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”.