In what will likely be a major blow to the Ukrainian government’s goal to integrate further with the West, Brussels announced on February 22 that the EU would immediately end its border checkpoint scheme with Kiev less than a year after the European Union granted visa-free access to Ukrainians with biometric passports.
Launched only months after Ukraine’s pro-democracy EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014, the border scheme got off the ground once Kiev’s new leadership looked to solidify its post-revolution Western orientation. It hoped by fully modernising a string of crumbling Soviet-era border crossings with EU-members Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania that trade and economic ties between Ukraine and the Member States would help boost Kiev’s profile in Europe and help solidify its position outside of Russia’s orbit.
The stated goal at the time of the project’s launch was to streamline customs checks for logistics companies, as well as importers and exporters – all of whom looked to benefit from the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that Ukraine and the EU put into force in January 2016.
The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement was the key issue that sparked Ukraine’s revolution four years ago and led to the eventual downfall of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych regime.
The original joint project called for the overhaul of six checkpoints on Ukraine’s western border. The new facilities were to be part of a flagship project that cut crossing times and improved customs procedures by bringing Ukraine’s notorious and endemically corrupt border guard service into line with EU standards.
But what was equally as important to Kiev and the EU was that the scheme was to serve as a powerful symbol of Ukraine’s new relationship with the West at a time when it continues to battle Russian and pro-Moscow forces in its eastern Donbass region.
Ukraine’s ongoing war with the Kremlin, the loss of territory in the country’s east and in Crimea, and the slow pace of fundamental reforms by the old guard who still make up the majority of the government has led many in the West to question whether Kiev is up to the task of transforming itself into a viable candidate for EU and NATO membership.
With the EU border project now officially scuttled, the overall belief that Brussels should make any further gestures towards Ukraine appears to be in doubt.
According to Reuters’ report, a series of unexplained delays, spiralling costs, and dealings with corrupt officials and their local contractors led the Europeans to conclude that it was time to immediately end the operation.
“Following our assessment we concluded that the projects could not be finalised in time. The six projects are now in the process of being closed, and the unspent money reimbursed,” an EU spokesperson told Reuters, who also noted that none of the checkpoint sites had been completed, despite €29.2 million having been spent by the EU for their construction.
Brussels became frustrated with the government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the lucrative construction projects were awarded local to companies with no experience in winning government construction tenders and Kiev’s insistence that it did not possess the funds to help co-finance the endeavour.
The Reuters report also noted that further questions also appear to have emerged after Ukraine’s State Fiscal Service (DFS), which was charged with overseeing the project, entered into a payment dispute with the largest contractor – ventilation installer Energomontazhventiliatsia – over its ability to complete the project.
Energomontazhventiliatsia filed and lost a lawsuit against the DFS for failing to provide information that it had completed the project.
Speculation remains, however, about the exact agreement that was in place between the DFS and Energomontazhventiliatsia as the head of Ukraine’s tax and customs authority, Roman Nasirov, was recently ousted under cloudy circumstances just over a year after he was arrested and forced to resign by Kiev’s NABU anti-corruption bureau for allegedly embezzling €61 million.
Before his most recent dismissal, the charges against Nasirov were dropped and he was reinstated in his original position by Poroshenko, a long-time ally and patron.
The feasibility of securing the EU’s border with Ukraine has been in question ever since Kiev began implementing Brussels’ requirements for visa-free travel to the Schengen Zone.
The issue came into focus in September 2017, when former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili forced his way across the Polish-Ukrainian frontier despite the presence of a large contingent of Ukrainian border guards. At the time of the incident, the stateless Saakashvili was not in possession of a legal travel document, having had both his Georgian and Ukrainian citizenships stripped for violating both countries’ nationality laws.