Commitment Issues
Dutch Hollow Out Ukraine-EU Deal

As European leaders seek to appease the Dutch about the controversial association agreement with Ukraine, Kyiv is re-learning a familiar lesson: the EU is just not that into Ukraine. Reuters:

European Union leaders, anxious to preserve a landmark cooperation agreement with Ukraine, will address Dutch concerns on Thursday by saying the deal does not give Kiev the status of a candidate for membership of the bloc, diplomats said. 

The Netherlands demanded caveats on the EU-Ukraine agreement, which establishes closer political ties and envisages a gradual freeing-up of trade, after Dutch voters rejected it in a referendum last April.

The so-called association agreement, designed to bind Ukraine closer to western Europe as it tries to move away from Russia’s orbit, is now being provisionally implemented. 

But it would unravel if Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte withdrew his support, which he had vowed to do should he fail to get a meeting of 28 EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday to agree to limit the promised benefits to Ukraine.

To be fair, the Dutch insistence on a statement downplaying Ukraine’s membership prospects is a largely symbolic move. Given its smoldering conflict in the east and its incessant corruption, Ukraine is hardly ready to become an EU member any time soon. And the addition of the Dutch-proposed language may be a simple political calculation for Rutte to save face at home, where voters rejected the agreement in a referendum earlier this year.

Still, symbols matter, and it would be hard for Kyiv not to take this one personally. After all, it was the EU Association Agreement that became the cause célèbre of the Maidan protestors in 2013, who touted it as a symbolic first step toward integration with Europe. Ukrainians who still believe in that promise—after the annexation of Crimea, the ongoing bloodshed in the Donbass, and three years of dire economic conditions—would like to believe that their sacrifice has been worth it. European leaders are sending a dispiriting reply: don’t get your hopes up.

If the revised agreement embarrasses Ukraine, it also exposes once again the hollowness of Europe’s commitment to the country. In many ways, this is a reflection of simple geopolitical reality: Ukraine will never be as important to the EU as it is to Russia. As we have argued all along, the Eurocrats who pushed the agreement in the first place miscalculated and stumbled into a confrontation with Russia for which they were not prepared; in Walter Russell Mead’s words, they brought a baguette to a knife fight.

The EU capitulation to Dutch demands only underscores this reality, which we have seen time and time again. The limitations of European support for Ukraine are becoming ever more apparent, even as Euroskeptic parties are on the march throughout the continent. One wonders if the Ukrainians, too, will begin to lose faith in the EU.

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