Before the UK’s European Union membership referendum, Kiev made no secret of which outcome it was hoping for. Oleg Kravchenko, a Ukrainian political expert, put it like this: «Britain is one of the main forces in the European Union in favour of maintaining sanctions against Russia (Europe is currently divided on the issue). The UK also supports the European integration of Ukraine. Brexit will deprive us of one of our main advocates in the EU. In addition, it is a strong and united Europe that will provide financial and political support to Ukraine, not a divided one».
Their hopes, however, were not realised. Immediately after the referendum results were announced, a joke started doing the rounds: now that the UK has made some room, Ukraine can finally be accepted into the EU. In reality, the UK’s exit from the European Union makes Ukraine’s membership virtually impossible, both in the near and the distant future. And that is not the only repercussion of Brexit for Ukraine.
Between 2004 and 2007, there was a dramatic and economically unjustified expansion of the EU, which accepted 12 new members: Cyprus, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria. The ship known as ‘United Europe’ found itself dangerously overcrowded and all of its new passengers turned out to be freeloaders.
The money that these new members receive from the European budget is much higher than their contributions to EU funds, and these freeloaders are enjoying a sweet life thanks to a few donor countries whose contributions are much higher than the subsidies they receive. These are Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Sweden. Incidentally, one of the arguments for the UK leaving the EU was that the country would no longer have to feed the freeloaders. Let us look at some figures for 2015. The UK was initially supposed to contribute €18 billion to the EU budget. After haggling with Brussels, London’s contribution was reduced to €13.5 billion. The UK received €4.5 billion from the EU budget. Its net contribution, therefore, was €8.5 billion.
Ukraine, from the point of view of Brussels and the EU donor countries, is not only a freeloader with absolutely no way of paying even a discounted contribution to the EU’s general budget, but is also bankrupt, since it defaulted on its sovereign debt in December 2015.
It is easy to see that Brussels will learn a lesson from Brexit and tighten the financial and budgetary criteria for EU membership candidates. The candidates themselves are also aware of their current situation. There is good reason why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, anticipating the outcome of the UK referendum, first admitted the possibility of Turkey withdrawing its application for EU membership two days before that fateful Thursday (23 June). (Turkey’s application for EU membership has been hanging around for 19 years – since 1987.)
Public opinion polls show that the percentage of Eurosceptics in France, Italy and the Netherlands is even higher than in the UK. And sentiment in favour of leaving the EU is strongest precisely in those countries that belong to the ‘donor’ category (with the exception of Germany). Over time, we might see an amusing situation develop in Europe where, as a donor country, Germany becomes the nucleus of the EU surrounded by a large number of freeloading members, and this possibility is not sitting well with Germany, either.
Brexit will inevitably increase the likelihood of individual European countries normalising relations with Russia (on a bilateral basis). In 2014, when the West organised economic sanctions against Russia over Crimea and events in southeast Ukraine, it was London that took the harshest and most radical position in the EU. David Cameron called on his EU partners to implement punitive measures against Russia like blocking transactions made by Russian banks via SWIFT and even freezing Russia’s international reserves.
The current Kiev regime clearly does not fit in with the new European trend of reconciling with Russia, since the regime, with its extremely narrow and limited agenda, is entirely geared towards a conflict with its eastern neighbour. The regime does not contain anything positive in terms of Ukraine’s development. Therefore, the issue of whether Poroshenko will be able to navigate the new political reality or be replaced by a smarter and more forward-looking politician is being reignited with a vengeance.
Certain internal processes in the UK could become an unfortunate consequence of Brexit for Kiev. Official data indicates that during the referendum, separate parts of the UK developed a strong desire to remain part of the European Union – I am referring to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar – and they may try to fulfil this desire by holding referendums on independence from the UK.
Northern Ireland, for example. Most of the last century saw a continuous struggle to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland (formed in 1921). At the end of the 1990s, London and Dublin managed to normalise relations and it seemed that the flame of the liberation struggle in Northern Ireland had been extinguished. Now, however, this flame could be rekindled once again. The Republic of Ireland is the only member of the European Union that shares a land border with the UK. The UK’s exit from the EU means that this border will no longer be symbolic and will need to be strengthened to control the movement of goods and people. The people of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have already protested against the construction of a real border between them and launched a campaign for reunification the day after the UK referendum.
Scotland is proving to be no less of a headache for London. In September 2014, there was a referendum on whether Scotland should remain part of the UK and in that referendum, 55.3 percent of voters declared that they wanted to live in the UK. And now less than two years later, Scotland has declared the need to hold a new referendum. Its position is understandable, since the situation has changed radically. At the time of the first referendum, Scotland was part of the EU and now they are being denied this right against their will. (On 23 June, the majority of people in Scotland voted in favour of the UK remaining part of the European Union). On 25 June, just two days after the EU referendum, the Scottish government stated that it would begin preparing legislation for a new independence referendum.
The situation has also intensified with regard to Gibraltar, a British overseas territory in the Iberian Peninsula. For several centuries, Spain and the UK fought over this strategically important territory (for control over the Strait of Gibraltar, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea). In the end, Gibraltar became a British colony in 1830 and later became a British territory with special status. The very next day after the referendum on 23 June (in which the majority of people in Gibraltar voted for the UK to remain a member of the EU), Madrid declared that it would seek to bring Gibraltar under the jurisdiction of Spain.
Referendums in these three UK territories could take place within the next year. The probability of positive referendum outcomes for the UK (refusals to leave the UK) is estimated to be low.
It is not difficult to work out that the creation of a precedent (or precedents) for UK territories to gain independence will give a new impetus to the struggle that has been waged by the people of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics for three years now. And this is yet another important aspect of the link between Brexit and the Ukrainian issue.