Former European Commission President Romano Prodi and former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer co-chaired a public event in Brussels yesterday (17 June), with both arguing that agreement of the EU-Ukraine Association agreement at the Vilnius summit in November would serve the EU’s interests.
Prodi’s main message to the conference, organised by a lobbyist working for the Ukrainian government and hosted by the Brussels Press Club, was that the EU needed to build relations with Kiev taking account of the special Ukraine-Russia relationship.
The former Commission President, who served from 1999 to 2004 – a time when the biggest wave of enlargement in the EU’s history took place – concluded that much confidence building had taken place between the EU and Ukraine since those times.
Prodi gave as an example the tensions and Russian fear provoked by Ukraine’s rapprochement with NATO, which fizzled out and were defused after Kiev abandoned plans to join the Atlantic pact. Today, Ukraine is a reliable partner to NATO and there have been “no major problems” with Russia in this regard, he added.
Prodi said the EU needed to understand that Ukraine was in many ways the “cradle of Russia” and that Brussels needed to build a policy which “takes account of this particular situation”.
“The dialogue between the EU and Russia must not be in spite of Ukraine, but because of Ukraine,” said Prodi, advocating that both the EU and Russia should display good will and political maturity and not consider their interests vis-à-vis Ukraine as a zero-sum game.
The former Commission President also recalled Ukraine’s “great traditions” in science, space, aeronautics, pharmaceuticals and mechanical engineering, adding that in spite of the painful transition, the country needed to further develop this inheritance with both east and west. He also praised Ukraine for having “the strongest civil society” compared to any other former Soviet Republic.
In Prodi's opinion, Ukraine’s recent adoption of observer status with Russia’s Customs Union, which includes Belarus and Kazakhstan, was compatible with the EU's Association agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA).
No deadline for Tymoshenko release?
Gusenbauer said that he expected the problem with imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to be solved “in due time” in order to bring Ukraine closer to the EU. He did not mention any specific deadline for solving the problem, however, which has been a major obstacle in EU-Ukraine relations lately (see background).
The former Austrian Chancellor also said that in his view there was “a strong consensus” among government and opposition in Ukraine towards the “European destiny” of the country.
He said that the EU needed to avoid Ukraine being “pushed into the arms of Russia”, and that “an independent Ukraine” best served European ambitions and EU “geo-strategic interests”.
Andreas Papadopoulos, an official within the European Commission's economic and financial affairs directorate (DG ECFIN), gave a statement on Ukraine’s economic situation, emphasising the country’s macro-economic vulnerabilities, its “not so friendly” business environment for foreign investors and perceived high corruption levels in public procurement.
He said that Ukraine was no longer in recession and the economy had improved since its 2009 crisis; however prospects for 2013 were gloomy, with several internal and external reasons provoking slowdown.
Papadopoulos said Ukraine needed to speed up economic reform, and that the DCFTA could help greatly in this respect, providing “an anchor to Ukraine’s close integration” with the EU and a “more explicit” roadmap to legal approximation with EU norms.
Yuri Miroshnichenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament from the ruling Party of Regions, said during the event that his country was today in a better position than some of the new EU members were in 2004 when they joined the Union.
Without naming them, he said that “some EU countries” opposed the signature of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement only because of the Tymoshenko case. In this respect, he said that it was “not in the EU’s best interest” to look at Ukraine only under the perspective of one court case.
Natalia Agafonova, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament from the opposition party UDAR of Vitaly Klitschko, said that all efforts should be made to release Tymoshenko from jail, and that her country needed a “roadmap to Vilnius”.
The Association agreement will create the preconditions for transforming Ukraine’s legal system, for overcoming the problem of “selective justice” and ultimately for solving the Tymoshenko case, she said, obviously implying that the signature of the agreement should take place even if the former Prime Minister is still in jail.
At the EU-Ukraine summit on 25 February, Council President Herman Van Rompuy reiterated the three areas where the EU wants to see progress before signing an association agreement with Kiev.
The three conditions are to address the problem of "selective justice" - a reference to the imprisonment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko - dealing with the democratic shortcomings stemming from the October national elections, and advancing judicial reforms.
Van Rompuy made it plain that the EU wanted to see progress “at the latest May this year”. In April, former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko, a Tymoshenko ally, was freed from jail after receiving a presidential pardon.
President Viktor Yanukovych has said the outstanding issues could be solved in time for the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit in November, during the Lithuanian presidency of the EU. But in the meantime many observers see democracy in Ukraine receding.
- 28-29 Nov: Eastern Partnership meeting in Vilnius
EURACTIV Germany: Prodi: Weg zur Ukraine führt über Russland