Ukraine and the European Union: What next?

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Minister for Europe writes in Ukrainian newspaper "The Den" ahead of his visit to the country.

The United Kingdom is a firm supporter of a strong, free and independent Ukraine and its European aspirations. On my first visit to Ukraine since the new British government was elected in May, I am eagerly looking forward to a first-hand view on how the country is developing. The key areas - and those which will determine how swiftly Ukraine’s European ambitions can be fulfilled - will be democracy; media freedoms; the rule of law; and business conditions, including the problem of corruption.

In recent years, Ukraine has rightly prided itself on a series of elections recognised by independent outside observers as meeting most international standards, including most recently the election of President Yanukovych in February. This record has won Ukraine a reputation as a democratic leader in the region. This is directly relevant because Ukraine’s ambitions for EU membership, strongly backed by the UK, depend on meeting the EU’s Copenhagen criteria, which state unambiguously that there must be stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities in would-be EU member states. I am therefore troubled that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has expressed concern about “the increasing number of allegations, and credible reports, that democratic freedoms and rights, such as freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of the media, have come under pressure in recent months”. It is vital to Ukraine’s international reputation as well as to its continued path towards the EU that the democratic gains of recent years are not endangered.

PACE also expressed concern about media freedoms, saying that “the interference of state organs, such as the law enforcement and security services, in the work of journalists and media organisations is incompatible with a democratic society.” Similar concern was expressed in a recent report by Reporters Without Borders, which noted violations of press freedoms in Ukraine. It is crucial that the Ukrainian authorities investigate all reports of infringements of rights and demonstrate that in Ukraine there is genuine freedom of expression. Journalists must feel free to express criticism of the authorities without fear that this could land them in trouble.

We are also following closely Ukraine’s progress in negotiating with the EU a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Reports from the latest round of talks which took place in Kyiv last week indicate that good progress was made. This is important. The DCFTA has the potential to transform the Ukrainian economy, boosting annual growth by up to five percentage points. Furthermore, agreement on a DCFTA could also revolutionise Ukraine’s legislative framework by bringing laws into line with those in the EU, such as the new public procurement law which should help Ukrainian taxpayers achieve better value for money. That would be in the long-term interests of both Ukraine and the EU.

Meanwhile the European Union has taken note of the Ukrainian Constitutional Court’s decision of 1 October which re-instated the 1996 Constitution, and significantly increased the powers of the Presidency compared with those in the 2004 Constitution under which President Yanukovych was elected. The EU said that, independently of that ruling, the issue of broader constitutional reform in Ukraine remained a priority; and that reform should be carried out through an inclusive process with the aim of establishing an effective and lasting system of checks and balances in accordance with European standards. I look forward to hearing in Kyiv how the process of constitutional reform will be taken forward.

The rule of law is a fundamental principle of a free, just and democratic society. Without an independent judicial system, where court decisions are based on the facts of the case rather than on political pressure or bribery, it becomes impossible to protect the rights of citizens. It also becomes more difficult to attract inward investment. Unfortunately, the reputation of the court system in Ukraine is not good. So I will be keen to hear more about the plans the Government has announced to ensure that both Ukrainian citizens and potential investors can feel confident in the operation of the court system.

That feeds through into one of the British government’s top priorities: promoting British business. Ukraine, with its population of 46 million, abundant natural resources, enviable geographical location and important energy sector, holds a multitude of profitable export and investment opportunities. Many British companies are already working in Ukraine in areas such as retail and real estate, consultancy and advisory services and energy and many others are looking on with interest. The mutual benefit from these economic relations is considerable.

Unfortunately, companies remain concerned about the business environment for inward investors, citing many obstacles: you can read a list on the blog of our ambassador to Ukraine dated 30 September, including a reference to Ukraine’s 142nd place in the World Bank Doing Business Report for 2010. So we have welcomed statements by Ukrainian leaders about plans to improve the business environment, including through deregulation, open and transparent arrangements for energy licensing and action against corruption. I look forward to hearing more about these measures and their impact from the Ukrainian Government and from British companies.

This is an exciting and important time to be visiting Ukraine. On 4 October UEFA announced the match schedule for Euro 2012, including the final to be held in Kyiv on 1 July. I hope that when that final kicks off - ideally, between Ukraine and a team from the UK - we will still be pointing to Ukraine as a leader in democracy and media freedoms in the region and one which has made substantive progress on its drive for membership of the European Union.