EU keeps door half-open for Ukraine

Yushenko1.jpg

By keeping Ukraine’s EU accession prospects alive, European Union leaders yesterday (9 September) steered clear of creating a “damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t” situationby balancing a desire to encourage the country’s pro-Western leadership with concerns not to further radicalise Moscow in the wake of the Georgia crisis.

The venue of the EU-Ukraine summit yesterday became the latest casualty of the Georgia-Russia crisis. 

Originally scheduled to take place in the Alpine resort of Evian, the summit had to be moved at the last minute to the Elysée Palace in Paris due to the time constraints of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other top EU officials, who were returning from a mission to Moscow and Tbilisi (EURACTIV 09/09/08). Amid the haste, the final document still referred to the Paris event as “the Evian summit”. 

At the summit, EU leaders offered Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko closer ties and recognised the legitimacy of Ukraine’s European aspirations, but stopped short of issuing a firm membership pledge. 

The summit conclusions state that the legal basis between Ukraine and the EU, currently under negotiation, will be referred to as an “association agreement” as has always been the case with prospective EU members. But the EU has also signed “association” deals with a number of its trading partners, including Chile and Egypt. What’s more, a far-from-poetic formula dims the membership perspective, specifying instead that the bloc “leaves the door open to progressive further developments in EU-Ukraine relations”. 

In fact, despite the expectations, the summit did not go further than what was already agreed at foreign ministers’ level before the Georgia crisis (EURACTIV 23/07/08). 

The divided meet the separated 

The EU appeared to be divided at the summit, with France, Germany and Italy advocating a cautious approach to Moscow, while Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Baltic states expressed their wish to develop stronger ties with the EU’s eastern neighbourhood after the Georgia crisis. 

Discussions were further complicated when EU leaders met a Ukrainian president currently in the throes of conflict with his prime minister, former Orange revolution ally Yulia Timoshenko (EURACTIV 04/09/08). EU leaders would have preferred to receive both the Ukrainian president and the prime minister, but only Yuschenko and his foreign Minister Volodymyr Ogryzko made the trip to Paris. 

Diplomats said Germany and the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent Belgium, were the most reluctant to state clearly that Ukraine could one day join the EU. 

“This is the maximum that we could do,” said Sarkozy. 

Yushchenko put up a courageous face and stressed the positive achievements. “Today we started a very ambitious plan that will with time lead us to victory. Today we received the qualification of a European country,” said Yuschenko. 

Ukraine the next target? 

But a Ukrainian diplomat complained that Kiev has been the victim of EU divisions. European diplomats had also expressed bitterness over the ill-timed political in-fighting between the two leaders of the pro-Western coalition. EU leaders, and notably French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, had warned Ukraine about possible destabilisation following the Georgia crisis (EURACTIV 27/08/08). Olli Rehn, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, had also said Ukraine could become Russia’s next target if it was not offered membership. 

An agreement on visa facilitation seemed to be the only sweetener for Ukraine, at least in the short term, with the two parties agreeing to launch a “visa dialogue aimed at developing the adequate conditions with the long-term perspective of establishing a visa-free regime between the EU and Ukraine”. 

French Socialist MEP Bernard Poignant  warned in an article published by the daily Le Monde that the Georgian war represents a precedent for a Crimean war. Recalling that the agreement between Moscow and Kiev to use the military naval base of Sebastopol expires in 2017, Poignant argues that Moscow will continue to repeat the scenario of issuing Russian passports to the local population until these "Russian citizens" issue a call to their Moscow brothers to come to the rescue. "If Europe does not anticipate, all it will have left is its tears," the French MEP writes. 

Andrew Wilson, a Russia and Eastern Europe expert for the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, said the outcome of Tuesday's talks was a clear step forward for Ukraine. "On balance, it's good news for Ukraine compared to where we were four years ago, three years ago or even three months ago. The problem with these kind of summits is that often expectations race ahead. Clearly Ukrainian expectations were very high, probably too high. But given what has been achieved in practice, Ukraine has got quite a lot," he said. 

Graham Watson, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats group in the European Parliament, welcomed the positive signal sent by the EU to its Ukrainian neighbours. "Paradoxically, Prime Minister Putin's military adventure in the summer has done more for the cohesion of EU foreign policy than any number of Council statements could have achieved. He has re-awakened the demons of the former Soviet era and pushed many former soviet satellites to seek shelter and stability in the European Union framework," said Watson. 

Ukraine, a country of 46 million people wedged between the EU and Russia, had hoped that Russia's military assault on Georgia last month - and its subsequent de facto annexation of Georgian territory - might prompt the EU to open its doors to Ukraine. 

With its gas pipelines, Ukraine is an important energy route for Europe and is seen as crucial for the EU's long-term goal of securing its energy supply. 

Kiev has been preparing for full EU membership by 2020. Even the pro-Russian population in the eastern part of the country is not opposed to joining the Union, although the population is divided on NATO membership, for which President Yushchenko has been pressing. 

NATO recently delayed a decision on opening its doors to Ukraine and Georgia, a step which would be seen in Moscow as the ultimate US-led provocation in its "near abroad" (EURACTIV 02/04/08). Many Ukrainians fear that Moscow covets Ukraine's strategic Crimea peninsula on the Black Sea, which is home to an ethnic Russian majority and is the site of a Russian naval base in the port of Sevastopol. 

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe

Want to know what's going on in the EU Capitals daily? Subscribe now to our new 9am newsletter.