The EU: A Behemoth With An Image Problem

Despite Ukraine’s decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, experts say the bloc remains attractive to European countries. But the union does need to work on a growing image problem.


“The EU did not have enough ambition to bond the young democracies of Eastern Europe to it after 1989,” wrote the French daily “Le Monde” after Ukraine decided this week that it would not sign an Association Agreement with the EU.

Brussels and Kyiv had been in negotiation for years and the document was nearly ready for leaders’ signatures at an EU Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius. Instead Ukraine decided to “press the pause button,” Ukrainian daily “Den” wrote before adding: “All sides bear responsibility: the government, the opposition and the European Union.”

The Ukrainian refusal to sign the deal reignited a debate over whether the European Union was still worth joining. “The EU is, of course, still extraordinarily attractive,” said Bonn-based political scientist Ludger Kühnhardt. In fact, the appeal of the 28-member bloc is exactly the reason why leaders in Russia – as well as some in Ukraine – wanted to scuttle the Association Agreement.

Ewald Böhlke, of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) said Ukraine’s decision was not a sign of a general rejection of the EU. “The attractiveness comes from the vision that the EU offers Ukraine – namely, ‘You have the opportunity, when you cooperate, to become successful as well.'” Böhlke added that he felt this was also the view of the majority of the Ukrainian population.

Declining Turkish support

Stars of the EU flag surrounding the red star and crescent of the Turkish flag.Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst dpa Pixel

Support for EU membership is falling in Turkey

Yet Ukraine is not the only country to recently give the cold shoulder to the European Union. Turkey has also slowed on its path of strengthening relations with the EU. After a break of several months, negotiations between Turkey and EU were restarted in November.

Albeit in small steps, the top levels of Turkish society are bringing the country closer to the EU. But popular support for full Turkish membership in the EU is falling in Turkey. Some 44 percent of Turks are in favor of joining the EU, a drop of 4 percent from the year before, according to the 2013 study “Transatlantic Trends” conducted by the German Marshall Fund. Some 34 percent of Turks said joining the EU would harm their country. Nearly 10 years ago just under two thirds of Turks were in favor of joining the EU, and just 9 percent were staunchly opposed.

Böhlke said the reason for the increase in euroskepticism lies in the drawn-out negotiation process.

“The talks with Turkey have been going on since 1963, you have to let that sink in,” he said.

For yet other countries, such as Iceland, the desire to join the EU was short lived. The government in Reykjavik put talks on ice in part because, unlike Ukraine or Turkey, it was less dependent on membership in the European club.

“The financial system and the political system have reconsolidated, ” Kühnhardt said, adding that the question of whether joining a union that required giving up some sovereignty made sense for Icelanders had once again been raised.

A bureaucratic behemoth

The reasons behind the apparently growing negative view of the EU are multifaceted. European observers have also said it is a question of how much excitement the union creates among potential members.

“We have an image problem,” Böhlke said. “The EU appears as a bureaucratic behemoth and not as a lively society. That’s become a major problem for the EU.”

The EU’s democratic system needs to be made more clear, he said. “The EU finally has to start doing some marketing for Europe.”

 – DW