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The European Self and “Eastness” of Ukraine in turbulent times

The Monument to the Founders of Kyiv. Photo: Iverson Ng

In the wake of Brexit and the rise of illiberalism in the Visegrad bloc, there lies a moving line between the European Union and its “neighbours”.

As a Master’s student of EU-Russia Studies, I have been dedicated to research on the Ukrainian case within the European political context. Here, I would like to briefly discuss on the increasingly blurred yet problematic boundary between the EU and its Other regarding the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), Eastern Partnership (EaP) and Association Agreement (AA).

Never did the Union start to think about a neighbourhood policy, not until the UK’s proposal to initiate “a wider Europe” and define its neighbours to bridge the expected divide between the proposed countries (Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia) and the “A 10” countries who became part of the EU in 2004. To make the discussion relevant with Ukraine, I would rather focus more on the Baltic States and the Visegrad group who are closer to Ukraine politically and historically.

As opposed to the British proposal, the ENP ended up with including Southern Mediterranean countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and the proposed countries except Russia.

By incorporating the EU’s Southern Mediterranean countries, the external borders were set according to the definition of “neighbour”–they would never be part of Europe because they are Europe’s Other that defines why the EU countries are “European”.

The ENP instrument turned out to be problematic because the Souther Mediterranean countries were in no way European, but the notion of “Europeanness” started to be more relevant in the Western Newly Independent States (Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus) than ever since the Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) joined the EU.

Supported by Poland and Sweden, the EU later launched Eastern Partnership to enhance political association and economic cooperation with its post-Soviet neighbours. Southern Caucasian countries including Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia were tagging along with Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.

But further differentiations were observed when Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova became the only three countries within the EaP which ratified the Association Agreement with the EU. With greater transfer of EU norms and values into these countries, the concept of external governance was widely debated because such agreements do not imply any prospect of membership.

What does it mean, then, for the EU’s recognition of Ukraine as a ‘European country” with “European aspirations”?

It is true that the CEEC depict a sense of “Eastness” as the Other of the European Self, yet such component in Ukraine may not be the strongest ideological reason for it to join the European club anytime soon. As the European Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker said last year, Ukraine is not “European” in the sense of the European Union.

As the Western Balkan’s Enlargement plan is looming while Britain is leaving the club with uncertainties, perhaps it is not a bad idea to re-define the notion of “Europe” for the Union to seek its true self once again.