Ever since the collapse of the USSR, Europe has fulfilled the role of utopian ‘other’ in the Ukrainian imagination. While nothing in the post-Soviet world ever seemed to function as it should, abstract notions of a just and plentiful Europe came to serve as an aspirational ideal. Expensive Ukrainian apartments were marketed as ‘Euro renovated’, high end restaurants boasted of their ‘Euro cuisine’, and almost anything of any quality was branded as ‘Euro standard’. Europe became a synonym for the ‘normal country’ Ukrainians wanted to live in.
In light of this long-running love affair with all things European, it is hardly surprising that so many Ukrainians rushed to embrace the vague but enticing idea of European integration. As a result, Ukrainian politicians of virtually every persuasion have long felt obliged to publicly pledge their support for a European future. Meanwhile, Russian opponents of the process have found themselves deprived of any plausible counter arguments and reduced to absurd homophobia and, ultimately, military aggression. Ukraine’s enthusiasm for European integration proved so great they even staged a revolution to make it happen, and became the first people in history to die beneath the yellow-starred EU flag.
2016: Breakthrough year for European Ukraine
2016 is the year in which this dream finally becomes a reality. January sees the full implementation of a free trade zone, and at some point in summer 2016 visa-free EU travel is expected to be introduced. These are not minor achievements. Free trade and freedom of movement are arguably the two greatest benefits the EU can offer. Indeed, millions of Euro skeptics within the EU will surely view Ukraine’s Brussels partnership with some envy, regarding it as a far better model for cooperation than their own much deeper involvement in the European experiment.
These developments have the potential to transform every aspect of Ukrainian society, but they are not a panacea for the country’s many deep-seated problems. In reality, Ukraine’s 2016 European breakthrough is merely the start of a new and challenging era in the country’s development. If Ukraine is to make the transition successfully, Euro standards must become the everyday norm rather than the exception, and Ukrainians must start seeing themselves as equal partners in the European community of nations. Integrating into Europe has long been a key goal for millions of Ukrainians – the objective now must be to integrate Europe into Ukraine.