I was already planning to write something about the status and prospects of the European Union, but there’s a very interesting perspective on it provided by a BBC piece this morning looking at Ukraine.

The gist is that a centrepiece of the EU summit in Lithuania next month is expected to be the sealing of “a far-reaching association and free trade agreement” between the EU and Ukraine. This is a matter of concern for Russia, which sees Ukraine potentially moving further out of its orbit despite the election of the more pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, as president in 2010.

Russia would like Ukraine, together with other neighboring states such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, to keep its distance from the EU and join Russia’s own customs union instead. As the BBC puts it, “Moscow wants to create a Eurasian trading bloc that could eventually rival the EU, but without the commitment to democracy and openness demanded by Brussels.”

But for a country like Ukraine, choosing the EU over Russia is a no-brainer. The EU has so much more to offer: its population is more than three times that of Russia and its GDP about five times. Simple economic logic is bound to eventually trump political considerations.

For the EU, on the other hand, the political considerations can’t be ignored; Yanukovych has been roundly criticised over the last three years for creeping authoritarianism, notably around the 2011 conviction and imprisonment of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. It appears now that the Ukrainians are keen to make amends in order to close a deal, and the suggestion is that Tymoshenko will be allowed to travel to Germany for medical treatment (from where she may be unwilling to return).

The geopolitics of this, however, are not straightforward: although Yanukovych’s power base is the Russian-leaning east of Ukraine,  Tymoshenko has also cast herself as a friend of Russia, and she was convicted of abuse of power for signing a sweetheart gas deal with the Russians. It wasn’t just westerners who condemned her conviction – Vladimir Putin did the same.

The truth is that Ukrainian leaders of whatever political stripe have to balance their country’s interests with both east and west. Closer integration with the EU is a bipartisan aim, but both sides will try to do it without unduly antagonising Russia.

If the Ukraine deal comes through, it will set off a new round of the “broadening vs deepening” debate within and around the EU. Although actual EU membership would be some way off, this is clearly a big step towards it. And Ukraine is a big prize: if it joins the EU, it will become its fifth-largest member (by population) and the largest by area. The benefits for both sides could be huge.

But with economic gloom still pervasive on the continent, many might think that the EU had bigger things to worry about than going after new members.

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