Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Is Ukraine next in line for EU membership

Speech to a delegation of Estonian MPs - April 11th 2004

Enlargement of the EU to 25 members is due in 2 weeks time. But what should the next move be if the process is duly digested, Romania and Bulgaria join and the Balkan left-over states in turn become members? This then opens the delicate but essential debate as to who fits in in the EU long term and where are its final boundaries. Having recently spent some time in Ukraine I am a firm convert to its legitimate claim to be in the club under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union which stipulates that any European state may apply to become a member of the EU.

No one can doubt the strategic role Ukraine as a country of 48 million highly educated Europeans plays as a bridge between Western Europe and Russia. It shares a long common history with its Russian neighbour with the same ambivalence which characterises the Irish Republic-UK relationship. The west was somewhat surprised by its declaration of independence from Russia 12 years ago and is still formulating its attitudes towards it although it is still the 3rd largest recipient of US aid, with whom relations have significantly improved after Ukraine’s support for the Iraq war and the stationing of troops in Kut.

After enlargement its total trade with the EU may overtake that with Russia although they are currently co-ordinating their applications to join the WTO. I have just put down a written parliamentary question asking why Ukraine’s application for Market Economy Status, necessary under EU anti dumping legislation and already granted to Russia, which still practices differential energy pricing policies, and important in the WTO accession road, is taking so long. This is in spite of the Ukrainian economy making further improvements over the last three years. For instance ; its GDP has increased by 8.5% between 2002 and 2003, there is now no state interference into companies' decision making process, equal rights exist for the activity of enterprises regardless of the form of ownership, price regulation is settled almost entirely by free market mechanisms rather than the state and over 90% share of the market is private, whilst less than 10% of market is state owned.

Sadly in the past too much attention in the international media has been devoted to the occasional tragedy like the still unresolved Gongadze murder case, the aftermath of Chernobyl (now definitively closed but still smouldering under its sarcophagus), intellectual piracy, and rising levels of HIV infection and drug addiction. Ukraine also like most former Soviet countries suffers from the activities of organised crime, high level political corruption and cronyism. Not to mention illegal immigrants, sex slaves and prostitution, weapons and money laundering, and illegal drugs.

This all sounds terrible but all of these undesirable activities are also present in other Central and Eastern European candidate countries but who are nevertheless recognised as legitimate EU candidate members. On the issue of the EU public’s number one fear to further enlargement - illegal immigration, large working Ukrainian communities already exist in countries like Portugal where they are well thought of. Now given Europe's future demographic problems a pool of skilled Eastern Europeans such as the Ukrainians will be a bonus. Also once inside the EU Europol (the EU Police body) will have a remit to monitor and investigate people trafficking, currently entirely in the hands of national governments or corrupt police forces.

Of course much remains to be done particularly in carrying out structural reforms to the Ukrainian economy and exposing corruption. However insufficient recognition is given in the western press to Ukrainian efforts to build without any previous tradition a democratic society and encourage a free press which is still too submissive to vested interests and denied editorial freedom by its owners. Last Thursday, against all expectations, in the Parliament or Verkhovna Rada the government sponsored Constitutional amendment Bill was thrown-out in spite of being supported by the Socialist and Communist parties but sufficient numbers of pro-government deputies rebelled and joined the opposition parties. This move effectively prevents President Kuchma perpetuating his hold on power via a parliamentary Prime Ministerial form of government in which he or his surrogates would retain control. This is hardly evidence of a dictatorship being in place !

The west forgets Ukraine is a newly independent country which has never existed before in its current boundaries and has had an excellent record in its treatment of national minorities, particularly the returning Tatars to the Crimea. The country is struggling with a mentality gap between the older generation more instinctively pro Russian with ingrained habits from the Soviet days of authoritarianism and secrecy and the younger generation who are westernised and less attached to Russia. It is often forgotten that the Catholic Uniate western half of Ukraine was part of Poland and Czechoslovakia until the second world war and deeply resent being abandoned by western Europe where they feel they naturally belong.

