Ukraine's steady progress towards EU membership
Conservative Home - October 7th 2008
I've recently returned from Ukraine, a country I've visited many times in the past. The occasion this time was the eleventh EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, of which I am vice-chairman. The meeting came at what is a critical juncture in Ukraine's nascent democracy which has been marked in recent years by a political reorientation away from Russia and towards the West.
It has always surprised me that until now Ukraine has not figured more prominently in mainstream foreign policy thinking, both within our party and within the government. When I first visited the country after my election in 1999 I quickly realised that my then colleague Robert Goodwill and I were almost alone among elected Conservatives in taking an interest in Ukraine and its future.
It is true that the Conservative Party was the first major centre-right party in the 'old' member states of the EU to champion Ukraine's membership of the Union, and the Labour government has also recently supported Ukraine's aspirations. But this has been from a geopolitical rather than a geostrategic point of view – a belief that Ukraine qualified for EU membership on the basis of geography and history rather than a realisation of the crucial importance of anchoring Ukraine to the West in the long term.
Indeed, I have only very recently begun to see Ukraine receive the kind of attention that it deserves within the party and the government. This new found interest is principally a consequence of Russia's recent intervention in Georgia and Ukraine's strategic transit position with regard to the EU's energy imports from Russia. The Russia-Georgia conflagration has increased fears that Ukraine may be next on the to-do list of Putin and Medvedev, focused as they seem to be on a revanchist, irredentist approach to Russia's 'near abroad'. The Crimea, which is 60 per cent ethnic Russian and has only been part of Ukraine since 1954, could well be in the Kremlin's sights. Clearly Russia and Ukraine together would constitute a global superpower, a fact not lost on either Moscow or Kiev.
Ukraine demands our attention for several reasons, not least its vast territorial area which is home to 47 million people – a figure which places Ukraine comfortably in the second tier of European countries, in a category of its own above countries such as Poland and Spain. Ukraine is also a land of huge industrial, agricultural and human potential. I believe Ukraine to be a natural ally of the EU and a natural candidate for EU membership, notwithstanding of course the necessary political and structural reforms.
Last week's meeting in Kiev of MEPs and Ukrainian parliamentarians allowed both groups to assess the current political turmoil afflicting Ukraine. At the moment negotiations are underway to restore the stability to government after the collapse of the ruling bloc, but President Yushchenko could call fresh elections soon if there is no progress.
Having been swept up in the euphoria of the Orange revolution in 2004 I noted with interest the evaporation of support for President Yushchenko, whose approval ratings is around four per cent. His leadership has been lacklustre and he has opposed all of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's proposed reforms in an attempt to dampen her chances of succeeding him as president in 2010. However, in spite of the political instability I was more convinced than ever that most of Ukraine's leading politicians and its civil society are sufficiently mature and far-sighted to guide their country out of this rut and onwards ultimately towards integration with Euro-Atlantic structures and membership of the EU.
Recent events ought to have underlined to us the enormous strategic importance of Ukraine to the interests of Britain and the EU. Nevertheless, our preoccupation in recent years with Turkish accession has I believe, distracted us from giving the appropriate level of support for Ukraine's pro-Western outlook as epitomised by the Orange revolution.
In Brussels the excuse given for holding back Ukraine is generally that the inability of the EU to press on with further political integration is due in part to 'enlargement fatigue'. There is also a fear of offending Turkey, which has had a membership perspective since the mid-1960s. Another reason given is the fear of yet more immigration into the EU, although Ukraine's declining population is likely to force its government to entice back Ukrainians working abroad rather than see yet more Ukrainians emigrate. The biggest fear, especially among countries like Germany and Italy, is the risk of antagonising the Russian bear, which regards Ukraine as a prodigal son that will one day return, chastened, to the Kremlin's fold.
I believe the case for Ukraine's membership of the EU to be compelling, as do the majority of Ukrainians if opinion polls are to be believed (although NATO membership is less popular among the public). Ukraine is a country with a demonstrably European history and Judaeo-Christian culture. Strategically, Ukraine is vital because of the transit of Russian gas, the future of the leased Russian Black Sea fleet bases in Crimea and the largely untapped farming potential of Ukraine's famed 'black earth'. Ukraine is also potentially a bridge to Russia. Ukraine's EU membership could be a decisive factor in our future relations with Russia, coaxing the Kremlin towards a Western liberal democratic political model.
It is essential that whatever happens to resolve the current conflict in Ukraine, the West maintains its support for the country's imperfect but fast-developing parliamentary democracy. For all sorts of reasons, not least geographical, Ukraine's case for EU membership and absorption into Euro-Atlantic structures is stronger than that of Georgia, whose immediate goal anyway is NATO membership. Nor should we ignore the fact that notwithstanding the Kremlin's disproportionate action in Georgia and the suffering that ensued, Russian aggression in Ukraine would be graver by orders of magnitude because of the relative strength of Ukraine's armed forces and the possibility of a country split by a bitter internecine civil war.