Ahead of the Normandy summit: expectations placed on Macron, Merkel and Zelenskyy

Kicking off the 15th annual conference, Rebecca Harms spoke about Ukraine against the backdrop of the current global political context. In her speech on 21 November 2019 in Kyiv, Harms addressed a number of political challenges faced by Ukraine today. She emphasised how the dialogue between the EU, Germany and Ukraine is more important now, six years on from the Maidan and just before new Normandy Format talks, than ever before. Rebecca Harms is a former Member of the European Parliament (Greens/EFA, 2004–19) and has been a patron of Kyiv Dialogue for many years. 

This text is a translation of the edited version of her speech. Click here for the German version.

November has been a significant month to me since 2013. It was during the November days of the summit in Vilnius that I encountered the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv for the first time. Unexpectedly standing on the improvised stage at the Independence Monument during the Maidan together with Ruslana, who I already knew from the Orange Revolution, as well as Iegor Soboliev and speaking about Ukraine, Europe and the summit in Vilnius to the people who had gathered at the square, we did not suspect yet that the Yanukovych regime would collapse with – and because of – abhorrent, brutal violence against the people at the Maidan. We did not suspect that Vladimir Putin would wage an unjustified war on Ukraine in the name of power and for his kleptocratic cronies, that Ukraine would have to brave this attack alone and that it would still manage to stand its ground.

On the evening on which the Vilnius summit ended without an association agreement for Ukraine, we also did not suspect that the EU would stick to its word despite pressure from Putin and sign the association agreement with Petro Poroshenko.

Whenever I look back on this time six years ago, I think that it’s good that you don’t always know what’s going to happen. Because perseverance paid off. 

The Maidan pushed the agreement with the EU through. It wasn’t the EU or the USA that stood up to Yanukovych and Putin for democracy and freedom. It was the Ukrainian people who decided not to give in to the control of Yanukovych and Putin and to escape Putin’s imperium together with the EU and towards the EU.

30 years after the citizens of East Germany instigated the fall of the Berlin Wall, attempts are being made in Germany to recount the story of reunification as a takeover by the capitalist West. I still repeatedly maintain that it is important to loudly refute this fabrication of the story. I also feel that it is important to talk about the social implications: what has been achieved and what hasn’t been achieved. Disparaging the democratic and freedom movements in the GDR and Eastern Europe is at the core of Putin’s propaganda though. To let the Kremlin get away with this mother of all lies would be unforgivable and would be a massive detriment to those places still fighting for freedom on the continent, not least in Moscow and Minsk.

President Zelenskyy is the second president to have received a majority vote by the Ukrainians since the Maidan. The landslide changeover of power last summer is tied to hopes for the President and his people that are literally higher than the sky. A resistance to corruption, a growing desire for peace and an increasing feeling of discontent with regard to the reforms were what determined the change.

As part of the 15th annual conference of Kyiv Dialogue, I would firstly like to congratulate Stefanie Schiffer and the teams in Berlin and Ukraine. Thanks to support also given by the German Federal Foreign Office and the Association of German Foundations, the project has grown considerably and now connects Berlin and Germany to Ukraine more extensively.

To open today’s 15th annual conference of Kyiv Dialogue, I was asked to say something about the international developments that are important for the future and war and peace in Ukraine, also in light of the upcoming Normandy summit.

President Zelenskyy cannot meet the demand for peace on his own, even though this was one of his main election promises. Will Chancellor Merkel and President Macron help him? And how?

When the Normandy summit takes place on 9 December, it must be kept in mind that the occupation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas go against the pro-European decision made by the Ukrainians and against the liberal, democratic model for which the EU stands.

Chancellor Merkel and President Macron also have to recognise that their responsibility towards Ukraine is growing – namely with every day in which we learn more about President Trump’s world, a world in which one hand always washes the other. A world that the Ukrainians are working their way out of. It is a positive thing to see that great people like Marie Yovanovitch, Bill Taylor and Alexander Vindman are standing up in the hearings in Washington for a Washington that people could once count on and, in my opinion, will be able to again.

A much-needed starting point for the talks with Putin in Paris will be a long-overdue joint commitment to stronger European involvement in NATO as well as a strong German and French commitment to PESCO, the joint EU security strategy, within NATO, acting as the signal to America that we require. A dangerous signal to send would be to create more new European alliances with Putin’s Russia on account of Trump when the former openly destabilises the EU and, more specifically, its partners. Such ideas would leave the Ukrainian people, the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkans high and dry. NATO-sceptical ideas fuel internal rifts and weaken the EU.

The serious difficulties presented to the European countries in NATO, which have been brought to the fore again in Syria since the Turkish offensive and the withdrawal of US troops, will not subside if Macron and Merkel give in to Putin in Ukraine.

The key objectives pursued by the Minsk agreements have not been reached due to a lack of political will, including in Paris and Berlin, to systematically and incessantly push for all agreed points to be adhered to, such as the ceasefire, the withdrawal of foreign troops and the restoration of control of the border with Russia. Every one of these steps must be achieved and also verified. Preventing elections in the parts of the oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk occupied and controlled by Russia without verified compliance with the requirements set out in the Minsk agreements and without extensive Ukrainian control together with international support does not fill me with confidence. What country would tolerate the loss of autonomy over a part of its territory to criminal Russian militia and at the same time accept full responsibility for the weal and woe of its citizens on this territory? And we are not talking about a small part of Ukraine, but an area in which several millions of people live. Luhansk and Donetsk aren’t Transnistria; they are bigger than some EU member states.

