Ukraine’s Election and its Prospect for EU Membership

Ukrainian leaders are using the goal of EU membership as the spur to get their voters to accept uncomfortable reforms.

The desire for free and fair elections, through which politicians can be held to account, is widespread in the former Communist world.  We have seen this with the arrest in Moscow of over 1000 people, demonstrating against the arbitrary disqualification of candidates for local elections in the city of Moscow, including of a candidate who won 27% of the vote in the last  election.

Corrupting elections was part of the armoury of the Soviet state, and it is a habit that has persisted, long after Communism itself has fallen .

After the more hopeful Yeltsin years, Russia, the biggest Republic of the former Soviet Union, is reverting to Soviet electoral habits. But the second biggest former Soviet Republic, Ukraine, is taking a  very different course.

Recent free and fair elections in Ukraine are undoubtedly being watched closely by opposition figures in Russia.

If Ukraine can make a successful democratic transition, it becomes harder for President Putin to argue that Russia must retain a more authoritarian system. Another neighbour of Ukraine, Viktor Orban of Hungary, will also have to take note.

I have recently had the opportunity of spending a week in Ukraine, as one of a large number of international observers of their Parliamentary Election on 21 July.

The consensus among observers was that these Elections, called early by the newly elected President Zelensky, were both free and fair.

Votes  in Ukraine are cast in secret, and when the polls close, are counted openly, in the local polling stations themselves. From my observation, these tasks were carried out conscientiously and transparently.

This is not to say that Ukrainian democracy is free of problems.

On a per capita basis , Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. Even Moldova is slightly better off. The country’s growth rate is well below potential.

The country is at war, a war that has cost 13000 lives so far. In response to Russian armed interference, Ukraine has had to develop a large army of its own, almost from scratch.

Yet it depends for income, on transit fees for Russian gas, being piped through Ukraine to customers in the EU. Its  public finances are not in good order, it has had to get help from the IMF, and has had to increase fuel prices to its own citizens as part of the IMF programme.

Like many former Communist states, including ones already in the EU, it suffers from endemic corruption.

Fighting corruption is one of the goals of the new President. He is handicapped in this effort by the lack of a professional non political civil service, and  of an independent, properly resourced, courts system. These deficiencies inhibit foreign direct investment, because investors need to know honest and efficient courts will be there to protect their legal rights, before they put their money at risk

MPs are immune from legal proceedings while serving as MPs, and this privilege has attracted some people into politics in pursuit of their private interests, rather than the public good. The President has promised to end this immunity, but he has got to get the MPs to vote for this.

While the election itself was free and fair, the television coverage of the campaign was not. Ukrainians rely heavily on television to inform themselves about politics. Television stations tend to be controlled by rival oligarchs, and these oligarchs often are politicians in their own right. Rules requiring balanced coverage during election campaigns are not properly enforced.

Ukraine has an Association Agreement with the EU, which is described as “the most ambitious the EU has with any non EU member state”. Indeed this agreement may serve as a model for a future UK Agreement with the EU, whenever the tortuous Brexit process in concluded.

But there are clear signs that Ukrainians will not be satisfied , in the long run, with a mere Association Agreement with the EU, however ambitious it may be. Their goal is to be a full voting member state of the EU.  When they signed the EU Association Agreement, they rejected President Putin’s offer to join his proposed Eurasian Union. Indeed it was that rejection that triggered the Russian invasion of Crimea and of parts of eastern Ukraine. So, Ukraine has paid a high price for its EU choice.

It also is a very big country, with over 40 million people.

It may have been a privileged “vassal”, or first daughter, of the Russian Empire in the past. But it has decided to turn its back on  that and has set itself the goal of joining the EU instead, and not in a secondary role. Its leaders are using the goal of EU membership as the spur to get their voters to accept uncomfortable reforms.

But the prospect, however long term, of EU membership for Ukraine is far from simple for the EU.

In 2001, the EU enlarged itself very quickly and took in many new member states in central and eastern Europe. Some of these countries had unresolved  post Communist problems of the kind still besetting Ukraine…corruption, weak courts, poor public administration, organised crime and oligarchical control of the media.

The EU is, in its essence, a set of uniform rules, on the basis of which its citizens enjoy freedoms across a whole continent. But, if the enforcement of these rules can be corrupted through weak or politicised courts or by bad administration, these EU wide freedoms cease to mean anything.

So until the EU is satisfied it has got on top of  the corruption and rule of law problems it already has among  some of its own existing members, like Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, it will be very  slow in admitting new members, like Ukraine, where the same problems are unresolved.

The EU is in a stronger position to insist of high standards in a country, like Ukraine, which is still looking for membership. It is harder to insist with countries that are already full voting members of the club.  Existing members can and will used their votes in the Council of Ministers to block EU sanctions for rule of law, or related, breaches of EU standards.

Getting these rule of law issues right will be the number one priority of the new Von der Leyen Commission, even ahead of Brexit.

Until it does that, the EU cannot credibly offer hope of membership to countries like Ukraine, Northern Macedonia and Albania. Without such hope, these countries could turn away from the EU,  and other global players, such as China, Turkey or Russia, could take the EU’s place.


John Bruton, former Irish Prime Minister | Oped Column Syndication

John Bruton is the former Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland  (1994-97) and the former European Union Ambassador to the United States (2004-09). He has held several important offices in Irish government, including Minister for Finance, Minister for Industry & Energy, and Minister for Trade, Commerce & Tourism.