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Why Ukraine Protest Is a Test of Courage for Europe

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Mass demonstrations in freezing temperatures, a repressive police response - the scenes from the 'Maidan' in Ukraine leaves little doubt about where our sympathies should lie.

The fact that the protest is from those who want to leave the country's Soviet past far behind by locking it on a path towards European Union membership would seem to remove all doubt.

But in the week that the crisis is debated in the European Parliament alongside 'progress' reports on current EU candidate countries in the former Yugoslavia including my own, the situation is a more complicated one.

Nine years after Ukraine's own Orange Revolution promised more than it was able to deliver, the faltering progress of the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring and the violent crackdown on the Gezi protesters in Turkey, all underline the difficulties of popular movements being able to evolve in to democratic political forces.

And despite efforts of the Global Progressive Forum of which I've been part myself, social democrats who champion democracy and human rights are still trapped in our relations with previous unrepresentative opposition groups and have found it difficult to engage and genuinely assist such new democratic movements to grow.

Meanwhile Egypt as well as Ukraine are both examples of countries where popular support is not only on one side, but polarised between extremes, and requiring mediation as much as revolution.

And whether it's to Europe's East or to its South, in many cases the countries are subject to proxy conflicts, and Europe's geo-strategic relations are crucial to the solution.

As I'm saying in today's debate, there is a "Sochi window" which could allow us to make progress with the factions in Kiev, before the temporary inhibition on Putin to refrain from hostile interference is lost.

Never has the "Olympic Truce" movement had a more obvious exemplar.

The relative failure of last year's EU Eastern Partnership Summit which had sought to make diplomatic and trade deals with the range of post-Soviet countries, shows the difficulties for the European Union in extending its influence in a region where Russia is willing to use brutal trade sanctions to protect its influence and where it continues to exploit relative disunity amongst EU member states.

Despite the offer of assistance to Ukraine, it is also clear that Europe can never win a bidding war against Moscow.

As with Iran and Syria, in addition to our efforts on the ground, there is no alternative for Europe than also seeking to negotiate a common understanding with Russia, if any settlement is going to be durable.

Meanwhile the former Yugoslavia always had a different relationship with Moscow, but progress for the new countries forged from the wars of the 1990s is far from straight-forward.

It has become a sine qua non to refer to the transformational effect of EU enlargement, now reinforced by membership for Croatia as well as Slovenia.

But my own efforts to advance Macedonian claims are mired in complex inter-ethnic and political disputes within the country as well as trenchant obstacles put up from outside, which have left the country in limbo for five successive years.

The breakthrough between Serbia and Kosovo remains potentially a historic step forward for the region, but Europe must be left in no doubt that there is a real electoral battle amongst Serbians between looking towards Moscow or to Brussels.

And when David Cameron in December joined a cabal of other European leaders to qualify the decision to open talks with Serbia and to deny candidate status to Albania for the time being, it represented a very dangerous game for the EU enlargement process.

Britain has won important allies and helped to reshape the European Union by being a constant champion of enlargement. If divisions within his own party about past Eastern European accession cause Cameron to shift his position, it will be British as well as European interests that will suffer.

Resurgent anti-democratic forces to our East and a false choice between military or fundamentalist authoritarianism to our South, provide a bleak future for Europe.

If we want to prevent the civil wars, mass human rights violations and failed states of the future, and the consequences on our own streets of allowing trafficking, organised crime and even terrorism to flourish, we must retain our courage to pursue intelligent pro-enlargement and neighbourhood diplomacy by today's European Union.

And the deep freeze afflicting Independence Square and democratic progress for many of the countries on our borders, just like the snows on the ski slopes of Sochi, will begin to melt.

Richard Howitt MEP is Labour European Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Enlargement and European Parliament Rapporteur for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
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Around the Web

BBC News - Russia warns Ukraine opposition as protests continue

Stop the ultimatums, Russia tells Ukraine protesters - CNN.com

Euromaidan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Radicals a wild card in Ukraine's protests - Yahoo News

Ukraine's protests: Praying for peace | The Economist