Please note, this is an approximate translation provided by Google Translate

Once-expanding EU prepares to contract for the first time in its history


Johannes Hahn’s job title sounds a little incongruous these days: he’s the EU commissioner for European neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations. The job title was created in the late 1990s during a period of optimism and expansion. But now, thanks to the will of 52% of British voters, the EU looks set to contract rather than enlarge for the first time in its history.

There are still six candidate countries for EU membership, in the process of making formal applications to join the bloc, as well as a number of other countries with various levels of association. But with many in the EU wary and sceptical of further expansion, the only enlargement negotiations going on at the moment are about managing the expectations of countries that want to join.

Hahn was in Kiev last week, meeting Ukrainian government officials and chairing ministerial meetings of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, a programme linking the EU with six former Soviet countries, which was launched as a response to the Russian war with Georgia in 2008 and was implicitly meant as the first step towards EU membership for the nations. “Don’t believe that the unfortunate decision of Brexit will have any influence on our relationship – quite the opposite,” he told a meeting of the group’s foreign ministers.

But in reality, the initial Eastern Partnership plans are in tatters, as both enlargement fatigue inside the EU and a stick-carrot combination from Russia has pushed a number of the countries away from wanting further integration with the EU. Two of them, Belarus and Armenia, have joined Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, an explicit challenge to the EU, while nobody seriously speaks about Ukraine or Georgia as members any more.

In Ukraine, at least, there is strong pro-European fervour. The 2014 revolution that ousted Viktor Yanukovych began as a protest against the president’s refusal to sign a free-trade agreement with the EU envisaged by the Eastern Partnership. For weeks, thousands of protesters waved EU flags on the Maidan, while visiting Eurocrats were given the kind of welcome normally reserved for rock stars; watching Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, being greeted by an ecstatic throng of people chanting her name was a particularly surreal moment.


Now the free trade agreement has been signed, though at the cost of the annexation of Crimea and a war in the east of the country, with Russia showing it wasn’t bluffing when it said Ukraine heading towards Europe would be catastrophic. A bizarre referendum in the Netherlands in April, triggered by a new law that offers a referendum if a petition receives more than 300,000 signatures, saw Dutch voters come out against the free trade agreement with Ukraine, albeit on a low turnout.

Ukraine’s intense pro-European feelings were as much a reaction against Russian influence and the corrupt system of Yanukovych as they were an active desire to join the EU. “Only 20% of Ukrainians have ever been abroad, so people were standing with European flags and they hadn’t even seen Europe,” said Svitlana Zalishchuk, one of the young reformist MPs elected to the post-Maidan parliament.

On a tour of Ukraine organised by an EU-funded journalism centre to coincide with Hahn’s visit, a dozen European journalists were shuttled through Kiev to meet bright-eyed young reformers in media, politics and law enforcement – the new class of Ukrainians who came out of the Maidan revolution and burn with “Euro-optimism”, even if they are up against the entrenched oligarchic interests of the Ukrainian system and, at least in part, its billionaire president, Petro Poroshenko.

The message was that however many setbacks there may have been, close engagement between Ukraine and the EU was still vital. Despite soporific press conferences laced with talk of benchmarks, provisional agreements, regulatory frameworks and the guaranteeing of fundamentals, Ukrainian reformers say pressure from Brussels really has been a key driver of the reform process.

Many key Ukrainian reforms have been implemented with “significant help and/or pressure” from the EU, said Mykhailo Zhernakov, who is working on revamping the judicial system. Hahn said Ukraine had fulfilled 140 benchmark reforms in order to qualify for visa-free travel for its citizens, and Zhernakov said the prospect of a visa-free regime was the only reason many of the reforms had been pushed through.

Ukraine should be given the deal by the Schengen countries later this year, although given current public opinion in many EU countries there is pressure to delay the decision. Britain was already separate from the agreement and had no plans to give Ukraine a visa-free regime even before the Brexit vote.

This month a summit of western Balkan nations in Paris resulted in a vague commitment that nations such as Macedonia and Albania still had an eventual route to membership. But even Hahn admitted that the situation had changed over the past few years.

“We have to acknowledge that today there is an enlargement fatigue among our citizens, there are currently no member states where this is a majority for a new member, because many people believe that a new member will be a financial burden,” Hahn said. “All the current candidate countries are fully aware that they won’t become members in this decade, and also here we have learned our lessons. But Brexit doesn’t have an influence on our neighbourhood policy.”

In Kiev, there is also a sober assessment of the medium-term chances of membership of the EU. Poroshenko has said he would like to be ready to make a serious bid by 2020; others feel this is unlikely.

“I think sometimes in Ukraine we’re stronger about European values than in some European countries,” said Olena Sotnyk, an MP with the liberal Samopomich party. “The main goal or idea is not to become a member of the EU in five, 10 or 20 years. Our idea is to build Europe in Ukraine, and then we will decide if we need the EU or not.”

© 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited

Share this post

Leave a comment