The issue of an EU membership perspective for Ukraine is central to this young democracy’s current foreign relations and future domestic development. At least, this is what many members of Kyiv’s political and intellectual elite believe – arguably, for good reasons. The prospect of becoming a fully accepted “member of the European family” was, in the opinion of many in both the West and East, important for the political and economic development of Central European as well as Baltic countries in the 1990s. It was a driving force in the quick transition of these post-totalitarian states into more or less liberal democracies today.
Ukraine has been lacking this incentive for comprehensive democratization and effective state-building so far. The EU has adopted a position that, depending on who in Brussels and the Union’s surrounding institutions or groups you talk too, is more or less vague. Some of the EU’s political, intellectual and economic leaders say that, while there has been no official invitation so far, “the door remains open,” and that it depends on Ukraine whether it will receive a membership perspective or not. The current mainstream position seems to be something like “the door is neither open nor closed” – a purposefully imprecise postponement of the thorny issue of what do to with a basically democratic country that is fully located in Europe and sees itself as being part and parcel of many pan-European traditions. Finally, a few “realist” commentators think that the enlargement of the EU is now over – with possible future exceptions to be allowed concerning countries like Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, or, at most, the former Yugoslav republics. These European “pragmatists” may concede that Kyiv will receive a “privileged association” – a formula that could entail fairly close cooperation between Brussels and Kyiv. However, such is the dominant opinion within this influential camp of West European conservative economic and political elites, the status of Ukraine and various other countries, like Turkey, Moldova or Georgia, will always remain “below full membership.”
With the announcement of the composition of Germany’s future cabinet in October this year, there has emerged a chance that the EU’s approach may become both clearer and friendlier towards Ukraine. In the coming four years, the regular term of Germany’s new government, Ukraine may be provided with an opportunity to improve its standing as a possible future candidate for EU membership. In a best-case scenario, we will see the emergence of a pro-Ukrainian coalition within the EU. Such an alliance could consist of Central European and Baltic states as well as of Great Britain plus Germany, and may be able to push through an affirmative specification of the EU’s official position towards a future membership of Ukraine.
As had been expected since the announcement of the results of the Bundestag elections in late September 2009, the head of the economically right-wing and politically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), Guido Westerwelle, was not only announced as the Federal Republic’s future Vice-Chancellor. An internationally little-known, but domestically prolific leader of the German liberals, Westerwelle also received the post of the Foreign Minister. This particular fact is in so far relevant for EU-Ukrainian relations as the FDP is the only German party that has clearly stated, in the programs for both the European and German parliamentary elections last summer, that Ukraine may one day have the option to apply for EU membership. The respective passage in the European and German parliamentary election programs of the FDP says: “The states of the Western Balkans have a medium- to long-term perspective to join the EU – a position supported by the FDP. In the long run, this also applies to Ukraine.”
To be sure, other German politicians, for instance, the new Federal Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schaeuble, have expressed similar sentiments, at one point or another, too. Also, the German left-liberal party, Buendnis 90/Die Gruenen (Union 90/The Greens), whose leader Joschka Fischer had been head of the German Foreign Service in 1998-2005, has an international policies program obviously implying a EU membership perspective for Ukraine and other European countries that are currently not in the pipeline for entering the Union. However, the FDP remains the only relevant party in Germany that, even if only very briefly, mentions specifically and affirmatively Ukraine in connection with the issue of possible future candidates for an entry into the EU.
It needs to be added, on the other hand, that, while Germany is an important European country, the FRG is only one of the 27 states formulating EU foreign policies. Moreover, with the creation of a Union foreign service, after the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, the influence of national ministries of international affairs, including Germany’s Auswaertiges Amt, on pan-European politics will decline. Also, Germany’s system of rule is a so-called “chancellor’s democracy” meaning that the Federal Republic’s chief of cabinet Angela Merkel determines the main directions in all areas, including foreign policy. Merkel represents Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that has been ambivalent on Ukraine’s possible entry into the EU. Moreover, the position of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party and third government coalition partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU), can be said to be, in a certain sense, anti-Ukrainian: In spite of Munich’s close relations with Kyiv, the CSU’s political program implies that, among other countries, Ukraine has no EU membership perspective whatsoever. It also needs to be admitted that Ukraine is currently not a salient issue in either German or EU external affairs. Ukraine’s future is not a critical issue for either the FDP or any other German political party. Finally, in Germany like in other countries, electoral party programs, as the FDP’s, not always fully reflect what party functionaries do after gaining governmental positions.
