The Ukraine crisis will figure prominently in discussions at the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in Riga on May 21–22. Although much was said during the bilateral EU-Ukraine summit on April 27, all participants in this week’s gathering expect the Ukraine shadow to loom large over the agenda. The conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is ongoing in spite of genuine diplomatic efforts by Germany and France to find a way out of the violence, and the recent deescalation is far from irreversible.
Furthermore, the Ukraine issue brings into the open the wider question of how the EU should deal with Russia. This is the most important challenge for European leaders to tackle in Riga. The EU has allowed this issue to remain unresolved while the process of Europe-oriented transformation has been advancing in the EU’s Eastern neighborhood since the 1990s. As a result, the EU faces the same Russia question today as it did twenty years ago, without a clear idea of how to respond to it.
The best answer the EU can give to Russian interference in Ukraine is to make a success of Kiev’s ongoing economic transition. To this end, one practical solution that the EU should consider in the Latvian capital is the appointment of a special envoy for Ukraine.
The country’s current situation is bleak, to say the least. Ukraine’s GDP fell by over 17 in the first quarter of 2015 compared with the same period last year. Unemployment is rising, government debt is soaring, and the markets are losing confidence in the national currency. It is estimated that Ukraine needs financial assistance of up to $50 billion for this year and next, and there are increasing calls for negotiations on restructuring the country’s debt.
Faced with this dramatic downtrend, the international community has mobilized to bring assistance to Kiev. International and European financial institutions, the U.S. administration, the EU (both at the institutional level and as member states on a bilateral basis), and other partners from third countries have all joined efforts to support the Ukrainian government and help it overcome its present turmoil.
Yet the situation is far from satisfactory. Financial efforts have not reached the level of assistance needed. The aid committed lacks the magnitude and, most importantly, the sense of mobilization that could make a difference in the Ukrainian public’s mind. The support pledged so far does not amount to a Marshall Plan for Ukraine, and the limited results give the impression that the international community is either not serious enough about assisting Ukraine or has not recognized the full extent of the economic problems confronting Kiev.
The EU faces the same #Russia question today as it did twenty years ago.Tweet This
Added to this gloomy picture is the poor coordination of the international assistance. Even inside the EU, different services are struggling hard to keep a hold on the several channels of support that are currently being activated for Ukraine. And on the Ukrainian side, there are shortcomings in the way the reform process is organized: the country suffers from dysfunctional management in its national and local administrations, inefficient coordination, and even hesitation at the level of the political leadership.
Appointing an EU special envoy for Ukraine would not only improve the coordination of European assistance. Such a nomination would also offer Kiev a high-level adviser to help boost the ongoing diplomatic and political efforts to implement the so-called Minsk II peace agreement of February 2015, which aimed to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Crucially, appointing an envoy to Kiev would bring two important benefits. It would fulfill a task that observers increasingly see as urgent and crucial. And it would send a clear message—in particular, to Russia—that the international community is serious when it proclaims its intention to support Ukraine.
Yet, while there are merits to having such a figure, the success of this initiative would depend on several factors. The first is the personality of the representative. The successful candidate should have a high political profile and be capable of working directly with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. A former prime minister—or at least an important former member of the government—would be the best choice.
Second, the credibility of this appointment would be enhanced if the whole international community could endorse the envoy. Double-hatting the representative as a joint UN/EU official would certainly reinforce the legitimacy of the job.
Third, the envoy would need the trust of the Ukrainian leadership. Nothing of importance could come out of this initiative if there were no built-in confidence right from the start between the political leaders in Kiev and the special representative.
A special envoy for #Ukraine would improve the coordination of EU assistance.Tweet This
Finally, the envoy’s mandate would need to be carefully crafted. That mandate would have to embody a large range of action, from economic transition to national dialogue. The representative would need to deal with matters related to international aid and to the incentives required to attract foreign investment into Ukraine. But this mandate should not substitute the tasks of the Ukrainian government; rather, the special envoy should advise and sustain while channeling assistance from the outside world through an orderly and well-coordinated process.
As always in such situations, much would depend on the person selected, and it is far from certain that this appointment would be easy to deliver. But an EU special envoy could do much to help the union’s efforts in Ukraine.