Is Ukraine up to the challenge of the European Union?

Ukraine’s European integration is like a box of assorted chocolates: you never know what filling each chocolate has. In Ukraine’s case, it is what is inside the country that’s a big mystery.

Ukraine’s feeble attempt to receive the desired status of associate member of the European Union received a mighty impulse from an unexpected direction recently, during the first official visit of Viktor Yanukovych, the newly elected president of Ukraine to Brussels.

The European Union has received a clear signal from the new Ukrainian leadership that European integration remains a priority, despite the perception that it wants integration with the Russian world.

Europe is now holding its breath, waiting for Yanukovych to act. Following the inaction of the old “orange” power and their criticism of the new European Neighborhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership program that was forced through by Poland and Sweden, this is an obvious step forward.

But the joy in the eyes of European officials was tinged with anxiety. Although Ukraine is a welcome guest, what would they treat them to? The funds supporting regional policies, used to reduce imbalances and eliminate poverty in the poorest regions, are barely enough to advance the new Eastern European members to a decent condition. The global crisis is not helping, either, crippling Euroepean Union countries such as Greece and Portugal.

And while the initial fright over Yanukovych is now gone, as it had no time to root in the heads of trusting European Union bureaucrats, the signals coming out of Kyiv this week quickly eliminated the positive first impressions.

“The closest possible cooperation with NATO, but we’re not talking about joining”; “Nobody is expecting Ukraine in European Union”; “Let’s forget the last five years of relations with Russia – we have the chance to return to the old position,” the suggestion of joining a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – these are just a few of the comments. The final stroke came from Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Semynozhenko who recently said: “It is worth Ukraine considering the idea of creating a union state with Russia and Belarus. … The majority of Ukrainians want to join a union with Russia and Belarus.”

The few well-wishers of Ukraine’s perspective in Europe – traditionally Polish deputies headed by European Parliament Speaker Jerzy Buzek – are at wits’ end. Their incomprehension at how one can just waste the huge capital of trust that existed after the Orange Revolution, has now turned into disappointment and annoyance with Ukraine.

The recent resolution by the European Parliament on Ukraine approved on Feb. 15 is a case in point: “Since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has regrettably lost more than five years in properly addressing its major constitutional and institutional deficits, especially in solving the conflicts of competence between the president and prime minister.”

Well, let them be disappointed, an average Ukrainian would say, there is nothing this Europe can give us! But the issue here is not whether Europe can give anything to Ukraine, the issue is whether Ukraine is capable of using what it’s got, for example the Polish-Swedish Eastern Partnership initiative that promotes the process of democratization in the countries of Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus, assists in their modernization processes and establishment of the rule of law, and seeks adaptation to EU standards and creation of the framework for the future integration of the Eastern partners to the EU.

Also obvious are the financial bonuses that come out of this foreign policy. The Eastern Partnership program set aside a separate fund from the general pot of the European Neighborhood Program, and the Council of Europe has suggested directing greater financial resources to this initiative until 2013, as well as approval of the 2014-2020 budget with consideration of the needs of the Eastern Partnership program.

In 2007-2010 the EU planned to give Ukraine 494 million euros to support reform and implement the Action Plan, which is 123.5 million euros per year. This is just a drop in the ocean of financial subsidies within the Neighborhood Program, which has a budget of 12 billion euros in 2007-2013. But this is the train Ukraine has missed, and it should now focus its effort on 2012-2013, when the budget is formed for the next seven years, until 2020.

All the more because the head of the European Parliament, which has a lot of power over budget policies, is Buzek, the Pole who despite everything continues to declare that “the European parliament invariably supports Ukraine’s strive for EU integration.” Poland will also head the EU from July 1, 2011.

Whether Ukraine will confirm its European intentions by achieving progress in meeting the Copenhagen membership criteria is yet to be seen. We’re yet to find out what’s inside those assorted chocolates.

Maksym Ferenc is a practicing lawyer and teacher of European law at the University of Podlasie in Poland. He specializes in constitutional, civil and business law of Ukraine and Poland, and international business law. More information can be found on http://fkconsulting.biz/

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