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Ukraine’s Europeanization – an interview with Michael Richter

It has been a year since the war broke out in Ukraine. All kinds of crises pull with them changes that affect society, the economy and politics. One of these changes is the ongoing process of Europeanization. We had the opportunity to talk about the conflict, the effects and the process itself with Michael Richter, Fellow at Harvard University, who conducts research in the sphere of the political economy, particularly focusing on Ukraine’s relations with the European Union. Our guest presented his opinions on these issues, supported by examples of recent economic and political events.

How has the geopolitical situation in Ukraine changed over the past year? 

We are currently witnessing a confrontation between two perspectives on global order: Ukraine is upholding a rules-based order, demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. On the other hand, Russia is trying to impose a vision of a law of the strongest. Fortunately, Russia has so far failed with its campaign. Many countries around the world are watching this war and learning lessons. Not only China, which is also trying to forcibly change (de-facto) borders. Some fundamental principles of our global order have thus been violated in the past year, without causing it to collapse. The outcome of Russia’s invasion will therefore determine what this future order will look like – Russia’s defeat, along with its punishment for its terrible deeds, may paradoxically strengthen the rules-based order, as it will show potential imitators how breaking it ends and that it is not worth it.

What is the process of Europeanization of Ukraine and how is it carried out?

Europeanization began back in 2014 with the Association Agreement, in which Ukraine agreed to import a large part of the EU’s legal framework. At the time, this was known as “anything but institutions,” meaning integration with, but not into, the EU. The results were somewhat disappointing, however, because there was no real impetus for reform: it has become entrenched in academic research that the biggest driver of Europeanization is the credible prospect and process of joining the EU. This is because in the accession process, “European” laws must not only be formally imported, as was mainly the case with the Association Agreement – but their actual implementation is important. Simply put, the Copenhagen Criteria, a set of criteria set out for the accession of the first countries of the Central and Eastern European region, including Poland, clearly state that a country to join the EU must have a functioning free market economy and be a functioning democracy. That is, Europeanization is about bringing about these key features not only formally, but also in practice. It is about fully transforming the country for the better. Since last summer, Ukraine has had a real prospect of accession. This can be seen as an important aspect, as it transforms the incentives to carry out full Europeanization. I am sure this will be a much-needed reform impulse.

What are the benefits of Europeanization for Ukraine, and what are the benefits for EU countries? 

I would not put benefits at the center of the discussion. Rather, I would argue that Ukraine’s integration into Europe is a natural process. Reconnecting what should be connected. Like a family member returning home. The first question then is not what this member can provide me, but the first reaction is a sense of happiness, correctness, and a sense of justice. However, there are still some reservations among some member countries. It is worth showing these people the potential that Ukraine has: one of the largest countries in Europe with some of the most fertile soils in the world. Huge reserves of natural resources and enormous potential to serve as a major exporter of green hydrogen, one of the main resources of the clean industry in the future. A country with some of the most innovative e-governance solutions. Such as the DIA application (Ukraine’s analogue to mCitizen), which it now wants to export, and the so-called ProZorro system, one of the most innovative state procurement platforms in the world. All of these things were invented in Ukraine by Ukrainians. So Europeanization means unleashing that potential for the whole world to benefit from it. In turn, for Ukraine, Europeanization is a credible anchor for reform. These reforms are necessary to unlock the aforementioned potential. It is therefore a question of to be or not to be: if Ukraine fails to Europeanize and unlock this potential, what future awaits it? So far, there is no success story in Europe of post-socialist countries succeeding without European integration and Europeanization. So we don’t know an alternative successful development model. The question of Europeanization for Ukraine is therefore a question about its future.

Let’s go back in time. What examples do we know of other countries that have undergone or are undergoing the process of Europeanization?

Europe as a civilizational choice, that is, countries built on freedom and the rule of law, is extremely attractive in our region. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, there have been basically only two directions in post-socialist Europe: The way forward, i.e., toward Europe and freedom, or the way back, i.e., away from Europe and toward a lack of freedom. This is best seen in some countries in the east. That is why we can see today in almost all Eastern and Southeastern European countries the desire to join the European Union and become a “European” country. In some cases this process is more developed, in others even less, but it is an ongoing process. In the so-called new EU member states, i.e. those countries that have joined the EU since 2004, the process has gone furthest. Despite some controversy in domestic politics, Poles are among the most pro-European nations in Europe today. This is the Europeanization of minds and hearts in practice. Recognizing those benefits of not just being in Europe, but being part of it. The Balkans are also on a not-so-subtle path in the process of Europeanization. Given that just a few decades ago there was a hard-fought war there, and today disputes are being resolved largely peacefully, this shows the transformative power of the concept.

How does the future of the conflict shape up over the next year? Can we expect peace?

This is very difficult to predict. After all, remember how at the beginning of the war, Western intelligence predicted that Kiev would fall within days? The Ukrainians proved Western intelligence wrong! Remember how last fall the public expected a Ukrainian offensive in the Kherson area, but Ukraine instead surprised everyone by focusing on the Kharkov area and liberated large territories in the process? The point is that we often don’t know the next steps of these actors and what is really going on behind the scenes. What can be said, however, is that as long as the Kremlin believes that Russia still has something to gain through escalation, it will not start negotiations. Much, therefore, depends on the continued support of the brave defenders of Ukraine by the Western alliance. Western weapons are better than Russian ones, and the morality of Ukrainian soldiers is far better than that of Russian soldiers. Taking both of these things into account, I think it is possible that the Kremlin will decide that it prefers to negotiate and withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territories. However, this will most likely not happen tomorrow. Although, I would be more than happy to be positively surprised again.

Worth noting is that changes in geopolitics can have implications for both the economy and the security of the country, necessitating flexibility and appropriate responses to evolving external situations.

Michael Richter

Michael Martin Richter is a fellow at Harvard University’s Davis Centre and a research fellow as well as PhD scholar at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen within the EU ITN MARKETS framework. He was also a visiting policy expert at the Foreign Investors Council in Latvia and a visiting scholar at the SWP Brussels office. Prior to that, he obtained master’s degrees in the political economy field from the College of Europe, the Higher School of Economics (HSE), and the University College in London (UCL). Earlier, he finished his bachelor’s degree at the ESB Business School in Reutlingen and the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. He collected professional experience at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation office in Moscow, the Polish Embassy in Moscow, PwC in Germany, and Ecolab in Poland. Currently, His main research interests include the political economy in the pan-European space, EU-Ukraine relations, democracy promotion in the Eastern Neighbourhood region, and good governance reforms of post-Soviet states.

Written by:

Bartosz Nyga

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