European integration is the key priority for Ukraine, the country's new president, Viktor Yanukovich, told the Brussels press yesterday (1 March). On his first foreign trip in his new capacity, he met EU leaders but neglected to call in at NATO headquarters.
"European integration is the key priority of our foreign policy, and also a strategy for carrying out systemic social and economic reforms," said Yanukovich after meeting European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
He said their talks had focused on a planned Association Agreement with the 27-member bloc, providing for free trade.
Yanukovich, who spoke Ukrainian for the occasion (his mother tongue is Russian and he has some difficulty speaking Ukrainian), said the EU is also interested in improving relations between Kiev and Moscow.
"The European Union is no less than Ukraine interested in us restoring partnership relations with Russia, which will have an effect on many social and economic questions, including within the European Union," he said. Yanukovich is due to visit Moscow on 5 March.
At a time when Ukraine appears to be hesitating between developing its relations with the East or the West (EURACTIV 18/02/10), Barroso presented the full package offered by the Union.
Once Ukraine is back on track with the IMF, with which it is negotiating a 16-billion euro loan, the European Union should be able to unlock more than half a billion euros in macro-financial assistance, Barroso said.
"If reforms are undertaken in the gas sector, I believe the international financial institutions will be able to provide financial assistance to Ukraine, and if Ukraine adopts a gas law, in accordance with the European acquis, it can accede to the Energy Community Treaty, and this we believe will unlock significant foreign direct investment in Ukraine," the Commission president added.
Safer gas transit?
Yanukovych said that Ukraine is ready to fulfill its obligations regarding the uninterrupted supply of gas to European consumers, adding that to achieve this goal, Kiev will try to improve its relations with partner Russia.
The Ukrainian president also said his country was ready to develop the internal gas market.
"We believe that it is necessary to develop gas market, and we are ready to adopt a law on the domestic gas market […] This will strengthen confidence in us in the East and in the West," he said.
Association back on track
Barroso said the EU's most far-reaching offer to Ukraine so far is the Association Agreement, which the Union decided to offer Kiev in September 2008. However, due to internal political infighting, not much progress has been achieved since.
"Currently under negotiation, [the Association Agreement] will lead to a deep comprehensive free trade agreement, offering Ukraine access to a market of 500 million consumers and providing a perspective for the doubling, in a very short perspective, of Ukrainian exports to the EU," Barroso continued, insisting that the agreement could be wrapped up within a year.
Last but not least, the Commission president said the sides had discussed visa-free travel and the need to establish a roadmap for achieving this goal.
Similar roadmaps have been recently put in place for the Western Balkan countries, with Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro having already fulfilled the requirements. Their citizens have enjoyed visa-free travel to the EU since last December (EURACTIV 01/12/09).
Asked by a Ukrainian journalist why the EU was shying away from offering accession perspective to Ukraine, Barroso went as far as he could, assuring the EU good will.
“Ukraine is an European country, and a very important European country. By civilization, by culture, by its history – it is a member of the European family of countries. Regarding accession, or the possibility of accession, we have always stated that instead of discussing the possible dates for accession, it is much better now to focus on the reforms needed to make Ukraine closer to Europe and de facto integrated to our economic system,” Barroso said.
Answering the same question, Yanukovich kept very much the same tone, stressing that what Europe expected from his country was reform.
Asked why he did not pay a courtesy call to the NATO headquarters, Yanukovich hinted that the status of his country vis-à-vis the Atlantic alliance was not going to change. Following its independence, Ukraine declared itself a neutral state. It has limited a military partnership with Russia and a partnership with NATO since 1994. On the political level it has been decided that the question of eventually joining NATO would be decided by a national referendum at some time in the future.
But Yanukovich appeared to reassure the alliance that its current involvement with the Alliance would not be downsized.
“As to the programmes we have jointly between NATO and Ukraine they will continue and our partnership relations will continue," he stated.