Luc Jacobs: “I don’t see any rea­son for feel­ing shame over what the EU achieved so far”

“I don’t see any rea­son for feel­ing shame over what the EU achieved so far”

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - In­ter­viewed by Anna Kor­but

Am­bas­sador of Bel­gium to Ukraine on the essence of the EU, the vi­sion of Europe and Ukraine’s place in it

The of­fice of the Am­bas­sador of Bel­gium to Ukraine fea­tures old pho­to­graphs of the work­ers and en­gi­neers at Bel­gian plants built in the Don­bas in the early 20th cen­tury. Next to them are weath­ered copies of bonds and shares that served as a chan­nel for Euro­pean in­vest­ment to the in­dus­try. These im­ages have two things in com­mon: first, they were about busi­ness co­op­er­a­tion; sec­ond, none fea­tured the ti­tle “Ukraine”. Over a cen­tury since then, the themes of busi­ness co­op­er­a­tion and in­vest­ment flow be­tween Ukraine and Bel­gium re­main sim­i­larly im­por­tant. Mean­while, Ukrainian politi­cians reg­u­larly travel to Brus­sels to meet with their Euro­pean coun­ter­parts. De­cem­ber 2016 marked the 25th an­niver­sary of diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween the in­de­pen­dent Ukraine and Bel­gium. The Ukrainian Week spoke to Am­bas­sador Luc Jacobs about what hap­pened over the pe­riod be­tween the early 20th cen­tury and to­day: the foun­da­tions and phi­los­o­phy of the Euro­pean Union, the way it is per­ceived in Bel­gium, the con­cept of Euro­pean sol­i­dar­ity, and the place of Ukraine in Europe.

Amidst the chal­lenges faced by the EU, how does Bel­gium feel about it? Is it op­ti­mistic or pes­simistic?

Bel­gium was among the founders of what be­gan as the Euro­pean Coal and Steel Com­mu­nity (ECSC) and even­tu­ally be­came the Euro­pean Union (EU). So, we stood at the cra­dle of the Euro­pean pro­ject. The EU is in­deed more than a static or­ga­ni­za­tion: it is a po­lit­i­cal pro­ject that is about peace and pros­per­ity. Since pros­per­ity is im­pos­si­ble with­out peace, the lat­ter is the un­der­ly­ing fac­tor of the EU. That was the ba­sis of the Schu­man Dec­la­ra­tion: "World peace can­not be safeguarded with­out the mak­ing of cre­ative ef­forts pro­por­tion­ate to the dan­gers which threaten it." When these words were spo­ken, we were five years af­ter the end of WWII. Its tragic legacy was still very much present in po­lit­i­cal minds – es­pe­cially in France and Ger­many, the two coun­tries that had been en­tan­gled in three ma­jor wars since 1870.

Even­tu­ally, the EU and the Euro­pean pro­ject was able to achieve just that, dur­ing more than 70 years al­ready: peace. That is a feat that should make us op­ti­mistic about the vi­sion­ary choices that were made at that time.

An­other as­pect is how the EU – as we know it now – has been grow­ing or­gan­i­cally from its ini­tial ver­sion, the ECSC. Ev­ery new de­vel­op­ment and achieve­ment in the Euro­pean con­struc­tion has trig­gered new steps. Here is an ex­am­ple: you have a Cus­toms Union. But what is its full ben­e­fit to the econ­omy when you do not cre­ate a sin­gle mar­ket which al­lows goods, ser­vices, peo­ple and cap­i­tal to cir­cu­late freely across in­ter­nal bor­ders? Thus, ev­ery new step cre­ated new chal­lenges, then new so­lu­tions were found, and fur­ther steps for­ward were made. This log­i­cal deep­en­ing of the EU can also be con­sid­ered a suc­cess.