President Zelenskyy has promised to strive for peace. Many opinion polls and discussions indicate to me that the majority of Ukrainians want this. This comes as no surprise. It is only human after six years of conflict that has claimed far too many deaths and caused so much devastation. I understand the reasons for such longing well. And I cried too when I saw Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Pavlo Gryb, Roman Sushchenko and others step off the plane in Kyiv. The Orphanage and Grey Bees, books written by Zhadan and Kurkov respectively, tell heart-rending tales of the young and old caught up in the conflict.

Children who started school at the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine will soon be entering seventh grade. Give it another two or three years and a whole generation will have grown up alongside constant anti-Western Russian propaganda in the conflict region. As for the older generation, I read that two pensioners presumably died of exhaustion last week while in the queue at the pension office.

Like so many Ukrainians, I have doubts when it comes to what’s behind the Steinmeier Formula. However, I believe that efforts to put an end to the fighting and to bring about the withdrawal of Russian arms and Russia in general from Ukraine remain the right way forward. And unilateral decisions to make small improvements to the lives of people in the conflict region, such as the construction of the bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska, are essential to not just suspend the war further, but win it. There will be no real chance of helping the Ukrainian people get the peace they desire if the French President and the German Chancellor use this to benefit their own interests with Russia and push Ukraine into a new, unreasonable deal. A functioning and resilient German-French axis and a joint positive positioning within NATO are the prerequisites for better Ukrainian prospects. But Ukraine also needs to go into the negotiations with a better idea of how it wants to progress.

Macron and Merkel know that Putin is not only aware of the disputes surrounding the sanctions, but is also inciting them through his paid and unpaid friends in the EU. Even if it sounds trite, the EU must resolutely stand behind the sanctions if Ukraine is to have a better chance of peace. Prioritising economic interests, for example dealings with Gazprom in the energy sector, counteracts sanctions, even if not many people in Germany want to hear this. Nord Stream 2 is a strategic project of Russia that undermines the sanctions policy and sends a signal to Putin that he need not take the criticism of his aggressive politics all that seriously after all.

The fact that Russia was reinstated in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe without any conditions being imposed was a worrying sign for the Ukrainians. In Paris, Merkel and Macron will have the opportunity to prove their dependability to Ukraine. The most important thing that holds true is that Ukraine’s sincere, yet not unconditional desire for peace should not translate into unreasonable conditions for the country that would strengthen Putin in his destabilisation attempts.

Macron’s surprising veto against the launch of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia also hangs over the Normandy summit. Although what Macron did and how he did it was unexpected and undignified, and although it is extremely upsetting for North Macedonia, Macron has a point when he says that it longer makes any sense to reassure sceptics by saying that the prevented launch of talks does not take accession off the table, and that good things come to those who wait. A prerequisite to launching accession negotiations is that they can definitely be concluded positively. The unanimity required for this cannot be guaranteed in the EU at the moment though. Clarification of the EU’s future enlargement policy is long overdue. Does the message being sent by the Élysée Palace signify an end to the enlargement policy? I hope that it signifies the end of unanimity in the EU and that the process and the conditions of accession will be redefined. As far as I’m concerned, implementation of the association agreements, like the one in Ukraine, should without a doubt belong on the agenda of becoming a member. Continuity of agreed reforms is therefore the correct path.

For Ukraine to continue to develop positively, extensive reforms are in the pipeline which would have certainly been easier to carry through if Putin’s war had been taken out of the equation.

Building up the army since 2014 has demanded a lot and other areas have suffered as a result. This fact should not be neglected when taking stock of what has been achieved in Ukraine so far.

In spite of the conflict, more progress has been made in Ukraine in terms of institutional and legislative measures to combat corruption than in any other country in the Eastern Partnership. However, many cases pursued by anti-corruption authorities demonstrate that corruption has not yet been eradicated either on a large or small scale. Improving, adopting and implementing anti-corruption laws and strengthening independent authorities to tackle corruption would be good for this country and its citizens. Curtailing the power and manipulation of oligarchs remains vital, in the same way in which it was called for over and over again at the Maidan six years ago. I have recently heard a lot of people say that it isn’t enough to only ever scrutinise one portion of the oligarchs while the others are already creating a new basis of power for themselves in the Rada and Bankova. The rule of law, judicial independence, transparency and parliamentary control must take the place of mutual vendettas.

We will be discussing many of the reforms during Kyiv Dialogue. I am delighted that quite a lot of new deputies from various parties of the Rada are taking part in these talks with journalists and individuals from civil society in Ukraine and Germany. After 25 years, my work as a member of parliament has drawn to a close. I am a big fan of representative democracy and a strong parliament. I know how long it took for some laws to be passed in the last legislative period so I understand that many Ukrainians want to finally see improvements and get something out of the turbo regime. But the baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater. Ukraine does not need another authoritarian president but rather a strong parliament where citizens actually feel represented. Freedom and democracy cannot exist without a strong parliament that is trusted by citizens. I hope that the 15th Kyiv Dialogue helps highlight the possibilities offered by a strong representative democracy.


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