Ukraine pushes for solution to EU visa problem

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The EU's stringent visa requirements are hampering business contacts and investment opportunities between Europe and Ukraine, warned Konstantin Yelisieiev, the country's ambassador to the EU.

Speaking at a regional policy event in Brussels, Yelisieiev said that the key for Ukraine's EU integration was based on two elements: "The economic integration that will depend on the success of regional development", and the "visa-free regime that will open the way for more business contacts and future investments".

Ukraine has been stepping up its calls to accelerate visa liberalisation, but the EU has linked any further progress on concrete parameters, which the country has not yet attained.

Yelisieiev was speaking at a presentation of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast region, organised in Brussels yesterday (12 April) by the Committee of the Regions, an EU advisory body.

Dnipropetrovsk Oblast is the second most industrialised region in Ukraine after the neighbouring Donetsk Oblast. It currently contributes 10.2% to Ukraine's total GDP and 19.3% of all trade on the country's territory.

This is the fourth time that a region in Ukraine, a country which has not yet been formally granted the prospect of EU accession, has come to Brussels in a lobbying effort.

EU officials present at the event left without making any comments on the visa liberalisation issue. Their statements concentrated solely on the importance of the recently initialised EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA).

Philippe Cuisson, deputy head of unit at the European Commission's trade directorate, described the DCFTA as "the most ambitious one so far" ever signed by the EU, and compared it to similar agreements signed with Turkey and Switzerland.

One of the key elements regarding the DCFTA is that all products will enjoy preferential treatment with the aim of reaching zero tariff, he said. Another important aspect will be the "regulatory conventions", a jargon term which he said entails "shared economic governance" mainly through public procurement. That can lead EU investors to "rush into Ukraine", Cuisson said, adding that the same phenomenon had happened in the past with Poland and Slovakia.

"Thanks to the DCFTA, Ukraine will be able to save up to half a billion euros in custom duties," he said.

'Free' land for EU investors

Ukraine officials at the event said regional authorities stood ready to give special conditions to European companies investing in the country.

Olexandr Vilkul, head of the Dnipropetrovsk regional state administration, said he was willing to give future EU investors "land for free". It would not be agricultural land but land for industrial projects and it would be on a lease-basis, he explained. He mentioned that the region was also willing to help the investors by providing infrastructure and other assistance.

"You can have several brand names like Bavaria or Hong Kong. In Ukraine we are aiming to have Dnipropetrovsk as the brand name of the country," he said.

Another advantage of the region highlighted by its representatives appears to be the powerful base of mineral wealth, with 40 kinds of raw materials, accounting for half the country's national mineral wealth.

Dnipropetrovsk also enjoys a well-developed infrastructure with an efficient railway system, gas pipeline and two international airports, Vilkul said.

Special mention was made to the "e-region" project aimed at the "effectiveness of regional management, the promotion of business development and investment" and "accessibility and transparency of services to the citizens". The region has managed to recruit international partners in this project, including Microsoft, Deloitte and USAID, the official said.

Special mention was made of the "industrial parks" in the area. The presentation was made by Anatoli Komirnoy, director of the municipal Dnipropetrovsk Investment Agency who said that the creation of industrial parks was one of the strategic goals of the area.

"We have already visited similar projects in Poland and Turkey and since we are in Belgium now we are planning to do the same here and exchange ideas," he said.

Czech MEP Miroslav Ransdorf (GUE/NGL) spoke in strong terms in favour of Ukraine's EU accession.

"As Europe is not complete with some countries being outside of the EU … it is crucial to move in a horizontal way of integration," he said.

Comparing EU's priorities vis-à-vis its neigbours, he said: "Everyone is talking about the Arab Spring and how this can change the relations with Europe, but I believe that the potential of the Eastern Partnership is bigger than the one of the Mediterranean."

During an annual summit in Brussels in November 2010, the European Union spelt out requirements for Ukraine to win visa-free travel to the bloc, but said any further progress would depend on democratic reforms and improvements in human rights.

Accordingly, Brussels and Kyiv agreed on a plan that requires Ukraine to improve security, border management and other policies, while giving no timetable as to when visa requirements might be lifted.

Diplomats recently told EURACTIV that Ukraine's visa liberalisation process would be "different" from the one recently agreed to Western Balkan countries. The visa requirement could effectively be lifted but only in the long term, officials said.

Recently, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has made visa-free travel to Europe one of his country's top priorities.

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