Or, take the Eu­ro­zone. It is of­ten said that, given its short­com­ings (ac­cen­tu­ated by the Greek fi­nan­cial cri­sis), the Eu­ro­zone is on the brink of col­lapse. Ev­ery new eco­nomic or fi­nan­cial hic­cup in a Eu­ro­zone coun­try im­me­di­ately in­cites a choir of voices say­ing that the euro isn't work­ing. But we are still there. By now, 19 coun­tries, some very re­cently, have made the bold po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion to share a sin­gle cur­rency. We've been able to put in place an ar­chi­tec­ture that makes the eco­nomic and mon­e­tary union much more re­silient to var­i­ous chal­lenges, and this in a record time, con­sid­er­ing that we have to agree steps be­tween 19, or, in some cases, 28 mem­ber–states). The pro­ject is not fin­ished yet, nor is it per­fect. But this is not a rea­son to say that it doesn’t work, nor that the po­lit­i­cal re­sponse to the chal­lenges was com­pletely in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

The same thing is with the mi­gra­tion cri­sis. We've seen a con­stant flow of mi­gra­tion through the Mediter­ranean for many years. This move­ment has swelled to a much big­ger scale and has be­come harder to man­age. But does it mean that we com­pletely fail in cop­ing with the phe­nom­e­non? At the Euro­pean level, we are de­vis­ing so­lu­tions. There can't be a magic one; it takes time. Yet, de­ci­sions are be­ing made in or­der to tackle this chal­lenge.

Mean­while, when­ever EU cit­i­zens are asked about what the EU re­ally means to them, they say "no bor­der queues". Think of your own as­pi­ra­tion for a visa–free regime. And, wher­ever we go, we can spend the same

cur­rency. Those are very tan­gi­ble achieve­ments of the Euro­pean pro­ject in daily life.

The rea­son I give these ex­am­ples is be­cause one could ask: do Euro­pean lead­ers make wrong de­ci­sions? Do they de­vise and launch wrong projects, the con­se­quences of which they can't imag­ine, let alone con­trol? I’ve been re­flect­ing on this, and here is my con­clu­sion. While it is of­ten said that the EU is a 'bas­tion of bu­reau­cracy', I would ar­gue in­stead that the EU does not thrive on bu­reau­cracy, but on a po­lit­i­cal vi­sion. Again, it was ab­so­lutely vi­sion­ary to take the bold de­ci­sion, un­der­pinned by cer­tain eco­nomic fun­da­men­tals, to adopt a sin­gle cur­rency. Could the po­lit­i­cal lead­ers fore­see all the con­se­quences? No. But the po­lit­i­cal drive was such that this pro­ject could come about. This is suc­cess. Of course, there are prob­lems now. But our ac­tions within the EU should stay in line with the po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions that we have set our­selves. This is a ques­tion of con­sis­tent po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship in Europe.

Look at the bor­der­less Europe. It started with a hand­ful of coun­tries. Then, the for­mula be­came so at­trac­tive to oth­ers that they’ve joined grad­u­ally. Now the Schen­gen area is nearly iden­ti­cal to the EU and even reaches be­yond. Why did na­tional lead­ers, demo­crat­i­cally elected and con­trolled by Par­lia­ments, take such bold steps if they didn’t see the ben­e­fit for their coun­tries and cit­i­zens? And it is an­other man­i­fes­ta­tion of how the EU de­vel­ops or­gan­i­cally, step by step, of­ten lead by a van­guard of am­bi­tious mem­bers.

I still be­lieve that these de­ci­sions are be­ing made con­sciously and be­cause of a vi­sion, the am­bi­tion to make economies and so­ci­eties progress. I don’t see any rea­son for feel­ing shame over what the EU achieved so far. And we can be op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of the EU be­cause we know: when chal­lenges present them­selves, so­lu­tions are found. Maybe, not im­me­di­ately. They may be un­pop­u­lar and con­tested, but they are grad­u­ally de­vised and im­ple­mented. I’m not alone in this. This is a feel­ing of op­ti­mism, of Euro­pean vol­un­tarism that is still very present in Bel­gium – among the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, and among the pop­u­la­tion.

