The European Union is now at its most critical stage ever. It is facing what European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has called “a disgrace in the 21st century.”
The Ukraine crisis has brought the EU’s raison d’etre into the spotlight. Van Rompuy condemned the Russian annexation of Crimea as illegal, which underscores the significance of the crisis. The principles of nonaggression and territorial inviolability that underpinned peace in Europe following World War II have all but fallen apart.
Former European Parliament President Pat Cox emphasized the gravity of the situation, saying, “Europe thought it had settled the issue of territorial integrity in the 20th century, but Russia’s annexation of Crimea shows it’s not the case.”
The year 2014 will be a historic one in which the EU has the chance to prove its true value to the world by demonstrating its ability to tackle the Ukrainian issue. Over the past few years, the EU has been working to handle various financial crises. To deal with the situation in Ukraine, it will have to take geopolitical factors into account, and promote and deepen its philosophy of integration in a concrete manner.
This is also the final year of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s term in office. Last September, in a speech to the European Parliament, he said measures to prevent the worsening of the financial crisis had worked and the European economy was showing signs of recovery. As a sign of continued confidence in the EU despite the crisis, Latvia introduced the euro single currency in January this year, bringing the total of eurozone countries to 18. Barroso added that the EU now needs to step up measures to increase youth employment as part of its growth strategy.
However, the picture is not all roses for the European economy. According to an estimate by the European Commission in February, the gross domestic product of the 17 eurozone countries in 2013 probably fell 0.3 percent compared to the previous year, marking the second consecutive annual contraction. The unemployment rate in the eurozone was estimated at 12.2 percent last year, the worst since the launch of the euro in 1999.
It is against such a troubling background that the European Parliament will hold its next elections from May 22 to May 25. Through these elections, voters will hand down their verdict on key policies implemented by the Barroso Commission. It is the first election since the Treaty of Lisbon, which forms the constitutional basis of the EU, entered into force in December 2009 and will be a game-changer in some ways. These polls will be the first step toward the selection of the new EU leadership that will take charge by the end of this year and will steer it until 2019. For the first time, the newly elected parliament will have a decisive say, first on the choice of the president of the European Commission, and then on the college of European commissioners, in other words on the composition of the EU’s executive. When the heads of state and government of the EU member states (the European Council) convene after the polls, they will be obliged by the treaty to ‘take into account’ the election results when proposing their candidate for European Commission president to the parliament, and this candidate must be endorsed by the legislature.
However, the EU is facing a backlash as European citizens suffer from years of austerity measures amid sovereign debt crises, and anti-EU ultra-rightist groups are likely to gain seats in the parliament. A challenging situation lies ahead for the EU leadership.
Challenges are not limited to those within the EU’s borders.
In a speech last September, Barroso said, “We all need a Europe that is united, strong and open,” and called for further unity. He stressed that EU enlargement has been a success, and that the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), hatched in 2004 and covering 16 countries around the EU including those in North Africa, the Mideast and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), is the best way to ensure regional security. The EU views the ENP as being essential to realize peace and stability beyond national borders, and while it may be difficult for EU citizens to recognize its importance, people outside the EU undoubtedly view this policy as a very important achievement.
The EU strategy for neighboring countries is now being challenged by the Ukraine crisis. The ENP is not meant to be a barrier separating EU members from non-EU states but rather to broaden areas of collaboration, promote democratization and liberalization of markets and ensure regional security through dialogue. It is the very concept that embodies an open Europe.
In line with moves for greater security in its neighborhood, the EU established the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in 2008, following the initiative of Poland and Sweden, which covers Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The idea behind this concept is to build close cooperation with these countries by considering their unique regional and historical situations, which are different from those of the countries around the Mediterranean.
The direct trigger to form the EaP was Ukraine’s so-called 2004 Orange Revolution, which led to the birth of a pro-EU government. This brought about the necessity for the EU to further support Ukraine and work toward regional stability. Since the first EaP summit in Prague in 2009, such meetings have been held every two years, with Warsaw hosting in 2011 and Vilnius in 2013.
As part of its various policy dialogues with the EU, Japan is also supporting Ukraine and its neighbors and helping to strengthen collaboration among them via official development assistance and other measures. For example, Japan has sent election monitors to Ukraine and other countries and encourages dialogue among countries in the region in a bid to promote human rights and the rule of law. To help liberalize markets, Japan has assisted in expanding an international airport in Kiev and is working to promote clean energy in Georgia, among other projects.
