Commission reacts to Russian transit ban via Ukraine

File photo. Luc De Vigne at the EURACTIV debate. [@KazBrussels Twitter]

A Commission official said on Wednesday (30 January) that the EU executive questioned the coherence of the Eurasian Economic Union, because of the Russia-imposed embargo on the transit of a range of Ukrainian goods through its territory, in effect foreclosing access to export markets in Central Asia.

On 1 January 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed a Decree “On measures to ensure economic security and national interests of the Russian Federation in the implementation of international transit of goods from Ukraine to the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan of the Kyrgyz Republic through the territory of the Russian Federation”. It was amended and extended three times, the latest on 29 June 2018, for a duration until 1 July 2019.

According to the decree, international transit road and rail transportation of goods from the territory of Ukraine to the territory of Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, running through the territory of Russia, are to be carried out only from the territory of Belarus, subject to tough controls and monitoring, including via the global navigation technology satellite system GLONASS (the Russian GPS).

The route via Belarus significantly lengthens the duration of the trip.

Speaking at a conference on EU-Kazakhstan relations organised by EURACTIV, Luc De Vigne, Deputy Managing Director for European and Central Asia at the European External Action Service, was asked to comment on the relations between the EU and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

The EAEU, sometimes called Eurasian Union, was created in 2014 between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, while Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joined the following year.

De Vigne indicated that the EU had a problem with Russia because of Ukraine, but it was “not in the business of isolating Russia” and had never refused to talk to the country.

“But there are certain things Russia has done in Ukraine that we don’t accept”, the EU official added.

“When it comes to the Eurasian Union, we don’t have any problems to talk to them, the problem is: can the Eurasian Union deliver in terms of legal certainty”, he questioned.

He further compared the functioning of the European Commission with that of the Eurasian Economic Union.

“When you make an agreement with the EU, you have the European Commission that’s in charge with implementing the agreement. And anyone, a citizen, a company, a state, can go to the court in Luxembourg and sue either the Commission, the member states, etc. This is the type of thing we don’t really see with the Eurasian Union yet”, de Vigne said.

He continued: “To be honest, I don’t understand how one member state of the customs union can impose an embargo, on transiting goods for instance to Kazakhstan, without having an embargo at customs union level, that’s if Spain decided to block products from Morocco to France: that wouldn’t fly a nano-second in the EU.”

A question of coherence

“This raises a fundamental question about coherence”, De Vigne said, adding that this was raising the question how much the Eurasian customs union had achieved so far. In his words, one member states prohibiting certain routes for goods originating in Ukraine, or even in the EU and transiting trough Ukraine, wasn’t an issue of political, but of legal nature.

De Vigne further made it plain that the EU had no issue with the membership of Kazakhstan, Armenia of Kirghizstan in the Eurasian Economic Union.

“If you put aside the political difficulties that we have with Russia around the situation in Ukraine […] the EU has no problem with the Eurasian Union, it hasn’t punished anyone from becoming member of the Eurasian Union, on the contrary, it has concluded an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan, a founding member, the EU has made an agreement with Armenia which is also a member, and is negotiation an agreement with Kirghizstan, which is also a member. It’s not that we put countries in front of choices”, De Vigne said.

The EU official advised against confusing free trade with customs union.

“I always say that free-trade agreements, or association agreements, or cooperation agreements is like friendship, you can have as many as you want, and you don’t need anyone’s permission to do it. Customs union is a different story, because there, you put everything together and the deal is that you reduce your sovereignty in negotiations, for a bigger bargaining power together”, he said.

Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, reacted to De Vigne’s comment by saying that it was precisely because of issues like this that his country has been calling for all parties engaging in dialogue, in resolving the issues between themselves.

“There are ways of resolving issues via better dialogue and that’s why we are so keen of promoting such dialogue. That’s why we are against sanctions as a matter of principle, because they are hurting everybody, including the country that levies the sanctions, and third parties such as Kazakhstan”, Vassilenko said.

As in previous statements, Vassilenko spoke highly of the Eurasian Economic Union.

Kazakhstan advocates closer ties between EU and Eurasian Economic Union

A senior official from Kazakhstan, one of the five members of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), has called for greater cooperation between EEAU and the EU, ultimately aiming to create a single economic space from the Atlantic to Pacific. But a Commission spokesperson made clear it could only be a long-term goal, depending on political developments.


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