On 15 December, The Hague Institute and the Embassy of Ukraine in the Netherlands organized a high-level panel discussion on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The discussion centered around clarifying what the Agreement actually entails and what it will bring for Europe, the Netherlands and Ukraine.
Dr. Abi Williams, President of The Hague Institute, prefaced the discussion by highlighting the interest that the Institute has taken in issues pertaining to Ukraine, particularly the downing of MH 17 and the ongoing conflict. Dr. Williams accentuated the Association Agreement’s vision of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area that will benefit both Ukraine and the EU. The closer relationship between Ukraine and the EU however has given rise to increased tension between the EU and Russia. Dr. Williams took note of the upcoming referendum on the agreement in the Netherlands, scheduled for April 2016. While the referendum will have only advisory status, it is important that the voting should be based on informed opinion and it was hoped that the discussions at the Institute would contribute to this.
Ambassador Olexander Horin of Ukraine reiterated the importance of the Association Agreement with Ukraine by reminding the audience that processes outside of the EU, especially those close to its borders, can create insecurity within the Union. By continuing the Association process with Ukraine, the EU could contribute to increased stability and security along a substantial portion of its eastern frontier.
The Association Agreement offered a comprehensive roadmap for domestic reform, necessitated by the continued prevalence of corruption and lack of a European political culture in Ukraine. In order for modernization reforms to be successful, Ukraine needed the support and technical guidance of the EU. Ambassador Horin pointed out that increased cooperation would be beneficial for both parties. He further suggested that Ukraine had much to offer the EU, including collaborative efforts to address migration, human trafficking, and smuggling of illegal goods and weapons. Furthermore, Ukraine provides a link to the New Silk Road initiative, connecting the EU to China. Ambassador Horin sought to clarify that Agreement was not necessarily a forerunner to EU membership. In his estimation, neither the EU nor Ukraine were ready now, or in the near future, to see Ukraine join the EU.
Reflecting on Lithuania’s path to EU membership, Ambassador Semaška of Lithuania highlighted the many benefits that EU membership had bestowed upon his country. In 1995, before accession, Lithuanian-Dutch bilateral trade was marginal, but today it had risen to a value of several billion Euros. Consequently, the welfare of the average Lithuanian had improved substantially. Ambassador Semaška argued that if the EU’s neighbors managed to transpose an understanding and acceptance of the rule of law onto their societies, it was important to reward them for their efforts. Reforms, placed into the right legal framework, could lead to a huge boost in Ukraine’s economic strength, while simultaneously opening up a huge market for the EU. Ambassador Semaška concluded that while these reforms were often painful for countries to undergo, there were many mutual benefits to be had from greater cooperation and association.
Mr. Tony van der Togt, Senior Research Fellow at Clingendael, provided a Dutch perspective on the referendum due to take place in April 2016 in The Netherlands on Ukraine’s possibly joining the Association Agreement. He argued that the debate on the referendum was not necessarily only about Ukraine but more about Europe and Euro-skepticism. The onus was on Dutch leadership to explain why this agreement was important for Europe and, in particular, for the Netherlands. In this regard, arguments for the Association Agreement should focus not only on idealistic notions of European unity, but also on realist notions of security, stability and economic opportunity.
Mr. van der Togt concurred with Ambassador Horin in his assessment that the Association Agreement was not about EU enlargement as such. Ukraine was the stage for the “battle for the soul of Europe”, he argued, and Maidan was about Ukraine choosing to subscribe to the fundamental values of Europe – rule of law, anti-corruption, good governance – as the way forward. The Association Agreement represented a convergence of systems towards a common rules based system.
Following the panel discussion, Dr. Williams moderated a question and answer session. Questions from the audience focused on the relationship with Russia and the Eurasian Customs Union, the legal and human rights conditionality built into the Association Agreement, whether the Association Agreement was primarily an economic agreement, and how the Agreement has changed post-2014 as a consequence of the changing geo-political landscape of Ukraine.
Listen to the full discussion below: