«Hurray! It works!» lit up my phone screen as I received a message from my friend. She was referring to the no-visa regime for Ukraine. «They asked for nothing but my passport at the border! And I didn’t have a single visa in there». The amazement of being able to travel to 30 Schengen zone countries for the purpose of tourism and business without a visa, has spread across the whole of Ukraine since the signing of the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine in June 2014. Ukrainians waited for long three years, and just when most of us were about to give up their hopes on promises from our president – Petr Poroshenko – the European Union approved a visa-free travel on 11th May 2017.
Ukraine is gradually starting to bloom and stand on its feet and the Association with Europe along with the allowance for visa-free entrance is just another proof of that. Whilst some people might see the Association with the EU as window dressing against Russia, in fact, Ukraine declared European integration as their strategic objective way before the conflict with Russia actually started, back in 2011. What is the actual current situation in Ukraine? The setting in eastern Ukraine still remains intense despite Minsk Agreements that called for cease-fire by all sides, and, yes, our economy has been heavily affected by this armed conflict. Nevertheless, despite recent economic downturns, the Ukrainian economy experienced a 2.3% real GDP growth. Ukraine has been noticed on the world map. European businesses have greater interest in Ukraine and it has been recognized as a closer territory and as a cheaper one as well.
We are still a young and developing country that is trying to find its place in the global arena. The country is changing, and I can see that this change is for the better. It was claimed to be the first outsourcing market in Eastern Europe in 2016 by the International Association of Outsourcing Professionals. Moreover, it is home to the largest number of IT professionals in Europe. Ukrainian software engineers are skilled and knowledgeable and this is what attracts an increasing number of investors, in particular from Western Europe. The country offers more competitive outsourcing rates along with a much larger tech talent pool. The Ukrainian market provides an opportunity for growth for European investors who can experience a higher risk premium due to possible political and economic risks. Visa liberalization, specifically, sent a strong signal of trust towards Ukraine.
Living between two countries – the Netherlands and Ukraine – I get to see the overall feeling of ongoing activities from both sides. Just the results of the Referendum in the Netherlands in 2016, under which Dutch voters rejected closer ties with Ukraine, and the actual vote of Dutch representatives in the European Commission in 2017, clearly draws a line between the moods of the population and the government. Europeans are doubting the adequacy of adopting a closer relationship with Ukraine, especially in terms of the increasing number of Ukrainian immigrants coming to the EU. The common belief among most of the EU citizens is that Europe is not receiving anything in return for the partnership with Ukraine. However, even though positive aspects for Europe might seem less significant on a bigger picture compared to those for Ukraine, I believe that soon Europe will experience benefits both in the short and long run. But, let me first touch upon the benefits and possible threats for Ukraine.
The gains for Ukraine are obvious. First of all, a visa-free regime provides closer economic integration with one of the largest markets in the world. This includes economic benefits such as the removal of tariffs, leading to reduced costs and increased trade activity. Further, it opens up an opportunity for free trade which should induce greater competition with the potential for improving the efficiency of Ukrainian industries. All of the above leads to one of the main benefits of the agreement between Europe and Ukraine – an improved business environment. Secondly, collaboration with Europe will most certainly contribute to the corruption fighting programs adopted by the current Ukrainian government. In turn, this will attract investors from Western Europe, the US and China, providing them with a greater level of confidence. Lastly, a visa free regime provides Ukrainians with an opportunity to plan for the future. The visa application process was rather dragged out and irritating. A collection of documents for the embassy, long waiting in queues and over 15 working days until the final decision is made on your visa status required a lot of nerves and patience. Now, not only can people easily plan for their vacations, but entrepreneurs also get a chance to plan their business trips and attend international trade fairs, which will expand their knowledge and networking for further business development.
Why is Ukraine important for Europe? Well, primarily, Ukraine is part of Europe. Without reaching out to Ukraine, Europe will not fully understand its own history. Europe needs Ukraine in order to reconcile with its own past, but also understand its own destiny and values better. Speaking in economic terms, the increased amount of tourists from Ukraine is likely to increase the GDP of European countries in the short run. Furthermore, the trust given to Ukraine by the visa-free regime will increase investors’ confidence and will enlarge the business area and markets opportunities for European corporations. But, most importantly, Europe will have open access to a pool of young and talented professionals, especially in the field of engineering, IT and manufacturing.
Ukraine’s potential gives it the possibility to be an important contributor to international efforts in fighting against current problems in the world. After all, it is rather early to make conclusions regarding the outcomes of collaboration between the EU and Ukraine since there is still a long way to go. But I can reassure you that with every new visit back to my homeland, I see change in people. The mind-set and goals of the young population are getting closer to those in Western Europe. People of my age are trying to find various opportunities for self-development in order to make a change in the country. They are quickly adopting to a dynamically changing environment and are not afraid to speak up about matters that dissatisfy them. As Nelson Mandela said: “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that generation”. I have a feeling that my generation is THE ONE.