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Ukraine Protesters Give EU Much Needed Image Boost

  • Henry Ridgwell

At first glance, the European Union appears to have lost its battle with Russia over the future of Ukraine, after Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych opted against signing an EU Association Agreement last month. But many observers say the ongoing demonstrations in Ukrainian cities by pro-Europe protesters have provided a much-needed boost to the image of the bloc.

For a month now protesters in Ukraine have braved freezing temperatures and police crackdowns in an effort to forge a European future for their country. The blue and gold of the EU flag are the dominant colors of the campaign.

President of the EU Commission Jose Manuel Barroso said last week that the demonstrators are making European history.

“Those young people on the streets of Ukraine amid freezing temperatures are writing the new narrative for Europe. And I think the European Union has the right and the duty to stand by the people of Ukraine in this very difficult moment because they are giving to Europe one of the greatest contributions that can be given,” he said.

Vote of trust

At a time when Europe’s confidence is ebbing, the demonstrations are a vote of trust in the bloc, said Ian Bond of policy group the Centre for European Reform.

“Clearly it’s helpful in one way to Europe’s credibility to be able to show that there are so many people in Ukraine who support a closer relationship with the EU,” stated Bond.

The euro zone is still struggling to emerge from the debt crisis. Unemployment in Spain and Greece remains more than 25 percent. Populist anti-EU parties are on the rise in Britain, France and the Netherlands.

But despite all the problems, the bloc still holds a magnetic pull for many people on its eastern borders.

“If you’re sitting in Ukraine, a country which has lost quite a considerable part of its GDP since it gained independence in 1991, then you might think that actually getting closer to the EU looks very attractive indeed,” said Bond.

Force for progress

Mikhail Pashkov of the Kyiv-based analyst group the Razumkov Center said both the EU and Ukraine should recognize the importance of the moment.

“The fact that people are demonstrating for European integration is a really important signal both to the Ukrainian government and to the European Union. But the decision not to sign the EU agreement shows that Ukrainian foreign policy is opaque and closed both to its own people and to the outside world,” he said.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych insists he acted in his country’s economic interest in refusing to sign the EU agreement - instead penning deals for loans and cheap natural gas with old ally Russia.

Analysts said although it appears Europe may have lost the tug of war over Ukraine, the protests have rejuvenated the EU’s founding ideal as a force for progress.