Europe represents the freedom from political dictatorship. But at what cost?
PARIS — Once again, Europe has disappointed. In the southern countries, the European Union is stirring up the anger and the disgust of its population. In the East, people are also protesting. With one massive difference though: The Ukrainians, who have been taking to the streets of Kiev since Sunday and in other cities, are marching to express their love — not their hate — of Europe. Such an event is rare.
Yet, these protests are also signs of a stinging defeat for Brussels. Thousands of excuses, most of which are valid, can explain the flop in the negotiations over the "Eastern Partnership," supposed to bring Ukraine and the European Union closer together. Some see it as an abhorrent economic blackmail on the part of Russia, the result of Vladimir Putin's crafty forces of persuasion.
One could also mention the calculations of the Ukrainian authorities: The country is in a very difficult economic situation and President Viktor Yanukovych, paralyzed by fear of not being reelected in 2015, desperately needs money. The financial benefits offered by Europe were dismissed as "pathetic" by Ukranian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. Finally, the government fears a comeback from Yulia Tymoshenko — a potential rival of the current administration — and wants to find a way to definitively disarm her.
Still, what the failure in the negotiations also shows is the patent impotence of Europe when it comes to bringing countries together. Jose Manuel Barroso, whose mandate as head of the European Commission comes to an end in 2014, will leave a very poor legacy behind him. During his 10-year tenure, Europe has failed on two fronts: with the crisis-ridden southern countries, and now on its eastern front.
Pro-European Ukrainians saw in this potential agreement with Brussels a way out of Russia's grip on the country, as well as a fast track toward better justice and toward the liberation of their braided muse, Tymoshenko.
Their opponents, the pro-Russian population, only had to say this: Along with Europe come economic efforts, austerity and other constraints, and on top of it a dishevelled liberalism for a more than hypothetical reward. Such criticisms of a future in the arms of Europe are hard to counter. At least in the short term, any rapprochement would imply its share of "structural reforms," efforts to reduce the debt as well as budgetary rigor. Angela Merkel made it very clear, and she was right in doing so.
In the end though, her message only strengthened the image of a "Europe of austerity" eclipsing that of the Europe of democracy. Ukrainian leaders and Putin have no doubt used this excuse, and Europe certainly showed some ingenuity. Seen from Kiev, the failure of the negotiations has more to do with diplomacy than with the economy.
But it's a fact: In Lisbon, Madrid or Athens, the image people have of Europe is that of an organization that replaced political dictatorship with economical dictatorship. Thousands of angry Ukrainians are reminding us that Europe is more than that.