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Seeing Ukraine as an opportunity

A renewed cease-fire, debt restructuring, and more reforms are helping transform Ukraine from a crisis into an opportunity for Europe.

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    First graders sing the national anthem to mark the start of the new school year in Kiev, Ukraine, Sept. 1, the start of a new academic year and also the day that a ceasefire was renewed in the country's civil war.
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The European Union remains challenged by three major crises: a massive flow of migrants, Greece’s financial woes, and the war in Ukraine. In public, EU leaders often wring their hands over all three. But behind the scenes is the enduring spirit of the Marshall Plan. That pragmatic vision, provided after the devastation of World War II, still sets a model in its conviction that Europe could be made better than before.

The EU is still trying to figure out a way for its new wave of migrants to become workers in societies that are aging rapidly. The Greek crisis has refocused thinking about closer unity for European institutions. The crisis in Ukraine, however, has long seemed the most difficult in turning a lemon into lemonade.

The crisis in Ukraine began in 2013 when the EU offered it the long-term prospect of becoming a member. Russia resisted, forcing protests in Ukraine that overturned the government but led Moscow to take the Crimean Peninsula and support separatist rebels in the Russian-speaking east of the country. The West then slapped economic sanctions on Moscow. When a cease-fire agreement was brokered last February by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukraine seemed more like a lingering problem to solve than an opportunity. With a number of new developments, however, that may be changing.

In late August, for example, Ukraine was able to renegotiate the terms of its heavy debt with foreign creditors. The cease-fire was restarted on Sept. 1 (in time for children to go to school). And this week the Ukrainian parliament passed one of its most difficult reforms – an initial approval to giving some autonomy to its provinces.

Ukrainian lawmakers have already approved reforms in areas such as government structure, banking, and anti-corruption programs. (Judicial reform remains difficult.) The EU expects Ukraine to adopt 426 EU norms by 2025. “A democratic, stable Ukraine on our side – this is a huge potential, an investment in the future, not a burden,” Polish President Andrzej Duda told German newspaper Bild.

In mid-September, an activist group known as the Agency for the Modernization of the Ukraine, a partnership between Ukrainian business leaders and civil society, will give lawmakers a plan on how reforms can attract foreign investment. The effort is being helped by a number of European leaders. “The promoters of the Marshall Plan 1945 proved to be among the best and most effective pioneers of Europe. The same will be true here,” says Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French intellectual who co-founded the group.

Ukraine is still not out of the woods. Russia remains a threat. Its economy is shrinking. More reforms are needed. But Europe’s attitude toward Ukraine is slowly transforming a crisis into an opportunity.

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