In conversation with Volodymyr Khandogiy, Ambassador of Ukraine to the UK, on the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which is due to be signed at Vilnius Summit. It will be one of the EU’s most ambitious bilateral agreements to date.
Q: Europe has been struggling economically yet you want to draw closer. Why is this a good time?
A: Let’s first clarify that at this point we’re not talking about membership. We would have liked to talk membership, but at this stage enlargement is not being discussed. We’re talking about the association agreement, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA): becoming closer to Europe through political association and economic integration. In terms of eventual membership, we have passed that [in the sense that] it’s a policy which provides for membership as a goal. But it’s not on the table at the moment.
Ukraine has always belonged to the European family by virtue of a number of geographical and historical reasons. This agreement with the EU will shape Ukraine’s civilizational choice, and it reflects the aspirations of millions of Ukrainians who rightfully consider themselves Europeans. Moreover, applying high European standards and experience to Ukraine’s everyday life is crucial for further development of my country in all dimensions.
Q: Even in terms of economic closeness alone, there have been better times. Why draw closer now?
A: This agreement will provide a deep and comprehensive free-trade zone, which will certainly benefit Ukraine when we have signed the agreement in Vilnius. We will get access to huge European markets, and likewise Europe will have access to the Ukrainian market, which is not small. It has 46 million people; it’s a highly sophisticated, educated population. There are a lot of things we can do together: for example, if we abolish or minimise trade tariffs we open up different quotas on different products. So, free trade will certainly benefit Ukrainian economic development regardless of any situation in Europe. Moreover, it’s not a one-year agreement, it’s the beginning of a long-term aim for closeness. Full membership remains a goal but that’s down to internal discussion in the EU. It’s important to mention, though, that we’re already taking on some of the commitments assumed by applicant countries – standards, approximation of the legislation and so forth – not just because we want to become members of the club but because we want to bring our standards closer to those of the EU.
The UK specifically has always been among the most consistent supporters of Ukraine’s European cause. Accordingly, integration of Ukraine into the EU’s political, economic and legal system will serve as a basis for strengthening bilateral relations between Ukraine and the UK. Bringing Ukraine closer to the EU is a “win-win” game where both sides benefit from the deepening of trade, investment and technological and interpersonal exchange.
Q: So, you have a market of 46 million and your own literature says you hope to increase GDP by 6% following the agreement. What will the EU see by way of return?
A: It’s a two-way street. Without European economic interests we wouldn’t have reached the agreement but it’s difficult to express the benefits in specific figures. But the market Ukraine has now, and Europe’s need to look for external markets, make us the perfect place. The agricultural sector could be very important for Europeans. We’re also talking about the Ukrainian economy being a perfect investment destination.
Gradual integration of the Ukrainian economy into the EU economic system is a primary goal for my country. In practice, it means the introduction of European “rules of the game”, known as “l’acquis communautaire”, as well as mutual opening of markets. Up to 90% of trade barriers will be eliminated. Once again, it is important to point out that the DCFTA is not a gift to Ukraine and its implementation in the short run may be challenging, or even painful, for some Ukrainian businesses and manufacturers. Nevertheless, it matters for both Ukraine and the EU. For British and European exporters, it will open a promising new market, which is of critical importance at a time of economic recovery. By rejecting the deal with Ukraine, the EU would in fact punish its own industries, enterprises, investors and business people, depriving them of lucrative opportunities.
Q: What will happen after signing the association agreement?
A: First and foremost, it is important to move away from the perception of Ukraine as a post-Soviet state. Signing the association agreement will be the point of no return for Ukraine’s integration into the EU. It will stop the speculation about the foreign-political course of my country once and for ever. The signing of this strategic document with Ukraine will serve as a beacon for other Eastern Partnership countries and shape relations between them and the EU for years to come.
The paradox of our history is that we’re a thousand-years-old nation but a 22- year-old state. We have proclaimed independence six times but five times we lost our bid – only after 1991 were we able to regain independence, reinforced by the popular vote. One of the geographical centres of Europe is in Ukraine. It’s difficult to imagine this sort of agreement with, say, the Asian countries, because we’re European, geographically, culturally, linguistically and in terms of religion. We have always been closer to Europe than anywhere else; this isn’t something that has been imposed on the people.
Q: How are relations between Ukraine and Russia now?
A: At present, Russia remains our main trading partner. Russia will also benefit greatly from the gradual political association and economic integration of Ukraine into the EU. So, in the long term, this triangular co-operation can lead to the creation of an area of prosperity and stability stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. However, it entails efforts by all sides, so we shall work together in sync with a view to making this idea happen. Pulling towards Europe is not a sign that we want to do anything other than get on with our largest neighbour. Russia is and will remain a very important partner.
Q: Some people might see Ukraine as a stepping stone between Russia and Europe.
A: I’ve heard that, but that isn’t how we see ourselves. Forty-six million sophisticated consumers means we’re here to be seen as a country in our own right, rather than a stepping stone to somewhere else. Of course we might have a good role in helping with some relationships between the east and west, but our main role is to be here as Ukraine in our own right.
Q: Tell us about the reforms under way in the country.
A: Ukraine has achieved remarkable progress in reform implementation to fulfil the necessary criteria for signing the Ukraine-EU association agreement. Last November, we introduced a new criminal procedure code, which replaced the outdated one that we adopted back in 1961. Tremendous efforts are being undertaken to bring the Ukrainian judicial system in line with modern European standards. Reform of the prosecution service and the police is under way.
A new preventive mechanism against torture was established. Work to increase the independence of judges is ongoing as well. All these reforms are being carried out in a comprehensive manner. The bottom line is that, during the past three years, the Ukrainian president and government have done more for Ukraine’s integration into Europe than anyone else had done for 20 years.