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At Vilnius, the EU Must Reconcile Norms with Realism

WASHINGTON—Mikhail Gorbachev once observed that “Europeans have a truly unique chance to play a role in building a new world, one that would be worthy of their past, of their economic and spiritual potential.” But a quarter of a century on, the European Union still finds itself attempting to reconcile its role as a normative actor with political realities in contested spheres of interest. In the wake of the recent Ukrainian parliamentary decision to delay signing an Association Agreement with the EU, Europe’s own normative foreign policy legitimacy could be at stake. This is the challenge that faces European leaders at the upcoming Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.

An Association Agreement signed between the EU and Ukraine would have wide-reaching consequences in the post-Soviet space, setting a hopeful precedent for the EU and its eastern periphery. But it is now apparent that while the momentum built during Lithuania’s European Council Presidency did bring the political agenda of the EU and Ukraine closer, the normative distance between the two remains great.

Since 2009, the EaP’s lofty goals to foster human rights, market economics, sustainable development, and good governance have been frustrated by significant lapses of governance in Ukraine. While other failures exists, the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoschenko has crowded headlines and became a symbolic red line for many Western European nations, even though Tymoschenko’s past is shrouded with its own inconsistencies. Moreover, the EU’s decision to set normative red lines has created a persistent dilemma, preventing it from seizing opportunities for Ukraine’s further integration.

As the political situation in Ukraine has in many respects worsened over recent years, so too has the EU’s ability to incentivize reform in other countries. In part, that is because the EU must answer for significant governance issues within its own borders. Concerns in countries like Hungary and Bulgaria frustrate the EU’s normative legitimacy in its near-abroad. Moreover, Turkey’s complicated relationship with the EU is a discouraging precedent for the rewards of adopting EU standards. When added to the long-lasting impact of the euro crisis, the EU’s ability to set the agenda in aspiring member countries is certainly weakened.

In Ukraine, there has been little hesitation in voicing continued opposition to the EU’s key demands. Rather than buckling to EU pressure, the government delayed Tymoschenko’s medical treatment abroad and suspended any immediate arrangement with the EU. Even if a last minute deal is reached on an Association Agreement, it is undeniable that Ukraine has demonstrated little concern in opposing the EU’s demands.

It seems the build-up to Vilnius has, in other words, shown the limits of the EU’s normative foreign policy in its Eastern neighborhood. The EU’s engagement in Ukraine is critical, but its abilities to foster reform have been damaged. Yet the only path forward remains continued engagement with Kyiv leading to the well-defined integration provided by an Association Agreement. If the “spirit or Europe” is to remain a part of the Eastern Partnership, its principles to foster better governance in Ukraine must be the end goal.

Unfortunately for both parties, this will likely remain a formidable challenge. The clash of norms and realities lie at the crux of the dilemma in Vilnius. While thousands upon thousands of Ukrainians are protesting in Kyiv in support of the “spirit of Europe,” decisions made in the run up to Vilnius — and at the summit itself — illustrate the significant challenge ahead. What happens now will determine how the EU chooses to address its present dilemma and the how to engage its Eastern neighbors in the future.

Steven Keil is a program officer with the German Marshall Fund’s Foreign and Security Policy in Washington, DC.

  • samir01

    As the political situation in Ukraine has in many respects worsened over recent years, so too has the EU’s ability to incentivize reform in other countries. In part, that is because the EU must answer for significant governance issues within its own borders. Concerns in countries like Hungary and Bulgaria frustrate the EU’s normative legitimacy in its near-abroad.