November 29, 2013 is the date marked in the calendars of any Ukrainian. It is the date when the Association Agreement (AA) is bound to be signed at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. Recent political developments in Ukraine may have caused the EU to reconsider its decision whether to sign the AA at this point or not. In this context, FNF brought seven representatives of Ukrainian civil society to Brussels to discuss the involvement of civil society in the rapprochement of Ukraine towards Europe. They met with key figures from the EU institutions, including ALDE President Sir Graham Watson MEP and Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy MEP, Vice-Chair of the Delegation to the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly.
Negotiations towards the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine were launched in 2008 in an air of optimism. After all, the victors of the Orange Revolution had just promised an orientation away from Russia and towards the EU. This optimism has since been damped and the EU severely disappointed by the direction the current President Yanukovych has been taking the country. The imprisonment of former Prime Minister Julia Tymoshenko and other opposition politicians are cause for serious concern regarding Ukraine’s current government’s compliance to the respect for the rule of law and human rights. Still, Messrs Gerbrandy, Watson and Jelko Kacin, MEP, agreed, it is neither in Ukraine nor in the EU’s interest to politicize the case of Julia Tymoshenko and to make the next steps dependent on her release. “Commissioner Füle wants the AA to be signed in Vilnius. After 29 November the political calendar might close the window of opportunity, which might then not reopen for another one or two years,” Peter Stano, Spokesperson of Commissioner Füle, emphasised.
It is not only the Association Agreement that might be put on hold, but the political deadlock also puts in jeopardy the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which is essentially one of the most important aspects of the EU’s outreach policy. “Comprehensive and deep trade agreement means not only the exchange of goods and services, tariffs and the like, but sharing of experience and transfer of knowledge,” Frank Hoffmeister, Deputy Head of Cabinet of Commissioner Karl de Gucht, pointed out. The EU has signed a multitude of agreements, but the message it sends with the DCFTA is different. “The DCFTA is the most ambitious trade agreement, perhaps not in terms of trade flow (in which it is outranked by the US, Japan or China), but in terms of scope: it aims at political association combined with economic integration and thus provides for core reforms on economic recovery and growth, governance and sector co-operation in more than 30 areas, such as energy, environment protection and SME to name but a few,” Philippe Cuisson, Deputy Head of Unit for trade relations with Europe at DG Trade explains. “Approximation of Ukraine to EU legislation, norms and standards will be a powerful stimulant to Ukraine’s economic growth, i.e. as it will enable Ukraine to attract significantly more FDI,” he added.
For the EU there is also much at stake, Cuisson continued, its goal as number one trade power is to liberalize trade worldwide. It is in the EU’s interest that other countries adopt European norms and standards. Gerbrandy also commented that European companies would invest much more in Ukraine if they had the assurance that their investment was safe. The DCFTA would reassure them. In the meantime negotiations with Russia towards a Eurasian Customs Union further alienate the EU. To the EU it is just not clear which direction Ukraine will take. “Ukraine believes it is big enough to ignore the rules,” Kacin reproved. A poll taken by the Razumkov Centre has the public’s support for the EU at 41% while 39% are in favor of the pro-Russia option. “People prefer the devil they know,” one of the delegates explained.
The knowledge about the EU in Ukraine is minimal and people do not understand the long-term benefits it will bring them. This is the main problem the organizations to which the representatives of our delegation belonged, wish to address: “Civil society is developing slowly, but that is to be expected – after all, it didn’t exist for 80 years.” Civil society organizations today are crucial for community-based development and grassroots work in local communities and neighborhoods. “This programme has given us ideas how to bring the EU closer to the average Ukrainian and has given us tools and contacts to work towards a closer cooperation with the EU institutions,” a content delegate remarked.