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Ukraine’s European U-turn: Another failure of the EU as a fully-fledged international actor?

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, starting with the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and more recently upgraded with the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, the EU has proactively sought to become a more capable and coherent international actor, one that can produce and act upon a common foreign policy.

December 13, 2013 - Nicholas Ross Smith - Articles and Commentary



Indeed, the EU’s successes should not be undersold: beyond the huge success of enlargement as a force for political and economic transition, their international presence in 2013 is far greater than in 1993 as they now play an increasingly important role in international politics (see the recent Iran nuclear deal) and could well end up being a large pole in an emerging multipolar world. However, while the EU’s triumphs are remarkable in one sense, their failures still tend to overshadow their successes, particularly in the eyes of other international actors.

Christopher Hill famously argued that there exists a capability-expectations gap in the EU; that the EU’s expectations for its international role tend to outstrip its capabilities to act which leads to ineffective outcomes. Hill wrote his thesis in 1993 when the EU was taking its first steps as a post-Maastricht international actor but it is arguably still as relevant in 2013 as the EU continues to add to its litany of international failures, particularly the inability to reach common foreign policy decisions in relation to international crises (i.e. Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Palestine, Iraq, Sudan and more recently Libya).

For many, the EU’s capability-expectations gap was meant to be addressed by the advent of the Lisbon Treaty, which created: a special diplomatic body, the European External Action Service (EEAS), a foreign policy figurehead (Catherine Ashton) and an extension of the EU’s areas of executive or shared competency. Yet, despite some gains in the EU’s international presence and a generally positive self-appraisal amongst EEAS officials, few would argue that the EU has markedly improved as an international actor in the four years since Lisbon.

The first test of the EU’s post-Lisbon capabilities was the eruption of the various Arab Spring movements across the Middle East and North Africa. While this was perhaps an unfair litmus test for the EU given that it occurred so shortly after Lisbon, the EU nevertheless again showed an inability to coherently reach an agreement on a difficult issue. Conspicuously, the EU failed to get their prospective EUFOR Libya mission off the ground resulting in an Anglo-French initiative outside of the EU, further hindering the EU’s already discredited external legitimacy as an international actor in areas of high politics. While a failure to act in the context of Libya and the broader Arab Spring is arguably excusable, the EU’s failure in Ukraine, a European country which lies on the EU’s eastern border, is far more glaring.

Scholars have often talked up the EU’s existential occupation with its Eastern frontiers; a purported geopolitical area where it employs more Machiavellian strategies than its usual Kantian approach. The EU’s expansion into erstwhile communist space through enlargement and more recently its engagement with the Eastern Neighbourhood through the Eastern Partnership Programme (EaP) are often cited as examples of this. However, as time goes on, it is starting to appear that the former was perhaps only achievable due to a combination of a weakened Russia in the 1990s and the EU’s use of membership as an overarching carrot. In the case of the EaP, and in the context of Ukraine, the EU’s policies now seem largely inadequate.

Ukraine’s attractiveness for the EU is obvious; a large country with a well-educated population and large economic potential. Additionally, a democratic and prosperous Ukraine closely aligned to the EU would be of great geopolitical importance as well as potentially acting as a bridge to opening up Russia to the EU, a place which has so far been impervious to the EU’s advances.

The importance of Russia in this relationship is perhaps the key variable for the EU; their realpolitik view of their near abroad makes Russia’s foreign policy towards Ukraine extremely zero-sum. The EU is certainly cognisant of the “competitive element” of its neighbourhood interaction and while it obviously cannot match Russia’s geopolitical toolkit, particularly as it does not have the same military capabilities, it can easily dwarf Russia in terms of economic power. That is what makes the EU’s failure to cajole Ukraine into signing the Association Agreement (AA) not a failure of their capability; essentially reversing Hill’s thesis into an expectations-capability gap where the EU’s weak expectations have betrayed their capabilities. Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the AA, which was undoubtedly influenced by Russia’s coercion and short-term strategies, represents a massive setback for the EU, which spent four years negotiating in preparation for the Vilnius summit. Ukraine’s flip-flop away from Brussels towards Moscow (it is yet uncertain how far, or for how long) clearly took EU personnel by surprise, most of which felt a Ukrainian signature in Vilnius was a forgone conclusion, even though Russia’s likely desperation in attempting to prevent such an outcome was surely expected. Furthermore, the EU’s relative muteness in the aftermath of Ukraine’s decision shows a worrying lack of contingency and urgency.  

Dissecting the EU’s failure in Ukraine, three key areas which need rectifying immediately come to the surface: the incentive structure of the AA; the EU’s engagement with Ukrainian elites; and the internal political will of EU member states.