And yet, forces are ris­ing to con­test that vi­sion; their in­flu­ence on de­ci­sion–mak­ing is grow­ing so far. Will the vi­sion sur­vive this surge?

We may have reached a cer­tain point where the his­toric re­al­ity that lay at the ba­sis of this po­lit­i­cal pro­ject is some­how for­got­ten. I be­long to a gen­er­a­tion that has had the lux­ury not to know any armed con­flict or war in their coun­tries. Our parents spoke about the war, so we could have some idea of their ex­pe­ri­ence. But not the gen­er­a­tion of our chil­dren. They feel some­what too com­fort­able, too de­tached from that re­al­ity. We may be los­ing touch with the his­toric premises of the Euro­pean pro­ject.

When it comes to mi­gra­tion and asy­lum, we may have for­got­ten that our great–grand­par­ents, too, mi­grated to Canada, the US... that our grand­par­ents fled to Bri­tain and France in WWI and WWII. We re­ceived mi­grants from Cen­tral and East­ern Europe in the 1920s and in 1945, then from Hun­gary in 1956. We should not for­get this.

It would be il­lu­sory to think that we can de­vise some magic im­me­di­ate so­lu­tions to the cur­rent chal­lenges. Nor can a sin­gle state an­swer them. I should re­mind an­other key­word in the Schu­man Dec­la­ra­tion that is a cor­ner­stone of the Euro­pean con­struc­tion: sol­i­dar­ity. This prin­ci­ple is ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial for the EU to func­tion and suc­ceed, to im­ple­ment the vi­sion that it has pro­jected for it­self.

Take the Greek case: with all the crit­i­cism of the flaws in the pol­icy de­vel­oped to­wards the coun­try, Greece has been the ben­e­fi­ciary of a very sub­stan­tial amount of Euro­pean and in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to help it meet its ba­sic obli­ga­tions – not only to­wards its in­ter­na­tional cred­i­tors, but also to­wards its own cit­i­zens. The new fi­nan­cial ar­chi­tec­ture put in place in the EMU is about more re­spon­si­ble eco­nomic gover­nance, but also about more sol­i­dar­ity in shar­ing risks and tack­ling crises.

Like­wise, we can’t ex­pect Greece, Italy or Malta to be solely re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing the in­flux of refugees. Sol­i­dar­ity means, among other things, that when coun­tries get into a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion for rea­sons that don't nec­es­sar­ily de­pend on them, there is a fair bur­den shar­ing. That’s the an­swer we have to give – more co­or­di­nated pol­icy and sol­i­dar­ity among mem­ber–states. In the longer run, clos­ing bor­ders and build­ing safe nests just for our­selves is not work­able.

When talk­ing about a strong Europe – where is its strength? What does a “strong Europe” mean?

Speak­ing with one voice. And re­al­iz­ing that you can’t in­flu­ence the world around you on your own. In terms of the global pop­u­la­tion, the Euro­pean com­po­nent is be­com­ing smaller and less in­flu­en­tial, pro­por­tion­ately. We have to be con­scious of this and de­cide how best in our ca­pa­bil­ity we can in­flu­ence to­day's global de­vel­op­ments. It is im­por­tant that the EU speaks with one voice in in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions: the UN, OSCE, WTO, G7. And it should be where it mat­ters glob­ally. Be­cause a coun­try the size of an av­er­age, or even a large Euro­pean state, can hardly ne­go­ti­ate trade agree­ments with China or the US, do any­thing about cli­mate change or al­le­vi­ate world poverty alone.

Bel­gium has con­sis­tently ad­vo­cated the de­vel­op­ment of a strong ex­ter­nal di­men­sion of the EU. Be­cause we see the logic and ne­ces­sity of it. In or­der to weigh on de­ci­sion–mak­ing and have a grip on what’s hap­pen­ing glob­ally, we need a more united, not a frag­mented EU.

