While the global media is busy discussing mainly the economic consequences of the Brexit vote, Ukraine is wary of the political ones. On the one hand, the significance of the United Kingdom as an export market for Ukraine is quite small. And the ensuing turbulence in the debt markets stemming from the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is unlikely to directly affect Ukraine’s weak economy, which is dependent on loans from international financial organizations rather than bond rates or share prices. Nevertheless, Kyiv fears that the political consequences of the UK’s looming exit from the EU will be particularly negative for Ukraine. As international focus naturally shifts to the Brexit, attention is diverted away from the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the problem of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. Moreover, Kyiv fears that an EU weakened by the British exit will encourage stronger aggressive behavior from Russia. Finally, with its preoccupation on exit negotiations with London, the EU is likely to put the issue of granting visa-free travel to Ukrainian citizens on the backburner.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko expressed his regret over the British vote on June 24. Writing on his Facebook page, he said he hoped the UK would continue to defend common European values and that European sanctions against “Russia, as the aggressor state,” would be prolonged. In particular, Kyiv fears that if the UK leaves the EU, the pro-Kremlin lobby in continental Europe will become stronger; without continued pressure from London, the EU might eventually lift the sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014. The first deputy speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Iryna Herashchenko, who is also a negotiator in the settlement talks on eastern Ukraine, said on her Facebook page (June 24) that a divided Europe was “the golden dream of the Kremlin” (Reporter-ua.ru, June 24).
The UK, along with fellow EU members Sweden, Poland and Lithuania, has been firmly in favor of prolonging the sanctions against Russia. At the same time, several countries in Southern Europe, most notably Italy, have expressed an inclination to ease the sanctions (see EDM, April 18). Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited the St. Petersburg Economic Forum earlier this month and pledged to boost economic ties at a meeting with Vladimir Putin (see EDM, June 27). The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, also visited the forum, seen as a bad sign in Kyiv. With the political weight of the UK diminishing after the Brexit vote, the influence of the likes of Renzi is set to grow.
The Brexit campaign inside the UK was in large part dominated by nationalistic rhetoric and deep angst over immigration. The ultimate success of the campaign could inspire and embolden xenophobic attitudes across the EU. Such an outcome would not bode well for Kyiv’s European aspirations, in particular for Ukraine’s immediate goal of obtaining a visa-free travel regime with the EU. While EU citizens have been traveling to Ukraine without visas since 2005, it took years for Kyiv to qualify to meet the EU’s stringent free-travel requirements. Ukraine finally met all EU conditions last spring, so Kyiv hoped that Ukrainians would be able to travel for short stays to the Schengen area—which incidentally does not include the UK—as of the summer holiday season, without having to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles imposed by the visa regime. However, the migration crisis triggered by the war in Syria caused a delay for Ukraine at least until the fall. Furthermore, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told Inter TV, on June 26, that the Brexit vote might prompt the EU to delay its decision by another month or so.
Poroshenko and Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman flew, respectively, to Brussels and Berlin, on June 27, to inform the EU bureaucracy and the bloc’s most influential member state of Kyiv’s fears. Hroysman reminded German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Ukraine met all of the EU’s conditions for visa-free travel, so it was time to tear down “the bureaucratic wall dividing one European country from the big European family.” However, Merkel was noncommittal, saying only that the EU was likely, by September, to approve a special mechanism to suspend visa-free travel for emergency situations such as the migration crisis, after which the issue of visa-free travel for Ukraine would be back on the agenda. To sweeten the pill, the German leader said the mechanism would not be directed specifically against Ukraine, and she ruled out a connection between the Brexit crisis and the Ukrainian visa issue (Ukrinform.ua, June 27).
Poroshenko, commenting on his meeting with Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Parliament President Martin Schulz, said that although he received positive signals, Ukraine would have to fight on the diplomatic front until the last minute for the sanctions against Russia to stay (President.gov.ua, June 27). Regarding travel to Europe, Poroshenko was apparently assured that despite certain difficulties caused by the Brexit vote, formal procedures will be completed by the European Parliament this summer, and the final decision will be delayed by no more than several weeks (President.gov.ua, June 27).
While the possible easing of sanctions against Russia would make Ukraine more vulnerable vis-à-vis its aggressive eastern neighbor, a further delay of visa-free travel by the EU will further weaken the pro-Western government of Poroshenko and Hroysman, making it less popular at home. The UK’s final exit from the EU might take years to materialize, but Ukraine is already coming to grips with the negative consequences of the British vote.