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Taken for Granted

The protests in Ukraine remind us of the importance of membership in a community of certain values.

by Martin Ehl 3 December 2013

To the east of the European Union, just below the former Austro-Hungarian border fortress of Przemysl, the plain ends and the landscape begins to undulate. The border between the European Union (Poland) and the outside world (Ukraine) is overgrown here with forest, making it hard to monitor and rather permeable – and thus prime territory for people smugglers.


A few years ago I visited the local Polish border guards, to see how the Poles were preparing to guard the external border of the European Union. The commander showed me the rusted remains of the towers and fences from Soviet times, which in 1945 divided Poland.


Even among the thick-skinned border guards the case of a Chechen mother who attempted to get to the safety of the European Union with her children still resonated. During their way through the Polish border area, three of her daughters died from exhaustion and cold. Her son survived in her arms.


I thought of that region, forming for many desperate souls a bridge to the European Union, when on 1 December people flocked to the center of Kyiv after the Ukrainian police had violently cleared the area the day before. To the east of that border – guarded by Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Slovak, and Hungarian police – millions of people live in the hope that their lives will get better.


While I'm opposed to the idealization of everything associated with the European Union, the protesting Ukrainians have reminded us of something, which after almost 10 years of membership we take for granted: affiliation with a community of certain values.


While the overwhelming number of Czechs – in their isolation without external borders of the European Union and without a clear government Eastern policy – watch developments in Ukraine with a degree of distance, Poles and Slovaks are confronted daily with the reality of life, business, refugees, smugglers, desperate people, and self-assured individuals from across the border. Poland and its politicians in particular have adopted the role of Ukraine’s patrons in the EU, and the collapse of negotiations on the association agreement ahead of the Vilnius summit hit them hard. And this weekend's events in Kyiv and other cities managed to surprise even many Ukraine experts.


We hear a lot that the situation in Ukraine is mainly a test for local political leaders. But it is also a test of whether new EU countries can transfer our experience with the transformation to other conditions – to explain its complexity to Western colleagues and to convince Eastern partners that it's simply not possible to move forward if they don't do their homework. We ourselves are still bumbling around. As just one example: the Czech civil service act, adopted in 2002, is still not implemented.


Champions of the Eastern Partnership within the European Union have been taken by surprise. At first they were not able to counter “brutal” Russian pressure, as Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt called the Kremlin’s tactics to sway partnership countries away from closer relations with Brussels. Now the EU faces the risk that it has raised false hopes in the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian demonstrators – not unlike those whom, for instance, Radio Free Europe incited among the Hungarians fighting in the uprising against the Soviets in 1956.


At the time, help from the West did not come. Today it is just a little better. It may come, but only in the form of a helping hand, offering guidance on how to organize free elections, how to write laws restricting corruption, how an independent judiciary can function.


And we, the post-communist members of the EU, are ourselves acquiring such knowledge only step-by-step, painfully and slowly. Brussels, although it can be blamed for a lot of things, will not do anything that we should be doing for ourselves.

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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