EU Forum

EU Integration

How Germany shifted from reluctance to realistic affirmation

12 Sep 2016 - 12:50
Bron: Jorbasa Fotografie / Flickr

Kai-Olaf Lang explains why Germany is now supporting the Association Agreement with Ukraine.

Germany is a consistent proponent of Ukraine’s association with the European Union. The German government has continuously supported the association process, the German parliament approved the association agreement with a clear majority – only the Left Party voting against. This has not always been the case. Berlin’s attitude towards Ukraine has developed and the views on how to organize relations with this country have changed. There is no doubt that Germany’s perception of Ukraine has wavered between empathy and fatigue: on the one hand the big democratic upheavals on Maidan and Russia’s power politics sparking compassion. On the other hand news about powerful oligarchs and infighting within the political class causing dissatisfaction or even annoyance. Despite these ups and downs there has been one steady trend: Ukraine’s political relevance has progressively risen. For Germany, Ukraine has arrived among the most important foreign and European policy issues, and it comes as no surprise that it has been called a “key country” in the Eastern part of Europe.

No prominent role

Compared to the 1990’s, this is a substantial difference. At that time, Germany’s Eastern policy was focused primarily on Russia. Even though German actors like non-governmental organizations, businesses or government agencies were present in Ukraine also during this period (and probably they were much more active than actors from other European countries), Ukraine had neither a prominent role in German foreign policy nor a special place on the political mind-maps of the elites.

This began to change due to two factors. First, after 2004 and the accession of new member states from Central Europe to the EU, Germany, which had been the engine of the Union’s Eastern enlargement, saw, that there is a new region between the bigger EU and Russia, which is at least potentially unstable. Hence, Germany acknowledged that there is a need for new cooperative frameworks with the “direct neighbors”. Second, the Colored regime-changes, and particularly Ukraine’s Orange revolution, were calling for a new approach and a more palpable European offer.

This all lead to a considerable policy shift in Germany, which accepted the need for a tailor-made and solid form of relations with Ukraine – bilaterally and, above all, on the EU-level. The most important element at that stage was not so much a new generosity towards Kiev. Still there was remarkable hesitance in Berlin in designing new offers and prospects for Ukraine. And particularly “association” was regarded as a much too extensive concept and a problematic notion, since it could provoke Russia and lead to overblown expectations. But what turned out to be highly significant, was that Germany began to discover Ukraine (and other countries located at the EU-Eastern borders) as a distinct partner, for whom the schemes and principles, which are applied to Russia are not applicable.

New enhanced agreement

Among the first detectable effects of this new approach were Germany’s attempts to advance and specify the recently initiated European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and especially its Eastern direction. In the run-up to Germany’s EU council presidency in the first half of 2007 the German Foreign Office was floating the idea of an ENP plus as a reinforced program of cooperation for direct Eastern neighbors. During the presidency, Germany actively supported the upgrade of the offer for Ukraine, which (as the perceived frontrunner of change in the region) was supposed to obtain a “new enhanced agreement”. All of this of course was supposed to take place with a parallel deepening of EU-Russia relations, looking for a constructive reconciliation between both Eastern trajectories and avoiding “integration competition” between the EU and Russia.

Consistently, Germany, even though formally not an initiator of the “Eastern Partnership”, supported this new concept of intensified collaboration with direct neighbors – its multilateral dimension as well as the, more substantive, bilateral dimension, which now included as a key incentive new contractual arrangements, which were now called “association agreements”.

When Ukraine’s association turned from a concept to a policy, Germany remained supportive but strict. This became clear in the period of 2012 and 2013. After the agreement had been negotiated and the document was to be signed, Berlin belonged to those EU-capitals, which were calling for reforms concerning electoral laws and the judiciary and a cooperative solution for the imprisoned former Prime Minister Tymoshenko. It became clear that Germany did not intend to give Ukraine a geopolitical rebate or any other sort of bonus. Germany was ready to offer remarkable incentives, like free trade or financial assistance, but only in exchange for the implementation of reforms and with the fulfilment of minimal standards concerning democracy and rule-of-law.

