The EU can seize the moment created by the protestors on the EuroMaidan to help Ukrainians and help itself
by Benjamin Tallis
The barricades on the EuroMaidan have been reinforced with snow-filled sandbags, following the sneak attack by chainsaw-wielding police and protestors are holding firm in Kyiv city hall having repelled the riot squad. The protestors must be hoping to avoid a repeat of what Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister yesterday described as “Eurasia versus Europe in streets of Kiev tonight. Repression versus reform. Power versus people.”
Bildt, like his Polish counterpart, Radek Sikorski has been steadfast in support of the pro-Europe protestors and EU foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton also paid a morale-boosting visit to the Maidan. Using its unexpected popularity, the time is now ripe for the EU to seize the moment and act decisively, but, as Bildt tweeted, “the Government of Ukraine has discredited itself in terms of economic help from the EU.” Geopolitical eminence grise Zbigniew Brzezinski agreed, commenting in the FT that “Ukrainians have to realise that European taxpayers are not enchanted by the prospect of paying for the misdeeds and corruption of the current Kiev elite.”
However, there is an option that would allow the EU to give real support to the protestors not the regime, remain true to its values and revive its best traditions and, in the process, potentially resuscitate its Eastern Partnership, of which Ukraine is the centerpiece. The EU should lift the requirement for Ukrainians to have a visa for short-term travel to countries in the Schengen zone, a step known as Visa Liberalisation.
Cutting the Gordian Knot
If Visa Liberalisation doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, then you probably don’t need a visa to travel to too many places. For average Ukrainians, this is THE hot button issue in relation to the EU. Although many visas are granted each year, the experience of the laborious and humiliating procedures and many people are put off from applying because of them. Activists and the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry agree that current practices amount to “consular sadism” and leave many in no doubt that they are considered ‘second-class’ Europeans. It is a sad indictment of everyday perceptions of EU neighbourliness that the artist and activist Nikita Kadan could suggest that the section of the Berlin wall symbolically displayed outside the German embassy in Kyiv should be relocated to the Polish-Ukrainian frontier, which, because of current visa policy, marks the border of “real Europe.”
Removing the need for Ukrainians to have a visa for short-term travel to the EU would not only make life easier and better for millions of people, it would send an important message – we recognize you are Europeans, we are with you and you are welcome to visit us. Too often the EU has sent the opposite signal to Ukrainians, betraying a fear born of ignorance and chauvinism. This has been compounded by an overly cautious approach to security in its neighbourhood that has failed to balance the risks of closer engagement with the opportunities that it brings for people on both sides of the current border.
The EU has been dragging its heals over short-term Visa Liberalisation for several years, blaming the failure of the government to ‘do its homework’ and implement necessary reforms. However, the current situation actually rewards those in power, the corrupt officials and their cronies, who can already travel freely thanks to special dispensations – this effectively welcomes the winners from and friends of the Yanukovych regime as wealthy tourists.
A visa-free policy for short-term travel would benefit ordinary people, not oligarchs, and would provide them with a tangible sense of European belonging, putting clear blue (and yellow) water between the EU’s democratic magnetism and Putin’s cronyism and coercion. Many Ukrainians – like those on the Maidan – are determined to change skewed perceptions of themselves and their country. They also want to learn about the EU, its standards and values by experiencing it for themselves, so they can bring the best of what they find back home. Visa-free travel would let them start to do both of these things.
Doing Well by Doing Good: Embracing Ukraine is in (Almost) Everyone’s Interests
For the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have turned out on the freezing yet fiery streets of their capital, whatever Putin is ‘offering’ cannot compete with the long-term potential of integration with the EU. They are willing to bear the inevitable costs and hard work of making change in order to transform their prospects and those of their children, but need help and support to do so. The EU rightly defends democratic standards as the best expression of its values, but the best way that it can support the demonstrators in Kyiv and help Ukrainians choose the hard but worthwhile road of reform would be to be inclusive in both principle and practice. In the short-term this means Visa Liberalisation.
The vast majority of protestors in Kyiv are not only demanding integration with the EU, but are rejecting their self-serving government’s brutality and guarding against attempts by right-wing extremists and nationalists to hi-jack this moment. They demand the type of benefits that association with, and eventual accession to, the EU would bring and which were built by eschewing old style power politics and embracing value-driven, democratic development to deliver real economic prosperity for people. The EU should trust its instincts and its capacity to act as attractive force for change from the bottom-up, rather than punishing Ukrainian people for the sins of their governing elites.
By being bold and acting in the interests of Ukrainians, the EU can revive its tottering Eastern Partnership and re-invigorate itself by returning to the values that made it the world’s most successful peace and prosperity project. The Eastern Partnership was launched in order to help spread this peace and prosperity further and faster, making both EU citizens and their neighbours richer and safer through closer co-operation and deeper integration. This is the logic that has driven the EU’s own success and it remains sound. The EU needs a Ukrainian government that is serious about reform to be a partner in a free trade area, but the best long-term security move that the EU can make is to take seriously Romano Prodi’s old phrase about creating a ‘ring of friends’ around it. By treating the Ukrainians on the Maidan this way, the EU might soon find that it also has friends elsewhere – in Belarus and even in Russia, where it should be made clear that opposing Putinism does not mean being anti-Russian.
Visa liberalization can help gain the popular buy-in for long-term change, convince skeptical Ukrainians that the EU cares about their interests and help pro-EU and pro-people politicians build a serious platform to oppose Yanukovych. Encouragingly, the penny seems to have dropped with EU leaders that this is a chance for change, for themselves as much as for Ukrainians, as Commission President Barroso recently stated “When we see in the cold streets of Kiev, men and women with the European flag, fighting for that European flag, it is because they are also fighting for Ukraine and for their future […] Those young people in the streets of Ukraine, with freezing temperatures, are writing the new narrative for Europe.”
Its time for the EU to put its policy where its mouth is and bring Ukrainians in from the cold.