Ukraine Pact Marks an Unexpected Victory for the E.U.

The pact negotiated today in Kiev that de-escalates Ukraine's crisis is in part thanks to the E.U., whose previous timid involvement in the country's troubles drew criticism and mockery

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Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images

Anti government protesters chant slogans on Independence square on February 21, 2014 in Kiev.

In the idealistic early days of Ukraine‘s uprising, before scenes of cheering crowds waving European Union flags were replaced by images of death and devastation under clouds of tear gas, many saw an irony at the outpouring of support for a bloc battered by crisis and criticism.

The burgeoning protest movement coincided with heated debate in many EU nations about acceptable levels of migration from newer member states, and the people rallying in Kiev were effectively fighting for the right to one day be branded undesirable migrants in a continent struggling to recover from economic crisis.

While the initial outrage over President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to jettison a trade pact with the EU in favor of ties with Russia grew into a broader movement to topple the government, integration with Europe has remained a key goal. But as a tenuous peace deal takes hold after a week of violence, the question over what sort of European future is on offer is re-emerging.

“For Ukraine, they have an idealistic perception of Europe,” says Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a Polish Member of the European Parliament with the center-right European People’s Party. “For them it’s peace, security and prosperity: they do not enter into details of our deficits and weakness.”

The association agreements – which the EU had hoped to sign with Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Ukraine – were a mix of trade pacts, expressions of deeper political integration, and pledges of financial assistance. They did not offer the promise of eventual European Union membership, and came with a tangle of economic and political conditions. Russia tendered simpler demands to its former Soviet satellites: stick within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence and access funds with no strings attached, or risk trade embargoes and threats to vital gas supplies. First Armenia backed out, followed by the more geopolitically significant Ukraine, a nation of 46 million people.

Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, an independent think tank, says the EU approach to the agreements was misguided from the beginning, offering distant rewards with hazy strategic goals. “I think the determination shown by the EU now is a little bit inspired by a sense of guilt that misguided policies have contributed to the turmoil in Ukraine,” she says.

It was in part a symptom of differing foreign policy approaches among the 28 member states. Nations are broadly in favor of expanding the bloc, both to boost trade and for the more idealistic goal of spreading “European values.” There is not the same unanimity about the minimum standards the EU should apply, while nations like U.K. also have to consider voter suspicion about further waves of migrant workers.

With Ukraine, some countries were wary of bringing a nation with a patchy record on human rights and rule of law so close to the fold. Southern European nations trying to forge closer ties with Russia were wary of provoking Moscow. But countries which had experienced Soviet rule saw Ukraine as a worthwhile prize in the geopolitical battle with their former masters.

The result was no unanimity on offering a path to membership, and some demands – like the release of the jailed former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko – which would be raised by some nations then swept under the carpet by others. After President Yanukovych pulled out of signing the agreement, a humbled EU appeared to drop the sticks in favor of the carrots, and stressed the need for dialogue while testing the waters with new financial aid packages.

As the bodies started piling up in Independence Square earlier this week, it became clear such an approach was not working, and EU foreign ministers on Thursday agreed on a package of sanctions. Three of their number headed to Kiev for the most intense negotiations yet, and appear to have been instrumental in negotiating a deal for early elections.

The situation in Ukraine remains shaky, not least because large swathes of the east of the country still support President Yanukovych and want to maintain ties with Russia. If the peace agreement does hold, a new interim government should be in place soon. Saryusz-Wolski says the EU should offer a beefed-up association agreement, with clearer promises of financial aid and a pledge of visa-free travel. While nations still cannot agree on offering a concrete path to membership, assurances should be made that it remains on the table.

Any counter-threats from Russia, meanwhile, should be met with the same new-found muscular approach. “If Russia hypothetically would try to undermine the situation by introducing a trade embargo, the union should respond with the same,” Saryusz-Wolski told TIME. “If Russia decided to undermine the association agreement by cutting energy supplies, the EU should respond also in the energy field.”