Ireland and Ukraine used to be worlds apart. Not any more. Russia’s war means that we now know where Kyiv is on the map of Europe and that it is pronounced “Keev”, not “Key-ev”. We are familiar with the names of other places – Bucha, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia – for tragic reasons. Many Irish communities have welcomed Ukrainian refugees into their hearts. Ukrainian faces are on our screens. We feel empathy. We stand with the Ukrainian people in their plight.
I have had a close personal and professional relationship with Ukraine since late 2013. A time when Ukrainians gathered in their thousands at Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square, the symbolic centre of Kyiv and Ukraine. They gathered to protest against then President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to walk away from signing the Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) in favour of closer ties with Russia. It had taken nearly two decades to negotiate a deal that would establish political integration and economic association, resulting in free trade with the EU and a stronger Ukrainian economy. Russia didn’t want that. So it lent on Yanukovych who then attempted to violently put down the ‘Euromaidan’ protests, resulting in the deadly but successful Revolution of Dignity.
Yanukovych fled to Russia. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and then, in summer 2014, covertly invaded Ukraine’s Donbas region to support pro-Russian separatists. There were eight years of bitter war and occupation before Russia’s full-scale invasion attempt on 24 February 2022.
I am fortunate to have Ukrainian friends. (I used to have more. But since 2014 many have been killed while defending their country, families, culture and European values.) Over the years, I have talked about many things with them. One recurring theme is the stark contrast between my Ireland and their Ukraine in relation to EU membership.
Two countries with similarities. Both on a geographical periphery of Europe. Both with a major famine tragedy in their history: Ireland’s Great Famine and Ukraine’s Holodomor. Both with a perennially ‘difficult’ and domineering larger neighbour. Both with policies of neutrality (in Ukraine’s case until Russia attacked in 2014). Both with a strong national identity in terms of culture, language, traditions, world view and aspirations. Both with a large majority of the population who are in favour of EU membership. Yet, Ireland has been a member state of the EU, or European Communities as it was then, since 1 January 1973, whereas Ukraine has only recently (23 June 2022) been granted candidate status for membership of the EU.
The difference in fate and fortune between Ireland and Ukraine is huge: 50-years of EU membership have brought Ireland innumerable political and economic benefits. It has enabled Ireland to develop its economy and society by providing a single European market for goods and services as well as a diversity of EU supports for national infrastructure and regional development, agriculture, sea fisheries, education, research, employment, arts and heritage, and more.
Lately, supports have been introduced that assist Ireland in coping with the impacts of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic. Also supports to potentially help Ireland transition to climate neutrality through saving energy, diversifying our energy supplies and accelerating the roll-out of renewable energy projects. Other EU funding programmes have supported peace and reconciliation across Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland in the wake of the Troubles; and others the challenges associated with asylum-seekers, refugees, migration and integration.
Ukraine is not without considerable EU funding and political support. However, it is not all about the money. The psychological support felt by Ukrainians in receipt of humanitarian aid, politicians visiting Kyiv and sites of civilian massacres to pay their respects, and the simple ‘Stand With Ukraine’ message across social media: these are important too. A different situation, of course, but Ireland likewise values the political solidarity and support of the EU institutions as regards countering the United Kingdom’s positions on Brexit and Northern Ireland. It helps to know that you have the backing of a powerful political and economic union.
Looking at Ireland, I see a country that has enjoyed the fruits of EU membership. We take trade with and the right to freely travel to and through other members’ territories for granted. We are comfortable under the umbrella protection of EU directives and regulations, justice and fundamental rights. Ultimately, we have shared 50 years of strong community with our fellow Europeans. Brexit is the fly in the ointment. But we assume that Britain will come to its senses and eventually choose to rejoin the Union. The Ukrainians I know think the Irish are lucky – that we have made our own luck by opting to join the EU half a century ago. They want to see their country also experience the same kind of luck.
For me, the EU means collective social, civil and cultural solidarity: just as important as political, economic and physical security. This is significant in a century during which the going can only get tougher, with climate change, the threat of nuclear warfare, increasingly tense geopolitical rivalries and growing competition for finite resources. Ireland is a vital ingredient of the EU and its ‘solidarity ecosystem’. But more than that and beyond the current war in Europe, there is a shared sense of purpose regarding the EU. Ireland has been part of the EU’s destiny for five decades. I’m sure that one day Ukraine will be too.
In partnership with the Irish Foreign Ministry as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.