What the protesters of Ukraine have to teach British Conservatives about democracy

By becoming a protest party on Europe, Conservatives have abandoned influence in the key foreign policy crises which will determine war and peace on our borders.

Richard Howitt MEP is Labour’s European spokesperson on foreign affairs and enlargement

I have long enjoyed the irony of countries lining up to join the European Union whilst pitifully xenophobic Conservative Eurosceptics seek to push Britain past them in the opposite direction.

UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage, in a typically rhetorical flourish, referred to countries leaving the Soviet Union only to rejoin the European Union, but the peoples of countries on Europe’s borders resolutely reject his analysis.

They see Europe as a beacon of democracy which embeds their sovereignty not threatens it, as this week’s European Parliament debates on the crisis in Ukraine and on progress towards EU accession of Western Balkan countries illustrates.

In Kiev, ordinary citizens so angered by their country’s refusal, following Russian pressure, to sign an EU association agreement have become protesters, prepared to ‘dig in’ in temperatures of minus twenty degrees to proclaim their passion for a European future.

This ‘Euromaidan‘ democracy activists’ dream is the stuff of Eurosceptic nightmares.

But for Conservatives, using Russia-bashing as a neat substitute for knocking Brussels, double standards on issues of democracy and human rights are rarely a problem; for Labour, we understand the challenges are far more serious.

For my MEP colleagues just returned from Ukraine, proper demands for protection for protesters stand alongside the urgent need to mediate between rival factions to support a stable political solution.

We do speak out against anti-democratic actions in and by Moscow, but recognise Russia must remain a strategic partner to Europe, and that a naked competition for primacy amongst former Soviet states is one Europe may well lose.

Consequently, I am concerned at support expressed this week for targeted sanctions and asset freezes against Ukrainian figures, actions which I have been prepared to support in other cases of human rights violation.

When Russia switched off vital energy supplies to Ukraine and for a week last year turned back at the border virtually all imports from the country, they were imposing their own sanctions – of a sort.

Europe must be careful not to appear to the people of Ukraine to be simply using our own economic power to similarly bully the country.

But the conjunction with the debates on the Western Balkans exposes a different faultline.

Popular movements who euphorically celebrate their countries’ liberation quickly find themselves falling back to an earth where progress towards democratic transition is beset with difficulty.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, for which I’m the European Parliament rapporteur, started the past year seeing journalists and opposition MPs cleared from its parliamentary chamber at gunpoint. Only painstaking negotiations which the EU helped broker, ending an election boycott in response to the incident, put the country’s democratic process back on track.

Similar continuing mistrust between political and ethnic groups has already forced the European Union to remove financial assistance to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Early elections in Serbia could also undermine the equally fragile progress achieved in the country’s own painful relationship with Kosovo.

In our own politics, it is the left which is often said by our critics to be willing to join any demonstration, irrespective of the consequences – but in the politics of Europe, it is Conservatives who have succumbed to the temptations of acting simply as a party of protest.

They have to accept that celebrating the defeat of communism also means positively building its alternative.

As the protestors recognise most of all, when the placards and the barricades get put away, an interventionist Europe is needed, providing financial assistance, technical support and a detailed pathway to free markets.

Respect for fundamental rights and for the rule of law must remain – otherwise the democratic gains which are vital to stability, peace and prosperity on our borders can be lost as quickly as they came.

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