanged. The sanctions… will be extended for next 12 and six months, respectively”.

However, what exactly is giving Brussels and Kiev optimism on the evolution of their relations in the Zelensky era? For the EU, the fact that Zelensky could become president has a special significance in showing that Ukraine has a functional democracy, even if it has not completely matured. The Ukrainian electorate’s orientation was beyond doubt. As such, Western states and the EU on its whole should profit from the beginning of the Zelensky era and show a deep support (3) for the democratic, pro-liberal and European orientation of Ukrainians. And the results of the recent EU-Ukraine summit seem to indicate this.

At the same time, President Zelensky showed that he understood the aforementioned detail and brings a new breath into Ukraine’s foreign policy, reaffirming Ukrainian values for democracy, human rights, reforms and accession to Euro-Atlantic structures. In fact, his first foreign visit as president was in Brussels. The pro-European foreign policy orientations are not new. But the debut of the Zelensky era speaks about something more profound and about his vision to generate a new emergence of Ukraine as a state with European values.

There are things which happened in Ukraine and others which are slightly predictable. We should note here the consolidation and functionality of the parliamentary system and of some basic institutions, even in the conditions of fierce internal political fighting. This new reality was what made possible, in fact, the election of a president like Zelensky. What is predictable is that the new president’s party will win the snap general elections and will offer Zelensky the possibility to accomplish a political convergence in problems of national interest within the “President-Parliament-Government” triangle, which will operate with the some policies in order to accomplish common goals, such as Euro-Atlantic integration.

Translated by Ionut Preda


(2 https://ru.krymr.com/a/vostochnoe-partnerstvo-chego-dostigla-ukraina/29939713.html

(3) https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/79223?utm_source=rssemail&utm_medium