The recently concluded Ukraine-EU summit was neither a grand failure nor a resounding success.

On the plus side, the summit took place at an appropriately high level with European Union Council President Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in tow, offering President Viktor Yanukovych a much-desired photo opportunity that demonstrated Euro-Ukrainian bonhomie.

At the same time, Europe’s balking at even the initialing of an Association Agreement meant that the year’s important progress toward Ukraine’s deeper economic participation in Europe was put on hold.

For both parties, the summit was a missed opportunity finally to start the clock in the process of Ukraine’s closer integration into Europe. European leaders should rightly have raised deterioration in the human rights climate in Ukraine, most of it the byproduct of the country’s weak rule of law. But they also should have taken the first step and initialed the agreement, adding momentum to Ukraine’s integration process while putting the ball in Yanukovych’s court.

The Tymoshenko case loomed large in the summit. It was a specific theme in remarks of Rompuy and remains the major stumbling block in moving toward implementation of the successful Association Agreement negotiations process. Ironically, in invoking the Tymoshenko case as a reason for freezing progress toward an agreement, Rompuy was rejecting Tymosehnko’s public call for Europe to initial the agreement.

Rompuy also made clear that Germany’s position of pressure vs. Poland’s position of inducements has won the day in the internal EU debate about how to deal with Ukraine.

Internationally, German economic policy — including German participation in the Nord Stream gas pipeline — has undermined Ukraine’s bargaining power vis a vis Russia, while Germany’s foreign policy has slowed Ukraine’s European integration, making Kyiv all-the-more vulnerable to Kremlin pressure. A win-win for Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

This approach has allowed German leaders to project themselves as human rights champions. Such an image would ring true were it not for the fact that at the same time Germany has obtained favorable gas prices from Gazprom while participating in (and perhaps in exchange for) lucrative pipeline projects that undermine Ukraine’s bargaining stance with authoritarian Russia. In such a context, Germany’s commitment to principle appears highly convenient.

Poland’s position — as voiced privately and publicly — by its leaders was in the end more principled and pragmatic: Warsaw wanted an agreement to be initialed as a way of opening the door to human rights improvements and to a resolution of the Tymoshenko case. Poland is the EU’s most Ukraine-savvy country. And its leaders are the most experienced in dealing with transitions from post-Communism to full-fledged democracy.

In an important interview with Ukrainska Pravda, the Marshal of the Polish Senate, longtime Solidarity leader and former political prisoner Bogdan Borusewicz gave expression to Poland’s sophisticated understanding of Ukraine. In his Pravda interview, Borusewicz advanced an intelligent and well-informed view of Ukraine’s internal developments. “Ukraine finds itself about three-quarters of the way on its “march to freedom,” he observed.He added that in Ukraine “democracy has been introduced,” and that there are independent media, free elections, and a strong civil society. What is lacking is the equal and unbiased enforcement of “rule of law.”

Borusewicz further declared he has been “pleasantly surprised by President Yanukovych,” who has not pursued pro-Russian policies but instead has pursued serious and rapid negotiations with the EU, in contrast with the state of affairs under the previous president, when negotiations “did not move forward at all.”

As Borusewicz’s interview and my off-the-record discussions with Polish leaders make clear, Poland clearly wanted more progress from the summit, but was overruled. As a result, the EU missed an important opportunity to advance the agenda of Ukraine’s European integration.

In the end, missed opportunities can mean one of two things: an opportunity has come and gone never to return or the opportunity will again reemerge.

In my view, Europe’s and Ukraine’s lost opportunity of Dec 19th will resurface. There are far too many important geopolitical, political, and even personal reasons for this to be the case.

Geopolitically, the Ukrainian elite does not see integration with Russia as a viable alternative for both pragmatic economic reasons and out of concerns for protecting national sovereignty.As importantly, broad elite consensus on EU integration is now reflected in polls that strong public support for the EU as the preferred option for Ukraine.

Politically, Ukraine has strong independent structures in the form of media, civil society, and in political parties that can push back on the authoritarian impulses of some in Ukraine’s ruling elite. Ukraine’s legacy of protest and mass mobilization is also a potent reminder that its electorate will not allow anyone to hijack its right to influence policy at the ballot box.

Then there is the personal factor of President Yanukovych. When he assumed power in a free and fair election, Yanukovych enjoyed the trust of the international community and was warmly welcomed by the leaders of the West. The misguided prosecution of the case against Tymoshenko (and the inexplicable year-long imprisonment of Yuriy Lutsenko for alleged minor infractions) has broken the climate of trust and cooperation with the West that was present in the early months of his presidency. Tymoshenko’s sentencing has further obscured Ukraine’s important progress on such matters as budgetary reform, the streamlining of government, deregulation, and pension reform. It has also diverted attention from the fact that under the Yanukovych presidency, Ukraine moved rapidly to conclude the complex details of a deep economic relationship with Europe.

All these factors give reason for cautious optimism that in the coming months Ukraine and Europe will reach a modus vivendi and at long last Ukraine will have made tangible progress toward securing its place in the geopolitical order as an integral part of Europe.

Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. This piece was first published in the Kyiv Post

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