A blessing in disguise. This was the interpretation of events by the French minister in charge of European affairs, Thierry Repentin, during a hearing in the French parliament.
“President Viktor Yanukovich perhaps rendered a service both to the European Union and to the Ukrainian population by starting a debate that wasn’t necessarily open,” the minister told the members of the committees for European and foreign affairs in the National Assembly.
“Yanukovich gave to the population an appetite for Europe that wasn’t there before,” Repentin claimed.
Gathered for a meeting to discuss the December European Council’s conclusions, MPs reflected on the causes of the failed signature of a free trade and association agreement with Ukraine last November in Vilnius.
“We were dealing with a country that didn’t wish to sign the association agreement,” Repentin claimed, adding that the country was in a difficult situation due to the pressure exerted by Russia.
But the minister also criticised the way the EU handled the negotiations.
“I noted that the closer we got to the Vilnius Summit, the less demanding we were about structural reforms,” Repentin underlined.
“Because we wanted Ukraine to be firmly attached to Europe, our demands about the adoption of legislative texts in the field of selective justice, press freedom, and the right for every citizen to run for elections, were becoming weaker. And we were hung up on the symbol of the liberation of Mrs. Yulia Tymoshenko,” he continued.
For the minister, signing an association agreement in those conditions would also have been a failure for the European Union.
“If the EU had signed only in exchange for the liberation of Mrs. Tymoshenko without asking for the reforms from 18 months ago, criticism would have been just as fierce,” the minister added.
Relations with Russia
For Elisabeth Guigou, who chairs the Assembly's foreign affairs committee, the EU's failure of the Vilnius summit also came as a result of the mismanagement of diplomatic relations with Russia.
“We were all over the place,” she regretted. “We should clearly tell some European officials that we don’t intend to welcome Ukraine as a member of the EU, even less in NATO,” she said.
However, closer ties with the former soviet republic are still on the table, officials said.
“Ukraine did make a different choice but not entirely as the country didn’t join the Russian customs union,” Repentin stressed. “We’ll see what happens at the elections in a year, for now we need to give our support to the protestors,” he said.
Street protests in Ukraine were being staged almost every day in the aftermath of the Vilnius summit on 21 November. They initially came in reaction to Yanukovich's refusal to sign the agreement with Europe but quickly grew into a wider political demonstration movement demanding his resignation and for early elections to be held.
Since the beginning of the year however, protests have started to wear out.
Door still open
On the EU side, the offer is still on the table. At the December Summit, the EU's 28 heads of states and government stated that “the European Union remains ready to sign the Association Agreement […] as soon as Ukraine is ready.”
Several EU leaders showed their support for the protests. The Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, said she was still open to Ukraine but not necessarily to this government, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the protestors’ courage.