By Timothy Spyrou
THE international media has largely focused on the Ukrainian Government’s decision to suspend the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement under alleged pressure from Russia. The main story on Euronews is about the injuries sustained by their cameraman as he was covering the authorities’ response to protests against this move.
Yet, I have a sense that this story may soon lose the attention of ordinary people and their governments for two simple reasons.
Firstly, we have the European context, which is decidedly bad, and not really conducive to supporting moves for further enlargement. Secondly, we have Ukraine’s political context, which doesn’t inspire hope of being a successful candidate for EU membership anyway.
After all, part of the reason why the EU is in the mess it is in is because some longstanding member states are deeply dysfunctional. Yet, it would be wrong to just shelve the issue.
People all across Europe are facing a very bleak Christmas and possibly an even bleaker New Year. The EU economy, including those countries with their own currencies, is performing far below its potential, as youth unemployment spirals.
The German leadership is still reluctant to adopt stimulus policies that would give the German consumer higher incomes that could be spent on buying Italian furniture or Greek holidays, spurring demand throughout the continent. A pan-European stimulus plan is out of the question, as can be seen with the reduction in the seven year EU budget.
While I agree that the austerity has been excessive, it should be noted that the endless rounds of protests and strikes in certain countries has made things worse by lowering GDP, increasing the deficits, and necessitating more austerity. Governments and voters across the union are failing to think of the bigger picture.
France is dragging its feet on making necessary reforms so that it can preserve its cherished social model in the context of a continent wide debt crisis and globalization.
The French are also reluctant to fully back the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the US. Britain is alienating even partners that agree that the EU needs to become more competitive and less bureaucratic by flirting with jumping into the abyss of withdrawal.
The votes for extremist and populist parties are going up at the same time that Europe’s democratic deficit is widening, further straining the bonds of union. Northern Europeans are accusing Southern Europeans of dishonesty and laziness while Southern Europeans are accusing Northern Europeans of lacking solidarity.
The Eastern European states like Poland are probably getting impatient, as they thought they were signing up to join a dynamic entity, rather than a madhouse. At the same time, they are not too happy with the British either, for their perceived ingratitude to the Eastern European [primarily Polish] migrants who helped fuel Britain’s boom before the crisis.
It is natural therefore to expect the European public to exhibit a lack of interest in the turmoil engulfing Ukraine. People are living paycheck to paycheck, or, in many cases, by unemployment benefit.
Youngsters in Ireland are emulating their ancestors by immigrating to America, while jobless workers throughout the continent are contemplating whether they too should move.
They are too angry at their politicians and the ‘unaccountable’ and out of touch Brussels elite to really think about what the protests in Kiev mean. Some of the newly minted Euroskeptics, Cypriots included may even say
“Why would any country in its right mind want to sign an association agreement that establishes a road to possible membership anyway”, not realizing that Ukrainians and other peoples not in the EU are still worse off compared to the countries that are in. After all, Europe’s economy would be working much better if there was bolder leadership able to articulate the case for reform, and a wider public able to accept it.
Moreover, European Union states operate on the basis of the rule of law, not the rule of arbitrary men.
It could also be legitimately pointed out that Ukraine and its fellow Colour Revolution nation, Georgia, have both turned out to be big disappointments. Georgia’s former President, Mikhail Saakashvili, wasn’t a perfect reformer, largely because of his combative and mercurial personality.
He also succeeded in inadvertently partitioning his own country by provoking Putin to invade. The hero of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Viktor Yuschenko was a very weak president, unable to exert authority because of the chronic effects of the dioxin poisoning.
He wasn’t able to run a unified coalition with Yulia Tymoschenko or present a vision of a united, Western oriented Ukraine that both ethnic Ukrainian and Russian speakers could own.
In the end, he crashed out of the Presidency with only 5% of the vote in the 2010 election, and more or less buried his old ally Tymoschenko by refusing to give an endorsement, allowing the current President, Yanukovych, in. Aside from the fact that Yanukovych jailed Tymoschenko within a year, is this irony: He was the pro-Russian candidate, whose camp had committed fraud against Yuschenko in the 2004 election, prompting the Orange Revolution in the first place. It should also be noted that while the trial of Tymoschenko may very well have been an arbitrary one, making her detention unlawful, she is suspected of having engaged in illegal activities in her prior career as an oligarch.
EU governments and their electorates may feel justified in shrugging their shoulders at the Ukrainian situation and going about their business. It is wrong for two very big reasons. One is that it will be a victory for the rule of arbitrary men over the rule of law.
It sends a signal that the old ways associated with revisionist nationalism and sphere of influence politics can triumph over the freedoms and opportunities offered by a community of open societies and economies.
The reader may say this is alarmist, and that the Ukrainian Government carefully weighed the merits of both the EU and Putin’s Eurasian Union. After all, the cultures and economies of Russia and the Ukraine are similar However, in a slip of the tongue, a member of the Ukrainian ruling party said “Russia hasn’t really started to defend its interests yet.
