While it would certainly be premature to predict the disintegration of the European Union at this point, the United Kingdom's recent departure from the bloc via "Brexit" referendum certainly casts a dark shadow over the continent's political future. If the E.U. continues to unravel or becomes distracted by its own internal frictions, Russia may seek to capitalize on the ensuing chaos by pursuing further territorial aggrandizement on its neighbors. Watching events unfold from afar, Ukrainians are petrified at the prospect that the West may abandon them to further Kremlin encroachment.
For Kiev, which has long sought to embrace the E.U. and free itself from Moscow's orbit, the recent Brexit vote comes as a bitter pill. Almost three years ago, protesters called for closer ties to the West via an E.U. "association agreement." Such calls ran up against the plans of President Viktor Yanukovych, whose government rejected the association agreement and wanted to move Ukraine into Russia's sphere of influence. Indeed, it was protesters' demand that Yanukovych heed their desire to join the ranks of the West which ultimately led to the Maidan Revolution and brought a new government to power. Not surprisingly, in a poll conducted recently 49% of Ukrainians favored E.U. integration while only 16% supported joining a Russian-led customs union.
From Dutch Referendum to Brexit
But even before the U.K. voted to "Brexit," Kiev's newly-installed government found it difficult to gain universal acceptance within the E.U. There have been tensions, for example, over Kiev's failure to systematically halt corruption and end oligarchic cronyism in "one of the biggest kleptocracies in the world." Meanwhile, though 27 members of the E.U. ratified Kiev's association agreement, which would lead to advantageous terms of trade, the Dutch snubbed Ukraine in a recent non-binding referendum. Though both chambers of the Dutch parliament voted in favor of the initiative, the public voted against Ukraine and as a result Prime Minister Mark Rutte is legally bound to "reconsider" the entire agreement. By law, all 28 E.U. member countries must ratify an association agreement before it comes into force. The Dutch referendum could block visa liberalization for Ukrainians interested in traveling to other E.U. nations.
Recently, Prime Minister Rutte remarked that multilateral agreements should never be subjected to referendums. The vote over Ukraine, he said, was a "disaster," adding that "It makes no sense, as we have seen in the Netherlands. You can't as one country decide on something for the whole of Europe." In April, Dutch MP's narrowly voted to keep the association agreement, despite the earlier referendum result. Some opposition MPs hailed the developments as a political farce which ultimately served to sideline voters. Rutte must now renegotiate the association agreement with other E.U. leaders.
As if the entire process could become no more fraught, Brexit has now heaped doubt upon the E.U.'s future prospects. In the wake of the U.K. vote, Rutte floated the idea of amending the E.U.-Ukraine association agreement with European officials so as to incorporate voters' input. Rutte, who may be concerned about from Geert Wilders' anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic Party for Freedom, has asked E.U. leaders for "legally binding" assurances so as to allay Dutch concerns over the association deal, otherwise The Hague might have to block the agreement.
E.U. Implosion and Ukraine
Just what all these recent developments mean for the E.U. and Ukraine is still open to debate. Indeed, contrary to some dire predictions, establishment parties have gained popularity in the wake of Brexit. In Germany, for example, Angela Merkel and her center right CDU party have seen their approval ratings surge while rightwing populists have lost ground. In the Netherlands meanwhile, popular support for Geert Wilders, who has pushed for his own "Nexit," has fallen to its lowest level since last year. Perhaps, the Brexit vote has actually encouraged more pro-European sentiment as people consider the real implications of an E.U. meltdown.
Nevertheless, the French far right anti-E.U. Front National has remained level in the polls and party leader Marine Le Pen has promised to hold a referendum on the E.U. if she wins next year's presidential elections. Tensions meanwhile are mounting in Denmark, Italy, and Sweden all of whom face demands for referendums over Europe. Such developments are welcome in the Kremlin, which has done its utmost to divide Europe in recent years. Indeed, Putin has extended a loan to Le Pen while Russia's international state broadcaster has provided positive media coverage of Nigel Farage's U.K. Independence Party.
