France says EU-Russia-Ukraine relations are no ‘zero sum game’


This article is part of our special report Ukraine on the way to reform.

EU neighbourhood policy should not become a zero sum game in which the EU and Russia play tug-of-war over the former Soviet states, French officials say, expressing hope for the upcoming Eastern partnership summit. They stopped short of advocating the signature of the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine. EURACTIV France reports.

Next week's Eastern partnership (EaP) Summit in Vilnius will seek to make progress on the mooted association agreements (AA) with a number of Eastern countries, deepen the free-trade zone through the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) and take visa liberalisation a step further with some EaP countries.

But the hottest topic will no doubt be Ukraine, which will sign an AA if it fulfills all the EU's criteria by then (see background). The most noteworthy condition is that the parliament in Ukraine should pass a law allowing jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to leave for medical treatment abroad. 

Last Tuesday (19 November), the Ukrainian parliament postponed the debate over her case, as the ruling party and the opposition were unable to find an agreement on a draft law. A second attempt to pass the law failed today (21 November).

President Viktor Yanukovich says he wants to conclude a deal with the European Union, but he does not want Tymoshenko back on the political scene before the 2015 presidential elections. EU Enlargement and Neighbourhood Commissioner Štefan Füle met with Yanukovich on Tuesday in an attempt to broker a solution.

For centuries France has had good relations with Russia, and even in the Cold War Paris and Moscow were able to maintain dialogue. It is widely assumed that the current Russian leadership has passed the message on to Paris that it has not been happy with the way that EU’s neighbourhood policy expands at the expense of Russian traditional spheres of influence.

Russian pressure

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the EU of putting “shameful” pressure on Ukraine and on the other countries of the Eastern partnership.

But for EU officials, it is Russia that is putting pressure on the countries concerned. According to sources, Russia has allegedly spent €300 million to campaign against the Ukriane AA and heavy-handed pro-Russia propaganda is already visible in the Ukrainian media.

“It is true that Russia is a difficult partner, that is Russia”, said Paul Levy, the EU director at the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs, in an attempt to calm tension surrounding the AA signature, which he described more as a trade agreement than as a geopolitical deal.

Russia, however, does not see the issue that way. Moscow reportedly believes that the EU is playing a zero-sum game and does not want to appear as the loser, even though the Eastern partnership negotiations are not aimed at integrating those countries into the EU as member states. The initiative was put together precisely to offer a partnership which stops short of accession negotiations.

“Russia’s zero-sum logic consists of saying 'You are trying to take them away from me, but I will keep them'," the official said, adding: “That’s not right, it’s not about this."

Enlargement versus neighbourhood policy

According to the source, EU enlargement must be considered separate from the neighbourhood policy. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 the European community pushed for reunification, and the countries that had strong bonds were integrated.

The neighbourhood policy, which dates to 2005, was created to create a contractual relationship with new countries and encourage initiatives which would make both systems work together towards more democracy.

France differentiates the Balkan countries, which are potential future EU member states, from the others, in the south or the east, which are referred to as “new neighbours”.

Environmental differences

Compared to the rest of the countries in the Eastern partnership group, Ukraine seems to be the closest to the rest of Europe, but many differences exist, notably on environmental issues.

Among the EU countries, France is the strongest opponent to hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking', the controversial process used for mining shale gas. By contrast, Kyiv recently started exploiting shale gas without any prior debate like the one in Europe.

On climate policy, Ukraine operates closely with Russia, obstructing every attempt to put in place binding international agreements. Ukraine and Russia both fought against the legal modalities of the Doha global trade talks.

Fears from ‘the day after’

France fears the tensions that may arise if Ukraine and the EU sign an AA, including the potential for a new gas crisis or trade obstacles.

In what appears to be a warning of things to come, Russia has already used trade pressure against Slovakia, Lithuania, and EaP members Ukraine and Moldova.

“We want to change mentalities, we don’t want to be part of a zero-sum game,” a French diplomat said.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich is seeking to outmanoeuvre the European Union in a tussle over the fate of jailed opponent Yulia Tymoshenko by threatening to pull out of a landmark trade pact next week, a European diplomatic source quoted by Reuters said yesterday (20 November).

The source quoted Yanukovich as saying in a meeting with Enlargement and Neighbourhood Commissioner Štefan Füle: "The current situation does not allow me to sign." But the source said he believed Yanukovich was bluffing to secure better financial terms from the EU in return for signing the free trade and cooperation deal.