It can be as­sumed that one of the ul­ti­mate goals of the Euro­pean pro­ject was to ar­rive at some sort of a Euro­pean iden­tity, a Euro­pean cit­i­zen. While many young peo­ple in the EU do feel that way, the over­all dy­nam­ics on na­tional lev­els in many coun­tries seem to move back in­ward. Is it pos­si­ble to ac­com­plish this unity and sol­i­dar­ity with the di­ver­sity be­tween var­i­ous EU mem­ber–states?

I’m sure it is pos­si­ble. The way we’ve seen the EU in­te­grate proves it. The motto of the EU is be­ing "united

in di­ver­sity". It’s also a motto for the mul­ti­cul­tural and mul­ti­lin­gual coun­try that is Bel­gium. In my view, there is no con­tra­dic­tion be­tween this unity and one's sense of be­long­ing to a par­tic­u­lar coun­try, na­tion or re­gion. Within Europe, we re­spect the fact that there can be na­tional and even re­gional iden­ti­ties. This is very im­por­tant for Bel­gium as well: we are a fed­eral state with re­gions and com­mu­ni­ties that have vast au­ton­omy.

The Euro­pean Com­mit­tee of the Re­gions' mis­sion is to in­volve re­gional and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in the Euro­pean de­ci­sion–mak­ing process. The Euro­pean co­he­sion pol­icy, one of the old­est pol­icy ar­eas of the EU, is pro­mot­ing more co­he­sion and sol­i­dar­ity be­tween the var­i­ous re­gions, re­duc­ing eco­nomic dis­par­i­ties.

This iden­tity di­men­sion within the EU is not based on some kind of a gen­tle­men's agree­ment among the lead­ers, but based on the EU treaties. The con­cept is called sub­sidiar­ity. It means that the EU should not take any ac­tion if lo­cal, re­gional or na­tional au­thor­i­ties can take a more ef­fec­tive ac­tion. This prin­ci­ple al­ways played an im­por­tant role in the de­vel­op­ment of the EU. It is also not a static one, but evolves along new re­al­i­ties and needs.

One big and tan­gi­ble achieve­ment I see in pro­mot­ing a Euro­pean iden­tity is the Eras­mus pro­gramme, the mech­a­nism that gives vast ac­cess to stu­dents and al­lows for their mo­bil­ity. Its role in ex­change and in­ter­change of knowl­edge, re­spect about each oth­ers' cul­tures can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated.

There is no de­lib­er­ate at­tempt from so called "face­less Euro­pean bu­reau­crats" to kill di­ver­sity. Di­ver­sity is part and par­cel of the Euro­pean pro­ject.

How do you see the role of Ger­many in the EU as its most pow­er­ful eco­nomic clout?

This ques­tion would also in­clude France in a way, as French–Ger­man co­op­er­a­tion tra­di­tion­ally con­sti­tutes the twin–en­gine of Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion. Bel­gium has al­ways kept very close re­la­tions with Ger­many in the Euro­pean con­text – as a cru­cial en­gine for the econ­omy and pol­icy mak­ing. This is not out of fear for its in­flu­ence or be­cause of the un­healthy think­ing that fol­low­ing the big ones will keep us safe, but out of the ex­pe­ri­ence of Ger­many’s staunch and solid com­mit­ment to Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion.

Thanks to its sheer size and eco­nomic clout, Ger­many is a big and de­ci­sive fac­tor within the Euro­pean re­al­ity. But the in­ter­est­ing thing about the Euro­pean con­struc­tion is that ev­ery mem­ber–state, how­ever small, has a say. Luck­ily enough, this does not mean that ev­ery­thing has to be de­cided by con­sen­sus and would thus de­pend the mem­ber state not us­ing a de facto veto. But the in­sti­tu­tional model that has been shaped by the EU al­lows for this unique type of in­ter­ac­tion be­tween states, based on mu­tual re­spect and di­a­logue. There can be very heated de­bates, but the com­mon sense of be­long­ing to the same pro­ject is the over­rid­ing one. It is not that smaller mem­ber–states can be si­lenced be­cause of power pol­i­tics. The Euro­pean pro­ject is not about power pol­i­tics.