As Deutsche Welle explains, "The Brexit decision actually indicates that Russian foreign policy has reached its highest goal: In the coming years, the E.U. will focus on itself. E.U. enlargements are currently no longer conceivable...The prospect of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia joining the E.U. has been destroyed until further notice. Indirectly, it means that these countries will be pushed back into Russia's historic sphere of influence, even though no one in the European Union would openly admit it." Not surprisingly, Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have celebrated Brexit. Indeed, the rebels hope the British referendum will help to shape Europe's wider view of unrecognized breakaway "republics."
Domestic Fallout in Kiev
In Kiev meanwhile, the government hopes Brexit will not affect E.U. policy toward Ukraine, or prompt the West to abandon visas for Ukrainian nationals. However, the recent turn of events could slow down integration. Andreas Umland of the Atlantic Council quotes Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister for European Integration Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze as saying "We respect the British citizens' decision, but Ukraine feels sorry for these events. To my mind, this will weaken the E.U., and it will have to concentrate on its own problems." Umland adds, "The minister's consternation and worries are right. For Ukrainians, the British vote is difficult to understand. They have fought and are still fighting for their 'European choice.' Initially in a revolution, then in a highly intense hybrid war, and now in low-intensity warfare, they are defending their right to freely associate with and eventually join the E.U."
Domestically in Ukraine, the Dutch referendum as well as Brexit have served to sideline pro-European politicians. Writing in Kyiv Post, one Ukrainian MP remarks remorsefully that recent developments stand to undermine European integration in parliament. "Joining the E.U. is a promise made by every single Ukrainian politician," he notes. "It's something people on the Maidan sacrificed their lives for, but now it runs counter to the recent developments in Europe. As a consequence, European integration opponents may grow stronger in Ukraine, and start saying: 'Why bother joining a union that is collapsing anyway?'" Meanwhile, pro-Western Ukrainians worry that Brexit may undermine their aspirations as a spineless Europe fails to stand up to Russia. If trends continue, pro-European Ukrainians may lose credibility as the public starts to question why Kiev should try to join an exclusive club which others seem all too intent on leaving. Throwing Ukraine to the Wolves
Even more ominously for Ukraine, the Brexit vote could dampen European resolve to confront Vladimir Putin. The U.K. was known as being hawkish on Russia, writes Umland, and "the disarray in Europe following the British referendum makes a softening of the E.U.'s sanctions against Russia more likely." Indeed, Britain had pushed for the E.U. to renew sanctions on Russia in response to the latter's annexation of Crimea, while other E.U. members sought to lift sanctions. In the wake of Brexit, outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Europe to remain united in the face of Russian aggression. His comments came in the wake of declarations by French President François Hollande, who said Paris viewed Russia as a "partner" and not a threat.
The Washington Post frets that a U.K. exit eliminates one of the E.U.'s most powerful members. "Whether it was Britain's world-class military or its skilled diplomatic corps," notes the paper, "the U.K. contributed greatly to an array of E.U. missions over the years, despite its complicated relationship with Brussels." Other European think tanks believe that "While the shared links between the U.S. and E.U. mean the two are likely to work around a Brexit, the disappearance from the E.U. of one of its major military powers could further strain efforts at Europe-wide defense cooperation, whether through the E.U. or NATO. Hopes the E.U. might develop a serious military capability would likely prove very difficult without the U.K.'s military, but this is already difficult enough."
Given the possibility of further western splintering, Ukraine may try to consolidate links with other like-minded Eastern European nations. Take, for example, Kiev's rapprochement with the so-called "Visegrad Group" comprising Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. With relations deteriorating with Russia as of late, the political and military bloc has been holding meetings about the situation in Ukraine. Though Ukraine has had its own stormy historic relations with Poland, the latter has been sounding increasingly eager to come to the defense of its eastern neighbor. Reciprocating in kind, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has remarked that he hopes the Visegrad Group will incorporate his country and thereby move from a four to five bloc group of nations. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military has been meeting with its counterparts in the Visegrad Group to discuss the harrowing situation in Donetsk and Luhansk, and officers hope to conduct joint exercises.
