German boost to Ukraine's EU bid

Ukraine’s hopes of joining the EU some day may have been improved by changes in the German cabinet, observes Andreas Umland.
Andreas Umland
10 November 2009

The issue of future EU membership for Ukraine is central to both current foreign relations and the future domestic development of this young democracy. At least, this is what many members of Kyiv’s political and intellectual elite believe – arguably, with good reason. In the 1990s the prospect of becoming a fully-accepted “member of the European family” was very important for the political and economic development of both Central European and the Baltic countries. It was a major driving force in the rapid transition of these post-totalitarian states into the more or less liberal democracies they are today.

 So far Ukraine has not had this incentive for comprehensive democratization and effective state-building. The EU has adopted a position that is more or less vague, depending on who is answering the question in Brussels and think tanks or NGOs close to the EU. 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 be offered membership or not. The current mainstream position seems to be something like “the door is neither open nor closed”.  This intentional imprecision postpones addressing the thorny issue of what do to with a basically democratic country, which is fully located on the continent 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 was completed when Bulgaria and Romania became members in 2007 – with possible future exceptions for countries like Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, possibly even the former Yugoslav republics. These European “pragmatists” may concede that Kyiv could be offered a “privileged partnership” – a formula that could entail fairly close cooperation between Brussels and Kyiv. However, prevailing opinion within the influential and conservative West European economic and political elites means that the status of Ukraine and other countries, like Turkey, Moldova or Georgia, will always be less than full membership. Germany’s new cabinet was announced on 7 November. Its composition suggests that the EU approach towards Ukraine may become both clearer and friendlier. 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. This alliance could consist of Central European and Baltic states, Great Britain and Germany.  It may be able to push through an affirmative specification of the official EU position on the possibility of Ukraine’s future membership. 

As had been expected, Guido Westerwelle, the head of the economically right-wing and politically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), has been appointed both Vice-Chancellor of the Federal Republic and its Foreign Minister. He is the popular leader of the German liberals, though little known on the international stage. This particular fact is relevant for EU-Ukrainian relations.  The FDP is the only German party whose manifestos for both the European and German parliamentary elections last summer clearly stated that Ukraine may one day have the option to apply for EU membership. The respective passage reads “The states of the Western Balkans have a medium- to long-term perspective for joining the EU. The FDP supports this position. In the long run, this also applies to Ukraine.” 

Of course other German politicians, including the new Federal Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schaeuble, have at various times expressed similar sentiments. The foreign policy programme of the left-liberal party, Buendnis 90/Die Gruenen (Union 90/The Greens), whose leader Joschka Fischer was head of the German Foreign Service in 1998-2005, clearly suggests possible EU membership for Ukraine and other European countries currently not in the list of candidates for EU entry. However, the FDP remains the only party in Germany that, even if only very briefly, makes specific and affirmative mention of Ukraine as a possible future candidate for EU entry.

On the other hand, while Germany carries weight in the EU, it is only one of the 27 states formulating EU foreign policies. Moreover, the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty and the creation of a Union Foreign Service will mean reduced influence on pan-European politics for the national ministries of international affairs, Germany’s included. It remains to be seen what position the new EU Foreign Minister will take on Ukraine.

The German system of government is called “chancellor’s democracy”, which means that Prime Minister Angela Merkel determines the main directions in all areas, including foreign policy. Merkel represents Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has been more ambivalent on Ukraine’s possible EU entry. Moreover, the position of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party and third government coalition partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU), could be said to be anti-Ukrainian. In spite of Munich’s close relations with Kyiv, the CSU manifesto implies that, of all the countries, Ukraine has no perspective of EU membership whatsoever.

It should also be said that Ukraine is currently not an issue of great importance in either EU or German foreign affairs, for the FDP for any other party. Finally, in Germany, as in other countries, electoral manifestos do not always fully reflect what the party will do when in government.

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, such as the one sentence on Ukraine in the FDP’s official manifesto, is no trivial matter in a democracy as developed as Germany’s. The status of the party manifesto is above the individual preferences of – even influential – party leaders. It was collectively formulated and democratically approved by the FDP’s elected organs, so it has a weight (and could even develop a dynamic) of its own.   Ukraine may be one of the last issues on Westerwelle’s mind at the moment. However, in discussions with him both Ukrainian political leaders and Western pro-Ukrainian public figures, will now be able to refer to the sentence in the FDP’s European and national electoral manifestos.

In the new coalition government the FDP received not only the Foreign Ministry, but also the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development.  This is even more fortunate for Ukraine, as this Ministry administers most of the German foreign aide programmes, including those for Ukraine. The Minister will be Dirk Niebel, the FDP’s General Secretary from May 2005 to October 2009, which came as a surprise to many observers, as the liberals had been demanding the abolishment of the ministry. Whatever the particular circumstances of these decisions, Kyiv will now have two institutional partners in Germany’s government headed by politicians, presumably in favour of a long-term perspective of EU membership 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. Ukrainian leaders should keep in mind Merkel’s strong standing in international politics, not least in the European arena, on the one side, and Westerwelle’s current lack of foreign policy experience on the other. This will restrict his influence on policy-making for some time, and allow Merkel to exercise fully her so-called “policy responsibility” when determining how Germany should behave internationally.  However, it is unclear how far Merkel’s future Ostpolitik will be informed by scepticism towards Ukraine, such as can be found in the CSU, now that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her well-connected former Foreign Minister and follower of Gerhard Schroeder’s pro-Russian line in international affairs, is no longer a member of the government.

In the coming months Westerwelle may well receive advice from the FDP’s previous Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel. He will probably also benefit from the behind-the-scenes guidance of Germany’s legendary former Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Domestic and Foreign Affairs, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. one of Europe’s most experienced elder statesmen and himself a former head of the FDP.  He was one of Westerwelle’s sponsors during his rise to party leadership, and may advise on German foreign policy for the next months, or even some years to come. At least, Westerwelle will probably have the opportunity to consult, or even involve, Genscher, should he encounter an important, difficult foreign policy issue, on which he needs well-informed advice.

Westerwelle is not intending to toe the Christian Democrat foreign policy line. This was demonstrated at a press conference last weekend, when he was asked why his FDP colleague Niebel had become the minister responsible for foreign technical assistance. Westerwelle replied: “It is important for us [i.e. for the FDP] that there should be no secondary foreign policy being made within the development aid ministry.”  This could only be a reference to the possibility that his conservative coalition partners might have different preferences.  If this statement is an indication of future FDP behaviour within Germany’s foreign policy community, we may see considerable changes in German foreign relations, possibly including official modification of the EU position on Ukraine.


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