Verheugen slams Berlin’s handling of EU-Ukraine relations

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Günter Verheugen, a former European Commission vice president and heavyweight in Germany's Social Democratic party (SDP), said he saw “double-standards” in the German government's handling of Ukraine's bid to conclude an association agreement with the EU.

Verheugen, who held the EU's enlargement portfolio and engineered the 2004 expansion of the European Union, touched upon EU-Ukraine relations in a wide-ranging interview with EURACTIV Poland.

Verheugen, who now works as an adviser and professor at Frankfurt's European University Viadrina, said he doubted the wisdom of Germany's position, which considers the release of imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko as a condition for signing the association agreement in November.

The agreement with Ukraine was initialled in March 2012 but the EU made its signature conditional on progress made in governmental and political reforms, including the release of Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of power linked to a 2009 gas deal with Russia.

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.

But others, led by Germany, have raised conditions linked to judicial and democratic reforms.

“At least for some EU-governments, the release of former prime minister Tymoshenko is a condition sine qua non," Verheugen said, adding: "I doubt the wisdom of this position if I consider the long-term interests of the EU and of Ukraine as well."

"The problem is called 'selective justice'. What does it mean? Do we tell Ukraine: Either you release Mrs Tymoshenko or you put more people into prison? Preferably some from the ruling elite,” Verheugen said.

The former Commission vice president appeared to downplay the significance of the pact, stressing that Ukraine was only preparing to sign an association agreement, not an accession treaty, with the EU. The association agreement offers closer political and economic cooperation, but stops short of offering a path towards EU accession.

“What is at stake in an association agreement? We are not discussing full membership. Therefore I am afraid that we are using double-standards here. Our long-term interest is to organise step-by-step the integration of Ukraine into our structures. If the association agreement enters into force, it will mean that Ukraine has made an irreversible choice and will no longer be in a limbo between the EU and President Putin’s Eurasian Union,” Verheugen said.

Ukraine is under pressure from Russia to join a Russia-led customs union, the backbone of the Eurasian Union promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin is visiting Ukraine on Saturday (27 June), the 1025th anniversary of ‘Baptising Rus’, the Christianisation of Kievan Rus, which ultimately brought Christianity in Russia.

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