The EU, Ukraine and the Limits of Normative Power

Molly Krasnodębska

It is hard to imagine events of greater significance to the EU’s foreign policy than those of the Euromaidan: a crisis in the EU’s direct neighborhood, that began with large-scale pro-EU, pro-democracy protests. Sadly, even when the crisis escalated and death tolls rose, the EU remained reluctant to take any clear actions in response to the Ukrainian government’s violence against the protesters.

This reluctance is reflective of the EU’s uncertainty about its identity as an international actor, i.e. its self-conception of the role it should play in the international environment and how it should represent its values and norms externally. During the Cold War, ‘European’ identity rested on protection of freedom and democracy in Europe against totalitarianism represented by the Soviet bloc. With the downfall of Communism in Europe and disappearance of clear distinctions between “good’ and “evil”, the EU’s role shifted to promotion of its norms and institution outward. Its self-identification as a “normative power” shapes an international policy based on soft power and dissemination of the European model of democracy, particularly visible in its enlargement policy.

Recently, in light of the Eurozone crisis, rising Euro-skepticisms and enlargement fatigue, the EU seems to have lost some of its soft power appeal. It is therefore even more remarkable to see thousands of Ukrainians waving EU flags, as they risk their lives in the anti-government protests.

Only a little over two decades ago some of the Eastern European countries who are currently EU members were in a state not much different from Ukraine today. The gap between those countries which integrated with the West and those which did not has deeply widened ever since. Awareness of these differences among the Ukrainian population undoubtedly motivated the protests. Thus, despite internal porblems, the EU still constitutes a powerful symbol in a country like Ukraine.

Similarly, for those former communist countries who entered the EU a decade ago, the accession was symbolic of their transformation into members of a European and Western value community and abandonment of post-Soviet governance. These countries understood that to remain in Russia’s sphere of influence would mean economic stagnation, oligarchical rule, dictatorship under the guise of democracy and corruption. For this reason countries like Poland and the Baltics actively rooted for Ukraine’s accession to both the EU and NATO, and were involved in shaping partnerships with the institutions.

In recent years, however, the idea of deeper integration of Ukraine into the EU, either through partnerships or membership, encountered skepticism on the part of some member states, particularly Western European states, caused among others by fear of aggravating Russia, who increasingly views Ukraine as its sphere of influence. Although the EU declares the export of its norms to be a primary foreign policy aim, in situations that require risky and quick decisions, it has been willing to compromise its ideology and engage in dialogues with autocratic leaders like Yanukovych and Putin for the sake of stability. The EU’s attempt to convince the Ukrainian opposition to seek a peaceful compromise with the Yanukovych regime exemplifies this. Economic dependence on Russian gas certainly plays a role in the EU’s reluctance to support the protesters’ demand of a “European” Ukraine. Even more so, however, does this behavior result from a lack of a general crisis-response strategy, especially when involving actors like Russia who consider international politics a zero-sum game. The EU relies on its long-term strategy of soft power and “socialization” emphasizing dialogue with all parties. But in crises, like that in Ukraine, where people are dying, and where quick responses are demanded, such an approach is rather useless. Only after a turn of events in favor of the protesters and the realization that the Yanukovych regime would not survive, the EU openly sided with the protesters and designed a financial aid plan.

Although, the Euromaidan has shown that the EU’s normative power plays an important symbolic role, it has also shown that symbolic and rhetoric do not suffice. Without concrete actions and readiness to make concessions, such as abandoning dialogue with one side in favor of another, the EU cannot meet its goal of inducing positive change in its neighborhood. Without the ability to bring change normative power can hardly be considered power at all.

Molly Krasnodębska is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. Her research examines the role of the EU and NATO in the post-Cold War transformation of Eastern Europe.

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