Ukraine, EU dig in heels as Vilnius summit opens

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The European Union made a last attempt to salvage an historic Association Agreement with Ukraine as the Eastern Partnership summit opened in Vilnius yesterday (28 November). But Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich remained firm that a deal could not be signed in the foreseeable future, while the EU side rejected tripartite talks with Russia as a no-go. EurActiv reports from Vilnius.

On the first day of the Vilnius summit, EU leaders made a last-ditch attempt to convince Yanukovich to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (AA), coupled with a Deep and Comprehensive Free-Trade Agreement (DCFTA), that would anchor the former Soviet state to the European Union.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Council President Herman Van Rompuy met with Yanukovich at 18:15 Vilnius time, just before a dinner in which all EU countries were represented, together with leaders of the six Eastern Partnership countries – Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  For political reasons, Belarus was represented at the level of foreign minister, while Ireland, Finland and Portugal were the only EU countries represented at a level lower than head of state or government.

No statement was issued following the meeting, which lasted around an hour and a half. The strategy was to keep the door open to the Ukrainian president as long as possible, diplomats said.

Under intense pressure from Moscow, on 21 November Yanukovich renounced plans to sign the agreement in favour of closer ties with Russia. Yanukovich fears that Ukraine's finances would rapidly dry up if it decides to sign the AA, pushing the country to the brink of default, as Russia would denounce the free-trade agreement and close its borders to Ukrainian exports.

In addition, Kyiv estimates that upgrading to EU standards would cost Ukraine an estimated $20 billion (€14.7 billion) a year, a sum described by EU diplomats as far-fetched.

No trilateral talks

With Yanukovich digging in his heels, EU diplomats were left with few arguments, sticking to earlier principles, saying they would not imitate Russia in bribing Yanukovich with money.

In particular, the EU side made clear to Yanukovich that his proposal for tripartite talks with Russia on trade issues was a no-go.

“We cannot give Moscow the right of veto in EU affairs,” a diplomat told EurActiv, explaining that Moscow's propaganda warning of catastrophic scenarios if Ukraine signed the AA had become “a self-fulfilling prophecy” for Yanukovich.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian president, who faces pro-EU protests at home, appeared anxious to keep up his pro-European rhetoric, saying his country would sign the AA at a later stage.

But EU diplomats are pessimistic that a deal will be signed under Yanukovich and put their hopes on the next presidential elections in Ukraine, due on 28 March 2015.

Protests or revolution?

Ukraine’s opposition leaders appeared to share the same wait-and-see approach as they gathered in Vilnius for a pre-summit meeting organised by Western politicians of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).

Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing champion and leader of the pro-EU UDAR party, said that if the power in Kyiv did not want to listen to the people, there was one solution – a change of power at the 2015 presidential election. And if the wish of the people was ignored, elections should take place “much sooner”, he said in reply to a question from EurActiv.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the Batkivschchyna party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and a former minister of economy and of foreign affairs, appeared more cautious, warning that the massive protests in Kyiv over Yanukovich’s geostrategic U-turn were not a revolution.

“This is a peaceful pro-European rally. This is not a revolution. Not yet. And we are to face presidential elections on 28 March 2015. The key goal for us is to maintain this energy of millions who are pro-European. And not to kill this energy with the riot police and security forces, like President Yanukovich is dreaming of,” Yatsenyuk said.

Speaking at the same event, EPP Vice-President Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, who chaired the centre-right pre-summit meeting, said there were two most probable scenarios following the Vilnius summit. The first and most probable scenario is that Ukraine keeps the EU and Russia at equal distance until the 2015 presidential elections. The second, and worst-case scenario, is that Ukraine follows Belarus and Kazakhstan by immediately joining the Russia-led Customs Union.

Saryusz-Wolski added that in the light of recent events, the EU needed to rethink its policy towards Russia [Read exclusive interview].

EurActiv spoke to Yevhenia Tymoshenko, daughter of the jailed former prime minister and main political opponent of Yanukovich, who called on European leaders to help in any way they could to make sure that the presidential elections in 2015 would be free and fair [Read exclusive interview].

The summit will resume this morning with speeches by leaders, some of which will be broadcast online. Moldova and Georgia are expected to initial preliminary Association Agreements and DCFTAs, similar to the one Ukraine was able to initial in March 2012, after the EU decided to maintain momentum on its relations with Kyiv, in spite of the Tymoshenko case.

Meanwhile, thousands of protestors are anxiously awaiting news from the Vilnius summit. But with pro-European hopes dashed, the protests are expected to grow larger and more vehement.

Positions: 

Hryhoriy Nemyria, former Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine responsible for European integration in the Tymoshenko government, told EurActiv the opposition will do everything to win the 2015 presidential elections.

“These elections are not just about who will be the next president. They are about the strategic course of Ukraine, and the strategic course the opposition takes is to bring Ukraine closer to the EU. We very much hope that the positive outcome of these elections will allow, as early as May 2015, when the next summit of the Eastern Partnership will be held in Riga, under Latvian Presidency, would be the chance for the agreement to be signed.

Asked whether there was a need to change the paradigm of relations with Russia, she said: “I don’t think there is a need to change the paradigm. There is a need for better understanding.”

She said that Yanukovich’s idea of trilateral talks involving Russia was wrong, as it would give Moscow a veto power, but said he was in favour of consultations with Moscow, especially in view of the upcoming January EU-Russia summit. 

MEP Elmar Brok (EPP, Germany), who chairs the European Parliament foreign affairs committee, said that Ukraine's demand for compensation for expected losses in case of Russian sanctions was “an impossible question”.  

“we are not in a race who gets more money from whom,” he replied when asked about reported Russian cash offers to Ukraine.

Regarding Russia, Brok said the EU should have a “one voice policy”, adding that for the time being this was not the case. “We are too much divided, everyone has its own relationships, and I think Putin understands only one voice policy”.

Asked if the Vilnius summit was a failure for the EU, he said: “No, it was a failure for Ukraine that it follows the Russian pressure. Because who doesn’t make a transformation process will lose even more competitiveness and the bridge that needs to be buil will become even longer.

Brok said the agreement remained on the table until the 2015 elections in Ukraine.

Asked by EurActiv if the EU needed to change “the paradigm of relations with Russia”, Jean-Claude Juncker, former Prime Minister of Luxembourg who attended the EPP pre-summit meeting, called the question “difficult”.

“We cannot imagine the European architecture without Russia. But Russia needs to change its behaviour. We are no longer in the Cold War," he said adding that the Union had underestimated the influence of Moscow over countries in its neighbourhood.

Timeline: 
  • 28 March 2015: Presidential elections in Ukraine
  • May 2015: Riga summit of the Eastern Partnership, under Latvian EU Presidency
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