European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
Speech at the conference "Ukraine 20 years on: challenges for the future"
European Policy Center
Brussels, 21 September 2011
Mr Chairman, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Let me start by thanking the European Policy Centre for organising this event. It could not be more timely. We are at a critical juncture in EU-Ukraine relations.
20 years after its independence, Ukraine has come a long way from its rebirth as a new state. Ukraine has shed the vestiges of the Soviet Union, and has embarked on the long and challenging road of reforms. And Ukraine has made a key strategic choice; to deepen and broaden its relations with the European Union. I want to recognize the crucial role of the previous and current administration in driving forward essential changes. These changes come from the strategic choice they have taken, a choice that of course has the full support of the European Union. It is in this spirit that the European Commission in its review of the European Neighbourhood Policy made a reference to Article 49 providing more clarity on the end game of the process.
The EU wants to see Ukraine as a close partner. We believe in the people of Ukraine and in the country’s economic potential. This is why we work so hard on negotiating an Association Agreement with a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. 2011 really is a year of critical importance for Ukraine. The celebration of its 20th anniversary of independence will hopefully coincide with the finalization of our new Association Agreement at the Summit in December.
But negotiating the Agreement is only the starting point of delivering on our mutual commitments. Several challenges remain. I would like to emphasise specifically the rule of law, an issue which I had the opportunity to discuss with my Ukrainian counterparts at the Yalta conference last week.
There has been a lot of good news about Ukraine in the last twenty years. Unfortunately there have also been some difficult moments, which have brought the wrong kind of publicity. We are living through such a moment, and there are some basic problems which all of Ukraine’s key partners want to see addressed. Its ability to successfully overcome these problems would give a strong incentive to further consolidate the rule of law in the entire region. I know that - with the right will -Ukraine can surmount these obstacles, which are creating so many questions right now between us.
As I explained in Yalta, the on-going trials against opposition politicians appear to be politically motivated and damage Ukraine’s reputation. In order to change the negative picture of Ukraine that is emerging, I urged the leaders of Ukraine to work harder to ensure the judiciary’s independence. They need to show that they embrace the values underpinning political association with the EU. They need to convince us that Ukraine is serious about democracy, the rule of law, and that Ukraine is serious about the Association Agreement currently being negotiated with the EU.
The Association Agreement is based on political association. It involves a clear and effective commitment to the core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law to which Ukraine has committed itself, towards OSCE, the Council of Europe and also the EU. It is a concern in itself that so many opposition figures are now facing legal action. But in addition, legal experts have criticised the conduct of the trials. Judicial processes need to be clearly unbiased, and it goes without saying that defendants should have a fair chance to prepare their cases. A weak, opaque justice system is a worry to all who value human rights and European values. It is also a deterrent for foreign investment since businesses need to be reassured about property rights and the functioning of the Courts.
But this negative development is not irreversible. Through my close contacts with Ukrainian counterparts, I am convinced that the Ukrainian leaders have understood the gravity of the situation, and are able to turn things around, and choose a different track. Ukraine can clearly demonstrate that weak rule of law is a remnant of the past. Ukraine can show that European values are at the heart of its European choice. This involves fair and transparent trials of former opposition leaders. But it also involves beginning serious work on a comprehensive justice reform. This is an ambitious project that requires determination and commitment over many years. The EU stands ready to continue supporting you in this endeavour.
I say this as a friend of Ukraine. And I say this as someone who knows that Ukraine’s transformation during the past 20 years is a real achievement. Reforming a large and complex system of governance, building a market economy and taking a population through this transition has not been a simple task. I am familiar with the difficulties that smaller Central European countries faced as they consolidated their democracies and market economies. As a large, former Soviet republic, Ukraine had far greater challenges. And Ukraine has indeed changed dramatically during these years – it has established itself as an independent force on the world stage, with significant achievements in culture, sports and intellectual life and in securing an impressive fiscal consolidation.
At the same time, I believe that young Ukrainians want more than what they have today. They want what young Europeans throughout the EU want - an open, dynamic society with well-functioning institutions, where they can seize economic opportunities in a good business environment, and travel freely throughout the Union. I am sure that you will agree that young Ukrainians deserve all this. And I firmly believe that this can be achieved with the help of an Association Agreement with the EU.
I am convinced that the Eastern Partnership Warsaw Summit will be an occasion for Ukraine - together with other partners - to show how it can be leading force in the Eastern Partnership, especially as the pioneer in the alignment with EU values and approximation with EU standards for the benefit of all its citizens. And the benefits are not only about anchoring European values in Ukraine itself, but also bringing them into view for citizens in the vicinity, for example the citizens of Belarus whose aspirations are just as important to the EU.
Ukraine has the potential to play a key role in Europe as a major factor of economic dynamism and political freedom and stability in the heart of Europe. For Ukraine to have the role it deserves in Europe’s development, Ukraine and its friends and partners, need to seize the present opportunities with both hands. No-one has put a limit on the depth and scope of integration with the EU, which Ukraine will finally achieve. Our concern should not be the end point but the starting point for our new association. This new, much deeper relationship, with the right values, the right policies, the right institutions, and the right reforms in place can only succeed. Above all, we need the broad support of citizens and of the entire political spectrum. It is a pact between our societies, just as much as an accord between governments.
Ukrainian civil society and business stakeholders are indeed crucial. Ukraine is a country with a steadily emerging civil society voice and its open views should be listened to and consultation processes put forward as inclusive. Business actors have a crucial role to play in ensuring the growing wealth of the country for the society at large.
If Ukraine’s role is to be enhanced as we hope, I think it is important to end with a strong reminder of the importance of the human element. At last year’s Summit I was pleased that we were able to announce a concrete Action Plan towards Visa Liberalization. I think the prospects are positive.
The EU will continue to stand by Ukraine in its efforts to build the open, prosperous society that young Ukrainians dream of.