In October last year, just before the Vilnius EaP summit, Japan held the “Symposium on Japan-EU Cooperation: EU Eastern Partnership and Security Situation in East Asia,” in which the EaP and security in East Asia were discussed.
The security we all desire would be within grasp if countries deepen their understanding of the interests of other states, and the continuation of such dialogue, thanks to the various EU frameworks, can only be encouraged.
On the occasion of the EaP summit in Vilnius in November 2013, Ukraine and the EU had planned to sign an association agreement, which was to be a major milestone for bilateral cooperation. But the signing was canceled when Ukraine completely reversed its position.
This cancelation manifested complex geopolitical factors surrounding Ukraine, a major regional power sandwiched between two bigger powers: Russia and the EU. It has been widely reported that pressure from Russia was the reason for Ukraine’s last-minute pull-out, which outraged pro-EU Ukrainians who were seeking true democracy and sparked a series of demonstrations, which led to the ouster of the president in February.
I had the opportunity to watch the Vilnius EaP summit, and although the original goal was not achieved, I was still impressed by the EU’s multi-layered approach. The EU headquarters in Brussels is not the only body promoting policies. It should be noted that Lithuania, which at the time held the rotating presidency of the EU Council, demonstrated the EaP’s significance and made steady and enormous efforts to realize the signing of the EU-Ukraine association agreement.
It was impressive to see the summit-related meetings, which were coordinated by the host country, involving not only politicians but also academics, activists, students and business professionals who transcended the borders between East and West. The pro-EU movement based on the European aspirations of people in Ukraine stems from their steadfast support for democratization and represents a big achievement.
The EU provides opportunities for multilateral exchanges and dialogues across various levels, regions, generations and other areas. This enables it to set concrete strategic goals, as opposed to mere abstract concepts. Even if it may seem to be a time-consuming process, it will create social consensus that in turn will lead to regional stability. I cannot forget the young people from the EaP countries, who participated in such gatherings, who spoke of the future of their home countries with bright faces and shining eyes. I felt like the EU is a star of hope for them.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite’s actions were also outstanding. She met with opposition parties and activist groups of the six EaP countries and told them they needed to make efforts and remain strong to resist pressure from foreign countries. These were basically words of encouragement as the leader of a country that overcame many difficulties and won independence from Moscow before any other republic of the former Soviet Union. Of course, she did not forget to call on Russia to find a “win-win solution” in issues regarding relations with the EU.
Amid political instability in Ukraine, some region-wide groups within the EU, such as the Weimer Triangle — France, Germany and Poland — have played an important role in trying to defuse the situation. The trio supplemented the EU’s diplomacy and became widely recognized for their efficient handling of difficult issues. Throughout the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, they have been actively involved in solutions via dialogue and the mitigation of tensions.
The interim Ukraine government has shown itself to be pro-EU, and in response, the EU separated the political and economic chapters of the association agreement and has already signed the former with Ukraine. It also should not be forgotten that the EU already initialed association agreements on a preliminary basis with Moldova and Georgia last fall and the process toward their formal signings is to be accelerated.
Regarding EU enlargement, Croatia joined in July 2013, bringing the number of member countries to 28, while five others, including Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro are candidate countries. These moves, aimed at helping countries in the Balkans reach higher levels of reconciliation after the civil wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia, show how essential the EU’s existence is to the stability of the Balkan Peninsula.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which opened a new chapter of division-free Europe. The crowning moment in this chapter was the accession, on May 1, 2004, of 10 countries — Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia — most of them former countries of the Communist bloc, to the EU. This month marks the 10th anniversary of this historic event.
However, the Ukraine crisis tells us that society in the 21st century has not entirely abandoned the ideology of the Cold War, as the conflict with Russia continues.
The EU was based on the idea of peace in Europe after World War II. For its contribution to the advancement of comprehensive security over six decades, the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. The EU must now use its experience to overcome the current crisis, as its philosophy of integration that contributes to peace and stability has fallen under scrutiny.
Hiroyasu Yamazaki, a contributing editorial writer of Kyodo News, is a former Kyodo bureau chief in Warsaw from 1981 to 1986 and from 1989 to 1993. He also served as Kyodo Moscow Bureau Chief from 1995 to 1998.