After the Brexit referendum, US elections and Dutch general election, I analysed what the outcome of each vote meant for Ukraine. Last year, hoping for the best but expecting the worse ended with us getting the latter. This time, the result of the May 7 French presidential elections (like the recent Dutch election) left the European Union on the winning side.
The French elections were especially important for Ukraine, since France is a member of the Normandy format established to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and Front Nationale leader Marine Le Pen’s victory would have meant an irremediable turn for the Donbas peace talks.
As in most European capitals, Le Pen’s defeat seen as a victory for Kyiv. However, the victory of centrist Emmanuel Macron leaves Ukrainians with only a cautious optimism, mostly because of his largely unknown stance on Ukraine.
Throughout the entire campaign, Macron scarcely commented on Ukraine and the way he sees relations with this huge eastern neighbour of the EU. Nevertheless, Macron briefly touched upon the conflict in eastern Ukraine and made it perfectly clear that de-escalation is a must. Also, earlier in his campaign he mentioned that fulfilment of the provisions of the Minsk agreement, signed to end the war in the Donbas region, is the only way for Russia to get rid of the economic sanctions imposed by the EU. His words didn’t sound new as they repeated the position of other members of the Normandy peace talks.
In this case, no news is good news since Macron’s victory means the continuation of France’s previous stance in talks, while Le Pen would have meant a turn towards Russia. The Normandy talks may not have resulted in any breakthrough so far, but it is very important for Ukraine that this diplomatic platform isn’t turned into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s puppet theatre.
Apart from Donbas, we don’t know much what the future of Ukrainian-French relations will be. All the signs show Ukraine will maintain decent working relations with France with good chances to evolve. However, France’s position towards Eastern Europe will be largely determined by the temperature of relations between the Elysee Palace and the Kremlin.
In recent weeks Russia has done much to lower this temperature. The first big blow started with state-sponsored RT and Sputnik spreading fake news about Macron’s alleged homosexuality. In reaction to that, the chief of Macron’s electoral campaign revealed hundreds of hacker attacks and a tsunami of fake news that were spreading from Russia. It is also very probable that Russia continued its trend of election interference in France; the day before the final round of elections nine gigabytes of data from the Macron campaign were leaked and put online. The event still has to be investigated, but already some tracks leading to the APT28 group of hackers tied to the Russian military intelligence directorate indicate it was behind the attacks. If this proves to be true, Macron, who cautiously criticised Putin during the campaign, could now be even more outspoken to prove he won’t be dictated to by Putin.
Just as much as Macron’s vision of relations with Russia, his position towards the EU is of great importance for Ukraine. France is a core of the EU and a country that is vital for its existence. Macron was the strongest supporter of the EU among all the French presidential candidates, even though his tone became more critical closer to the end of the race. Praising the European idea and values on which the EU was built, he nevertheless outlined a great need for serious and far-stretching reforms, first of all in the eurozone. The EU should prevail in terms of ideas, but their execution should change to make it worth remaining a member state, he argued.
Obviously, Macron’s victory over Le Pen is good news for Brussels, yet it doesn’t mean it is a reason to relax. He threatened Frexit if nothing changes and even though France leaving the EU under Macron is very unlikely, he is now in a good bargaining position to persuade Brussels to listen to him.
A reformed and stronger EU sounds good to Ukrainian ears. But achieving this most probably means the European Union would have to focus on its domestic situation as it reassesses the current state of the union, ruling out enlargement talks for a while. This isn’t tragic news for Ukraine, but it is definitely not encouraging, given that Kyiv has never had a clear answer regarding its accession plans. Brussels is playing deaf to Ukraine’s appeals for membership, and with the French president elect confident that Europe’s borders should be fixed, this is not likely to change in the near-term. Aside from the membership issue, another thing that is very clear is that Ukraine has to show real progress in reforms. There are no reasons to expect the new president of France will support Ukraine without clear signs of change.
All in all, Le Pen’s defeat is a victory for the EU and for Ukraine. Even though Ukraine still has to discover how Macron will shape relations with Kyiv, it is already a good sign that no major changes regarding the settlement of Donbas conflict or sanctions policy towards Russia are to be expected. But while most of Europe slept more comfortably the night after the election, waking up the morning after there are definitely things to think about: nationalists who can get to the second round of presidential elections in the heart of the EU, and Russia interfering into the domestic affairs of European countries in a more and more aggressive way. Those are things European leaders can’t ignore.
Activist, journalist and co-founder of Global Ukrainians, an international network of Ukrainians worldwide, Kateryna Kruk was awarded the Atlantic Council Freedom Award for her work communicating the Euromaidan revolution to the world. She predicted a frozen conflict in July 2014, which has largely come to pass, and now comments on the progress of crucial reforms in Ukraine.