A broader context

With the then President Yanukovich questioning Ukraine’s commitment to the association process, the upcoming Maidan-revolution, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the separatist conflict in the Donbas region, Germany’s view on Ukraine’s association with the EU was embedded into a much broader context. Not only became Germany a key broker and negotiator, but questions of war and peace and particularly the EU’s and Germany’s relations with Russia now were an inextricable part of the association debate. Whereas in the past Ukraine’s association was considered a technocratic endeavor, which – provided the good will of all sides – could easily be made “compatible” with EU-Russian relations as a positive sum game, Germany now had to recognize the foreign and security policy implications of that “project”.

The fear of military escalation, the role as a mediator and the gloomy political and economic situation in Ukraine have stimulated German debates about Ostpolitik in general and about the association process in particular. Trying to put the rather disparate strands of these discussion together, there is a couple of main components, which shape the German attitude toward Ukraine’s association.

  • First, there is a broad conviction that Ukraine has to be stabilized. The best way to do this is too bring the country, its society and economy, closer to the European Union. In order to help Ukraine to approach the EU, the country needs a realistic offer and effective support for reforms.
  • Second, Ukraine is too important and too exposed to be neglected. With all its weight, and its positive as well as negative potential, the country can provide considerable opportunities, but it can also be a source for uncertainty. This holds for the EU in toto and in particular Germany, which has developed close ties with Ukraine. There are more than 2.000 companies with a German background in Ukraine. All relevant actors of Germany’s foreign cultural and educational policy, the important political foundations as well as institutions of development aid and political counselling are active in Ukraine.
  • Third, association is seen as an effective and pragmatic way to both give Ukraine an attractive incentive and maintaining control of the process of approximation. There is a broad political majority in Germany against giving Ukraine the promise of EU-membership. Association is regarded as a compromise, which shows EU-openness and does not exclude further deepening of mutual relations, but which at the same time does not create a slippery-slope towards pre-accession nor unrealistic expectations.
  • Fourth, Germany considers association with Ukraine as a process, which is neither directed against Russia nor forms an impediment in EU-Russia cooperation. With regard to the conflict in and about Ukraine, the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier declared that it had not been the “intensification of a partnership” [with Ukraine], but Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the enduring destabilization of Eastern Ukraine, which were responsible for the aggravation of the crisis. Hence, Germany, in spite of the heavy clash with Russia, continues to seek ways of harmonizing the association process and particularly the new free trade regime with Ukraine (and other partners) on the one hand and EU-Russia-relations as well as Russia-Ukraine-cooperation on the other hand. For that reason Germany has always tried to push all sides to find trilateral arrangements and it has been sympathetic to pragmatic contacts between the EU and the newly emerged Eurasian structures.
  • Fifth, irrespective of its predilection for the maintenance of cooperative relations with Russia, Germany has been very principled in maintaining Ukraine’s right to a sovereign decision about its domestic political and economic order and its foreign policy orientation. Even though there were voices calling for a more accommodating position in order not to estrange Russia, the official German policy stayed firm and rejected any form of Russian droit de regard or grand bargain, which would have included a nullification or a revision of the association process. 

In sum, Germany has moved in more or less a decade from reluctance to realistic affirmation of Ukraine’s association with the EU. Whereas this shift is noteworthy as such, what is equally important is, that there is a broad political consensus and that German governments have held the course. Even though there has been considerable criticism for having de-prioritized relations with Russia (coming from the business community, from parts of the society, from the Left and a still important group of adherents of a Russia-first line) and even though there has been unhappiness from a weak, but not irrelevant orientation demanding a more generous offer (some NGOs or parts of the Green party, calling for a membership prospect for Ukraine), the association paradigm has not been questioned. 

Dr. Kai-Olaf Lang is Deputy Head of the Research Division EU Integration at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. Mr Lang’s areas of expertise are Central and Eastern Europe, Baltic countries, EU Enlargement and the European Neighbourhood Policy.