It is thus not clear what the partial change of personnel and policy line in the German cabinet will mean, for Ukraine. Still, even a short line within a long political program, like the one sentence on Ukraine in the FDP’s official agenda, is not a trivial phenomenon in as developed a democracy as Germany’s. The status of the party program is above statements of individual preferences of – even, influential – party leaders. As the program has been collectively formulated and democratically approved by the FDP’s elected organs, it has a weight (and could even develop a dynamic) of its own. Ukraine may be one of the least issues currently on Westerwelle’s mind. However, both Ukrainian political leaders and pro-Ukrainian civic actors in the West, have now the opportunity to mention the respective sentence of the FDP’s European and national electoral programs when discussing with Westerwelle Ukraine’s future.
To this, for Ukraine, already fortunate situation, one might add that the FDP did, in Germany’s new coalition government, not only receive the Foreign Service, but also the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development that administers most of the German foreign aid programs, including those related to Ukraine. Dirk Niebel, the FDP’s General Secretary in 2005-2008, will be heading this ministry – a fact that came as a surprise to many observers as the liberals had been demanding the abolishment of that ministry. Whatever the particular circumstances of these decisions, Kyiv will now have two institutional partners in Germany’s government who are headed by politicians, presumably, in favor of a long-term EU membership perspective for Ukraine.
Last but not least, Westerwelle may not always be as junior a figure in Germany’s foreign relations as he will be for the next months or even couple of years to come. Certainly, Ukrainian leaders should keep in mind Merkel’s standing in international politics, no the least, on the European arena, on the one side, and Westerwelle’s current lack of foreign policy experience, on the other. This will constrain Westerwelle’s influence on policy making for some time, and allow Merkel to exercise fully her so-called “directives competence” when determining how Germany should behave internationally. However, it is not only unclear how far Merkel’s future Ostpolitik will be informed by skeptic positions towards Ukraine, such as those in the CSU – now that her former Foreign Minister and follower of Gerhard Schroeder’s pro-Russian line in international affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is gone.
It is also worth noting that Westerwelle may, in the coming months, receive advice not only from the FDP’s previous Foreign Service head Klaus Kinkel. He will also benefit from behind-the-scenes guidance by Germany’s legendary former Vice-Chancellor as well as past Minister of Domestic and Foreign Affairs Hans-Dietrich Genscher – one of Europe’s most experienced elder statesmen. Genscher, himself a former head of the FDP, was one of Westerwelle’s sponsors during his rise to party leadership, and may, to one degree or another, be playing the role of an advisor on Germany’s foreign policy making for the next months. At least, Westerwelle will seemingly have the opportunity to consult Genscher should he encounter a salient, difficult foreign policy issue calling for well-informed advice.
That Westerwelle does not expect his political line to become succumbed under the Christian Democract’s foreign agenda was demonstrated when, at a press conference in November, he was asked why it is that his FDP colleague Niebel became the minister responsible for foreign technical assistance. Westerwelle replied: “It is important for us [i.e. for the FDP] that no auxiliary foreign policy will be happening within the development aid ministry.” By “auxiliary foreign policy,” the leader of Germany’s liberal party clearly meant possible international preferences of his conservative coalition partners. Should this statement preview the FDP’s future behavior within Germany’s foreign policy making community, we may see more changes in German and European foreign relations, including those with Ukraine, than one would otherwise expect.
Dr. Andreas Umlanda is a former fellow at Stanford, Harvard and Oxford who has been published in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Jerusalem Post, Moscow Times, Kyiv Post and many other periodicals and scholarly journals. He is General Editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society and DAAD Associate Professor at the National University of "Kyiv-Mohyla Academy," Ukraine.