Rethinking the European Neighborhood Policy for Ukraine

By Nikki Ikani | 7 October 2012

To quote this document: Nikki Ikani, “Rethinking the European Neighborhood Policy for Ukraine ”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Sunday 7 October 2012,, displayed on 03 February 2023

Motivated by strategic objectives to do with the size and geopolitical significance of Ukraine, the EU opened a political dialogue with Ukraine through the signing of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in June 1994, in which issues such as trade, the movement of capital and the Common Foreign and Security Policy were discussed. This political dialogue was tied to conditionality clauses with regard to political and economic reform, but nevertheless Ukraine’s government felt confident that EU membership would soon be an actual prospect.

It came as a surprise for Ukraine, therefore, that instead of a warm recognition of Ukraine’s membership aspirations at the Helsinki European Council in December 1999, the EU merely “acknowledged” Ukraine’s European choice while adopting a Common Strategy on the country. This Common Strategy would foster EU-Ukraine relations but kept Ukraine unwillingly at the gates of Europe with the status of an outsider. This was a disappointment for the Ukrainian elite in favor of European Union membership.

A sense of belonging

The Ukrainian sense of belonging to Europe has not entirely been met with actual institutional manifestations of contemporary ‘Europeanness’, as Katarzyna Wolcuk argued. Over the years it became clear that economic and political reforms were lagging behind European hopes for the country and Ukraine became known for its inconsistent governmental policies, its unreformed economy, and opaque rules. The incomplete democratic reforms were the main stumbling block for solid EU-Ukraine relations and the EU tempered its enthusiasm towards Ukraine. This was in part caused by what Kubicek (2005) calls the ‘substantial disconnect between the rhetoric of Ukraine’s 'European choice' and the authoritarian trends in the country’.

'Ukraine’s political leaders have sometimes acted as if they could achieve integration by declaration, or simply by joining and participating in international organizational and political clubs rather than by undertaking concrete structural changes.' (Sherr, 1998)

The response of the EU to this lack of implementation of policy has been to keep Ukraine at bay.

Societal support for European integration

Societal support for European integration in Ukraine is difficult to assess due to the divisions that permeate Ukrainian society. Between 2001 and 2003, support for EU membership fell by a third while support for closer ties with Russia grew. Still, 55% of the population remained in favor of EU membership, with only 18% against. Closer integration with Eastern neighbors Russia and Belarus, however, received a much stronger vote: 69% in favor, 19% against. If the ‘do not know’-answer category is not taken into account, the Western and Eastern vector draw 75% and 78% of support, respectively (Vahl, 2004). Because of this societal ambivalence much of Ukraine’s foreign policy (certainly in the pro-European period) has been the result of elite preferences, as the elite seems to make use of the internal divisions to pursue its own agenda.

When one door closes...

The ENP for Ukraine was agreed upon on 9 December 2004, officially denying (for the foreseeable future) Ukraine’s membership aspirations. Because of the strong expression of commitment to reform made by Viktor Yushchenko and the hopeful Orange Revolution, however, the EU decided to pursue an agenda aimed at increased cooperation, agreeing on an Action Plan with Ukraine on 21 February 2005. Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian Prime Minister at the time of the adoption of the ENP Action Plan towards Ukraine, stated that the country ‘had been humiliated by the EU’s unwillingness to acknowledge its membership aspirations' and that 'it would no longer seek an early promise of membership prospects from the EU, but would focus on limited short-term agreements’ (Vahl, 2004).

Meanwhile, the first Action Plan for Ukraine was agreed upon in February 2005. Ukraine has met some of its Action Plan commitments as they were set in 2005, by, amongst others, holding free and fair elections in (the second attempt of) 2004, cooperation in the EU border mission in Transdnistria, signing a cooperation memorandum on energy, and adjusting some of its legislation to the EU norms. Reform is still needed, however, in the areas of administrative, economic and judicial reform, and the fight against corruption. As a response to this, the EU has opened the EU-Ukraine Association Agenda in November 2009, with the aim of replacing the Action Plan for Ukraine with a new, more extensive agreement which according to the Commission (European Commission, 2010) ‘will significantly deepen Ukraine’s political association and economic integration with the EU’.


Despite the progress on fulfilling the commitments of the Action Plan, opinions on the appropriateness of the ENP status of Ukraine remained varied. In the ENP, Ukraine is grouped with countries such as Morocco that are geographically and politically far from qualified to ever become an EU member (Kubicek, 2005). The approach of the ENP does not seem to recognize Ukraine’s European aspirations. Ukraine accuses the EU of having double standards as the latter set up the prospect for future membership for the Central and Eastern European and Baltic countries while it equally urged for reform in Ukraine without offering this prospect. According to Linkevičius (2003), this shows that the EU’s policy towards Ukraine is ill conceived. Ukraine perceived the ENP status as a painful rejection by the EU, as illustrated by the harsh words of Yanukovych.



A renewed ENP : old wine in new wineskins?

