Since 2004, the European Union has shifted its foreign policy approach in Ukraine in an attempt to increase security in the East. Despite trying to expand its reach through cultural-based approaches, the EU still faces several challenges in increasing its influence.


“Where is your heart? Humanity rise” Ukrainian singer Jamala sings passionately to an audience of 200 million Europeans.

Her song ‘1944’ recounts the unjust deportation of Crimean Tatars, a Turkish ethnic group living on the Crimean Peninsula, from Ukraine by Joseph Stalin during World War II. Although the lyrics do not mention it specifically, the song also references the renewed repression felt by many Crimean Tatars since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, because this population does not accept the Russian administration.

The votes are counted and the verdict is in: Ukraine is the 2016 winner of the prestigious European song competition Eurovision. Triumphing over hot favourite Russian artist Sergey Lazarev, the win has rallied Ukrainians with pride and solidarity and sent the world a clear message of criticism regarding Russia’s actions.

Despite controversy surrounding the politicised nature of the song ‘1944’, Ukraine’s Eurovision entry was allowed to perform in Stockholm. This preferential treatment shown towards Ukraine echo the anti-Russian sentiments expressed in Jamala’s song. Source: Albin Olsson, Creative Commons.

With one song, Jamala was able to unite her audience with the plight of oppressed Crimean’s. Ukraine’s win highlights the power of culture to unite people across borders. Through the public vote choosing Ukraine’s entry, preference towards Europe over Russia was also shown.

Music, film, social media and other forms of culture have become increasingly important tools in modern conflict as part of soft power. Speaking at the European Culture Forum in 2016, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini proposed that the EU should put culture at the heart of its foreign policy.

“Cultural diplomacy is not just a hobby for intellectuals. It is a cornerstone in our relationship with today’s world. It is vital for Europe, to promote our interests and advance our values” Mogherini said.

Instead of hard power methods of war and conflict, this renewed approach aims to benefit Europe in terms of improved security through the investment in cultural and academic exchanges.


Make culture, not war

Europe has taken a soft power based approach in terms of its foreign policy towards Ukraine, with a renewed focus on cultural collaboration in order to bring the two parties closer.

Ukraine is of strategic importance to Europe. Due to its position between Europe and Asia, the country acts as a buffer to Russia. Since the Orange Revolution of 2004, the EU has been more visible in Ukraine and has switched towards a value’s based foreign policy strategy. The removal of Ukraine’s dictatorship and introduction of free elections marked a turning point in EU – Ukraine relations as the latter turned towards democracy. The implementation and stabilisation of a democratic power in Ukraine became central to the EU’s Ukraine agenda.

The potential of Europe’s soft power lies in the attractiveness of its ideas and values. Post-Cold War, the Union was easily able to appeal to new nations in Central and Eastern Europe. Values such as democracy, freedom, the promotion of human rights, rule of law and peace, as well as membership possibilities, are factors turning countries such as Ukraine towards Europe. This has allowed the EU to orient itself to Ukraine as a political role model and relies on its international prestige as a way of exerting influence.

In addition to perpetuating its power through cultural based forms of soft power, the EU promotes its interests across multiple fields, such as diplomacy and investment.

Ukraine falls under the European Neighbourhood Policy. Since 2004, this framework has aimed to create closer political association, economic integration and a framework for stronger democracy for countries bordering the union. Ukraine is also involved in the Eastern Partnership which focuses on the EU’s relationship with its Eastern neighbours. In addition, the EU has entered into a bilateral Association Agreement with Ukraine which, although signed since 2014 has not yet gone into effect, will continue prior efforts in Ukraine.


Eastern Influence

Although European power has curbed the influence of the East to an extent, Russia remains a destabilising force in the face of Europe’s aims. Ukraine is a soft power battleground between the two powers as both attempt the gain greater influence over the nation with the EU displaying a more passive form of soft power compared the persuasion strategy employed by Russia which utilises military power.

Russian influence is one barrier that limits the ability of the EU fully to achieve its goals in Ukraine. Western person-to-person connections are underrepresented and limited due to language and lack of prominence of European media. In comparison, Russia has given more significance to Ukraine than other nations and has been able to take advantage of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine as a main target for influence.

Visa liberalization procedures between the EU and Ukraine began negotiation in 2008. In February the EU approved visa free travel for Ukrainians into the EU (excluding the United Kingdom and Ireland) for up to 90 days for business, tourist or family visits, beginning as early as April this year. Visa free travel is a vital step missed so far as it has created a barrier between Ukraine and Europe that turns Ukrainians to the East where they do not require a visa to enter Russia.

Person-to-person exchanges between Ukrainians and Europeans have facilitated the spreading of European culture, and therefore influence, to some parts of Ukraine, particularly the more-European oriented Western half of the nation. The opening up of mobility grants such as Erasmus Mundus and the Jean Monnet education program to include Ukrainian citizens has facilitated connectivity. However, the EU has been only to reach a limited number of Ukrainians.


Riding the wave of change

Despite shortcomings, the use of European soft power in regards to Ukraine has been a vital factor in some aspects the nation’s progress.

The EU has helped continue the path of change that the nation has been following since Ukrainian independence, assisting successfully with the development of the defence, banking and agriculture sectors. The reform of key state institutions, however; such as judiciary and administration change, are still a work in progress, which are needed as the failure to overhaul these sectors reduces the positive progress of reform in other areas.

The increasing importance of democracy and other European values has been made evident in the past few years. In 2013, a wave of demonstrations known as Euromaidan begun as the result of the postponing of the signing of the Ukraine – EU Association Agreement with thousands taking to the capital Kiev demanding closer European integration and democratic reform of the government.

The Euromaidan protests were the biggest pro-European Union protests since the Orange Revolution. The protesters were not just made up of the typical demographic of globalised youth. A survey of protestors by the British Academy found that the majority of protesters were over 35 years, with 24% older than 55. Europeans stood alongside nationalists demanding change towards greater civil society in Ukraine.


The future of European power

The continuing conflict in Ukraine raises questions of the reality of the EU’s foreign policy success.

The EU has not facilitated making newfound Ukrainian civil society sustainable long term, following both the Orange and Euromaidan Revolutions, as stated by a report published by the European Council on Foreign Relations. A new and unstable democracy, Ukraine’s judiciary system is underdeveloped and weak, having experienced several parliamentary crises since democratic elections were introduced.

Corruption remains a prominent threat, with the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych by the parliament just one example that shows how deep the level of exploitation runs in the government.  The European Council report suggests that the EU should have placed more pressure on those in leadership positions and should focus its funding on Ukrainian non-government organisations and political parties in the effort to stabilise administrative systems to better support democratic process.

The EU’s response to Ukraine has been reactive instead of proactive. Due to Ukraine’s win at Eurovision last year, the country is now set to host the 2017 competition this May. The event has been plagued with controversy including delays, lack of funding, the majority of the Eurovision senior team quitting in February and rumours that the competition may be relocated from Kiev to Moscow. Despite the excitement surrounding Jamala’s win last year, there seems to have been little impact in terms of increased physical support towards Crimea and the rest of Ukraine.

However, the weight that culture can carry should not be forgotten. Moving forward Europe needs to actively create more socialisation channels to tap into its democratisation power. The EU’s renewed focus on cultural channels as central to foreign policy will be a vital factor in Ukraine in the long term attempt to help the nation progress in the future.

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