An official in Brussels speaking on condition of anonymity said: "There are still 7 days to go until the Vilnius summit so we're in a period of brinkmanship and bluffing.

"Yanukovich is trying to see how much he can get out of the EU, what guarantees or assistance the EU will provide if he signs the agreement," the source said.

The official press release of Füle’s services reads:

“I have come to Kyiv on 18-20 November 2013 on behalf of European Commission’s President Barroso to discuss with President Yanukovych preparations of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius next week, including the signature of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. I also briefed the President on behalf of EU High Representative and Vice President of the Commission Catherine Ashton about the determination of the European Union to proceed with the signature of the Association Agreement, provided there is determined action and tangible progress in response to the benchmarks as set at the Foreign Affairs Council conclusions of December 2012 and discussed at the FAC on 18 November 2013.

“I appreciate the considerable progress which has been made during the last months in this regard. I am encouraged to see the determination of the President and of the Speaker of the Parliament Rybak in cooperation with all parliamentary factions to adopt key legislation on 21 November 2013 on parliamentary elections, a new law on the prosecutors general’s office and a new law on the medical treatment of prisoners abroad.

“The EU’s commitment to bring EU Ukraine relations to a new quality, opening up new opportunities for the Ukrainian people, is firm. The door for such a qualitative step forward is open and we look forward to the government’s implementation of its decision of 18 September 2013 to sign the association agreement in Vilnius on 29 November 2013.

“The EU and many of Ukraine’s partners around the globe look forward to such a key step which would confirm Ukraine’s strengthened role in the world and provide a signal of predictability for international financial markets and institutions in stabilising Ukraine’s economy and finances.”

Boris Kushniruk, economist, blogger at BlogActiv, sent EURACTIV the following comment:

“It is paradoxical, but Russia's political and economic pressure upon Ukraine has got positive moments as well. The Ukraine-Russia conflict uncovers the real motives of Moscow's geopolitical plans.

“Maybe it will become a precedent for the EU, whose officials prefer to avoid direct criticism of Russia's actions in terms of Ukraine lately. It seems like the EU is simply sort of afraid of the leadership of Russia.

“And, maybe, the personal authority of president Putin weighs over certain EU member states in realisation of the strategy concerning the signing of the AA with Ukraine.

“Although, it seems like the EU doesn't have a clear and general strategy. The same way as there is also no understanding what will happen in case of failure of the Vilnius Summit.

“Otherwise, how else is it possible to explain unwillingness of the EU to reach a compromise? The statements of EU officials about the absence of Plan "B" in case of not-signing of the AA are also doubtful. And, maybe, the Plan "A" didn't foresee the associate membership of Ukraine with the EUat all? Maybe, in case with Ukraine the EU was just teasing Moscow to learn more about its "fighting capacity"?"

With the approach of the Vilnius summit on 28-29 November 2013, the European Commission has taken stock of the progress made by Ukraine on its way to reform, but also singled out the need to move forward on the outstanding issues, as follows:

  • First, a definitive move with respect to the case of Yulia Tymoshenko. In this respect, the Commission continues to fully support the efforts of Presidents Cox and Kwasniewski, whose Ukraine mission has now been prolonged until mid-November. These efforts are directed to obtain a partial pardon decision of the president, which would allow medical treatment in Germany.
  • Second, Ukraine now needs to proceed with the adoption of improved legislation on parliamentary elections. While it is not realistic to demand the adoption of an election code at this stage, the objective must remain that Ukraine codifies and harmonises all electoral legislation, analysts say. This process will clearly run beyond Vilnius, but the Commission needs to be reassured that similar reforms will be introduced also to the legislation on local and presidential elections.
  • Third, the ambitious draft legislation on the reform of the General Prosecutor's Office – a long-standing key issue for reform of the judicial system – will still need to be finally adopted (the first reading took place on 8 November).

In a post-Vilnius setting, the Commission will continue to follow closely a number of elements, such as the constitutional reform (including the law on referenda), the reform of the criminal code, and the reform of the legislation for presidential and local elections. 

  • 24 Nov.: Pro-Western opposition parties in Ukraine have called for a rally to put pressure on Yanukovich to make sure the AA is signed in Vilnius;

  • 28-29 Nov.: The Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, which could see the signing of the EU-Ukraine AA and DCFTA if the EU is satisfied with Kyiv's delivery on conditions.

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