The problems with effectiveness of the ‘old’ ENP resided in the fact that the EU applies an unfortunate combination of hierarchical governance and ‘softer’ economic integration. While the ENP towards Ukraine may have had some success in terms of providing a transitional framework towards Ukraine with guidelines for domestic policy-making, it had 4 principal flaws, concerning (1) its failure to mobilize pro-European politicians and to generate political will to actually pursue reforms, (2) its insufficient attention for informal power structures, (3) insufficient attention for Ukraine’s complicated relationship with Russia, as well as (4) the absence of clear incentives and an unfortunate disharmony between long-term rewards and short-term costs. Especially this fourth point is crucial, as in Ukraine the most influential actors in the domestic bargaining process, such as the presidency and the oligarchs, are inclined to favor policies that satisfy their interests and benefit their own power-positions in the short term. Pragmatic considerations with a focus on the short term thus are very important factors in the Ukrainian domestic bargaining process. This stands in sharp contrast with the long-term character of the ENP and its benefits. This helps explain why Ukraine’s ‘declarative integration’ with the EU has not been followed by actual policy reform in the democratic and economic realms: for most of the domestic actors, the sustained process of painful reforms that is required to obtain closer EU integration is too high a sacrifice.

In May 2011, the EU reconfirmed the importance of the relationship with the neighbourhood countries, stating its willingness to strengthen its ‘more funds for more reform’ approach, otherwise called ‘more for more’. This new and supposedly more ambitious European Neighborhood Policy has been the result of an ENP review that has taken place, which took into account the evaluation of both governments and civil society organizations in all 16 partner countries of the ENP. The renewed ENP is backed by more than €1.2 billion in new funding, bringing the total to almost €7 billion.

It remains to be seen whether the renewed ENP successfully addresses the above mentioned problems of the ‘old ENP’. More attention for co-ownership of the policy could increase the legitimacy of the priorities and points of action created in the ENP in Ukraine, as it would render the ENP not merely a product ‘from Europe’ but a product that is both European and Ukrainian. Moreover, untying the ENP from a prospect of membership, the EU has made the journey of EU-integration the end-goal. This renders the impact of the ENP to mobilize Ukrainian politicians limited: as European integration remains an abstract goal, it is difficult for the pro-European politicians to explain the exact benefits of the ENP, because the finalité of EU integration is vague, merely being ‘more than cooperation but less than integration’ (Wolczuk, 2008). For the sake of which end-goal should Ukraine pursue all these painful reforms? This causes a problem for the EU, which, with the current ‘carrot’ (market integration) is not able to tackle the current ambivalent foreign policy of Ukraine, which leads to an indecisive foreign policy that is neither shutting the door for European integration, nor striving for it in a determined manner.

The ENP does not offer a clear vision on how to continue the EU’s relation with Ukraine (Linkevičius, 2008). Clearer procedures, rules and goals could help overcome the tension between the short-term pragmatic focus in Ukraine and the long-term ambitions of the ENP. A clearer incentive structure that would pay attention to both short-term and long-term benefits could offer Ukraine a greater motivation to actually implement the painful reforms needed for EU integration, as this research has shown that the root causes of the current discrepancy between Ukraine’s declarative integration rhetoric and its feeble reform record lie in the cost-benefit calculation the domestic actors make. A greater balance in the incentives could tilt the balance in the EU’s favor.

Reconsidering the ENP

Another important recommendation moves beyond the ENP. It would be wise for the EU to contemplate the prospects for Ukraine: does it want Ukraine to eventually become an EU member or not? A clearer answer to this question is another factor that could increase political willingness to undertake reforms. If the concrete gain of accession were incorporated the EU’s policy towards Ukraine, it could act as a motor for change. Governments in the accession process have proved in the past to be able to use the ultimate goal of accession to maintain domestic support for the often painful policy reforms. Thereby the EU could pursue its goals for its neighborhood in Ukraine: ‘the objective of avoiding the emergence of new dividing lines between the enlarged EU and our neighbours and instead strengthening the prosperity, stability and security of all’ (European Commission, 2010).

Should the EU not want to offer Ukraine this prospect of membership, it still needs to pursue a more coherent policy of rewards and sanctions, as currently both rewards and sanctions are too vague. A clearer incentive structure in a situation where no membership is offered would mean more consistency in sanctioning Ukraine when it does not abide by the priorities of the Action Plan. This might seem contradictory to the above plea for more co-ownership of the ENP. The consistent use of rewards and sanctions is, however, not aimed at making the ENP a tight and hierarchical policy, forcing Ukraine to take over European standards. Rather, a combination of economic integration and market integration, combined with a stricter scheme of rewards and sanctions could bring more clarity for both Ukraine and the EU in terms of what they need to do to reach their objectives of promoting stability, prosperity and security.


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To read

  • Kubicek, P. (2005). The European Union and democratization in Ukraine.  Journal of Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 38 (2), 269-292

  • Linkevičius, L. (2008). The European Neighbourhood Policy towards Ukraine. Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, no. 21, p. 79.

  • Sherr, J. (1998) Ukraine’s New Time of Troubles. Camberley: Conflict Studies Research Centre

  • Vahl, M. (2004). Is Ukraine turning away from Europe? CEPS Policy Brief, 57.Policy Review, 21, 62-85.

  • Wolczuk, K. (2008). Ukraine and its Relations with the EU in the context of the European Neighbourhood Policy. In S. Fischer, Chaillot Paper 108: Ukraine, Quo Vadis? (pp. 87-118). Paris: The European Union Institute for Security Studies.