What do Ukrainians think about the EU?
The debate in Holland over the referendum on Ukraine has been unfairly focused on general issues about the EU. This is normal enough: referenda often become lighting rods for other issues, as voters seek to vent their frustrations. But, after the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in 2014, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of war in east Ukraine, the Ukrainians deserve their chance to develop relations with the EU, while the EU tries to sort out its own problems. The question of Ukrainian membership of the EU is not on the table for a generation or more. Ukraine will have to make many changes by then, so Ukraine’s fitness as a member will depend on what is like after it has attempted such changes, not on what it is like now. And the EU will also have changed profoundly by then, whatever happens.
But first, a few myths need to be addressed. First, Ukrainian public opinion is not hopelessly divided on the desirability of closer relations with the EU. Even under President Yanukovych from 2010 to 2014, more Ukrainians preferred the long-term option of the EU to Russia’s alternative Eurasian Economic Union by around 40% to 30% (see the graph below). Despite the all-too-obvious problems of the Euro and the more recent migrant crisis, the EU had a track record of prosperity, while Russia’s offer was uncertain and full of political pitfalls. And the Eurasian Economic Union was never likely to be a union of equals. For historical reasons and because of the sheer size of Russia, Putin’s Union was always likely to be dominated by Russia, and by Putin.
That is why so many Ukrainians protested when Yanukovych dropped negotiations with the EU back in November 2013. A propaganda campaign in Ukraine against the EU in 2012-13, sponsored by Yanukovych’s allies and by Russia, had little effect. Support for the EU was at 43.7% in October 2011 before the campaign began, and at 41.7% in May 2013. The campaign was in any case badly-conceived: it talked of economic risks, but, following Putin’s lead on ‘conservative values’, its real obsession was the threat of homosexual rights emanating from so-called ‘Gayropa’.
The graph then shows how support for Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union collapsed in 2014-15, from 31% to 13%. Support for the EU went up, though some opinion shifted to ‘neither’ or ‘don’t know’. And after the initial euphoria of 2014 faded away, support for the EU also faded somewhat, dropping from 52% to 44% between March and September 2015. (The data all comes from the respectable Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Ukraine – see www.dif.org.ua).
Why? Russia and its proxies attacked Ukraine. It’s that simple.
Russia also accompanied the real war in the east of Ukraine with a trade war, banning as many Ukrainian exports as possible on dubious ‘health and safety’ grounds, to try and undermine the government in Kiev. Within a year, total trade turnover between Ukraine and Russia was down by two-thirds. The idea of the Eurasian Economic Union bringing power and prosperity through pooled sovereignty and free trade, like the EU, was fatally undermined.
All graphs are from the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
The effect of the war in east Ukraine can be seen even more clearly in a second graph. Traditionally, Ukrainians were much more wary about NATO. They didn’t want to get involved in other people’s wars, and could see they were in a vulnerable position, right next to Russia and a long way from NATO HQ in Brussels, and even further away from the USA.
But public opinion about NATO has also changed sharply in the last two years. And not mainly because of Yanukovych and the uprising against him. That ended in February 2014. The second graph shows how the rise in support for NATO all came after the annexation of Crimea and the first stirrings of first conflict and then war in east Ukraine in the spring and summer of 2014. Ukrainians are desperate for security; but they haven’t suppressed the desire to move closer to NATO for fear of provoking Russia further. By November 2015, pro-NATO sentiment stood at 75%, with 19.8% against.
Finally, Ukrainians are pragmatic. They know EU membership is a long way off. NATO membership is even less likely. The Ukrainians know they are not ready for either, and would have to do a lot of hard work to qualify. The final chart shows that when Ukrainians list the main obstacles to membership of the EU, the top three problems are all internal obstacles – the slow pace of reform and economic development, and the need to improve standards of living. The problems caused by Russian aggression come fourth. The position of EU Member States comes next, which is logical. Do the reform, stop the conflict, and maybe then Ukraine could one day join.
And that would be the right time to persuade Europeans that Ukraine deserved to join. It would be premature to reject Ukraine now. Ukrainians know they are at the start of a long and difficult process, not the end.
Andrew Wilson is Senior Policy Fellow bij het European Council on Foreign Relations.