Ukraine – EU Relations

Ukraine pleads for European solidarity, warns about Russia

Petro Poroshenko visits the Netherlands for the EU Association Agreement vote

December 23rd 2015 | Leiden | Melih Uzun

Photograph by Reuters

“The thing about the bear is, in the long run, he seeks domination – not a compromise.”

These were the words used by Petro Poroshenko to warn Europe about the aggressive nature of their Eastern neighbour, Russia. The Ukrainian President visited the Netherlands, where he discussed the MH17 investigation and the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union with Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

On his second day in Holland, he delivered a lecture on European values and solidarity at Leiden University, where he was quoted on Russia’s threatening foreign policy.

The Association Agreement

That statement was illustrative of the President’s rhetoric throughout his speech, in which he took a firm stance against Russia and expressed his strong condemnation towards them.

He first emphasised that investigations have provided firm evidence that it was a Russian missile, fired by a Russian-trained crew, which shot down a plane full of passengers on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

He then went on to point out that Russia’s veto vote against the establishment of a United Nations Tribunal for the terror attack on flight MH17 was the only reason why the perpetrators are not being brought to justice. The fact that they were the only country to stand against the resolution, without providing any explanation whatsoever, demonstrates the difference between Russia and Europe, said Poroshenko.

Finally, he expanded upon this point by calling for stronger co-operation between Ukraine and the EU in an effort to protect and preserve ‘European values’.

Photograph by Evgeny Feldman

More concretely, it’s the Association Agreement that the President is pleading for. This treaty, which is supposed to create a framework for co-operation between the EU and Ukraine, has become somewhat of a topic of debate in the Netherlands, where a popular local website successfully launched a petition that called for a national referendum about the Agreement.

The name of the petition, GeenPeil, is derived from GeenStijl: a generally Eurosceptic website that prides itself on being “tendentious, unfounded, and needlessly offensive”.

Their criticism of Poroshenko did not dishonour that slogan:

“The lecture is called ‘Ukraine-Netherlands: European stability through European values.’ How Funny. There’s no such thing as European stability, the continent is a geopolitical and fiscal mess. And if there’s one thing which Ukraine has demonstrated, it’s that there’s no such thing as European values either. Just weeks ago, the parliament in Kiev voted against laws which are supposed reduce discrimination against gays on the work floor. Only after President Poroshenko stressed that the laws were a precondition for visa-free travel, was the bill approved reluctantly. How European of them.

Either way, we’re glad that Poroshenko allowed the Dutch to question why his country has one of the most corrupt governments of the continent. What’s with the rise of fascism in the country? Why is his country regarded as ‘one of the largest suppliers of slave labour’ and an epicentre of human trafficking? Why is his country such a major hotspot of international drug trade? And how do the Netherlands benefit from visa-free travel from Kiev to The Hague?

We’re just kidding of course. The lecture was for ‘invitees only’. And even they could only ask the President ‘a limited amount of questions’. For the ordinary man, it’s the same story as ever: you get to watch as your rulers take your decisions for you.”

Leaving a Soviet past

President Poreshenko, who was mockingly called an oligarch by his Dutch critics in allusion to his multinational confectionery manufacturing group, addressed the opponents of the Association Agreement in his speech.

Eurosceptics, or rather ‘Euro-cowards’, he says, knowingly or unknowingly play to the advantage of Vladimir Putin. He explained that the Agreement was not simply a prelude to Ukrainian membership of the EU, but a large collection of reforms that would help the country combat the corruption which Eurosceptics are so wary of.

“We absolutely don’t consider this to be about future membership of the EU”, he said. Rather, it’s about making Ukraine “a better nation” by fighting corruption, building an independent court system, defending Human Rights, and respecting minorities and every human being.

Photograph by Alexei Druzhinin

Ultimately, Poroshenko described the treaty as a final farewell to communism and the Soviet Union, as a way of implying that it would help Ukraine abandon Russia’s sphere of influence. This reference to the massive imperialist entity that was the USSR puts further emphasis on the expansionist nature he wants Europe to beware of.

He emphasised this point on several occasions where he referred to the annexation of Crimea as an Anschluss, and where he urged Europe not to “make the same mistake they made in 1938”.

Is Ukraine ready for Europe?

All things considered, GeenStijl did raise some valid concerns.

Getting the ban on gay discrimination to pass through parliament was indeed a tough process, even despite the promise of visa-free travel to the Schengen Area. Ukrainian politicians who hesitated to approve of the law reportedly seemed to adopt a conservative Christian stance, stating that the law would defy their thousand-year-old Christian tradition.

Whilst critics may suggest that such a statement implies staunch homophobia, it’s important to note that they were most probably made with public opinion in mind. A certain degree of incertitude certainly doesn’t seem out of place, as a 2010 survey by the French Institute of Public Opinion indicated that only 28% of the Ukrainian population agreed that ‘gay people should be free to live their lives as they wish’.

Photograph by Reuters

As for the state of corruption, there are admittedly issues, such as human and drug trafficking, which are hard to ignore. It’s unreasonable, however, to expect a nation which finds itself in a de facto state of war to oversee these problems efficiently.

The US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs state in their 2015 report that “although Ukraine is not a major drug producing country, its location astride several important drug trafficking routes into Western Europe leaves it vulnerable as an important transit country”. Amongst the factors that attract drug traffickers, they list “the country’s numerous ports on the Black and Azov seas, its extensive river routes, and its porous northern and eastern borders”.

The Report concludes that “the country’s government is politically committed to responding to evolving criminal threats” and that “the Government of Ukraine attaches great importance to preventing drug addiction, but efforts in this area have oftentimes been under-resourced”. They suggest that inter-agency coordination among relevant law enforcement agencies could be further improved.

Referendum prospects

Poroshenko is not quite trying to sweep the country’s problem under the rug, despite what Eurosceptics seem to imply. His speech explicitly endorses reforms that would fight corruption, together with the support of the European Union.

That is not to say that the initiative by GeenStijl has no merits. One of their main motives was to promote democracy through a referendum that allows citizens to have their say in a matter that they otherwise would not have been able to impact.

Whilst the outcome of the referendum is not binding, in the scenario of an overwhelmingly negative outcome, the government could be pressured into reconsidering the Agreement.

Although the treaty won’t formally come into force until all EU-members have reached an agreement, President Poroshenko is confident that the Netherlands will sign, and asserts that his country believes that as well.

Only time will tell which way the referendum will point, as the Dutch go to vote in April 2016.

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