Moving Beyond Geopolitics
So much for all of the geopolitics and hand wringing about "what is best for Ukraine," but perhaps it might be helpful to step back for a moment and ask ourselves whether the E.U. was ever a social or political panacea in the first place. The notion of Brexit, let alone other European nations breaking away, is not necessarily a backward notion; it just depends on the underlying politics behind such developments. In the case of Brexit, moves to break free from the E.U. were dominated by right wing xenophobic forces. Leftist critiques of the Brussels elite, meanwhile, have unfortunately been lost in the fray.
For Ukraine, the debate over E.U. membership may carry certain ironies. As I've written, mainstream protesters on the Maidan were motivated by a desire to rid Ukraine of corruption which had riddled the Yanukovych regime. If Ukraine were to join the European Union, or so the reasoning went, then Kiev would start to exhibit the rule of law and governing institutions would become more akin to transparent political life as enjoyed in other western nations. On the other hand, Ukrainian activists on the independent left circuit who I spoke with tended to treat such notions as somewhat tangential to their overall goals.
Denis Pilash, a veteran of Maidan student protest, was hardly immune to calls for greater transparency: both he and his colleagues distributed leaflets calling for a ban on offshore money laundering. On the other hand, the activist told me, "I was skeptical about the Maidan protests from the very outset." During his own political evolution, he had focused more on social questions like poverty, inequality and police brutality rather than foreign policy issues such as Yanukovych's tilt toward Russia and away from the E.U. At the time of Maidan protest, Pilash declares, "some Greek left colleagues wrote me and said, 'you're crazy, you want to be in the European Union even as we are burning the E.U. flag?'"
On the Maidan, the student left was placed in a slight quandary since the association agreement with Europe might have led to greater austerity cuts under western-style institutions like the International Monetary Fund. Vadym Gud, a veteran of Direct Action student labor union, was immersed in such controversies at the time. Within the group, Gud told me, "We had a huge debate about getting involved in the protests." Gud took a more pro-E.U. line, reasoning that Ukrainian activists could help to move the E.U. toward the political left. On the other hand, most leftists didn't like the idea of signing a trade pact with the European Union.
Denys Gorbach is another Ukrainian political organizer and journalist. Since Maidan, he has been pursuing a sociology degree at Budapest's Central European University and recently I caught up with him to get a sense of how the Ukrainian public perceives the E.U. three years after Maidan protest. On the right, he says, Brexit represents a slight conundrum. "Rightists have always been anti-E.U. and pro-isolationist," Gorbach says, "though they have a hard time acknowledging this to euro-optimistic Maidan audiences. I haven't seen any declarations from the far right on Brexit yet, and maybe that's not a coincidence."
Reaction on the left meanwhile has been somewhat mixed. On the one hand, liberals and "less politicized people" clearly don't understand why someone would want to leave the "promised land of the E.U." Gorbach says such folk typically employ condescending views to explain the Brexit result, implying that certain British voters must have been poor, under-educated and working class. Some Ukrainians even chalk up the Brexit result to pro-Putin propaganda, since "it's customary to ascribe all social evils of the world to Russian leadership." Yet other leftists, however, point out that Brexit could be interpreted as a protest vote against the E.U.'s neo-liberal agenda.
If there is a silver lining to the Brexit affair, let alone future internal frictions within the E.U., then perhaps it will be Ukrainians taking a more level-headed and nuanced view of the West. Having seen much of its territory outright disappear over the past few years, Ukraine is understandably fearful about any further Kremlin aggression and that is putting it mildly. Throwing in one's lot with Europe, however, also has its drawbacks as Brexit has demonstrated. It is to be hoped that in the years to come, the Ukrainian public will work to protect social needs even as hostilities and war become ever more palpable.