Just days before the long-awaited Vilnius Summit, the “Black Thursday” decision by Ukraine’s government to postpone further steps towards signing a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union triggered a wave of “disappointment” throughout the EU’s political and policy establishment. European Parliament opposition leader Hannes Swoboda called the move “deplorable,” while on Twitter, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt bitterly concluded that “the politics of brutal pressure evidently work.” Perhaps most tellingly of all, EU ambassador to Ukraine Jan Tombiński was photographed “holding his head in despair” during a critical parliamentary voting session.
In some sense, the immediate reaction of personal disappointment for those who had worked to bring this agreement so close to fruition (an agreement that is the EU’s “most ambitious ever,” according to the Lithuanian presidency) is understandable. But “understandable” is far from the same thing as ideal.
First, emotion alone rarely makes a good basis for foreign policy. When unaccompanied by any concrete plans for future action, such comments make the European Union look weak, even ineffectual, in the eyes of those who disagree with its policy objectives. Excellent evidence for this can be seen in the coverage of the state-funded broadcaster Russia Today, which with evident glee pointed to the “shock” felt by Europeans at the move, emphasizing in particular the (rather peremptory) declaration of envoy and former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski that “the mission is over.”
Second, this response has not reflected the rather more complex reality of the situation, which is not nearly as unfavorable to the EU as it may first have seemed. Ukraine’s vague “suspension” stands in significant contrast to Armenia’s sudden decision in September to abandon its already-negotiated association agreement and instead join the Russian-led Customs Union. On the latter point, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov made clear in a television appearance that the decision on the DCFTA was not linked to any intention to accede to the CU; adding sharply “who said anything about that?”
If anything, the one broad and enduring feature of Ukrainian foreign policy since independence has been its ambivalence about making any firm choice between the so-called Russian and European vectors. In order to preserve their own maximal freedom of action (both in domestic and international affairs), presidents of all orientations have tended to opt for vagueness over clarity; to illustrate, consider that the first official visit of the “pro-European” Viktor Yushchenko was to Moscow, while that of the “pro-Kremlin” Viktor Yanukovych was to Brussels.
This ambivalence also characterized the unveiling of the DCFTA decision. At virtually the exact moment in which his deputy prime minister publicly defended the suspension by complaining that “[w]e did not get a reassuring message from our European partners,” President Yanukovych stated in Vienna that “Ukraine has been and will continue to pursue the path to European integration, his sole nod to recent events being the almost offhand admission that “[o]f course, there are difficulties [along] the path.”
Thus, from Ukraine’s recent history, the best conclusion to draw as to the long-term impact if any of the DCFTA decision is simply this: not to draw any conclusions at all. (The more cynically-minded reader may prefer the more acerbic observation by the Eastern Approaches blog at the Economist that “if all else fails, one can always count on Ukraine’s leaders to renege and surprise.”).
Certainly, the EU has long understood the Ukrainian impulse to try and maintain its geopolitical freedom of action (or to put it more bluntly, to keep its options open) as long as possible. And it is equally no surprise that the Kremlin would inevitably try to use every possible tool in its arsenal of carrots and sticks—from the velvet rhetorical glove of Slavic brotherhood to the iron fist of significantly damaging trade and energy sanctions—in order to close off Kyiv’s options.
Given the lack of significant changes to the underlying situation, then, the best option for the EU remains to keep its cards on the table, resisting the impulse to throw them away, smash the table, and move off to deal with more agreeable partners instead. It remains in the underlying interests of the European Union to work with Ukraine on carefully selected strategic issues, notably energy security, regardless as to what happens at Vilnius.
Even if the actual meaning of the wonderfully vague phrase “suspension” turns out to mean less “pause” and more “termination,” then, this should still not result in an epidemic of despair in the corridors of Brussels. The best policy response to such a setback, with all due respect to Chumbawamba, is indeed to get right back up and resume course.
Now that the dust has somewhat settled, moreover, it seems likely that it may not be such a setback after all. Ukrainian opposition politician Vitaliy Klitschko has called for protests against what he described as the “lies” of the Yanukovych government. And despite being forcibly diverted to a faraway airport en route, Klitschko made it to the “Euromaidan” rally after all, relaying to the over 100,000-strong crowd the personal assurance of enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle that the EU’s doors are not closed to Ukraine.
This is precisely the sort of conversation that should serve as reassurance and inspiration to DCFTA supporters within the EU as well; after all, as a former championship boxer, Klitschko may perhaps know a thing or two about being knocked down and getting back up again as well.
Emmet Tuohy is a research fellow at the International Centre for Defence Studies, Tallinn, Estonia