By Romano Prodi, former president of the European Commission
It is rare that world leaders have a chance to pragmatically achieve an idealistic goal, to unite bold dreams and careful statesmanship at the same time. Yet such an opportunity is now upon us, as the time for the European Union and Ukraine to come closer together, to create a bridge between east and west, is at hand.
In November, the EU and Ukraine are expected to sign an association agreement that will expand trade and travel between the two, and encourage closer integration.
After some stumbles, Ukraine is now on the road that other former Soviet-bloc countries travelled a decade ago. Step by step it is fulfilling the conditions set by the EU for the signing of the association agreement.
This is a subject near and dear to my heart. In 2004, I oversaw the largest single enlargement of the European Union in its history as we added ten new member states, mainly from the former Soviet bloc. Those same states are now bulwarks of Europe, with the Baltics, for example, showing remarkable resilience during the economic downturn, and Poland a pillar of European diplomacy.
If Europe’s leaders take this opportunity, Ukraine is clearly determined to be even more – a catalyst for Europe, a bridge to Russia, and a testament to European values in its own right.
Ukraine offers Europe many opportunities, as it reaches out to the world to become a more active and responsible member of the community of nations. Kiev recently announced new joint initiatives to decrease the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and also opened a bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Ukraine has been a reliable partner (not member, but partner) for Nato as it has straddled domestic and Russian concerns about Nato enlargement and the desire to contribute to international security and peacekeeping.
Economically, its 46m industrious, educated workers, its strong industrial export industries and its enormous agriculture sector can help revitalize Europe in the face of economic stagnation and turmoil. Its natural shale gas potential supply and capabilities (estimated to be the third largest in Europe) may not only help to create a new set of relations between Russia and Europe, but also provide a catalyst for economic growth.
Kiev has spent the last year and more passing landmark reform legislation of its legal system, tax code, pension programmes and land law. It has agreed to and passed laws requested by the EU as a condition of the association agreement. Ukraine’s civil society, so wounded by the Soviet era, has rebounded and is supporting the government’s move in reaching westward.
We must remember that European membership and ties are not merely seals of approval for work towards adopting European values; they are a means of encouraging further progress on those values, restraining anti-democratic impulses and promoting the best behaviour by governments and leaders. Ukrainians demand European laws and European norms. To formalise a partnership with Ukraine is to reward and strengthen these aspirations.
It is vital that we keep this in mind, because the very factors that make Ukraine such a valuable partner for Europe are also pulling it toward Russia. Kiev recently agreed to observer status in the Moscow-backed customs union of former soviet republics. We understand that Kiev is the cradle of Russian civilization, and the ties between the two countries are forged of history, faith, and peoples. Ukraine boasts a significant Russian population, and Ukrainians are torn between European and Russian futures.
Yet this is exactly the moment to build stronger links between Ukraine and Europe. Kiev wants a European future, and its ties of blood, history, creed, and modern treaties are the materials from which a bridge between Europe and Russia can be built to endure. Ukraine can be a channel for European values and ties that will work to decrease mutual suspicion and build a more lasting peace.
Before us today is an opportunity that may not present itself again soon: to bring Ukraine closer to Europe through trade, travel, culture and a self-reinforcing commitment to the rule of law. This opportunity allows us to be pragmatic and to express our shared values at the same time.
Sound geopolitics and a hope for a better future for Europe and Ukraine together demand that we seize this strategic opportunity.
Romano Prodi is a former prime minister of Italy (1996-1998 and 2006-2008). As president of the European Commission from 1994 to 2004, he oversaw the biggest recent enlargement in European Union history.