This article is part of our special report Ukraine on the way to reform.
SPECIAL REPORT / Little appears to have changed in Germany's cautious approach to Ukraine's rapprochement to the EU, except that German politicians feel more free to criticise the short-sightedness of Berlin's external relations, both towards Moscow and Kyiv, since Angela Merkel regained power. EURACTIV Germany reports.
Ukraine is expected to sign an association agreement with the EU at this month's Eastern partnership summit in Vilnius, but uncertainties remain, particularly in Germany.
Diplomats have repeatedly pointed out that EU countries have been split between “two extremes”. Poland, Lithuania and Estonia say that the country’s EU future should not hinge on the fate of “one lady”, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving a prison sentence for abuse of office.
Germany, however, makes the fate of Tymoshenko, who analysts say was imprisoned using 'selective justice', an unbreakable condition for signing the AA at the Vilnius summit on 28-29 November.
The recent German elections did not appear to mark any shift in the country's position on Ukraine.
Officially, Berlin hopes that it will be possible to sign the agreement, which would "bind the Ukraine politically and economically to the EU more closely than ever before", as a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry recently said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag yesterday that Ukraine had to take "credible steps" in order to clinch a trade agreement with the EU, but also promised to counteract any retaliatory measures from Russia if Kyiv signed a deal.
"We expect credible steps from Ukraine in fulfilling the criteria for a co-operation agreement," she told the Bundestag's lower house. "We expect this process to be implemented sustainably and irreversibly."
Germany is Ukraine's third largest trading partner, after Russia and China. More than 1000 German companies operate in Ukraine. Only Cyprus invests more money in Ukraine than Germany, but analysts see the former simply as a country through which money from other regions is recycled.
‘Cold War mentality’
During a panel discussion in Berlin, foreign policy expert Karl-Georg Wellmann, member of the German Bundestag and Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said last week that the geostrategic debate concerning the outcome of the Vilnius summit smacked of the "Cold War mentality".
To Wellmann, the sole question being asked seemed to be who was going to take which trophy home. Under that analysis, Armenia, which abandoned plans for closer association with the EU, would be Russia's trophy and Ukraine the European Union's.
Günter Verheugen, who served as European commissioner for enlargement from 1999 to 2004, echoed Wellmann, saying that on the European side the impression had been of an ongoing tug-of-war with Russia in which the Ukraine was the trophy.
"This is of course completely wrong," said Verheugen, who currently works as an adviser and professor at Frankfurt's European University Viadrina.
"The principle must be that this country decides in full sovereignty and freedom where it sees its future. And I believe this decision has been made. I have not the slightest doubt that the Ukrainian parliament and government are determined to take the road towards the European Union," said Verheugen.
Concerning the benchmarks set out by the EU (see background), Verheugen said it was difficult to get a clear picture of Ukrainian achievements, citing diverging estimations made by the European institutions and some member states. He said that nevertheless a majority of member states would consider the glass more than half full if the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, was to pass the remaining bills for "two important reforms": the bill on a chief prosecutor's office and the bill on amendments to electoral law.
Russian-style ‘partnership for modernisation’
Wellmann warned of a "dramatic modernisation hold-up“ in Ukraine. The country needs a 'partnership for modernisation' like the one Russia has with the EU, Wellmann said, adding that both EU neighbours urgently needed western guidance and assets.
The EU-Russia partnership for modernisation was launched in 2010 as a shared agenda to help bring about reform of the economy and society, with respect for democracy and the rule of law. Its priority areas include, for example, the alignment of technical standards, the promotion of a sustainable low-carbon economy and dialogue with civil society.
To Wellmann, if the Vilnius summit fails to bring Ukraine close to the Union, "the bottom line is, we have no plan B". This echoes statements by EU officials warning that once momentum towards a deal is lost, it may be hard to recover. It is of "utmost importance" that political dialogue remains intact, Wellmann said.
"I hope the EU and the German government maintain the dialogue with the Ukraine. There are many projects that are in our vital mutual interest,“ he said.
New wall with Europe
Wellmann said that the EU's approach to Ukraine was "completely out of balance" with its relations with Russia.
Originally, the focus had been on the strategic partnership with Russia and the Eastern partnership, the Union rapprochement programme with the former Soviet states, had just been a "small supplement“. But now, “the Eastern partnership is the main issue and we don't talk enough about relations with Russia," the CDU politician argued.
Verheugen made a similar remark. "We cannot afford trade wars in Europe," he warned, referring to Russia's repeated threat to impose trade sanctions on the Ukraine, which analysts believe is aimed at derailing the signing of the association agreement. Ukraine did not wish to pursue any policy that was against Russian interests, he claimed.
"We need to offer Russia a long-term vision showing the country that we do not want a new wall in Europe," said Verheugen, warning of a wall no longer of concrete and barbed wire, but of rules, standards and different trade regimes.
'Excruciating mutual misjudgements'
On the Tymoshenko case, Wellmann was particularly critical of the current political climate between the Ukraine and Europe, alluding to grave misjudgements on all sides.
"There are excruciating mutual misjudgements," he said, explaining that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich assumed that his country would achieve association status because this was in the geostrategic interest of the EU, whether he freed his jailed opponent or not.
Wellmann said it was "a smashing strategic mistake" to believe that the AA could be signed with Tymoshenko in jail.
Wellmann also warned that it could be foolish for the EU to imagine that a miracle could happen and that Yanukovich could release Tymoshenko during the Vilnius summit.
"According to all information I have, this will not happen," he said.
Speaking on the margins of the EU foreign affairs ministerial meeting yesterday in Brussels, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said his country wanted Ukraine to move in the direction of the EU, but that conditions needed to be met.
"The case of Yulia Tymoshenko is very important. I call on Ukraine to agree on the path of the rule of law and to avoid games with time. Time is running out and Ukraine must know that," Westerwelle said.