The recent offer by the European Union and suspension by Ukraine of an Association Agreement (AA) was a classic case of misperception. The European Union thought that the AA it offered Kyiv was attractive enough to make the choice between Europe and Russia a simple one. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, on the other hand, believed that he could occupy the middle ground by playing Russia and the EU against one another. Both sides viewed the EU as a power - rather than as a model - and built their strategies on that assumption.
The promise of enlargement used to be an incredibly effective tool in Europe's foreign policy, but it works in a specific manner. Some important lessons should be derived from the experience of the Central and Eastern European states that joined the European Union in 2004. The EU was initially reluctant to concede that any European state that fulfils the appropriate criteria should be allowed to join their club. The peaceful revolutions of 1989 found the EU completely unprepared to face the aspirations of Central Europe's rising democracies, which had to undertake a long battle to make EU states agree that Association Agreements could eventually lead to membership.
An Association Agreement was also often a harsh pill to swallow. Although it did quickly open EU markets to the likes of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, it affected the major competitive advantages of these economies by imposing very small quotas and non-trade barriers on their exports. Furthermore, the available pre-accession funds for these countries were marginal, and the whole process had to be done within the constraints of the regular EU budget. In total, the aid for East Germany during and following reunification was ten times what the EU provided in aid for the ten enlargement countries in 2004.
EU conditionality in the case of Central and Eastern Europe proved effective for a few simple reasons. The "return to Europe" was the only available alternative and there was no geopolitical competitor that could effectively block their accession. None of these countries wanted to stay caught in the vacuum between the EU and Russia. In that sense the EU was both a power - because of its asymmetric relations with these countries - and the model that they wished to follow.
But by itself, an Association Agreement need not be a game changer. Turkey signed one in 1963, and Morocco, Chile, and a number of other countries have followed suit. Though each agreement is different, they do not inevitably lead to a country's "Europeanization." Nor can the EU always trigger effective transformation processes for countries that want to join its club. Many central European states wanted EU conditions for their own modernization, while Bulgaria and Romania did not. In these cases, the EU was a power for aspiring countries, but not much of a model. Yet the belief in the transformative power of EU accession remained. While some observers believe that the EU will do anything to avoid another case of unreformed membership, it is well on its way to repeating its mistakes with the Western Balkans. Although another "big bang" enlargement is doubtful, sooner or later these countries will have to join, in order to fill the gaping hole over the Balkans.
Eastern Europe - including Ukraine - is in another category altogether, where the EU can potentially be a model, but not a power. Until now, Yanukovych has managed to avoid integration with the Russian-led Eurasian Union, which marks a minor success for the EU. But for whatever reason, Yanukovych expected a much more generous offer from Brussels, one that would help Ukraine overcome the risk of Russian threats. He may have made a mistake in assuming that the EU could become a more strategic and powerful geopolitical player overnight. The EU's mistake, meanwhile, was believing that the association agreement with Ukraine would be a game changer. But the fact is that the European model alone cannot work in such a difficult environment, where it is susceptible to Russia's power.
Without a doubt, Ukraine is a European country. Invoking the validity of article 49 of the EU basic treaty, which states that any European country that respects EU values and fulfils their criteria may become a member, would cost European leaders nothing. It would confirm that the EU is an open project and leave Ukraine with no excuse but to take the agreement as it is or leave it. Perhaps it is time for the EU to act like a power in Eastern Europe and play hardball.