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‘Ukraine’s passport to Europe’, by David Blair

The chief foreign correspondent of the Daily Telegraph details some of the challenges Ukraine faces before it can join the European Union

By David Blair

Few documents are as impenetrable or as politically explosive as Ukraine’s European Union Association Agreement. In 478 pages of dense prose, accompanied by an array of annexes and protocols, Ukraine’s journey towards joining the European mainstream is painstakingly spelt out.

As such, the Agreement is the most extensive and ambitious legal document the country has ever signed. It amounts to the emphatic answer of Ukraine’s new leaders to the supreme question of whether their homeland should face eastwards towards Moscow or westwards towards the Euro- Atlantic sphere.

President Petro Poroshenko declared that he had chosen ‘Europe’‚ and ‘reform’‚ when he signed the economic provisions of the agreement on 27 June. The political elements had already been signed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the prime minister, on 21 March.

The signatures of the two men at the apex of Ukraine’s government came after seven years of negotiations with the EU and near constant domestic turmoil in Kyiv. When ex-president Viktor Yanukovych broke his promise to sign the Agreement last year, his actions triggered protests that led to a revolution which swept him from power in February. Poroshenko secured the ratification of the Agreement at the Rada on 16 September, marking the culmination of a long and traumatic journey.

What will this mean for Ukraine? In theory, the country should now embark on the most ambitious reforms in its history as an independent state. Almost every political institution and the whole structure of the economy should be affected.

To grasp the scale of what will be required, consider ‘Title III’ of the agreement covering ‘Justice, Freedom and Security’. In these clauses, Ukraine has promised to ‘attach particular importance to the consolidation of the rule of law and the reinforcement of institutions at all levels in the areas of administration’.

The term ‘consolidation’ is a diplomatic nicety, for the truth is that Ukraine has never enjoyed the rule of law, where every citizen is subject to the law, including the lawmakers themselves. Rather than ‘consolidate’ this concept, Ukraine will have to introduce it. As such, the country is now bound to guarantee the independence of the judiciary, as well as achieve a range of worthy goals, such as rooting out corruption and combating fraud.

As if that were not demanding enough, Ukraine and the EU will also implement a ‘Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement’. Over a 10-year period, Ukraine should dismantle barriers to trade with the EU’s member states. Meanwhile, its standards and regulations must be rewritten to align with those within the EU. For an unreformed and deeply uncompetitive post-Soviet economy, this process will be the most ambitious of all.

As Mr Poroshenko grapples with implementing the Agreement, he must also deal with the insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Bolstered by the presence of Russian troops, the insurgents now control the industrial and coal-mining heartland of Ukraine. The war has worsened Ukraine’s economic malaise, deepening a recession that is likely to see GDP decline by 6.5 per cent this year.

Meanwhile, the sudden withdrawal of a Russian loan of $15bn (£9.2bn, €11.6bn) after the revolution in February forced Ukraine to turn to the International Monetary Fund to avoid defaulting on its debts. The Agreement demands the most extensive reforms in Ukraine’s history, but does not help the country stave off immediate bankruptcy.

Faced with crisis on every front, the signs are that Mr Poroshenko will not press ahead with the implementation of every element of the Agreement. On 12 September, the EU announced that Ukraine will not be expected to begin implementing the free trade agreement — the single most important element of the package — until 31 December 2015. The EU will open its market to Ukraine once the Agreement is ratified, but Ukraine will have a reprieve.

Even if the pace of reform is slow, however, the passage of this deal remains crucial. In the words of Pavlo Klimkin, the Ukrainian foreign minister, it marks Ukraine’s entry ‘into the European space of values and the European economic space’.