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.
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”.
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.