The European Union may not be as popular as it was, but events in Ukraine are showing it still has appeal.
Despite being racked by increasing "euroskepticism" and economic woes, the 28-member bloc is the object of affection of tens of thousands of Ukrainian demonstrators who continue to march the streets in the biggest protests since the country's "Orange Revolution" of 2004 – all prompted by support for the EU.
On Sunday, protesters unfurled the EU flag in the capital of Kiev and demanded the resignation of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych after he turned away from an association agreement with the EU that could have paved the way for the country's future membership. On Monday, demonstrators reportedly blockaded the government's main headquarters using trash bins and flowerpots to keep out government workers.
While Mr. Yanukovych's decision handed Russia, which deeply opposes Ukraine's rapprochement with the EU, an immediate victory, the daily marches that have escalated since have revealed widespread support for the EU. Analysts say that this is a signal that the bloc needs to keep reaching out to Ukraine and its other eastern neighbors, despite the recent setback.
“The demonstrators in the street are clearly calling for Ukraine to follow a path based on the kind of values and principles that the EU represents,” says Michael Leigh, a senior adviser to the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels. “It is clearly not a time for the EU to step back.”
After violent crackdowns over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched Sunday and demanded the resignation of Yanukovych, with demonstrators yelling “Gang, get out!” Some 1,000 protesters on Monday blocked passage into government-run buildings in Kiev.
Kiev announced earlier in November that it was halting its preparations to sign an association agreement with the EU. The agreement had been scheduled to be signed on Friday at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The government's reversal came in part because of the Ukrainian parliament's rejection of a bill that would have allowed jailed opposition leader and Yanukovych foe Yulia Tymoshenko to travel to Germany for medical treatment. The EU had conditioned the association agreement on the release of Ms. Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of power during her tenure as prime minister. Many in the EU regard her conviction as selective justice.
Pressure from Russia also was key in derailing the agreement. Moscow has been lobbying Kiev to join its customs union – which the Kremlin envisions as a counter to the EU – for immediate discounts on Russian energy prices and a continuation of the relatively open border between the two countries.
At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Ukraine's huge trade with Russia would suffer if Kiev goes with the EU. In recent months, Russia imposed a ban on Ukrainian chocolate imports and threatened to make Kiev pay in advance for its Russian gas imports.
A poll this November by the firm GfK showed that Ukrainians largely rejected this type of pressure: 45 percent of Ukrainians said they supported integration with Europe, compared with 15 percent who preferred integration with Russia.
Ukraine's support for the EU project comes at a time when it is badly needed.
While skepticism in the EU can be exaggerated, polling revealsl rising mistrust of Brussels and the eurozone. The 2013 Transatlantic Trends survey by the German Marshall Fund showed that the percentage of respondents who say that EU membership has been good from their economy is down 10 percentage points since 2011, to 57 percent today. Majorities in almost all countries surveyed said the adoption of the euro had been bad. In a recent global attitudes poll by the US-based Pew Research Center, from 2012 to 2013, the favorable rating of the EU dropped from 60 percent to 41 percent.
While polling had shown Ukrainians supporting the EU agreement, the size and scope of protests demanding a westward shift in Ukraine have been a surprise, Mr. Leigh says.
The EU has made clear its support for Ukraine by saying that the association agreement will still be on the table if Ukraine meets all the conditions required. It has also condemned authorities' violence against protesters over the weekend.
Now, Leigh says, EU and Ukrainian leaders in favor of European integration should try to win over ordinary Russia-leaning Ukrainians by doing a better job of describing the fine print of the association agreement – so they understand that, for example, an agreement with the EU doesn't preclude trade with Russia. Leigh adds that the EU could also place a priority on person-to-person contact, such as by promoting more scholarships, so general society understands that the EU cares about regular people's lives, not just trade and economics.
'A critical point'
Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels, says that Europe has generally paid more attention to the south than the east, but now Ukraine needs its full attention.
“It is European integration that stopped Ukraine from being the next Belarus,” she says. “If you remove it, democracy risks being much more undermined. We are in a critical point.”
The EU could gain the upper hand, argued Christoph Hasselbach of Deutsche Welle, as long as it does not water down its conditions and it stresses all parties would benefit, even Russia.
“That is not going to work with Putin and Yanukovych still around,” he wrote in a column published Friday. “But society is changing, in Russia as well as in Ukraine. And that's not just down to influence from the EU, but also because of change from within. Things could be very different in a few years' time.”
There is a risk that anger at the protest violence and a seemingly power-hungry president will overshadow the larger ideals of integration, institutions, and rule of law in Ukraine.
Kyryl Savin, an expert on Ukraine at the Heinrich-Böll Foundation in Kiev, says that the question of Europe was at the forefront of the initial protests, but after violent crackdowns over the weekend and a general escalation of tension, the EU issue has taken a back seat to domestic politics.
“Now it is about the question of a new government, a new president, and new election,” he says. “European integration will be the next step.”