Eastern countries add Ukraine to foreign ministers’ agenda

Vilnius conference centre.jpg

Russia's bid to bloc Ukraine's ambitions to move closer to the European Union will be on the agenda of an informal meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on 6-7 September in Vilnius, diplomats have told EURACTIV.

Sweden, Poland and Lithuania, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU,  have put Ukraine on the agenda of a "Gymnich"-type informal meeting of EU foreign ministers.

Named after the castle in Germany where the first such informal was held in 1974, Gymnich meetings are intended to discuss, in an informal environment, the current issues and priorities of EU foreign policy as well as security issues. The agenda of the meetings usually includes topics to be discussed at subsequent formal summits.

Peter Stano, spokesperson for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Commissioner Štefan Füle, told EURACTIV that Ukraine was ranking very high among the commissioner's priorities.

“Everything we do is focused very much on Ukraine, because we have this ambition and this aim to sign the Association Agreement with Ukraine in November,” he said, referring to the 28-29 November Vilnius Eastern partnership summit.

He added that several high level meetings were scheduled, with an expected Brussels visit today (27 August) from Andriy Kluyiev, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, and three opposition leaders of Ukraine visiting on Thursday.

“We are almost on a daily basis dealing with Ukraine”, Stano said.

The Vilnius ministerial will take place amid unprecedented pressure from Moscow on its Ukrainian neighbour.

‘Protective measures’

On 22 August, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Moscow may have to use protective measures should Ukraine sign a trade agreement with the EU.

>> Read: Moscow warns Ukraine over EU pact signature

"If [Ukraine] resorts to a substantial liberalisation of their customs regime with the EU, goods that are not bad in terms of quality and price would inevitably gush to the Ukrainian market, but they would be squeezing out Ukrainian-made goods from the Ukrainian market," Putin said, according to the Kremlin website.

"Then the Customs Union countries would have to think about protective measures," he said at a meeting on the social and economic development of the southern Russian Rostov region that borders on Ukraine. The Moscow-sponsored Customs Union currently comprises Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

A delegation led by Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was in Moscow yesterday (26 August) to discuss Kyiv's EU plans. Few information transpired, but Russian first deputy prime minister, Igor Shuvalov, was quoted as saying that Ukraine cannot integrate itself into the EU and be in the Russian-led Customs Union at the same time.

'EU cannot lose Ukraine'

In the meantime, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited Estonia, where she reportedly said that the Union "cannot lose Ukraine".

Speaking alongside Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip in Talinn yesterday, Ashton expressed hope that the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement could be signed at the Vilnius summit in November (see background).

In an Independence Day speech on 24 August, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych appeared to maintain equal distance between Brussels and Moscow.

“Ukraine’s association with the EU has become an important impetus for further formation of the modern European state. At the same time, we maintain and continue to deepen our relationship and integration processes with Russia, the Eurasian community, other world leaders and new centres of economic development,” Yanukovych said.

"This is the choice of Ukraine, and we are jointly responsible for its implementation," the Ukrainian president said.

On Independence Day, the opposition supported a march through Kyiv waiving the EU flag, according to reports in the Ukrainian media. The column was headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the chairman of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna faction in parliament, as well as by several other Batkivshchyna MPs.

The participants in the march were chanting "Freedom to Yulia", "Down with the Gang", and "Ukraine above All!"

According to the organisers, the rally was attended by about 3,000 people.

Both Yatseniuk and another Batkivshchyna MP, Arsen Avakov, made statements forecasting that Tymoshenko would be freed by the end of September, after the elections in Germany.

The President of the Gorshenin Institute Vadym Omelchenko said that the “complication of the customs regime” from the part of Russia was of political nature.

“The goal is to send the message to Ukrainian elites, first of all, major Ukrainian exporting businessmen as for what might be the actions of the Russian authorities in case the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU is signed.

‘I would emphasize on three things.

‘First, the “attack” from the Russian customs was initiated by the so-called “hawks” in the entourage of the Russian President. However, according to the information we have, another group of people in who are as influential the Russian power, think that these actions are a mistake that may harm both the political position of Russia inside Ukraine and the economic processes in Russia itself. As far as we know, this opinion has got the upper hand for now, and the attack has been scaled down.

‘Second, the European politicians could observe over the past year that direct or indirect pressure on the Ukrainian President may provoke an inverse effect. It is likely that the Russian leadership may see it for themselves soon.

“And third, the main characteristic of the today’s customs relations between Russia and Ukraine is non-transparency. In this respect, probably, the actions of the Russian side will give some positive effect. Many Ukrainian businessmen whom we have interviewed stated that they were interested in establishing transparent relations and willing, if necessary, to pay the duties for their goods exported to the Russian Federation, or look for different markets.

“But the main problem in the relations between Ukraine and Russia today is the deterioration of the communication between the leaders of the two countries. I think, it is unlikely to expect a considerable improvement in this communication shortly”

An association agreement between the EU and Ukraine was initialled more than a year ago and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) was agreed as well in principle.

However, the EU made their signature conditional on progress made in areas such as democratic and judicial reforms, including the release from prison of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The draft agreement offers closer political and economic cooperation, but stops short of offering a path towards EU accession.

Ukraine hopes to sign the agreement at the 28-29 November Eastern Partnership Summit, to be held in Vilnius under the Lithuanian EU presidency.

Several EU leaders, especially from the former Soviet bloc countries, are pushing for a signature of the association agreement in Vilnius, out of geopolitical considerations.

Lithuania, which took over the rotating presidency on 1 July, puts high hopes on the summit's success.

  • 6-7 Sept.: Gymnich-type informal meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers, Vilnius
  • 28-29 Nov.: Eastern Partnership Summit, to be held in Vilnius under the Lithuanian EU presidency. Ukraine hopes to sign the agreement there.  

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