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Ukraine and the European Union

By Taylor Marvin

Mocking Chris Hayes’ admission that he is confused by the rapidly-developing events in Ukraine, Alex Berezow writes that the West has a “smack-you-in-the-face obvious” policy choice regarding the Eastern European country. To avoid Ukraine again threatening to fall into Russia’s orbit, the European Union should offer Ukraine an achievable pathway to entry into the EU. “Feckless though it may be,” Berezow writes, “the EU offers Ukraine a safer future than its current status of dependence on Russia’s ultimately self-serving largesse.”

Daniel Larison makes the reasonable point that this option is only obvious “if you assume that the US and EU are willing to bear the costs that will come from bringing Ukraine closer to the EU, and if you assume that they are ready and willing to counter whatever actions Russia takes in response to the attempt.” This, of course, is true. The prospective Association Agreement which — after its rejection — precipitated the protests against Yanukovych’s government and current aid offers are very different from the EU entry Berezow suggests and Ukrainian politicians have positively mentioned. As Larison notes, a Ukrainian pathway to full EU membership is a long-term prospect that may never come to full fruition. Ukraine is in the midst of a violent and chaotic political upheaval, which is unlikely to be the country’s last. The country is poor and beset by corruption and weak public institutions. From the EU’s perspective, it is not clear if the long-term cost and difficulties associated with the hard work of actually incorporating Ukraine are preferable to the status quo. For many Ukrainians, Russia’s “self-serving largesse” may be more dependable than a distracted and disinterested European Union’s, at least in the shorter-term.

The prospect of further EU expansion to include weak or politically unstable states is costly, and this is a cost that commentators or EU leaders themselves can’t simply wave away. There’s no reason to think that the European Union has strong practical interest in tying its own success to Ukraine’s more tightly than it already is by virtue of geography alone, or that a path to the EU entry that both Berezow and western-leaning Ukrainians support necessarily leads to so-desired institution-building and political stability.

Building institutions and liberal political environments is a difficult task, and one Europe has already demonstrated it has only so much interest in doing. Turkey’s efforts to join the EU have famously stalled — a stall the Erdogan government’s highly-public turn towards authoritarianism suggests could last decades. Obviously, there are major differences between Turkey and Ukraine. The Cyprus issue is a major barrier. Turkey’s 77 million strong population would make it the second largest country in the EU, and soon to the be largest; this size makes the Anatolian country’s bid far more politically, culturally, and economically consequential than smaller countries’. Europe’s engagement with Turkey has also been bedeviled by — not unreasonable — accusations of bias against the Muslim country.

But Turkey is both far wealthier and arguably more politically stable than Ukraine. If Ukraine is offered a rapid — read: believable — pathway to EU entry, then the message sent is that the only reason Turkey’s bid has stalled is because it isn’t lucky enough to enjoy the strategic attentions of a major European rival. Aside from all the practical difficulties of Ukrainian membership, and assuming that Ukrainians even see a path to EU entry as a credible offer, is that really a message the EU wants to send?

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. The message the EU is sending is “we’re confused”. This has been a stable and consistent message that they have articulated clearly and without hesitation for at least the last 5 years, making us here (in the US) understand, without any doubt whatsoever, that they are in fact confused, and intend to remain steadfast in their confusion for the long term.

    February 28, 2014
    • I agree. The EU doesn’t know what it wants to be, and this confusion confuses others. It’s tempting to say that people in Ukraine, Turkey, and Georgia should just recognize that full EU membership is a long, long way off, but with the mixed messages the EU’s feeding them it’s not surprising that some don’t (though many in Turkey seem to have).

      Thanks for the comment.

      February 28, 2014

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