Great expectations between EU and Ukraine after treaty approval

Dutch lawmakers approved the European Union’s controversial association agreement with Ukraine on Tuesday, meaning Brussels and Kiev now have to negotiate economic and political reform amid looming europhobia, pro-Russian separatism and tensions with Moscow.

Pro-EU Ukrainian students demonstrated in Kiev on the day of last year's referendum in the Netherlands on the EU-Ukraine association agreement.
Pro-EU Ukrainian students demonstrated in Kiev on the day of last year's referendum in the Netherlands on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. AFP/Sergei Supinsky

The Dutch Senate’s vote makes the Netherlands the last EU member state to approve the association agreement, by which Ukraine would remodel its political and economic systems to EU standards, and which both supporters and detractors see as a precursor to a bid for EU membership.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker released a statement saying the vote sent “an important signal from the Netherlands and the entire European Union to our Ukrainian friends: Ukraine’s place is in Europe.”

The bill contained some modifications in response to resistance from eurosceptics that culminated in the April 2016 referendum, in which 61 percent of Dutch voters rejected the EU-Ukraine treaty.

“[Lawmakers] added a couple of statements that the association agreement in and of itself does not mean a step up towards membership, some guarantees on military cooperation, that the Netherlands would not be sucked into a conflict,” notes Sijbren de Jong, an analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.

“But these were never things that were in the agreement in the first place,” he continues. “One has to understand that the referendum was never about the Ukraine agreement to begin with: it was very much a way to vent frustration about the European Union.”

Corruption: a difficult target of reforms

While some aspects of the agreement have already been implemented – mainly concerning trade, as well as a visa-free travel arrangement to come into effect in June – ratification will speed up economic reforms.

“The association agreement is more often an integration agreement, because it integrates the Ukrainian economy step by step into the European economic sphere, and there are lots of parallel processes going on,” says Andreas Umland, senior fellow with the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev.

“So far, I would say it’s not going as fast as one would wish.”

Brussels will likely also pressure Kiev to proceed with some of the more demanding political and anti-corruption reforms contained in the treaty.

“The agreement includes important political provisions that regard the rule of law, judicial reform, the key areas where much is expected of the Ukrainian government,” says Francisco de Borja Lasheras of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “There are conflicting signs coming from Kiev these days, so now the question is whether these will be fully implemented.”

Sijbren de Jong notes there will be resistance to these reforms.

“The biggest factor undermining Ukraine’s orientation towards Europe is the fact that it’s still a very corrupt country, and that there are vested interests at play here that have very little interest in changing this.”

Security in east high among Ukrainian expectations

Fighting within Ukraine over the association agreement already triggered the revolution that brought down a pro-Russian government in 2014, which was itself followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of a rebellion of Moscow-backed separatists in the east of the country.

“We need the European Union, its members and all of the international democratic community in order to support Ukraine economically, to support democratic transition processes and of course to support us in terms of security in terms of Russian aggression,” says Olena Prystayko, executive director of the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels.

“When we are speaking about security support from the EU, we are going beyond actual EU structures, into bilateral relations with EU member states, and also of course Nato and its member countries.”

While EU member states France and Germany have worked with Ukraine and Russia on the rebellion in the eastern region, there has been “a certain clash between what Ukrainians expected of Europe, including military assistance that was never going to come, but also what Europe can provide to them, generally speaking,” says Francisco de Borja Lasheras.

“We are seeing these tensions now both in relations between the EU and Ukraine, but also internally, and this has been amplified by the rise and influence of the europhobic forces in the EU, which tend to be pro-Russian,” he says.

Given events of the past three years, relations between Ukraine and Russia appear to have gone far beyond animosity over the association agreement.

“It’s not going to make it any worse, because it is already bad,” says Andreas Umland. “Relations are so damaged, and the mutual distrust between Ukrainians and Russians is so deep, that I think the association agreement will only have a marginal effect.”


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