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Ukraine casts shadow over Charlemagne Prize

The Charlemagne Prize ceremony offered three heads of government from former Soviet republics the opportunity to express their desires to strengthen ties to the European Union. This is not likely to have pleased Russia.

It was unprecedented in the history of the

Charlemagne Prize

in Aachen, which rewards special efforts for European unity: Just days after the European Parliament elections and under the shadow of the Ukraine crisis, the winner received not just one laudatory speech but three more speeches as well. They were held by Arseniy Yatsenyuk of Ukraine, Irakli Garibashvili of Georgia and Iurie Leanca of Moldova - heads of government in countries with relationships to Russia that range from tense to dysfunctional.

The invitation to these three speakers could have been understood as a signal to Russia that the European Union remains attractive to its eastern neighbors. "Russians are seeing this continued, strong effort to connect to the EU in regions that they to some extent consider to be theirs," political scientist Josef Janning of the

European Council on Foreign Relations

told DW.

Above all, Yatsenyuk's speech of and that of the prizewinner,

European Council

President Herman Van Rompuy, were eagerly anticipated. Would they aim criticism at Russia, which had a few short weeks ago annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, and more recently with the

Eurasian Union

founded a counter-project to the EU? The answer was yes.

No redrawing of borders

Anti-Putin Demonstrators in front of the Aachen city hall during the Charlemagne Prize ceremony (Photo: Oliver Berg/dpa)

Anti-Putin Demonstrators in front of the Aachen city hall, where the Charlemagne Prize ceremony was held

Without naming Russia, Yatsenyuk said, "Nobody has the right to revise the results of the Second World War, nobody has the right to abuse the UN Charter and draw up new borders and erect new walls in Europe." An enlarged Europe would not only be about eastern expansion, he said - it's also about Ukrainians fighting for peace and freedom, with all means at their disposal.

Janning said the Ukrainian interim prime minister's speech showed the position he considers Ukraine to be in. "On the one hand it is delineated from Russia, on the other hand on the way to a deeper relationship with the EU - although he didn't particularly emphasize this part." Janning added that Yatsenyuk strengthened closeness to the EU by saying that in this Europe no state is allowed to make demands on new territories.

Van Rompuy himself also criticized Russia. "Destabilization by our common neighbor Russia is unacceptable," the 66-year-old said. Russia's behavior is all the more regrettable since, "at heart, this great country fully belongs to the European civilization, to European culture." In Europe no country can demand drawing new borders that place demands on its neighbors, Van Rompuy added.

Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca formulated his criticism somewhat more generally, "In the east of our common continent, we see a geopolitical struggle evolving - the likes of which we thought not to witness in Europe again."

Russia perceives EU as expansionist

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy waves after receiving the International Charlemagne Prize in Aachen (Photo: AP/Frank Augstein)

Prizewinner Van Rompuy became known for his quiet mediation

Janning said he doubted Russia would place enough importance on invitation of the three heads of state to the Charlemagne Prize ceremony and their speeches there to formulate a response. Instead, the event is another piece of the picture that leads to Russians seeing the EU as anti-Russia and an affirmation of their view of the European Union as expansionist, he said.

"As long as they interpret the EU that way, they will always misunderstand such encounters as part of an expansion strategy and not understand that the pressure of people in those regions is what's pushing them closer to the EU," Janning said.

This pressure was especially evident in Leanca's speech: "You ask what Europe means for us? I can answer in one word: future. Not just any future, not even just a better future, but a future at all."

What Europe means is also an existential question plaguing the EU - particularly in light of the most recent European Parliament elections, where many votes were cast for euroskeptic parties. Van Rompuy addressed this, as well.

The EU should "tread softly" in trying to remedy a situation when national agencies are in the best position to do that, Van Rompuy said. "Respect familiar places of protection and belonging - from national welfare choices, to regional traditions and identities, all the way down to local cheese," he said. People must feel at home in the EU, he concluded.

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