Particularly as after enlargement Ukraine will fall the wrong side of the new EU external Schengen perimeter with the difficulties this will pose to trade and free passage with the introduction of compulsory Visa regimes, although the EU has made strong efforts to facilitate local traffic with free multiple entry Visas, so the worst predictions have not come to pass. Favourable mention is rarely made of Ukraine's unilateral renunciation of its legacy nuclear arsenal, its rising foreign exchange reserves, and bumper grain harvests. It has been cooperative on foreign affairs issues other than Iraq, particularly in the Balkans with a remarkably successful joint Ukraine-Polish Brigade (Poland incidentally was its historic enemy) in its mission with KFOR. More appreciation should be made of this in its parallel application to be a NATO member. The government, albeit after US threats of sanctions, has cracked down on intellectual piracy (particularly counterfeit CDs and Tapes) to the extent that the International Federation of Phonographic Industries has now closed its Kiev Office.

In the USA's global war on terrorism the government is cooperating with improving security at Ukrainian nuclear plants to prevent trafficking in fissile material and the U.S. allegations of sensitive Kolchuga radar technology being sold to Iraq were never proven and like the elusive WMD never found by the allies post invasion. Two years ago the law was changed to criminalise the sex-slave trade and a dedicated police unit has been set-up.

Unlike the European Parliament, the Commission and Council after the 2003 summit meeting failed to recognise the long term ambitions of Ukraine to accede to the EU. Instead they have proposed under the “Near Neighbours -Wider Europe Policy” an “Action Plan” being negotiated but currently postponed till mid April, on areas of political cooperation in trade, investment, security, visa and immigration etc This policy aims to achieve the creation of an enlarged area of political stability through a 'ring of friends' with whom the EU enjoys co-operative relations. This falls short of the proposed 4 Common Spaces for Russia. The EU is basically prepared to consider nothing better than a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which it also grants to countries like Kazakhstan. Missing from the Action Plan are any suggestion that the successful PHARE and other pre-accession financial instruments which have benefited acceding countries so well be extended, along with the remit of the European Investment Bank (EIB) to lend, at preferential interest rates, to Ukraine as a replacement of the current TACIS approach which carries limited economic investment. Curiously the EIB already has a limited mandate to lend in Russia but this needs extending to Ukraine.

It is true that the problem in Ukraine, in the absence of strong westernising infuences which may re-emerge if former Prime Minister Victor Yuschenko is elected President in October 2004 (he is currently ahead in the polls around 22%), is that under the Russian "near abroad" policy it is hard to shake-off vested interests particularly prominent in the Parliament. Here we see an unholy alliance between Symonenko's pro Russian Communists and big business oligarchs, who do not welcome transparency, external competition, or the payment of a fair tax burden. They seem to prefer a system shrouded in secretiveness, lack of legal certainty in the enforcement of contracts and instead relying on harassment or criminal intimidation. They harbour a predatory instinct to extract wealth which is filtered abroad rather than create jobs through investment to secure long term returns.

The partial rapprochement between the West and a strong Russia under President Putin is unlikely to improve Ukraine’s chances of European integration as the EU may be more likely now to disregard Ukraine’s interests in order to please Russia which is placing enormous pressure on President Kuchma`s government to ratify the Yalta Single Economic Space Agreement with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Although after the vote in the Rada last week this looks less certain as the Yushenko Nasa Ukraina and Tymoshenko blocks are strongly opposed to cosying-up to Russia, who last year almost went to war with Ukraine in a border dispute over Tuzla island in the Kirch Strait.

Russia was the undisputed beneficiary from the Gongadze scandal which weakened Kuchma as Russia stood by him as western direct capital investment dried-up and Russian business was only too happy to scoop up assets on the cheap including chunks of Ukraine's gas transit industry. President Kuchma has repeatedly said he will stand down in 2004 even though the Constitutional Court has given authority for him to run for a 3rd term on the basis that his first term (94-98) predates the 1996 Constitution. If his Constitutional reform now fails he might be tempted again to take-up this option. However attitudes in the EU might change rapidly if a reformist candidate is elected in October this year, and the EP has agreed to send election observers.

Finally If Turkey, facing Ukraine across the Black Sea, is allowed to open negotiations as a candidate for the European Union in December with all the economic costs as well as geographical and cultural controversy it will pose, particularly after the collapse of the Annan Plan for Cyprus, surely Ukraine has every bit or greater right to a recognition of its long term goal of EU membership.