Ukraine initialled today (30 March) a landmark Association Agreement with the EU and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. Although this is only a technical step before the official signature, the Commission said the move was important for "keeping the momentum" in relations with Kyiv.
Both EU and Ukrainian officials welcomed the initialling of the documents, totaling more than 1,000 pages. The event concludes five years of difficult negotiations, and there is no certainty when deals would be formally signed.
At the EU-Ukraine summit, held on 19 December in Kyiv, Council President Herman Van Rompuy made it clear that the new legal base of EU-Ukraine relations would not be signed until the parliamentary elections in this country, due in October (see background). Another important hurdle is the case of the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of power.
Commission officials said that the initialling was "a low-key event", but still insisted that it was important for "keeping the momentum" in relations.
The EU wants to keep Ukraine in its orbit at a time when Russia becomes more assertive with its neighbours. At the same time, Brussels insists that it would not compromise on "core EU values".
Rule of law, independence of the judiciary, selective justice, politically motivated justice, free and fair elections, comprehensive constitutional reform – these are the issues of primary importance which the EU will consider before deciding if the political atmosphere in Ukraine is conducive for signing the text, a Commission official said.
The most difficult problem ahead of the initialling was reportedly the drafting of the preamble, and more specifically of the text defining Ukraine's EU perspective. The text has not been made public, but EU officials explained that the formulations related to the EU support for Ukraine, acknowledging Ukraine's adherence to EU values and identity, as well as the strong support of the Ukrainian public for EU integration.
Ukraine's wish had been that the preamble states that the EU recognises Ukraine's European roots and perspectives, not only acknowledging Kyiv's ambitions.
Asked by EurActiv to comment on this point, Pavlo Klimkin, the country's deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, said that more importantly, the Association Agreement went "much further than the famous Europe agreements" signed in the recent past with would-be EU members.
Klimkin explained that the Association agreement was "European integration in itself", as by its scope and depth it "changed the paradigm" from cooperation to integration.
"The substance of the agreement is the best reflection of European integration," he said.
Amanda Paul, analyst with the European Policy Centre, told EurActiv that the initialling of the Association Agreement was a positive step in relations between the EU and Ukraine, but there was still a long way to go because the EU had linked the signature and ratification Kyiv’s commitment to core EU values - democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
"The biggest test will be the 28 October parliamentary elections which need to be carried out in a free and fair manner, and be up to international standards. There is an urgent need to Ukraine to relaunch its reform process including key areas like constitutional and judicial reform; tackle corruption and improve the business climate. This needs to be an inclusive "process" with involves all parts of society, including opposition and civil society.
"Ukraine has a mountain to climb and because the country has no 'carrot' of a membership perspective, this makes the climb even more difficult. This is why it is so important that the Association Agreement be signed and ratified as it will act as a roadmap for Ukraine’s transformation and modernization: it will help to lock Ukraine into a deeper and more integrated relationship with the EU. Therefore it should be seen as a tool rather than a reward. And of course signing would also go some way to removing the pressure that Ukraine is presently under from Russia. Delaying signature and ratification will have no positive outcome," Paul said.
President of the European People's Party (EPP), Wilfried Martens, and the co-Chairman of the EPP Foreign Ministers' meeting, Elmar Bro, in a joint statement made clear that the ball is now in Ukraine's court and urged President Yanukovych to make sure all stated preconditions are fulfilled.
"The association agreement can only be signed, ratified and activated once the Ukrainian government has fulfilled all the necessary preconditions.”
"Needless to say, these preconditions must include the government's compliance with the basic rules of democracy and the rule of law. Thus, the ongoing persecution and imprisonment of opposition politicians, which totally unacceptable by the EU and not in accordance with the rule of law, must end immediately."
Lidiya Smola, head of the department of analytical and sociological research of the Ukrainian Foundation for Democracy "People First", argued that the signing of the Association Agreement is just a technical aspect that the authorities are not keen to proceed with the necessary reforms.
"If we look to the ability of the current authorities to fulfil the EU requirements on the observance of democratic rights and freedoms, then Ukraine's eurointegration prospects look cloudy. The absence of desire of the Ukrainian authorities to make concessions in the question of release of the imprisoned oppositionists and their participation in the political life of the country also adds no optimism."
"Therefore, integration of Ukraine into the EU will depend not on the readiness of separate politicians and representatives of the authorities, but from the desire of the society to come closer to the European standards of life. The only thing which we can ascertain is that the unwillingness of the Ukrainian authorities to conduct fair and transparent parliamentary elections in Ukraine hasn't yet found appropriate resistance in the Ukrainian society. Today, more than ever there is a demand for new social movements and associations, and also new leaders who aren't associated in the consciousness of citizens neither with the present, nor with the previous authorities."
- In a few months: Completion of technical work on the text and publication of the Association Agreement and DCFTA
- 28 Oct.: Ukraine Parliamentary elections.