The EU’s offer of an AA to Ukraine is undeniably an attractive long-term prospect for Ukraine; a chance of deepening its economic relationship with the world’s largest single market which in turn would facilitate social, political and economic transition. However, while the end goal of having the EU and a modern Ukraine closely integrated and aligned is desirable, getting there is a real challenge for Ukraine and something the EU has clearly underestimated. As one EEAS official told me, the AA “hardly requires anything from the EU side but it requires massive changes from the Ukrainian side, and they don’t get very much in return directly but what they do get is an opportunity to reform themselves.”

The lack of tangible incentives, particularly short-term incentives, in the EU’s AA offer is a massive problem. Indeed, as EEAS officials iterated to me, Ukraine should be compelled to implement the AA measures because it is good for Ukraine. But such naïve sentiments belittle the fact that strategic calculation still governs in this part of the world. The EU has clearly forgotten that it was the incentive of membership which has been the driving reason for its success in other post-communist states, not the attractiveness or universality of its normative policies. Giving Ukraine a membership perspective would require very little of the EU (particularly as it is already unequivocally stated in article 237 of the Treaty of Rome that any European country can apply to join the Union) and would help pacify Russia’s use of short-term carrots and sticks which have so far been enough to pull Ukraine back towards Moscow.

The mobilisation of mass popular demonstrations on the streets of Kyiv, and other Ukrainian cities for that matter, to protest Yanukovych’s decision to not sign the AA is, on the one hand, heartening as it has happened only a few years since the failed promises of the 2004 Orange revolution and, on the other hand, shows that the EU model is something the general population craves. The EU as a public diplomacy actor is something which is gaining a lot of traction in the literature and certainly its ability to appeal to foreign publics has been an important device in the past. However, whereas in the case of Slovakia, the EU was able to subvert the regime of Vladimir Meciar through appealing to the general population and the opposition, in the case of Ukraine it is far more difficult and complex.

Ukraine, in its current incarnation, is clearly not Slovakia of the late 1990s. It has a far more entrenched and self-interested political class (the oligarchs if you will) which presides over a more illiberal system of governance, one which is strongly backed by an arguably even more illiberal regime in Russia. An often overlooked variable, certainly by foreign agents, in the scope of post-Soviet transition(s) is the willingness of elites to adopt economic and political reform. The problem in the context of Ukraine is that the EU’s normative demands potentially threatens Yanukovych and his close associates (but also any potential alternative leader too), as undertaking the EU’s conditional economic and political reform could essentially reform the current regime out of power. Thus, the EU needs the political class in Ukraine to buy-in to its policies, as attracting the general population alone will probably not be enough in the long-run.

The EU’s ineffectiveness in convincing Ukraine into moving closer to Europe through its AA initiative points to a more fundamental issue which constrains the EU’s international action: the problem of relying on consensus politics. In the scope of the EU’s eastern frontier, it is no secret that certain cohorts exist among the 28 member states: ranging from pro-Russia Greece and Cyprus, to the pragmatic and strategic France and Germany, to the generally anti-Russian Poland and Lithuania, with the remaining member states fitting in between the two extremities. Unsurprisingly, the member states that have driven the EU’s Ukrainian policy have been Poland and Lithuania, in conjunction with Sweden, which a have used their presidency terms to heavily push the Ukrainian agenda.

While the Ukrainian issue is clearly important for the EU at a supranational institutional level, the lack of a strong consensus among EU member states is perhaps undermining the EU’s efforts in Ukraine. Undoubtedly the EU could do more in Ukraine: whether offering more carrots (particularly a membership perspective) and actually using some sticks (visa bans and asset freezing), or being prepared to compete directly with Russia (through neutralising Russia’s coercive tactics), or even just having more of a presence and engagement with the pro-EU forces in Ukraine. However, so far the EU has arguably missed the boat. While Catherine Ashton’s visit to Ukraine on December 10th, 12 days since Yanukovych said no to Europe, did add renewed vigour to the demonstrations (we cannot say whether her dialogue with Yanukovych was useful yet), it appears that nothing tangible has come from it. Add in that none of the prominent leaders from the member states have moved beyond rhetoric-heavy statements, and it does appear that the internal political will for the EU to go the extra mile in Ukraine is lacking.

Indeed, in time perhaps the EU will be able to compel a Ukrainian (E)U-turn either through assuaging Yanukovych or harnessing the popular dissatisfaction on the ground in Ukraine at the moment. However, such an outcome would not change the fact that the EU’s policies towards Ukraine have suffered from inherent policy-making flaws, something which needs to be rectified if the EU is to emerge as a fully-fledged international actor and as a pole in a future multipolar world.

Nicholas Ross Smith is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland in New Zealand who is researching EU-Russian foreign policy competition in Ukraine.

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