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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine Has to Be Realistic

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Just two years ago, following my inauguration as president of Ukraine, the upheavals and uncertainties that accompanied the Orange Revolution seemed behind us. Ukraine's path to a more prosperous and secure future lay ahead, guided by our desire to establish a modern, European democracy. The Orange Revolution was primarily a choice for democracy and freedom. Just as importantly, it was also a choice to return Ukraine to Europe.

As president, like all Ukrainians, I have never doubted that we are a European nation. Whether Ukraine is a candidate for membership of the European Union or not, our Europeanness is a fact of geography and history. We were born Europeans and our life is guided by European values. Our first constitution, bestowed upon the nation by Pylyp Orlyk in 1710, proclaimed both the right to vote and the rule of law -- values that have guided Ukrainian society for the ensuing 300 years. These very same values brought people to the streets in November 2004 to re-establish democracy in our country. Those days embody our European spirit.

It is time for a new realism in Ukraine's relations with the EU -- a realism that keeps the question of membership in perspective. Firstly, membership in the EU remains our ultimate goal, but it is not an end in itself. Ukraine's desire to meet the Union's Copenhagen criteria for membership is driven primarily by an internal desire to create a stable, prosperous and democratic society. We therefore need to focus on the substance of reforms and integration and not become preoccupied with the endpoint. If we get the substance right, the rest will take care of itself. This should be the basis of a breakthrough in the EU-Ukraine agenda.

Secondly, we need to be more understanding of pressures facing the EU. Over the last 20 years, the Union has enlarged from 10 member states in 1985 to 27 today, taking its population from 312 million to 494 million in the process. The absorption of 10 countries from the former Communist bloc has been a huge challenge for new and existing member states alike. Yet the benefits are already starting to be felt, and sooner or later short-term anxieties about job relocations and rising migration will give way to a proper appreciation of the ways in which Europe as a whole has been strengthened by enlargement. When it does, I have every confidence that the appetite to complete Europe's unification will return stronger than ever and Ukraine will be offered the perspective of membership.

The Union's greatest single achievement over time has been the transformative effect it has had on the lives of those it has embraced. This is something that is often underappreciated in the more established member states where liberal democracy and high living standards have become entrenched across the generations. This is a prize for which aspirant countries are willing to make tremendous sacrifices by undertaking, over a period of many years, painful reforms of the kind that are too easily put off when the benefits are less clearly defined. The external supervision provided by the accession process establishes the benchmarks and timetables needed to ensure that essential economic and political reforms are completed.

As president, I am realistic about what is possible without betraying the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to join a Europe of which they are naturally a part. Sustaining the faith and patience needed to overcome the obstacles in front of us is one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation. Uniquely, it is one we will have to meet largely from our own efforts. Whereas the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe embarked on the process of economic and political reform with the promise of EU membership to guide them, we will have to make do with only the hope that our efforts will be rewarded at some point in the future.

But there is no need for us to be pessimistic. Rather, we should embrace the challenge. The only course now open to us is to take responsibility for our own fate and take the practical steps that are in any case needed to transform Ukraine into a modern and successful European society. Yesterday in Copenhagen, I announced that Ukraine's ambition was nothing less than to meet in full the conditions for membership of the European Union, the Copenhagen Criteria, and to do so within the next decade.

We will do this unilaterally, if necessary, although we hope that we will be able to call on the good will and support of our friends throughout Europe. Since this help is not currently available through a formal accession process, we will call on the assistance of a panel of "wise men" composed of senior European figures with the experience and expertise needed to set out a path toward EU membership. The panel will be composed of politicians and officials with experience managing the enlargement process on behalf of the EU institutions and member states.

Of course, all we can ask of such a panel is to spell out the strategies and policy changes needed in Ukraine. The difficult task of implementing those changes will be our responsibility alone.

As guarantor of Ukraine's democratic future and its national interest, it is a task I personally pledge to make sure we live up to.

Viktor Yushchenko is president of Ukraine. This comment appeared in The Wall Street Journal.