While the world watches nervously the developments in Ukraine, one cannot but ask oneself what would have happened if the EU (and/or NATO for that matter) had incorporated this country following the events of 2004, the Orange Revolution. Then as now Brussels refused to consider the country a viable candidate for membership. In fact the EU looked in other directions for further enlargements: Turkey, the Western Balkans and Iceland.
And it remains to be seen, as some suggest, that if we had started an accession process with Ukraine in those years, we would have had more stable governments in Kiev and today’s problems could have been avoided. None of the governments that have presided over the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union has ever seriously attempted to overcome the internal divide between East and West and give clear direction to the country.
Protecting own interest groups has often come first. And thus the Orange coalition collapsed to be replaced by its ousted predecessors. And even if there had been consensus about – say – a pro-European orientation, the question remains whether the country’s elites would have been prepared to promote a drastic transformation and follow the reform path that is the essential part of the EU accession process.
I am writing this because 2004 – 1st May to be exact – was also the year thin which we admitted eight countries from Central and Eastern Europe into the EU. Those bordering on Russia will be very happy with the political protection that the present situation offers. The accession of these countries was called the Big Bang, with Malta and Cyprus making ten new members. It was an audacious step of the EU, partly politically motivated to wind up a process that had started in 1993 with the formulation of the accession criteria. The risk of instability caused by a further postponement was the main argument for not taking more time for the preparations.
It, however, created a backlash starting in the same year – public opinion turned against further enlargements in some of the key EU countries. This changed the debate. Given the commitments already made to Turkey and the Western Balkans, a new line was drawn excluding countries like Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia. They were to be good friends but not potential candidates for membership. So, in all honesty, even if these countries had made remarkable progress – which they did not – the door to the EU would have remained closed.
So will there be nothing to celebrate on 1st May? Should we assess – with hindsight – 2004 as a somewhat unlucky year producing an unpopular enlargement and an Orange Revolution that in the end failed to carry the country forward? That would be totally unfair to those in Central and Eastern Europe or Ukraine who saw the EU as an anchor of democratic stability – as the place to be. Most of them still do. The EU is more popular in Poland than in most of the older member states.
Altogether EU membership has been positive for the countries that joined in 2004. They have shown higher growth rates and thus contributed to better figures for the EU as a whole. They were able to reduce the income gap, though it still remains high as do national income inequalities. The political integration went smoothly – contrary to expectations. Poland did not turn out to be the US’s Trojan Horse but instead – like most other new member states – contributed constructively to the constitutional debates and to the decision-making on monetary and economic issues.
In retrospect, it is not market integration as such or the political incorporation that create divisions ten year after the fact. In these areas we have seen an impressive transformation. Major investments have changed the face of many cities and regions. But the software of these societies has not undergone such rapid change. Habits die slowly. It is a lack of administrative capacity and weak institutions that create distrust in some of the older member states (the Netherlands being an example). Proper rules and their proper implementation, in particular when it concerns the rule of law, are not only essential European values but also necessary elements of good functioning markets. Since it would be counterproductive to single out countries (with the exception of Bulgaria and Romania who are still subject to the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism), the better option is to make the EU responsible for overall quality control with the establishment of an EU rule of law mechanism. Initiatives with that purpose have recently been taken.
The second vulnerable area is the freedom of movement of workers. Instead of acerbating the problems by denying them, Brussels should help taking steps to tackle exploitation, abuse and unfair competition that are caused by labour practices that should not be allowed in a Union where social progress is still one of the guiding principles. It should not be disregarded as just a problem of some of the richer countries. Anything that undermines popular trust in the EU, damages the EU as a whole.
By jointly investing in the quality of our societies, whether it concerns the rule of law or the social fabric, the tide can be turned. No one has to exit the EU. But we have to be aware that in today’s political climate a repetition of 2004 would be impossible. We should be glad we did it then and created a zone of stability to the East of the old EU of the fifteen. As regards Ukraine nothing has changed. The option of EU membership has even become less likely since it is even more difficult than in 2004 to verify with which Ukraine we are dealing with and what will become of the country.
Jan Marinus Wiersma is a Fellow at the Wiarda Beckman Foundation, an independent social democratic think tank in the Netherlands. Previously, he was a Member of the European Parliament for the Dutch Labour Party (1994-2009) and has published extensively on European issues. He holds a degree in history.