It is just playing a game with us. If Russia seriously starts to defend its economic interests, our industry would turn into a cemetery.”
The Russian President believes keeping a preferably authoritarian Ukraine firmly in Russia’s sphere of influence will help him consolidate his own power and prestige. Ukraine is very important to Russia.
It is not just about the sizeable GDP and the strategic dominance in the Black Sea, or about the 18 to 25 % of Ukrainians who identify themselves as ethnic Russian. The Russian nation and the Russian Orthodox Church originated IN Kiev.
Putin has a lot at stake in keeping Ukraine in line.
Firstly, he has postured as a Russian nationalist who will restore the Motherland’s glory.
Secondly, he has invested a lot of diplomatic capital in establishing the Eurasian Union, presently consisting of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. He wants Ukraine to join; otherwise it will be seen as an enterprise of limited clout. Remember, he once said that the collapse of the USSR was a “great geopolitical catastrophe”.
Russian nationalists want to reverse at least some of that catastrophe through the Eurasian Union, and see having Ukraine as a member as vitally important because it represents not just Russian history, but Russian might under both the Tsars and the Soviets. Thirdly, the loss of Ukraine to the West would be seen as a grave blow to Russian nationalism, given that they have yet to fully reconcile themselves with the accession of most of the old Warsaw Pact-Soviet Bloc into the EU and NATO.
It won’t be a fatal wound to Putin’s regime, but it will damage his strategy of relying on nationalism for political survival. By being muted in its support for the protestors getting beaten up by the riot police as they are braving the cold with the EU flag in their hands, the union’s leaders are implying that the European identity is not worth fighting for.
It is also implying that revisionist nationalism + satellite state/hegemonic behavior+ enthusiastic use of truncheons and tear gas is greater than a continent united by history, commerce, culture, freedom and the rule of law.
The second reason why I believe the collective shrugging of shoulders at the Ukrainian situation is dangerously wrong is this; it implies that our divisions and problems have not only increased the isolationism expressed by the citizenry of every European country, but has also decreased the willingness of the citizenry to convey solidarity for their fellow Europeans and fellow human beings.
The Euronews is currently operating a continuous, unscientific poll asking “Do you support the pro-EU protests in Ukraine?” Although 65% voted yes, 33% voted no. You may think that the margin is impressively in favor of eventual Ukrainian membership of the EU, but it is not.
The fact that 33% oppose the Ukrainian people’s protests in defense of their European destiny on a poll run by a news channel that champions Europe is alarming. This majority can be easily overturned through populist appeals centered on the dire economic and social circumstances facing the European Union.
Take Britain for example. Pick up “The Daily Mail” or “The Sun” from the newsagent, and you are guaranteed to find articles condemning the EU for the unprecedented wave of East European migrants into Britain, on the unfair grounds that they took British jobs.
Now, the Labour Party, which under Blair/Brown, welcomed these immigrants, is trying to toughen up its rhetoric on future EU migrants, so that it can keep pace with the Tories.
Meanwhile, the Tories want to drastically reduce immigration from the EU, while some of their voters believe that the best way to resolve the issue is to pull out of the EU altogether.
At the same time, it is forgotten that the influx to Britain wouldn’t have been so massive if the others hadn’t buckled to their own voters’ populist instincts by maintaining visa controls, in contrast to the core EU principle of the freedom of movement.
At the same time, you have the problem of economic protectionism. Former President Nicholas Sarkozy, himself the descendant of Hungarians, campaigned against allowing major Western European manufacturers to establish factories in Eastern Europe, even though this went against the Single Market.
It wouldn’t take much effort to drum up opposition among German workers to the idea of businesses setting up in Poland.
An economic association agreement, with a reformed, liberal democratic Ukraine moving towards eventual membership is the last thing that many fearful voters want. Instead of seeing the great opportunities, they see potentially lost jobs.
They also see taxpayers’ money flowing to the Ukraine as regional aid. This explains why so many Euronews viewers voted no, despite seeing a broadcast of a young father, carrying his child on his shoulders, declaring that he was marching against Yanukovych and Putin so that the little boy could have a European future.
Yes, the EU is facing a severe economic, political and institutional crisis. Voters are worried about their economic futures and they believe their national governments and the Brussels elite are woefully out of touch.
But there are Ukrainians on the street who want to belong to Europe passionately because they believe a European Ukraine is the only Ukraine that could be strong, dignified, prosperous, and most importantly, free.
They want to educate their young people in Europe and they want their businesses to learn from European ones. They do not want to remain a country governed by the rule of arbitrary men.
They are being beaten and teargassed on the street because they strongly believe in this dream. They are risking politically motivated charges and jail sentences. It is wrong to shrug our shoulders and turn our backs on them just because some voters may demand it.
Europe’s leaders need to show courage and tell these voters that if Europe is to mean anything as a humanitarian idea, it has to stand for a Ukraine that wants to be European, prosperous and free.