Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dutch Values and Ukraine's Association Agreement with the EU

We Dutch know something about living next to a large, dangerous neighbour that tries to manipulate, conquer or control us. We know something about the importance of being able to trade with the neighbours and the broader world to maintain our independence and standard of living. And we also know something, luckily a little more than most, about the importance of the rule of law, of democracy, of freedom and of human rights. We can rightly be proud of what we've accomplished in our own country and what we stand for. We can be even more proud when others copy us and ask us coach them. There is nothing pie-eyed about this. The Dutch are a sober and realistic bunch. When they set their minds to it, they can accomplish great things. Others can do the same by emulating them. 

The European Union was created to prevent war, promote prosperity, and advance the human condition. It largely does that by copying much of what the Netherlands has already achieved for itself and demands it from its members. The formula resonates so strongly with the human drive for freedom that other countries use it as well. It goes without saying that the EU demands this of its members. But it also seizes opportunities to help neighbouring countries that want to bring themselves up to European levels of democracy, justice and human rights without becoming members. 

This is in the Netherlands' own interest. There has never been a war between democracies. There has never been a civil war in countries where basic human, legal and political rights are respected. The EU has no army and relies primarily on promoting a ring of democracies around it. In rare cases where the neighbouring country wants to really change itself, Association Agreements can be used to help that change along.

Association Agreements like the one that the EU has with Ukraine are like 12 step programs for recovering addicts. They are hard work. They have to admit their problems, they have to make amends to those they have harmed, they must put the ways of the past behind them, and they must live the rest of their lives with courage and integrity. They need help to keep on the right path and to break with the people that would drag them down into the abyss once again. Being a role model and a coach for an addict doesn't mean the addict comes to live with you. Keep that in mind.

The Post-Soviet world--countries like Ukraine that were once part of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before it--now have a young generation that has not grown up under Russian rule, does not learn Russian in school, learns English instead, travels west on vacation and looks toward Dutch and European values and standards as what they want for their own futures. A little older than them are the ones who fought the revolutions that brought them their formal independence, and the chance to live in freedom. But political revolution did not put an end to the old politics of economic and political corruption. The Association Agreement is designed to make that corruption a thing of the past. In return for accepting the cost and pain of rooting that corruption--the links to the people that feed the addiction-- we accept each other as trading partners. That is initially painful for Ukraine because our companies are so competitive. Dutch engineers, manufacturers and investors will earn more than they lose from the free trade agreement. But this can only work for them if they can operate in a Ukraine where a contract is a contract, a judge is honest, where politicians don't give jobs to their friends and informal masters, lurking in the shadows, and where judges, bureaucrats and politicians can't be bought.

 All of that is easier said than done. Just like the junkies trying to claw back one their own who has decided to go clean, Russia has reached out with various means to prevent Ukraine from building a new future for itself. The Agreement was negotiated by  a government with a democratic mandate for change--the change initiated by the Orange Revolution. It was halted when Russian president Vladimir Putin bribed the new Ukrainian President to reject the deal and join the Eurasian Union instead. People went to the streets in Maidan Square, and we saw what it meant to fall back into the crack house of Russian influence. Obedience or death instead of democracy and free speech, and a return to corruption instead of an honest chance for  young Ukrainians to build an economy and society that reflects who they are and want to be. I was there in the European Parliament as the first shots fell and the first Ukrainians started dying at the hands of government forces. I listened to leaders from Parliament, Commission and the Council of member states confer directly and join in support of those protesting. In the face of those horrible actions, I felt a sense of hope, as I think many did, that if Europe continued to do the right thing, that Ukraine could overthrow that government and resume its path to reform.

It did, and thankfully the EU and its member states supported that effort with the Association Agreement. As we know, that was not the end of Russia's efforts to reincorporate Ukraine into it's 'rightful sphere of influence' (imagine if Germany did the same thing to the Netherlands today). It invaded and annexed Crimea, it invaded and installed a puppet regime in Luhansk and Donbas, murdered and displaced civilians living there, kidnapped and sentenced the Ukrainian pilot Savchenko to 22 years on bogus charges, and as the Netherlands is all too aware, shot down a civilian airliner with 182 Dutch nationals and others on board to show you they could, and to make it clear whose property the Ukraine was. Nevertheless, Ukraine, with the EU's help, has stayed the course to reforms.

As a result of Ukrainian and European determination, domestic support for reforms has remained strong and Russia's attempt to establish NovoRussia out of a larger invasion of Ukraine was stopped. It will remain a dream rather than a reality as long as Ukraine has the chance to build its own future. Those within Ukraine who want to turn the clock back, with corruption and with arms will not get their chance. That is what the Orange Revolution was about. That is what the Agreement is about. We can be proud that Dutch and European values are what they aspire too. But that will only survive if we vote on April 6th to stand by them as they do that.

Vote on April 6th. And vote Yes

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