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Ukraine And Western Europe's Blind Spot On Eastern Expansion

Mural on a building at Andriyivskyy Descent in Kiev
Mural on a building at Andriyivskyy Descent in Kiev
Thomas Schmid

BERLIN — It looked as if a great moment might be in the making: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Polish colleague Radoslaw Sikorski had teamed up with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and the trio flew to Kiev for joint talks with the then-Ukrainian government and opposition.

At the time violence on Maidan Square was escalating and it looked like Ukraine was headed either for civil war or a Tiananmen-style solution to the unrest.

After talks with President Viktor Yanukovych and representatives of opposition parties and the Maidan protests, the negotiators were able to work out a plan for getting the situation under control. Yanukovych agreed to the formation of an interim government and new presidential elections, while the demonstrators said they would end their occupation of Maidan.

If that plan had worked, it not only would have been a huge victory for diplomacy — it would have provided a model for transition without bloodshed from a bad to a better regime.

But it didn’t work, and so far there is still no clear picture of what happened on the night of Feb. 21, by the end of which Yanukovych had fled, and a new regime had been installed. Within a few hours, a potentially good plan was no longer worth the paper it was written on.

What appears certain now is that by the time the three foreign ministers took the initiative, it was already too late. With hindsight it is clear that the EU didn’t take the Ukraine problem seriously enough.

Without a clue as to how dire the situation would soon become, European leaders seem to have not done everything possible to get Yanukovych to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. What’s more, there was no sense of the true magnitude of the situation.

But the EU should have known. After achieving independence, the Ukrainian state and the country’s people never formed a stable entity. Nor was there any legal security, independent justice, or even half-way functioning institutions.

Arab spring precedent

Ukraine was not only a weak state, but its history and geopolitics added to the problem and as a result the country never had a sense of itself as a whole, which would have enabled the western part of it to co-exist with the Russian-oriented eastern part — to name only the most obvious of the fractures the country faced.

Within the EU there was apparently no willingness or ability to see Ukraine as a country that for historical reasons was different from what we perceive as a “normal” state.

What's at play here is both a lack of empathy and too much self-confidence, the same problems that prevented a better understanding of the Arab Spring: We take for granted the fact everybody who revolts against an undemocratic regime wants what we mean by democracy. But that’s a mistake.

Europe brought so little understanding to the Ukrainian problem because the EU lacks a sufficient feel for different situations, for different strengths and possibilities, and for different degrees of development.

In short, the EU does not understand the principle of federalism. That held true with the Union for the Mediterranean and it also defines relations with countries in central and eastern Europe.

The EU suffers diplomatically from not being polycentric, which would help it navigate the different stages of development, different potential, and different needs of its member countries into a fruitful whole, able to come to terms with the discrepancies between Finland and Greece, Germany and Hungary, the culture of the siesta and that of workaholism, national sentiments and post-national sensitivities.

But that approach not only creates problems for the old, essentially western European members of the EU, but also the newer members. We can now see that the extension of the EU into eastern Europe suffers from a major construction flaw, even if parts of that extension have proven successful. Because the EU disregards the history that it is so crucial to understanding central and eastern Europe, it follows a universalistic but in practice foolish principle of “business as usual.”

The EU now has to confront the fact that while it conducted its expansion eastward with verve, it put far too little energy and thought into just exactly how to do so.

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