How the European Union Has Made Itself Irrelevant in Ukraine

In 2003, the European Union launched its European Neighborhood Policy. It became reinforced as the Eastern Partnership in 2009. The big task of the Eastern Partnership was to conclude Association Agreements with Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The Association Agreement with Ukraine was concluded after Euromaidan in 2014 and subsequently ratified by all the EU members.

Most of the Association Agreement of more than 2,000 pages consists of the Free Trade Agreement, but it also contains a substantial and sound reform program of a few hundred pages. This is the most comprehensive reform program to which Ukraine has committed itself.

On the basis of the Association Agreement, the EU should be in the forefront of Ukraine’s transformation to a full-fledged democracy, a country with the rule of law, and a well-functioning state apparatus. Alas, that is not the case. The EU is surprisingly ineffective. Its Kyiv representatives might try to do whatever they can, but they lack political leadership, mandate or operative program.

Instead, among the international institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) remains in the forefront, followed by the United States, the G-7, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The problems with the EU in Ukraine can be summarized in three points:

1. A lack of political leadership;
2. A lack of cohesive and effective executive
3. The absence of any operative reform program after the adoption of the Association Agreement.

The Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski founded the Eastern Partnership in 2009. They were and are great enthusiasts for Ukraine, but unfortunately they are no longer foreign ministers. Today, the European Council has no politician of such dignity and engagement, so the Eastern Partnership has dwindled.

The European Commission has gone through a similar decline. During the Orange Revolution in late 2004, the EU was marvelously represented by its high representative for foreign policy Javier Solana and Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski. Their achievement was great and laudable.

During the difficult Yanukovych term and Euromaidan, Štefan Füle, a Czech diplomat who served masterly as the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy drove EU policy on the Eastern Partnership and Ukraine. The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, was also greatly involved and became honorably hated by Putin.

The Jean-Claude Juncker Commission paid much less attention to Ukraine. The Austrian Johannes Hahn succeeded Füle, but he kept a much lower profile. Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis was probably the main EU profile in Ukraine, being responsible for the substantial macroeconomic finance.

Another Vice President, Maroš Šefčovič, laudably led EU energy policy, in spite of much German resistance within the commission, and the independent Energy Community did a great job. Juncker however went AWOL, as did the High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, who visited Cuba more than Ukraine.

The current EU Commission is sadly lacking. Dombrovskis remains the high point, with his responsibility for macroeconomic assistance and now also trade policy. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has paid more attention to Ukraine than Juncker, but has not done anything apart from some good statements.

The same is true of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, who has traveled to Kyiv and expressed his ‘deep concern’ about the Russian threat, but not much more.

Unfortunately, the EU has neither a central policymaker such as Solana or Füle, nor a policy on Ukraine. The low point in the current commission is the Hungarian Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, who is a Viktor Orban loyalist who does not even appear to work.

Similarly, the EU commissioner for energy, Kadri Simson, has done little about the current EU energy crisis. Disturbingly, the outstanding EU competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, seems to ignore Gazprom’s gross gas market manipulation.

As a natural outcome of this lack of EU leadership on Ukraine, the EU does not have much of a policy on Ukraine, beyond the old Association Agreement, so the EU apparatus is not very relevant for Ukraine. The implementation of the Association Agreement continues, but primarily at a technocratic level.

The greatest achievement has been the decentralization reform.

Yet, when the chips are down in Ukrainian domestic politics, the EU lacks weight.

This must not continue. The EU must get organized. It can’t continue to stand aside from the reform process in Ukraine. In the current critical situation, the EU needs to get serious about Ukraine again. First of all, some real EU politicians need to take the lead on Ukraine in the European Council.

Second, a strong and serious commissioner needs to be given overall responsibility for Ukraine, as Solana and Füle had. It has to be a strong commissioner, who has sufficient time and resources for the Eastern Partnership.

Third, while no major adjustment of the Association Agreement is needed, the EU should elaborate an implementation program with the Ukrainian government, which focuses on the key policy points rather than technocratic details.

The EU should cooperate with the other heavyweights of the collective West, the IMF, the United States, the G-7, and the other international financial institutions.

The obvious four top priorities should be:

1. Judicial and law enforcement reform.

2. State administration reform.

3. Corporate governance of state-owned enterprises and banks.

4. Energy market reform.

The EU can no longer stay passive and ineffective in Ukraine. It is high time for the EU to get serious about Ukraine, which today defends Europe against the onslaught of kleptocratic authoritarianism.

Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum


  1. “Juncker however went AWOL, as did the High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, who visited Cuba more than Ukraine.”

    Both of these scumbags were more interested in keeping their bank accounts full of rubles than actually helping Ukraine. This current mess has highlighted the disorganisation and total disrespect of democratic principles within the EU, they are more aligned to the totalitarianism of Muscovy.

  2. The eurozone never helped Ukraine, although their loan has not been unnoticed. There’s no better way than to go forward with the Empire and the UK, Moldova, Georgia.

  3. There is no appetite for EU enlargement anymore, thus Ukraine’s reforms have become irrelevant to the EU as they won’t be joining the EU anyway.

    So my feeling is that the EU is silently abandoning any EU would be members as there is no use in it anyway.

    • I beg to differ, the EU Enlargement Committee is very busy and the EU as a whole has been very complimentary of Ukraine’s economic contributions. Besides that, it is in Ukraine’s Constitution so it will happen sooner or later. Perhaps Ukraine can straighten them out a little…;))

      • You misunderstood, there is no appetite amongst the current members population for expansion, no matter how hard the commission tries, without consent from the members it won’t happen.

        And just because it’s in a constitution doesn’t mean its going to happen.

        Every single member has a veto.

        • I’m pretty realistic and Ukraine has been known as the Breadbasket of Europe for a long time. People still need to eat and logic sets in sooner or later. I’m not a big fan of the EU but all ties with RuSSia must end after killing 14,000 Ukrainians. We are finished with him.

    • The EU is a dead horse. Most fools in the EU haven’t seen this obvious fact yet. I hope that Ukraine will never join this club of losers.

  4. 1. A lack of political leadership;
    2. A lack of cohesive and effective executive
    3. The absence of any operative reform program after the adoption of the Association Agreement.

    How about 4. A lack of brains
    5. A lack of balls
    6. Being forced by Germany to get infested with Muslims
    7. Dependent on Ruskie fossil fuels, thanks to Germany

    Ukraine, please don’t join this pack of losers (not all, but most of them are).

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