Ukraine vote sends EU into uncharted territory

MEP's in Strasbourg on 16 September 2014. Image copyright Reuters/Vincent Kessler
Image caption Ukraine ratified its association deal with the EU as MEPs gave it unanimous support in Strasbourg

Is the European Union tying itself up in knots when it comes to policy towards Ukraine?

There seems to be a case to answer.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz, described Tuesday's ratification of the Association Agreement with Ukraine as historic, as "a red-letter day for democracy."

The presidents of the Commission and Council, Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, said the agreement would provide "a blueprint for Ukraine's transformation into a modern and prosperous European democracy".

But the age-old problem of getting 28 countries to agree on issues in which they have different long-term interests has bubbled to the surface again.

And Russia knows how to take advantage of European indecision when it needs to.

Image caption Russia warned of consequences if the EU went ahead with new sanctions over the Ukraine conflict

Deal with caveats

Parliamentarians were certainly taken by surprise by the announcement that implementation of the free trade elements of the Association agreement would be delayed until the end of next year.

Some agree with the Commission that it buys time to protect a vulnerable Ukrainian economy, while making a strong symbolic statement.

"Ratification also means," argued the German MEP Elmar Brok, "that no change [in the text], not even the change of a comma, is possible any more."

But there are plenty of people here who think delay sends the wrong signals, and is a clear concession to Russian pressure.

"It discourages Ukraine from making the reforms it needs, and it encourages Russia to escalate," said Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The deal ratified by Ukraine and the EU is the first step towards EU membership, President Petro Poroshenko says
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The free-trade part of the agreement is being postponed until 2016

On the surface, the facts are not in dispute: a big majority in Strasbourg ratified the Association Agreement, and (after some delay) EU sanctions against Russia have recently been strengthened.

But every big decision made seems to be accompanied by a caveat.

And all the while there are voices within the EU arguing vociferously that policy towards Ukraine is taking the European Union in the wrong direction.

Some of the more colourful critics were on show in the European Parliament, where the UKIP leader Nigel Farage said Europe was in danger of focusing on the wrong threat.

"In the war against Islamic extremism," he said, "Vladimir Putin, whatever we may think of him as a human being, is actually on our side."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption President Poroshenko (right) is battling to keep Ukraine's EU ambitions on track
Image copyright REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
Image caption "No sanctions to Russia", say these Italian MEPs after European deputies vote the deal through

Gianluca Buonanno, an MEP from Italy's Northern League, went one stage further, wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan "No sanctions against Russia" on top of his suit in order to make his point.

"There are many entrepreneurs in Italy facing difficult times because of the stupid decisions [taken by] Euro-idiots," he said.

The majority were quick to dismiss the criticism of the "extreme right and extreme left".

But the disagreements only serve to illustrate how difficult it will be for the EU to stay the course.

In a commentary published on Tuesday, Jan Techau of the Carnegie Europe think tank was in gloomy mood.

If the EU is setting itself up as the guarantor power for Ukraine, he observed, in the face of lasting opposition from Moscow, "there is already a sense creeping into the foreign policy crowd that Europeans may have bitten off more than they can chew."

Others will disagree. But this is new and uncharted territory for the European Union.