Ukraine, EU Integration, and the Road to Prosperity

Earlier this year, the European Union (EU) welcomed Croatia as the 28th member state, a decision which caused some degree of controversy. While some commentators claimed that the EU had already overstretched its boundaries, many politicians in the European community remain convinced that expanding the EU and signing European economic agreements is the optimal choice for the continent’s prosperity.

At a meeting a couple weeks ago, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski that almost all prime ministers and four presidents in the Ukraine had hoped to build a closer relationship with the EU and European community. As Carl Bildt has recently written, these statesmen hoped to bring Ukraine into the fold of prosperity and modernization. He writes “If the choice was between stagnation with Russia or integration with the EU, we were told that Ukraine had made up its mind. And opinion polls showed solid and increasing support for this European choice.”

It came as a great surprise when on Wednesday Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych backed away from EU Association Agreement that would ultimately help integrate their economy and, according to Bildt and other proponents of the EU, lead to a prosperous future for the country. Instead, Kiev has chosen to pursue trilateral trade talks with the EU and Russia.

But unlike some reactions to Ukraine’s rejection of the Association Agreement, we don’t think improving trade relations with Russia is necessarily a bad thing. In rationalizing Kiev’s maneuver, Bildt claims that Russia has pressured the Ukrainians by saying trade with Russia would be cut to a quarter. He also suggests that sidling with Russia amounts to moving towards stagnation.

If any institution has begun to stagnate, though, it’s the EU. To be sure, the people of Greece or Portugal are not on the road to prosperity and modernization that Bildt describes. While EU membership and various agreements have worked for some areas, there are salient problems within the EU that require attention. Turkey has benefited to some degree by the EU Customs Union, but to claim that the entire country and its people have experienced the relatively newfound wealth is misleading. The same could be said for Romania and Bulgaria. The objective for the EU is integration and universal prosperity, but in praxis, however, wealth remains unevenly distributed. To what degree is integration and prosperity possible for a country on the periphery like the Ukraine?

The commentary on EU expansion is emblematic of broader international relations discussions in which scholars use and apply paradigms and frameworks. Generalizations and patterns about European growth versus stagnation are applied to what is ultimately an extremely disparate series of states and nations that comprise the EU and European Economic Community. In short, what worked for country “x” will work for country “z.” This is highly problematic as it fails to consider regional disparities and local challenges to stability and integration. Each state offers variegated challenges to integration.

That the EU hopes to complete agreements with the Ukraine when there are clearly signs of systemic problems, namely corruption, emphasizes the importance the EU places on economics over human rights or socio-economic equality. The Ukrainian Parliament refused to allow imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko to leave jail for medical treatment. The EU and other states have accused the current president of holding former Prime Minister Tymoshenko in prison after an obviously corrupt and partisan trial. This corruption, however, represented just a minor hurdle for the EU in trade talks.

Whether pressured or not, Ukraine’s decision to strengthen ties with Russia is neither surprising nor necessarily consequential for the EU. The Ukraine is closer to Russia geographically and, in many ways, they share common historical experiences—albeit often painful ones. Closer economic ties among neighbouring countries are made often out of necessity. Additionally, while Russia's economy might be stagnating Kiev needs to think in the long term. At present, the EU has enough problems of their own. Instead of looking beyond its already overstretched borders, politicians need to sort out their myriad economic challenges and the corollaries of socio-economic problems. Before inviting more guests, it’s worth cleaning up.

Economic integration is difficult within countries let alone at a supranational level. In Canada, regional disparity and wealth distribution is rife. According to Harper’s Conservatives, the recently signed EU-Canada trade deal will benefit all Canadians in a number of ways. However, whether Canadians across the country will feel the benefits is another issue altogether. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has supported the deal because it gives manufacturers and services increased access to European goods. But, as the CBC pointed out, the deal will also allow European companies to bid on local and provincial contracts. Invariably, businesses and the wealth created as a result of the EU trade deal will benefit specific provinces—and particular regions and cities within them. Like all of the EU’s documents, the trade agreements look great on paper, but the degree to which they benefit all involved in the process is less than certain.