Does the EU’s involvement in Ukraine amount to a form of colonialism?

Brussels is playing a role in Kiev which must be open to question

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Just a few months have passed, but it seems an age ago now that Ukrainian protesters were encamped in the streets of Kiev, waving enormous European Union flags, and demanding the EU Association Agreement that their then flailing president had refused to sign. When individual protesters were asked by reporters why they were so desperate to join Europe that they remained on the square in sub-zero temperatures and snow, their replies were almost endearing in their naivety.

They saw Brussels as a force that could rescue them from the corruption and maladministration of their government, create order, clear rubbish and introduce Western living standards. To them, it was as though the European Union could wave a magic wand and bring Ukraine, fully formed, into the first world practically overnight.

Brussels could, it if had chosen, have cited a few facts to temper that illusion – hard truths about Brussels and the limits on its power, but mostly hard truths about Ukraine. Ukraine was, and is, as we are now seeing so graphically, divided between those who look east and those who look west. A decade ago, following the Orange Revolution, Ukraine had an ardently pro-Western president in Viktor Yushchenko, yet it failed to take a European course. And Ukraine’s living standards and prosperity, in terms of per capita GDP, place it well behind not only the poorest of the new EU members, but behind Russia.

Even if Ukraine were united, which it is not, it has a long and hard way to travel before EU membership is anything like a possibility. On the quiet, though, something akin to Brussels waving a magic wand has been happening. Yesterday, it transpired that the UK, along with Sweden and Poland, was  proposing what was variously described as a “police” or a “justice” mission to Ukraine to “build up its law enforcement bodies.

The mission, to be discussed by ambassadors and then foreign ministers next week, would come within the framework of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. We only know this because some of a draft document was – deliberately? – leaked. Why the reticence? Presumably because not all EU members are so enamoured of the idea as London, Stockholm and Warsaw – some of the most enthusiastic proponents of the Association Agreement, as it happens. Perhaps also for fear of how such interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs – for that is what it is – would be regarded by Russia.

Plans for a police, or a security, or a justice mission, however, are not all that is afoot between Brussels and Kiev. In Brussels last weekend, I picked up a newspaper which reported on its front page that the EU’s anti-fraud body, known as OLAF, already had a “large delegation” in Kiev, led by the Enlargement Commissioner. It would appear to be already going through Ukraine’s books, with a view to introducing – or imposing? – far-reaching reforms intended to root out corruption, transform procurement and speed the country into Western ways.

Now there are several observations that could be made here.  One is that if Russia keeps quiet, which it has done so far, its annexation of Crimea might be treated as Russia’s consolation prize for accepting the loss of Ukraine. Another might be to ask how proper such intensive intervention is, given that the legitimacy of the Kiev government is disputed and a presidential election is but weeks away. 

A third would be more theoretical, but also more sweeping. More than a decade ago, the British diplomat Robert Cooper, who now advises Baroness Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy supremo, wrote a provocative paper that argued for a new style of colonialism. This came at a time when international agonising about “failed states” was at its height. But the principles are equally applicable to Ukraine’s Westernisers, whose desperation to join Europe was pre-eminently a plea for someone, anyone, to bring order.

A debate can be had about whether this is a role that the EU should be playing, in Ukraine or elsewhere. But some would argue that, since the last expansion, the EU is already as much about a new form of colonialism as it is about a union of sovereign states.

The latest annual report from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development identified a new and maybe disturbing trend. It noted that, after an initial spurt, the economies in many of the “new” EU countries were stagnating, with the result that the gap between the “old” and the “new” EU economies was widening. This is not what was supposed to happen. The whole purpose of the EU’s regional fund was to narrow the gap, as had happened after earlier EU expansions.

At least one eminent scholar – Prof David Lane at Cambridge – suggests that some of the “new Europeans”, at least, have become not partners, but “dependencies”. If Ukraine is – as it appears – on the way to becoming an EU protectorate in all but name, and a costly one at that, it is time to recognise that the European Union is changing. No longer just a union of equals, it may be turning into a new sort of colonial power – for better, or as Nigel Farage and Ukip would surely see it, for worse.

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