Ukraine has come full circle with the signing of its EU association agreement, but like its turn to Russia, its return to the EU happened without a referendum. With a conflict raging in the east of the country, will the move drive the wedge deeper into Ukraine's already bitterly-divided society? And how will austerity-stricken Europe afford it? Oksana is joined by Stefan Fule, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, to expand on these issues.
Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. As the old adage goes, good fences – an idea that was supposedly proven wrong by the creation of the European Union. But was an opportunity lost for Ukraine to be that fence between the EU and Russia? Well, to discuss that, I'm now joined by the European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, Stefan Fule. Mr Fule, thank you very much for taking time to talk to us.
Stefan Fule: It's my pleasure.
OB: Now, in many of your previous interviews, you talked about good neighbourly relations as a prerequisite for countries either joining the EU, or integrating more closely with the union. How do you define good neighbourly relations, what are they based on?
SF: I think, first of all, it's about respecting each other, number one. Number two, it's about creating the conditions for each of the neighbours to have its sovereign right to decide about its future. And number three, it's about the number of the contacts, starting in trade, economics, politics and also people-to-people contacts.
OB: Well, I think one point that was missing in your reply was security. And there is of course an express link between security and good neighbourly relations. And I think that's the main reason why the EU has long demanded that all the countries that want to be associated with the union, that they first sort out their territorial disputes. Why has the EU waived that good neighbourly relations restriction in the case of Georgia and Moldova, which both have frozen conflicts on their territory? And even more pressingly, why that restriction was ignored in the case of Ukraine, which has the conflict raging as we speak?
SF: But, first of all, we acknowledge that there are the issues. By the way, we always respected the territorial integrity of all the three of our partners. Another point is that we participate and support also the mechanism which is there, and ongoing efforts to address and solve those issues. So for the kind of the agreement we have signed last Friday, I think we have already a solid base in that commitment.
OB: But Mr Fule, if I'm not mistaken, I mean if we look at the history of negotiations that the EU had with other countries, you always demanded that those questions had to be sorted out first, before those countries can actually even sign the agreement. That was the case with Serbia, it was a case with Kosovo, which is still waiting to sign that agreement. So, why have you pressed those countries to sort out those issues first, but gave, it seems, to Ukraine and Georgia a somewhat different treatment?
SF: What you're talking about is enlargement. What you're talking about is unprecedently higher level of commitment to the values and principles, where we expect the new members of the European Union to align with not only a part of the hierarchy, but actually the whole hierarchy created in the EU over the years. Here, we're making the first step, if you like, as far as our partners' European ambitions. The association agreement is about -
OB:But Mr Fule, in the case of Kosovo, it's also the association agreement. You're not talking about Kosovo joining the EU as a fully-fledged member just yet. But Kosovo hasn't been able to sign that agreement, precisely because of the benchmarks on the rule of law, on the treatment of minorities, what have you, that it was expected to meet. Now, in the case of Ukraine, all those issues are equally pressing – you know the treatment of minorities, good governance, the rule of law – but somehow those issues were sort of brushed aside?
SF: No, wait, in the Western Baltics, the member states already made a clear political decision, actually more than 10 years ago, when they said the whole region and the partners living there, they have a European perspective. So we treat each and every country as a potential member state, or a candidate country. Now in the case of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, we are at the beginning of this road, we are trying to build more of the EU in those countries. And yes, the association agreement is not only about the trade, it's not about only opening market. It's about also rule of law, it's about independence of justice, it's about healthcare, it's about changing the life of the people for better.
OB: Well, I think it's also about values. And the EU likes to talk about values, you know, level playing field, the rule of law, transparency, and yet somehow it seems that it's giving one country a very different treatment from the rest, and of course, here, I'm talking about Ukraine. Now speaking about values, I think democracy is the most precious value for the EU, and I wonder if you believe the Association Agreement, which is a very divisive issue for people in Ukraine - I mean it is at the core of the current crisis, at the core of the bloodshed in that country – do you believe that people in Ukraine should have been given an opportunity to vote, to have a referendum on whether or not they want to sign this agreement?
SF: Actually, number one, looking at the last public opinion poll, I don't think really it is that divisive, as you're saying. Number two, I'm not against referenda, and particularly where, through referendum, if you sort of pass part of your sovereignty to, say, institutions, let's say in Brussels. Then I think it is up to the people to decide. But in the Association Agreement, there is nothing taken away from those countries, on the contrary. And again, I have difficulties sort of to comprehend, not only those two baskets – neighbourhood and enlargement – but also the internal conflict within the borders we recognise and good neighbourly relations. And by the way, when it comes to the good neighbourly relations, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, we are very consistent in making it clear that we expect the continuation of the traditionally very good relationship with the Russian Federation and others.
