Many people today profess shock over the Ukrainian rejection to sign an association agreement with the European Union at a summit in Vilnius next week. Others, including this writer, are shocked that anyone should be shocked. Going back over the many rounds of negotiations, talks, incentives, and cajoling, it is patently clear that the Ukraine has never committed to conclude a deal with the EU but was rather playing a clever game to raise the bids from both of its suitors, one to the East and one to the West. At the end of the day, it is hard to even blame President Yanukovich for employing this time-tested strategy of unscrupulous brides and merger specialists.
On the other hand, it leaves us, the Europeans, rather red-faced and empty-handed after six years of engaging in the process of the Eastern Partnership, once celebrated by the starry-eyed as almost the European equivalent of the Manifest Destiny. Conversely, and symptomatically, it provides ample reasons for the man in the Kremlin to feel rather smug and satisfied. One European paper characterized the result of the latest engagements of President Putin with the West in football terms : Putin 4, West 0. The four scores are listed as Snowden, Syria, Armenia, Ukraine.
All right, even politics is a bit like life : You win some, you lose some. But do we have to make it so easy for our opponents, including by denying the obvious fact that if they talk like an opponent, look like an opponent, and fight like an opponent they are probably an opponent rather than a teammate ? And do we forever ignore the fact that the zero-sum-game rationale of Russian foreign policy is immune to any number of resets ?
But therein exactly lies the problem. Unless we are clear in our own minds about who we are and what we stand for, it is exceedingly difficult to make the same determination about others. In September 1983, Margaret Thatcher convened a meeting of her top foreign policy officials at Chequers, the country retreat of British prime ministers, to formulate a policy doctrine known as “engaging with the real democrats,” which would provide a form a support and sustenance to the opposition democracy movements in Central and Eastern Europe for the remainder of the Cold War. Her vision prevailed, and the democrats in Central and Eastern Europe prevailed with it.
The Eastern Partnership policies of the EU, on the other hand, have lacked a similar focus. Perhaps the governments of Moldova and Georgia, with which the EU will initial but not yet sign similar agreements at the summit, can be seen, cum grano salis, as genuinely democratic. But no one will seriously attempt to say the same for Armenia or Ukraine, not to mention Belarus, where the EU has been trying in vain for years to “positively engage” (the mother of all democratic virtues) with President Lukashenko.
The goal of drawing the Ukraine into a European orbit is a worthy one in and of itself. But for a union of countries priding themselves on their democratic values and their human rights standards to continue negotiating from a position of a supplicant while paying scant attention to human rights abuses and undemocratic practices of the other partner, is a slippery path that could eventually end up with Europe looking more like the Ukraine rather than the Ukraine looking more like Europe. In that case, it is perhaps not such a tragedy that the deal did not materialize.