Apart from the Euro­pean pro­ject, Bel­gium was a co– founder in NATO as well. How do you see the present and the fu­ture of the Al­liance to­day?

For us, NATO is ab­so­lutely cru­cial in terms of its role in pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity and col­lec­tive de­fense. In a less pre­dictable se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment, chal­lenges are chang­ing and NATO is adapting ac­cord­ingly. The NATO Sum­mit in War­saw last year set im­por­tant new goals by iden­ti­fy­ing new chal­lenges: ter­ror­ist at­tacks, Rus­sia’s ag­gres­sion and de­lib­er­ate desta­bi­liza­tion of Ukraine, hy­brid threats, cy­ber at­tacks, just to name those. The War­saw Sum­mit is an im­por­tant mile­stone in shap­ing NATO's re­sponse to these and other new chal­lenges. The next ren­dezvous will be in NATO's new HQ in Brus­sels in March. Bel­gium ac­tively par­tic­i­pates both in the pol­icy–mak­ing, and in the prac­ti­cal im­ple­men­ta­tion. For in­stance Bel­gian F–16 fighter planes take part in NATO's Baltic Air Polic­ing mis­sion and a con­tin­gent of the Bel­gian Armed Forces has re­cently ar­rived in Lithua­nia as part of NATO's En­hanced For­ward Pres­ence in the Baltic re­gion.

An­other im­por­tant thing is that Euro­pean de­fense and NATO are not re­garded in terms of com­pe­ti­tion, but in terms of syn­ergy; that the EU can de­velop a strong Euro­pean pil­lar within NATO. The EU–NATO co­op­er­a­tion is a fun­da­men­tal as­pect of the EU's Com­mon Se­cu­rity and De­fense Pol­icy.

Also in this area we see how EU poli­cies de­velop or­gan­i­cally: some mem­ber–states start to work to­gether and de­velop best prac­tices, those be­come at­trac­tive to oth­ers and they want to join. For in­stance, Bel­gium and the Nether­lands de­velop a unique co­op­er­a­tion in the sphere of naval de­fense by pool­ing train­ing, main­te­nance and mil­i­tary pro­cure­ment. That's how com­ple­men­tar­i­ties form be­tween the armed forces of mem­ber states that can set ex­am­ples for oth­ers to join.

BEL­GIUM HAS CON­SIS­TENTLY AD­VO­CATED THE DE­VEL­OP­MENT OF A STRONG EX­TER­NAL DI­MEN­SION OF THE EU. IN OR­DER TO WEIGH ON DE­CI­SION-MAK­ING AND HAVE A GRIP ON WHAT'S HAP­PEN­ING GLOB­ALLY, WE NEED A MORE UNITED, NOT A FRAG­MENTED EU

His­tor­i­cally, Ukraine and Bel­gium had links through cap­i­tal and mi­gra­tion flows. There were sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of Ukrainian di­as­pora in Bel­gium through­out the past cen­tury. How have these links af­fected the re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries – in the past and present?

His­tory helps to put into con­text what I see hap­pen­ing around me as far as Ukraine is con­cerned, as well as the re­la­tions be­tween Ukraine and Bel­gium, Ukraine and the EU. His­tory helps un­der­stand, com­pare and draw lessons.

I have the in­tu­itive feel­ing that a lot of the com­mon his­tory be­tween what is now Ukraine and what is now Bel­gium is un­der–re­searched. Or if it is, the re­sults are not known enough. Both me, and the em­bassy team are fas­ci­nated by this shared his­tory and we see the po­ten­tial of it for our pub­lic and cul­tural diplo­macy. In 2016, we worked on two such projects. Both lead us back to the turn of the 19th and 20th cen­turies.

One theme fo­cuses on mas­sive cap­i­tal in­vest­ment in Ukraine at that time. It was trig­gered by the fol­low­ing fac­tors: Bel­gium was the first in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tion on the Euro­pean con­ti­nent. In­dus­tri­al­iza­tion started in Great–Bri­tain but was then ex­ported to Bel­gium as we had coal, iron ore and other re­sources, as well as wa­ter– and rail­ways. The other fac­tor was that we had fa­vor­able

fi­nan­cial en­vi­ron­ment, reg­u­la­tions and thus a thriv­ing stock ex­change. Al­ready then Brus­sels was an im­por­tant fi­nan­cial cen­ter of Europe. As in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion kicked off in tsarist Rus­sia, we had the tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance over other Euro­pean coun­tries and the fi­nan­cial sub­stra­tum to ex­port it. So a lot of cap­i­tal that was traded on the Brus­sels Stock Ex­change found its way to the east and south of Ukraine. In ad­di­tion to the cap­i­tal in­vested, tech­nolo­gies were trans­ferred, fac­to­ries built, and en­gi­neers, work­ers and their fam­i­lies were mov­ing with them. At the height of the pe­riod, around 1900, about 20,000 Bel­gians lived in tsarist Rus­sia, most of them in the Don­bas area. That’s part of the shared his­tory that we put in the lime­light last year to­gether with the Ukraine Cri­sis Me­dia Cen­ter. They took up this theme and con­structed a trav­el­ing ex­hi­bi­tion based on re­search by the Dnipro Na­tional His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum. We sup­ported this ex­hi­bi­tion.

My­self or my Deputy trav­eled most of the Don­bas ci­ties ac­ces­si­ble to us but as close to the con­tact line as pos­si­ble. The Bel­gian in­dus­trial her­itage from that time is of­ten still there. In Lysy­chansk, for in­stance, a chem­i­cal fac­tory was founded by the multi­na­tional com­pany Solvay. While it has gone bank­rupt only re­cently and was dis­man­tled for scrap, the main hos­pi­tal and chil­dren's hos­pi­tal, the church, the di­rec­tor's house, the ac­com­mo­da­tion for the work­ers and en­gi­neers are all still there. Im­por­tantly, this ex­hi­bi­tion en­cour­ages the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, au­thor­i­ties and re­searchers to dig in the lo­cal ar­chives and fam­ily mem­o­ries and re­vive their past that had been hid­den from them for far too long.

Since 2014, we com­mem­o­rate the 100th an­niver­sary of WWI which had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on Bel­gium. It was the time of big pow­ers and colonies, so the op­pos­ing armies also en­listed sol­diers from their pos­ses­sions in Africa and Asia, from New Zealand, Aus­tralia ...– they all fought in Flan­ders Fields. And we found an in­ter­est­ing page of shared his­tory re­lated to Ukraine: the fact that the Bel­gian Ex­pe­di­tionary Corps of Ar­moured Cars, an ad­vanced di­vi­sion for its time, fought at the Gali­cian front in two big of­fen­sives in 1916 and 1917. Later, af­ter the Bol­she­viks took power, this group of 400 sol­diers was with­drawn to Kyiv for a short while and found refuge in the Saint–Michael's Monastery. One of them, the poet Mar­cel Thiry, wrote a novel ti­tled Pas­sage à Kiew based on that ex­pe­ri­ence. It was trans­lated in Ukrainian in the au­tumn of 2015.

An­other fact: Bel­gian Redemp­torists played a cru­cial role in the sur­vival and con­ti­nu­ity of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church dur­ing the In­ter­bel­lum and un­der Soviet rule.

The Via Re­gia is also an in­ter­est­ing con­cept that I would like to de­velop fur­ther. Since more than 2000 years it was the kings’ route that linked Kyiv to Bel­gium and France, down to Spain. It was used by po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship of that time. This shows how much his­tory we have in com­mon that needs to be ex­plored. Im­por­tantly, it needs to be matched with ways in which Ukraini­ans are now writ­ing their his­tory. Too of­ten, your his­tory has been writ­ten by oth­ers, not by your­selves and not as seen from your view­point. I’m not say­ing that we should all start to re­write our his­tory or ar­ti­fi­cially con­struct new nar­ra­tives or myths. But it is ob­vi­ous that you can shed your light on the facts as we have never read them be­fore. And it is as im­por­tant to com­pare and dis­cuss these new in­sights with re­searchers else­where in Europe. We see a lot of sin­cere in­ter­est from the Ukrainian pub­lic in these pages of shared his­tory and feel en­cour­aged to go fur­ther in this area.

The in­ter­est of Ukraini­ans in their shared his­tory with other Euro­pean coun­tries is easy to un­der­stand: it is largely driven by the search of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and recog­ni­tion. How is Ukraine's place seen in Europe, or Bel­gium in this case?

Ukraine is not known enough as a coun­try in Bel­gium. We have been sep­a­rated ar­ti­fi­cially for too long, and brought up in that nar­ra­tive which we haven't been able to con­trol, nor chal­lenge. This went un­no­ticed be­cause you were part of the Soviet Union. Not much nat­u­ral, spon­ta­neous and un­bi­ased ex­change hap­pened then. As a re­sult, there is not much knowl­edge of what an in­de­pen­dent Ukraine is about now, nor of its past. In­stead, it all boils down to stereo­types like 'Ch­er­nobyl'. Also, you came into the news with vi­o­lent clashes on the Maidan, the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea by these “lit­tle green men” – it was all over the me­dia. Your im­age has been formed amidst the armed con­flict in the East, the down­ing of MH17. But that is a very in­com­plete im­age. It's an enor­mous chal­lenge for Ukraine to fill this gap in our knowl­edge. But ef­forts are done in that re­gard. There is a small but ac­tive Ukrainian di­as­pora in Bel­gium: mem­bers of this com­mu­nity have launched the Pro­mote Ukraine cam­paign to help put Ukraine in a pos­i­tive light. An in­ter­est­ing ini­tia­tive also is the sec­ond edi­tion of "Ukraine on Film" in BOZAR, one of the pres­ti­gious cul­tural venues in Brus­sels. These ini­tia­tives show Ukraine in a mod­ern light. Plus, it should not be for­got­ten that Brus­sels hosts the big­gest diplo­matic and me­dia com­mu­nity in the world. I think that Ukraine would make an ex­cel­lent coun­try as fo­cus coun­try of a next edi­tion of Europalia, a multi–dis­ci­plinary bi­en­nial cul­tural fes­ti­val in the heart of Europe.

But when you ask me now about how I see Ukraine and its as­pi­ra­tions to be seen as a Euro­pean coun­try, I say: Ukraine should not be overly fix­ated on just this ques­tion. There is no doubt that you are Euro­pean. When we think about the re­cent past, Ukraine’s in­de­pen­dence, it is of­ten for­got­ten that you have been a full mem­ber of the Coun­cil of Europe for 20 years al­ready. One may say that the CoE is a tooth­less or­ga­ni­za­tion. But I do not agree, the CoE wields a lot of smart power and is about the essence of what Europe stands for in terms of shared demo­cratic val­ues, hu­man rights and the rule of law. Ukraine works in­tensely with the CoE, and vice versa. So you are a com­mit­ted mem­ber of this Euro­pean fam­ily.

I know that your even­tual as­pi­ra­tion is the EU. But you should not feel as in­com­plete Euro­peans at this stage. You should not doubt about your Euro­pean destiny. It is firmly rooted in the past. His­tory is so eas­ily for­got­ten. Yet, when­ever you would fear that you drag this im­age with you of a "de­pen­dent state" of Rus­sia, re­mind us of how mas­sively Ukraini­ans voted for in­de­pen­dence in 1991, to re–regis­ter them­selves into the fam­ily where they be­longed, dis­tanc­ing them­selves from the legacy of 70 years of Soviet rule. It was a ma­jor feat of Ukrainian na­tion­hood. And it was part of a process to as­sert in­de­pen­dence that had been brew­ing long be­fore.

You have a lot for us to dis­cover. That mer­its en­cour­age­ment. And you have a story of your own – an ap­peal­ing story. But you have to pre­pare the minds for that.

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