Why do Ukrainians want to be in Europe?

2016/05/28 • Analysis & Opinion

Article by: Olena Makarenko, Viktoriia Zhuhan

Why do Ukrainians already consider themselves to be Europeans, what benefits of joining the EU do they see, and why is visa liberalization so crucial to them?

On 21-22 May, Ukraine celebrated Days of Europe, which in Ukraine falls on the third Saturday of the month. The Kyiv City Council chose an informal way of celebrating, offering concerts, contests, games, and picnics. Representatives of European countries’ embassies and organizations presented their cultures in tents around Mykhaylivska Square.

“The day of Europe is [celebrated – ed.] because we discuss common values of the region where we live. We live on the [European] continent, but the European Union is another question. And it is a political question,” said Rostyslav Tomenchuk, Chairman of the Ukrainian Institute for International Politics who happened to be spending time with children at Mykhaylivska Ploshcha on 21 May.

However, many Kyiv residents and guests that Euromaidan Press asked didn’t differentiate Europe as a continent and the European Union as a political association. They didn’t hesitate with a positive answer to a question whether Ukraine is Europe and brought up both geographical and historical arguments. To them, Europe was associated with democracy, human rights, and opportunities.

Eurooptimism in Ukraine: What do the numbers say

Today more and more Ukrainians started to feel that they are Europeans and every second Ukrainian believes the country will benefit from joining the EU. However, one quarter of Ukrainians still remain skeptical.

According to the opinion poll conducted in November 2015 by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation together with the Razumkov Center, in May 2013 only 34% considered themselves Europeans, while 55% did not. In the end of 2013, the number grew to 44% of those who felt Europeans, and 50% who did not. The status quo was shaken in November 2015: 47% could say that they were Europeans and 42% could not.

The poll also revealed that more than a half of Ukrainians think Ukraine will benefit from joining the European Union. According to the poll, Ukrainians consider the opportunity for visa-free travel to foreign countries, increasing quality of life and free access to EU universities for youth as the main benefits of joining the EU. Almost one quarter (24%) of Ukrainians believes that European integration will help to carry out domestic reforms.

26% think that Ukraine will lose, and 24% are doubting what to answer. As disadvantages, they mention possible emigration of their fellow countrymen, worsening relationships with Russia and other former Soviet states, unemployment, and a loss of the Russian market which will supposedly lead to decrease of living standards.

  • Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
    Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
  • Ukrainians taking selfies at the British stand at Mykhaylivska Ploshcha, Kyiv, 21 May 2016, Days of Europe celebration. Photo by: Euromaidan Press
    Days of Europe_Euromaidan Press (1)
  • Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
    Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
  • Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
    Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
  • Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
    Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
  • Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
    Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
  • Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
    Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
  • Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
    Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
  • Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
    Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
  • Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press
    Days of Europe in Kyiv, Ukraine on 21 May 2016. Photos by: Euromaidan Press

The results vary depending on regions of Ukraine. In the west of the country, 77% of respondents expect positive consequences of joining the EU. In central Ukraine, there are 57% of optimists, while in the south only 30% think that Ukraine will win from European integration with 41% is rather pessimistic. In the east of the country, 46.5% expect bad consequences, in particular in Donbas only 32% consider joining the EU positively and 39,5% negatively.

Visa regime liberalization is the crucial next step

Visa regime liberalization is the first step to fulfill Ukraine’s European future and is crucial to the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians (57%, according to the same poll). If the visa-free regime is implemented in 2016, 18% of the Donbas residents, as well as 45% of people from western Ukraine are ready to visit countries of the Schengen zone for tourism.

Lifting visa requirements also has a symbolic meaning for many Ukrainians. Since the Visa Liberalization Action Plan (VLAP) demanded deep and crucial reforms, there were many politicians resisting changes as well as many activists pushing for them. “Any delay would critically undermine the trust of Ukrainian politicians toward the EU as a partner that delivers on its pledges. This would complicate and in some cases make impossible to advocate for other sensitive reforms that are backed by the EU in the Ukrainian parliament,” the joint statement by the Ukrainian pro-European civil society members said.

“Combined with the persistence of the old elites and destabilizing influence of Russia, the path of the reforms, including reforms on anti-discrimination and countering corruption, implemented within VLAP, can be endangered. This could lead to a political and economic destabilization of the two countries and, consequently, could have a negative impact on the international credibility of the EU and its policies,” the Steering Committee – Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum stated on the eve of hearing on visa liberalization issue for Ukraine in the European Parliament.

The website of the Presidential administration website informed on the same day that “the European Parliament was set to intensify the process of considering the visa-free regime for Ukraine,” as stated by the EP President Martin Schulz in a phone talk with Ukraine’s President. As Ukrinform posted on 26 May, as a result of the hearings, the European Parliament will continue its work on preparation and passage of a report on the adoption of legislation for abolition of visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens.

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  • Thomas Zöllner

    Ukraine always has been in Europe. You mean the European Union.