In late March this year, Ukrainian diplomats heralded what they dubbed ‘a major vote of confidence’ from the EU after the initialling of a political agreement, known in Brussels policy circles as the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. The hyperbolic announcement, close to proclaiming Ukraine as the newest EU member state, was not without precedent. The Ukrainian leadership tend to bill any collaboration with recognised political leaders as an event of world-shattering importance. A brief four minute chat between President Viktor Yanukovich and Barack Obama during the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul earlier this year was presented by the Ukrainian media as the diplomatic triumph of the century.
Diplomatic pronouncements that emanate from Kiev are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Even prior to the initialling, behind closed doors in both Brussels and Kiev, EU diplomats were briefing against the Ukrainians. The initialling, they said, was a non-event signalling the end to talks rather than a milestone on the way to greater diplomatic cooperation. Diplomats surreptitiously drew comparisons with a similar agreement initialled with Belarus in the 1990s, which was heralded at the time as a move to greater political understanding. To put things in context, just earlier this year the Belarusian government expelled the EU ambassador from Minsk. So much for progress.
As for the eventual signing, ratification and implementation of the agreement: "This is a different story," said a senior EU official at the briefing. "This is a political process – it will be very much influenced by the political situation in Ukraine.”
“We’ve offered a market opening. Now we expect the adoption of European values," the official said.
What the adoption of ‘European values’ might mean in practice is fairly vague. But with the Euro 2012 championships kicking off next week, time has all but run out for Kiev to demonstrate synergies with the Brussels-based liberal, pluralist zeitgeist.
Certainly, via Barroso’s boycott, Brussels has made it quite clear that one half of the tournament’s host partnership will not have their blessing. This is an important and necessary diplomatic move that must now be replicated across the major eurozone countries and EU member states.
EU-Ukrainian relations are strained. The spectral flame of the pro-democracy Orange Revolution has all but extinguished. The show trial and imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko is just the tip of the iceberg; beneath the murky, often bloodied waters of Ukraine’s political establishment lies the systemic problem of the (lack of) impartiality in the judicial process, widespread corporate corruption, a fully fledged and quasi-institutionalised mafia. A move to establish free and fair elections and constitutional reform – eradicating politically motivated trials and securing the independence of the judiciary – are a distant and fading hope.
Commentators have suggested that the tournament symbolises everything that is wrong with Ukraine. Where government officials had hoped that Euro 2012 would boost the country’s image, and strengthen inward investment, press coverage has (rightly) focused on corruption, racism, thuggery and high level boycotts.
It is of course too late and impractical to move the final away from Kiev to Poland; but it is not too late for the EU, particularly High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Cathy Ashton, to recommend that Europe’s leaders do not attend the tournament in solidarity with Tymoshenko and the Orange pro-democracy movement.
The EU has rightly (and perhaps indefinitely) held any progress on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement until political prosecutions come to an end. This position must now extend to an official EU-wide boycott of all Euro 2012 games in Ukraine.
Failure to do so threatens to undermine the EU’s credibility position as a political and diplomatic force, and the so-called ‘European values’ so obviously vaunted by Brussels foreign policy makers.