Schulz: Door is still open for Ukraine

Martin Schulz. Esterwegen, 2013. [Matthias Groote/Flickr]

European Parliament President Martin Schulz has reaffirmed the EU's position that the door remains open to Ukraine after its decision to put on hold its EU association process last month in favour of closer relations with Russia. EU leaders are expected to discuss relations with Ukraine and Russia when their meeting resumes today (20 December).

Speaking to EU leaders yesterday, Schulz said the European Parliament was disappointed about Ukraine's decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU.

“Nonetheless, we believe that it is better to keep the door open for negotiations with Ukraine. That should be done, at the very least, on account of the pro-democracy movements in the country, which we must not leave in the lurch,” Schulz said.

EURACTIV asked the European Parliament President to explain how the EU could “keep its door open” after Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich clearly chose Russia, and what was the message to the Ukrainian pro-European opposition which is still occupying Kyiv’s central Maidan square.

Schulz said that the message to the opposition was precisely that the EU door remains open (see our video below).

According to Schulz, if the EU had stopped its dialogue, it would have sent a negative signal to the opposition that Europe was abandoning the country. This would disappoint those who protest Yanukovich’s decision to take money from Russia and accept cheap gas prices instead of an EU rapprochement.

Schulz stopped short of calling this a geopolitical U-turn.

“My message to them is: this is for the next year. Perhaps this is enough for the next year and until 2015. But you need a long-term strategy and the long-term strategy is still, we are convinced, better with us than without us. And this should be the offer to the government. This is a government in office. We can’t make it disappear, it’s there, we have to live with it,” Shulz said.

He added that the EU’s message to the government should be: “we are prepared to discuss with you”, but that this was at the same time a message to the opposition, who should know that the EU was not giving up the idea of drawing in Ukraine.

Another insight into the EU’s political thinking about Ukraine was provided by the new German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose second visit after Paris was in Warsaw, the EU country most determined to bring Ukraine closer to the EU.

Steinmeier made it clear that he would not go to the Maidan, as did his predecessor, Guido Westerwelle. In a televised appearance, Yanukovich yesterday slammed Westerwelle, as well as EU’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and US senator John McCain for speaking to the protestors in Maidan and meddling in his country’s affairs.

The German Social Democrat minister appeared to recognise that Ukraine was a country traditionally divided between a pro-EU, western part of the country and a pro-Russian south (Crimean) and east (the industrialised regions of Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk).

"The problem is that no decisions have taken place that would free this country [Ukraine] from its inner division," Steinmeier said, adding that he hoped to revitalise foreign ministerial talks between Poland, Germany and Russia.

Steinmeier, who talks with Polish President Bronis?aw Komorowski and Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, called on Ukraine's government and to the opposition to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

"We are both highly interested that the situation does not escalate … If Yanukovich wanted to find a solution, then he would have long done this. But he simply doesn't want to find a solution," Steinmeier was quoted as saying by Deutsche Welle.

Leaders are expected to discuss EU-Russia relations are also expected to be discussed at the EU summit. Lithuania and Poland, who are bordering the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, say they are worried about reports of deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles. Moscow has long threatened to move Iskander short-range missile systems to Kaliningrad in response to the United States' own European missile shield.

Speaking during a marathon four-hour press conference, a yearly event that has become tradition, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied yesterday that such missiles had been deployed in Kaliningrad.

Russia takes steps to avoid Sochi boycott

At the end of the conference, Putin made the surprising announcement that he was likely to pardon to his jailed long-time rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil tycoon. He also said that the two remaining jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot would also be freed under an amnesty.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alyokhina, 25, are serving a two-year jail sentence for performing a "punk prayer" against Putin and his ties to the Russian Orthodox church in Moscow's main cathedral.

The amnesty will also enable 30 people arrested in a Greenpeace protest against Arctic oil drilling to avoid trial.

The international press has reported that the move by Putin is an attempt to smooth over western criticism ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi (7-23 February 2014).

Russia is reportedly worried by announcements by many Western leaders, including US President Barack Obama and his French colleague, François Hollande, who said they would not go to Sochi.

EU leaders were unable to adopt a common position on the occasion of the matches of the Euro 2012 football championship held in Ukraine. Germany had called for a boycott at political level, but Poland, who co-hosted the championship, said that political boycotts of athletic events are counterproductive.

It is not to be excluded that the question of adopting a common position regarding the Sochi Olympics be brought to the summit table.

Asked if he would see the Russian president differently since the announcement that Khodorkovsky would be freed, Schulz laughed.

“I see Mr Putin with the same eyes as before, I’m rather astonished by the question,” Schulz said.

  • 7-23 Feb. 2014: Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia

The Ukrainian government announced on 21 November that it had decided to stop its preparations to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU. 

The statement made it clear that the decision was taken with a view to elaborating measures towards “Russia and other countries from the Community of Independent States”.

Ukraine said it would propose to the EU and Russia the formation of “a tripartite commission to handle complex issues”.

A last-ditch attempt on 29 November by EU leaders to convince Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich to sign the AA failed. Dalia Grybauskait?, the Lithuanian president and summit host, said Yanukovich arrived in Vilnius without any intention to reach an agreement.

Following the news that Yanukovich failed to sign the AA, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets, demanding his resignation [read more].

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