EU ministers held an animated discussion in Brussels yesterday (14 May), evaluating the risks of “losing Ukraine to Russia” if too much pressure is put on the country over the treatment of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Meeting over lunch to discuss Ukraine, the Union’s foreign ministers failed to adopt common positions, but agreed that more should be done to work with civil society in Ukraine to defuse a loss of confidence in the country’s European perspective.
Diplomatic sources said ministers spoke openly about the risk that a tough line on Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich would push the country closer to Russia, eager to put flesh to its plans for a “Eurasian Union” comprising former Soviet states. Russia has also invited Ukraine to join its Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Meanwhile, the EU has finalised an association agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with Ukraine. But the signature of these documents is pending depending on the fate of Tymoshenko and the conditions under which parliamentary elections due in October will be held.
One minister reportedly quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had called Ukraine a “non-accomplished state” – nesosstoyavsheesya gossudarstva. According to some analysts, a Eurasian Union without Ukraine would not fly.
EU ministers have been divided over the strategy to deal with Ukraine. Poland and the Baltic states favour of a more open approach, with Germany on the other extreme, insisting on a tough line on the grounds of “selective justice” against Tymoshenko, an icon of the 2004 Orange Revolution who was imprisoned last year on charges of abuse of office.
A diplomat said that several ministers pleaded that the EU-Ukraine relations should not be “hostage of one person, be it Tymoshenko or Yanukovich”.
The Euro 2012 football championship, which Ukraine co-hosts with Poland from 6 June to 1 July, was also high on the agenda, with some countries calling for a EU boycott at political level.
However, with several countries announcing that they would send political representatives at the matches in Ukraine, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton admitted that the Union was “not at a stage to make a decision”.
The strongest reaction against such a boycott came from Polish President Bronis?aw Komorowski, who said on 3 May that a Western boycott would send the former Soviet republic back into the arms of Russia.
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Council President Herman Van Rompuy said they had no plans to go to Ukraine for the football championship.
But Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told journalists yesterday (14 May) that he failed to see “attendance or non-attendance at football games” as “an instrument of EU policy."
Yanukovich: Don't humiliate Ukraine
Speaking in Donetsk on the same day, Yanukovich said his authorities were lending an attentive ear to foreign politicians in the Tymoshenko case, but were against the country being “humiliated”.
The EU ministers reportedly agreed that more should be done to communicate with Ukrainian citizens that the Union was in favour of developing closer relations and was not shutting its door to the neighbouring country.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov is expected in Brussels today. According to EurActiv sources, his visit was confirmed by his EU hosts only at the last minute.
Viktor Tkachuk, director-general of the Ukrainian Foundation for Democracy 'People First', said "According to a March poll, the majority of Ukrainian citizens (52 %) support Ukraine's integration into the EU. The only thing which unites simple citizens with representatives of the authorities today is a desire to live by European standards and freely move across the countries of Europe.
"We would be happy to believe that appeals to boycott the Euro 2012 aren't directed against Ukraine as an application for EU membership. But it is necessary to clearly realise that any external boycott reduces the number of supporters of the European future of Ukraine," he added.
The European Union said it was "disappointed" with the sentencing of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison over allegations that she abused her office in relation to a gas deal signed with Russia in 2009.
The trial was "politically motivated" and did not respect international standards, the EU has said, adding that it "would reflect" on its policies towards Ukraine.
The December 2011 EU-Ukraine Summit failed to initial the country's Association Agreement with the Union, largely due to the imprisonment of Tymoshenko.
On 30 March, the document was initialled, but full signature depends on changing the system of "selective justice" and the parliamentary elections in Ukraine due on 28 October 2012.
- Council of the European Union:Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions