The demonstrations in Kiev present a huge opportunity for the European Union to become a serious geostrategic player in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, writes Kevin Doran
The European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton is sending her political director Helga Schmid to represent her at an annual Organisation for Security and Cooperation meeting in Kiev. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, who negotiated the EU’s political agreement with Ukraine that was suddenly torn up by the Ukraine government, will also send a deputy in his place. French, German and British foreign ministers are also planning to send deputies.
The union is playing down the idea that its low-key delegation amounts to a snub. United States Secretary of State John Kerry has no such qualms, however. He has let it be known that he will be in Moldova instead. Moldova has signalled support for a neighbourhood treaty with the EU next year.
Even if were not a deliberate snub on the part of the union – and it is commonplace for foreign ministers to send deputies for regular OSCE meetings – it is, nevertheless, a smart move by EU ministers to stay away; at least for the time being. The last thing they want to be accused of is inflaming a highly sensitive situation in Ukraine just by their very presence.
And yet, the protesters on the streets of Kiev, are looking for assurance that some diplomatic pressure will be applied to ensure a U-turn by their government – so that it will resume talks with the EU in the hope of a stable and sustainable political partnership. Whether the union likes it or not, it is in a tug of war with Russia over Ukraine’s allegiances. And Ukraine is the jewel in Russia’s sphere of influence and in Vladimir Putin’s view of the world the country’s loyalty is a zero-sum game.
It does not matter if that this is not how the EU sees it. President Putin has already hinted darkly that western forces have been stirring up pro-EU protests in the Ukraine capital. Perhaps Europe could have done more to factor in Russia’s likely response during the Eastern Partnership talks. Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych this week said that Russia expressed concerns that Ukraine, in the course of its negotiations with the EU, did not hold consultations with Russia on the commodities that are vulnerable for Putin.
Yanukovych could not have been clearer about what was at stake. He said: “If Ukraine had signed the Association Agreement, it would have lost its dialogue with Russia”. Yanukovych wants to equivocate in the form of trilateral talks – Ukraine, Russia and the EU. But Brussels appears to have rejected it on the grounds that it would give a right of veto to Russia. So what, if anything, should the EU do now?
The European Commission was quick to say that the door remains open to Ukraine. It makes sense to keep the lines of communication open. However the EU will not re-open negotiations over terms. The commission says it “stands ready to discuss aspects of implementation related to the agreements already initialled” although it will not re-open any kind of negotiations. How the Yanukovich government handles the bitter protests in Kiev will be critical for future diplomacy. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso confirmed that Yanukovych, in a phone-call between the two, promised to respect the civil liberties of protesters.
Charles Tannock, British Conservative Party foreign affairs spokesman in the European Parliament, warns that “President Yanukovych should be aware that the world is watching him and he should walk through that door, not slam it shut because Russia has told him to do so”. At the same time, EU member states also want to show Yanukovych he has lost popular support and that a U-turn which sees him signing the EU pact in the margins of an EU summit on December 19 – or at a meeting in March – will be in his political interests.
However, Yanukovych is likely to expect vast sums of EU money in compensation for what may lead to a loss of trade with Russia. The Eastern Partnership has been seriously weakened by the Ukraine’s rejection of an association agreement. Yet, the demonstrations in Kiev present a huge opportunity for the EU to become a serious geostrategic player in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. The last few days show that there is a popular will for it, even if it is politically difficult. As Guido Westerwelle, the German Foreign Minister says the demonstrations “show that the heart of the Ukrainian people beats in a European way”.
Events are moving fast in Kiev and it is hard to tell what will happen next for Ukraine. For now, though, the EU should stand firm and be true to the values that hold so much appeal for ordinary Ukrainians while patiently holding the door ajar to a troubled country struggling to determine its own future.
Kevin Doran is chief executive of ResEuropa – a Policy Review partner organisation