OB:But Mr Fule, isn't that also the case that Ukrainian case is very unique, in the sense that it has actually, you know, usually as we've said, countries are expected to sort out their territorial issues before they actually sign the Association Agreement. Now in the case of Ukraine, that Association Agreement itself proved to be the cause of the conflict. It has already been described, that agreement, as a civilisational choice for Ukraine. So what can be more important than that, when you're talking about democracy? Why not allow, or not encourage, Ukrainians to vote on that, especially if you're so confident that the majority of them would support that agreement?
SF: I'm missing here a little point here. I think it was not the European Union, it was Russia who very illegitimately actually annexed Crimea to Russia, and created this problem -
OB: Well, you call it annexation, but actually Russia unlike the EU, supported the referendum in -
SF: ...and it is Russia-supported separatism which is actually the destabilising element in the east of Ukraine. So coming with the de facto of this situation in Crimea, and then sort of telling us to figure it out and respect it – no, we will never respect it, we will never respect this annexation, in this way, of Crimea to Russia.
OB:But Mr Fule, I'm very well aware of the European position on the Crimean referendum. But again, at least there was a referendum there, and people had a chance to voice their political opinion. In the case of Ukraine, we have one part of the country waging a conflict with another part of the country. And yet, no referendum, you think, was warranted? What then you call democracy?
SF: No, no, I'm sorry, I mean referenda in the presence of the people in the green uniforms without insignia, about whom we first hear, “Oh, they are not ours,” and then a couple of weeks after, “Oh, they have been ours,” so referenda under the Kalashnikov, that's one thing. The second thing -
OB: Well, the same could be said about the elections on May 25th, it was also -
SF: I don't buy the argument that what we see in Ukraine is a fight of one part of Ukraine against another part of Ukraine.
OB: Well, ok, let's move on. You don't believe that referendum was warranted in the case of the Association Agreement. But I wonder if you, I mean it's not only about Ukrainians wanting to join -
SF: Now listen, those [inaudible] about referenda and about free will. You know, the referenda, for that to be democratic, it cannot happen in the presence of the military with Kalashnikov ready to shoot. Number one. Number two, it cannot come without a lot of work before, listening also the other side, and so on. You know, we are sort of looking for the kind of complaints and actually the reasons - beyond that 200 [inaudible] ago, it might belong for some time to Russia – which would make Moscow eligible to make such a dramatic move as annex part of a different sovereign country.
OB: But Mr Fule, you know, we're discussing here not the Crimean situation. We're talking about the latest agreement that Ukraine signed with the European Union, and whether the majority of people in Ukraine actually support that. And let me – I just don't want both of us to be dragged in that back-and-forth, because I don't think it will lead us anywhere. Because it's already a done deal, as far as Russia is concerned. The association of Crimea, whether it's affiliated with Russia or Ukraine, is already a done deal for Moscow. I mean, this is something that, you know, is pointless to discuss as far as the Kremlin is concerned. But I would like to ask you about the Ukrainian -
SF: It's not pointless for us, and we will discuss it as long as this situation prevails. And I'm sorry if Moscow decides that it should be a shadow, a permanent shadow in our relationship that, you know, your position is the one which is unfortunately, you know, going to be referring to it again and again -
OB: Mr Fule, let's admit that it's not the only shadow in our relationship. And I think the way this transition of power, or the coup was carried out in Ukraine, would also be casting a very, very long shadow in our relationship. But if I can bring you back to the situation in Ukraine. You don't believe that Ukrainians should have -
SF: I'm sorry, what kind of coup, coup d'etat are you talking about? Number one. And number two, why do I have a feeling that you imply the European Union in this coup d'etat?
OB:Well, I think the legitimacy of the authorities in Kiev, especially of the previous government, has been questionable. And I think, in fact, that the Kremlin has recognised that the election of Mr Poroshenko was legitimate. But the question is that Ukraine is notoriously prone to political U-turns. I mean, you cannot exclude the chance that a few years down the line, they won't kick Mr Poroshenko out of office and then ditch the same Association Agreement that was signed last Friday. I wonder if you owe some sort of security to the European citizens? Because they will have to bankroll the European, the Ukrainian transition to the European Union nowadays?
SF: Um, listen again, I'm not against referenda, if those are democratic referenda under democratic conditions, or if there is good reasons for referenda. But even after the signature, even after the ratification, and even with the provisional applications – Ukraine remain the same sovereign country as it is, no decisions will be taken in Brussels at the expense of the Ukraine. On the contrary, Ukraine will become the country which could benefit from the support of the European Union to get its economy more competitive, it will open up its market, which is not only the biggest but also the richest market in the world. So I don't see any reasons for the referendum, and I don't see any reasons to be afraid that the Association Agreement limits the power of the decision making in Kiev – it does not.
OB:Mr Fule, let me stop you here, we have to take a very short break, but when we come back – the EU officials now say they're willing to demonstrate that Ukraine's signing of the Association Agreement won't harm Russia's economic interests. If so, what was all this fuss about? That's coming up in a few moments on Worlds Apart.