Ukrainian expectations of a speedy convergence with the European Union are high, perhaps too high. However, Brussels must be careful not to alienate Ukraine. Christoph Hasselbach believes it's about finding a balance.
The European Union faces a dilemma on Ukraine: It wants the country to commit to the EU, but at least in the long run, Kyiv is also supposed to find a balance with Russia. A tough anti-Russian course would be the wrong signal. At the same time, Brussels expects that Kyiv implement political and economic reforms as a precondition for progress in inching closer to the EU and, from a practical point of view, as a requirement for further financial aid. Corruption, for instance, is still a widespread problem, as is the judiciary's lack of independence. The government in Kyiv is expected to push privatization and deregulation, and consolidate the banking sector - all in all, by no means a piece of cake.
Ukraine is in debt up to its ears. According to the International Monetary Fund, Ukraine's debt-to-GDP ratio rose from 40 to almost 100 percent between 2013, shortly before the confrontation with Russia broke out, and today.
The most recent level of debt is little more than the average amount of debt in the EU member states, but even they face major problems reducing their mountains of debt, and that without a civil war. Without peace and stability, however, Ukraine is a bottomless pit - they are the prerequisite for investments and economic development.
No unified state
Of course, Brussels knows that Russia has a large part in the fact that the truce in eastern Ukraine continues to be broken. But it just doesn't help matters when Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko speaks of a possible "liberation" of the areas controlled by the separatists, when he wants to preserve Ukrainian as the only official language in the East, and wants to establish Ukraine as a unified state. For domestic reasons, such remarks may be understandable, but they are not helpful for the future. Greater decentralization and an official role for the Russian language are essential.
The fact that the EU shelved the free trade agreement with Ukraine until 2016 was meant to give Kyiv and Moscow the opportunity to discuss concerns that Russia might be the loser in such an accord.
EU-Ukraine relations are marked by disappointment, not just concerning EU membership aspirations that most EU officials are reluctant to address. Disappointment also marks practical steps on the way. Ukrainians, for instance, would like to be granted visa-free travel in Western Europe. Ukraine's president raises the issue at practically every meeting with his EU colleagues. The EU is still hesitant.
It's not just about Brussels' fears that such a ruling might be abused. It's also about incentives as such: victory only beckons once certain goals have been reached. Once bitten, twice shy - that's the EU. It may not be a perfect example, but the premature Romanian and Bulgarian EU accession, lacking sufficient state reforms and Greece's EU accession - wangled, but with the EU's understanding - showed that undue generosity comes back to bite you later on.
Incentive for change
A blunt refusal would be just as wrong. The EU faces a tightrope walk in Ukraine, which the bloc must also perform in other countries interested in joining the union: it presents the advantages of approaching the EU, while demanding reforms as a precondition.
The vague goal of an EU accession is somewhere on the horizon, but it is also meant to be an incentive for change that often demands a great deal of sacrifice from the societies in question. If the EU doesn't make sufficient demands, it's asking for trouble later on. If it demands too much change, it triggers disappointment and in the end perhaps rejection.
The balance is difficult - even more so in the case of Ukraine, a country beset by civil war, a country that will be key for relations with Russia.
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