The EU: an accidental warmonger
European politicians have a lot to answer for in Ukraine.
Two separate elections are currently taking place in Ukraine. Last weekend much of the country went to the polls, while the Eastern regions controlled by Russian-backed separatists will vote next week.
The Western media has continually misrepresented the reality of the Ukraine crisis and this latest episode is no exception. They continue with the fairytale of a trapped Ukraine yearning to join the EU, with the EU in turn presented as being eager to grant Ukraine membership. Last weekend’s elections were presented by the Western media as (yet another) historic turning point in the relationship between Ukraine and the West. Finally, Western journalists told us, Ukraine is shaking off its Russian chains and turning westwards towards the EU. However, this is an entirely dishonest picture. As I have written on spiked before, Ukraine has consistently asked for EU membership but it has been fobbed off with various partnership agreements, all of which have been premised on a refusal to consider Ukraine for proper membership. These partnership agreements were merely a consolation prize for a country perceived to be far too big, far too chaotic and far too corrupt to be considered for membership in an EU already suffering from ‘enlargement fatigue’. With the recent rise of populist right-wing parties, freedom of movement in the EU is increasingly being contested. The idea that, in this context, the EU would simply welcome in Ukrainian plumbers is a lie.
The decision made by then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to reject yet another association agreement with the EU, an agreement which came with some tough conditions, in favour of making a gas deal with Russia was a purely pragmatic move. While Yanukovich’s move sparked mass protests in central Kiev, it was the overt intervention of the EU in the wake of the deal that escalated the situation, and effectively fomented a coup. Three EU foreign ministers more or less ordered the elected government to leave and urged their preferred politicians to take over. Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, was even caught on video warning the opposition politicians that if they didn’t sign up to the deal ‘You’ll all be dead’.
The problem was, and still is, that there are genuine disagreements within Ukraine that the EU, through its extraordinary and scandalous intervention, has totally ignored. Instead, it portrayed one side of a complex political situation as the right one. This is not to argue that Russia has played no role in the further destabilisation of the country – it certainly has, as Putin seems to have taken on board Winston Churchill’s dictum of ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. But make no mistake, the crisis was set off by the EU – the blame and the responsibility lies with the EU, and with long-term Western intervention in the region more generally.
As a result, Ukraine is now completely divided and having separate polls can only lessen the chance of any kind of political resolution. To paraphrase the Irish saying, if you wanted to achieve peace and unity you certainly wouldn’t start from here. However, this is the situation in which Ukraine, thanks to external intervention, now finds itself. Ultimately the choice to hold elections is a matter for the Ukrainian people. The real problem here is not the elections themselves but the fact that these elections are leading to a further internationalisation of the crisis by the EU.
The EU has at least acted consistently towards Ukraine in one regard: it has been engaging in a kind of accidental foreign policy from the start. The EU seems to have totally disengaged with the real world and refused to grasp that EU actions can have real and concrete effects. Beginning with the offers to Ukraine of quasi EU-membership, complete with byzantine frameworks and agreements, the EU has constantly ignored the impact its engagement would have on Ukraine. Thanks to the EU, Ukraine is caught in a state of permanent political and economic suspension. Even as the EU continued to resist granting Ukraine EU membership, it discouraged Ukraine from pursuing other trade and political agreements.
Other aspects of EU foreign policy have been more obviously accidental – and out of control. For example, the decision of the three foreign ministers to order Ukraine’s elected president to stand down was made on the hoof. The Polish foreign minister started the ball rolling, before his German and French counterparts followed suit. It beggars belief that Ukraine was been set on the path to war because of impromptu decisions taken by three foreign ministers who took it upon themselves to fly to Kiev and issue ultimatums. This also reveals the fundamental dishonesty of the idea that the EU is a kind of coherent foreign-policy actor.
The Ukrainian crisis ought to concern every citizen in the EU. A colleague of mine informs me that foreign-policy debates in Germany now take quite a frank form: ‘Do you want to go to war over Donetsk?’, they ask. It is time we started to pose these questions in Britain. If the answer you want to give is no, then you need to think very seriously about EU foreign policy, because, as the situation in Ukraine illustrates, it is taking us into conflict and destroying states. EU foreign policy has been premised on its own infantile fantasy that it acts as a force for good in the world, facilitating good governance like a benevolent fairy waving its wand and achieving harmony. The reality is that EU foreign policy is currently a force for chaos and disorder in the world.
In response to the incoherent and destructive foreign policy offered by the EU, it is time to make a return to realpolitik, that is, a foreign policy based on an understanding that states have real, concrete and often conflicting interests and that the intervention of other states can have huge and deadly consequences. A good start would be for the West to step away from the Ukrainian elections and try to understand how Ukraine came to be in the situation it is in.
Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester.