Should leftists campaign for Ukraine's accession to the EU?

With the granting of EU candidate status to Ukraine, leftists face the question of what position to take on EU accession. Sotsialnyi Rukh (Social Movement) is a left Ukrainian organisation that campaigns for labour rights, trade unions and the development of the democratic left in Ukraine. We are basically positive about Ukraine joining the EU. However, for us it is important that the process of European integration primarily benefits the workers and the Ukrainian population and not the oligarchs or other economic and political elites. We are aware that the EU is following a neoliberal course, which is difficult to change for a peripheral country like Ukraine. But we want to use the advantages that accession brings to fight against this neoliberalism

In doing so, we can learn from the experience of other Eastern and Southern European countries. Poland, Slovakia and other EU countries have experienced liberalisation in various areas, directly promoted or tolerated by the EU. In many Eastern European countries, the share of fixed-term contracts increased in the 2000s, while permanent contracts became rarer. At the same time, reforms were implemented that made it easier to dismiss workers, for example, with the argument that this would lead to the creation of new jobs. These developments have occurred, albeit unevenly, in all Eastern European countries and have been accelerated by crises such as the 2008 financial crisis, which led to a deepening of neoliberal policies in the EU and around the world.

It is also worth mentioning the role of the European Central Bank in promoting fiscal conservatism and its consequences for the well-being of the population, which we have seen in the example of Greece. We want the impact of such policies on Ukraine on its way to the EU to be minimal. The EU should admit Ukraine on terms that guarantee the possibility of social and equal reconstruction and not create obstacles for it.

Neoliberal policies even without the EU

European competition law and the radical restriction of protectionist policies create significant obstacles for a social and progressive reconstruction of Ukraine. Exceptions to these laws should therefore be made for Ukraine. This would not be the first case of its kind. Countries like Denmark even joined the Union with special conditions that created exceptions to other laws.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his party actively pushes neoliberal reforms, even though Ukraine is not (yet) a member of the EU. In other words, the EU is neoliberal, but the Ukrainian government is even more neoliberal. A good example of such policies are the three laws adopted in July 2022 that significantly restrict workers' rights.

  • Law number 7251, adopted on 1 July, allows employers to withhold wages from workers mobilised for military service and to dismiss them immediately if the employer's property is damaged by the war. This law effectively shifts the burden of war from employers to workers.
  • Law number 5161, adopted on 18 July, provides for the introduction of zero-hour contracts, which make it possible to avoid paying the minimum wage if the worker does not work.
  • Law number 5371 of 19 July provides for the abolition of labour protection standards for workers in small and medium enterprises, with the possibility of immediate dismissal. Such "freedom of contract" will encourage workers to give up their rights themselves, triggering a wave of social dumping.

Laws 5161 and 5371 also provide for the possibility of including additional grounds for dismissal in the employment contract. Such grounds include even the smallest deviations from company regulations or a vulnerable social situation (such as pregnancy or reaching a certain age). These laws violate Article 22 of the Constitution of Ukraine (when amending existing laws, the content and scope of existing rights and freedoms may not be restricted) and Article 291 of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU (facilitating the development of trade should lead to full employment and decent work for all).

“The EU is following a neoliberal course that is difficult for a peripheral country like Ukraine to change. But we want to use the advantages that accession brings to fight against this course.”

Sotsialnyi Rukh opposes these norms because such neoliberal concessions to employers worsen the standard of living and the already difficult labour market conditions, which has been exacerbated by the war. Such concessions increase pressure on workers. Moreover, they do not contribute to economic development. In the long run, such policies will make fair post-war reconstruction impossible. The principles of a just and social society must now be established and the role of the EU defined.

Despite the disastrous consequences, reactions to such reforms in Ukraine have been muted: The major trade unions have been very reluctant to speak out on these issues, while large sections of the population are trapped in the uncertainty of martial law and the ever-worsening labour market situation. Problems with the restriction of labour rights have sometimes provoked greater reactions from international trade union organisations and left forces than from those in Ukraine itself.

For example, international trade unions have written a letter opposing anti-labour laws and pointing to the possible role of the EU. They suggest, for example, that financial aid from the EU should be paid directly to Ukrainian trade unions, as they, like many NGOs, have been actively involved in humanitarian aid and support for workers since the beginning of the war. With the new laws, requests for assistance from workers will increase and the EU has the opportunity to address this directly through the trade unions.

In Ukraine, there was only a fleeting historical experience of radical social democracy during the period of the Ukrainian People's Republic (1917-1921). The narrative of this is now being actively altered by the neoliberals' politics of history in an attempt to minimise the role of social democracy in the history of independent Ukraine. There is no long-term experience of the emergence of a welfare state of the kind that existed in many Western European countries in the 20th century, at least in the sense of a compromise between capitalist economics and social regulation.

Instead, left-wing solutions, often involving a greater role for the state in the economy or high budgetary spending in the social sphere, are perceived as a negatively connoted revival of the legacy of the Soviet Union and as an additional burden coming from a corrupt state. This view remains anchored in Ukrainian discourse due to the widespread corruption at all levels of public life, the distrust of politicians, the dominance of neoliberal discourse and the lack of positive experiences with the welfare state.

Long-term left-wing relations

For the Ukrainian people, EU membership has great symbolic importance - it has been the country's main foreign policy goal since 2014. To oppose it would be very unpopular and would require clear equivalent alternatives that do not currently exist. That is, if integration into the EU clearly includes a commitment to guarantee social rights, the people of Ukraine will most likely be more interested and may even increase pressure on the authorities.

We have recently seen with the ratification of the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence. Ratification by the Ukrainian parliament was closely linked to the decision of the EU to grant Ukraine candidate country status. The public pressure for this has had an effect. There were backlashes from right-wing and conservative forces, but the ratification is definitely a positive development for the Ukrainian feminist movement, which has been fighting for it for years.

Similar developments are possible in other areas that are important to leftists. For example, the recent debt moratorium, which suspends interest and repayments on Ukraine's foreign debt until 2024, is also a success of the international campaign for cutting Ukraine’s debt. Many European and global actors have campaigned for this, together with Sotsialnyi Rukh and other forces. We would pursue similar strategies in the face of potential neoliberal attacks from the EU and other institutions.

EU integration and Ukraine's related commitments to European standards in the field of social and labour law could be a good basis for combating current policies, especially thanks to a clear legal framework and access to funding. In addition, integration can facilitate networking of local organisations like Sotsialnyi Rukh with other left actors and lead to the development of long-term relationships - this in turn can ensure that attention to problems in Ukraine does not remain tied to crisis events.

Without European integration, Ukraine's prospects remain unclear. Clearly, European integration should not be fetishised and seen as a panacea. What is certain, however, is that without a strong resistance, the current neoliberal political course cannot be broken. This requires, among other things, thoughtful integration into the EU.

Olena Slobodian is an activist of the Ukrainian left-wing organisation Sotsialnyi Rukh.

Translated from German by MJ