Minister: Ukraine is next for EU visa-free travel

Konstantin Yelisieyiev.jpg

After Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, whose citizens enjoy visa free travel in the Schengen space, the next country to break the visa barrier will be Ukraine, the country's Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Ukraine Konstantin Yelisieiev told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Konstantin Yelisieiev, born in 1970, is a career diplomat. He has previously worked in France and served as deputy representative of Ukraine to the EU.

He has held the position of deputy foreign affairs minister since 2007.

He was speaking to EURACTIV's Georgi Gotev and Christophe Leclercq.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Mr. Yelisieiev: what brings you to Brussels? We hear that the visa issue ranks highly on your country's list of priorities with the EU.

My main purpose is to meet EU officials and discuss the practical steps which will be made by Ukraine to have a rapprochement vis-à-vis the EU and to implement the agreements reached during the first foreign visit of our new president, Mr. [Viktor] Yanukovich, to Brussels, which took place on the first of March, as well the Brussels visit of new Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. [Kostyantyn] Gryshchenko on 10 May.

Indeed, one of the important points is the visa regime. We have a very pragmatic approach to European integration. For us, this is not abstract things. This is first and foremost a chance of modernisation for my country, for making the life of our people happier and easier.

Among others, there are two very pragmatic issues to be settled very soon in this perspective. One is the liberalisation of the visa regime, with an ultimate goal to cancel visas, and secondly, to accelerate and complete the negotiations on creating a deep and comprehensive free trade area between Ukraine and the EU.

Are those issues related?

Yes. And I am sure that we will have great progress. Even today [19 May], following visa-free regime dialogue at the level of senior officials, we reached very important decisions on the EU-Ukraine Troika ministerial meeting, which will take place at the beginning of June. We are discussing the document, which will clearly define the criteria to be met by Ukraine.

Is this the so-called 'roadmap' for visa liberalisation?

Yes, indeed.

You mean the roadmap that recently led Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro to visa-free travel within the Schengen space?

Yes, indeed. And you can write down: the next country on this list will be Ukraine. Because the results of today's meeting and hopefully the results of the June ministerial meeting in Luxembourg will confirm this optimism.

The Russians are reportedly on the same track. It is said that the EU-Russia summit on 31 May-1 June in Rostov-na-Don will be a kind of 'visa summit', as the issue will rank high on the agenda.

My main concern is the preparation of the EU-Ukraine summit, which will take place in October. About Russia, I can say: the closer their relations with the EU, the better for Ukraine. And we welcome the fruitful cooperation between Russia and the EU.

You won't be jealous if the Russians break the visa barrier as well?

I don't want to prejudge the decisions of the EU-Russia summit. I can only say that each country should be judged on its own merits. I think that Ukraine merits obtaining a positive decision for a roadmap leading to a visa-free regime. Especially as we have made important progress, especially over the last week, on the implementation of some preconditions.

Do you set yourselves an internal target date for the visas to be lifted? Maybe in time for the Euro 2012 football championships hosted by Ukraine and Poland?

I don't want to commit political suicide by fixing target dates [laughs]. It's not good for me as a negotiator, and secondly, I don't want to raise false expectations.

I think the visa-free regime will be given to Ukraine as soon as it implements appropriate preconditions and meets appropriate benchmarks. But as you used football terminology, I will say that the EU decision to come up with a roadmap is very important, because then the ball will be in the Ukrainian camp. It will mean that the visa-free regime will depend mostly on Ukrainian efforts and capability to make appropriate reforms and [show] commitment.

As for Euro 2012, for Ukraine this is an historic chance to modernise and to show to all Europeans that we are a country with a European heart, that we are the centre of Europe. To my mind, the successful preparation of Euro 2012 will be the moral application for Ukrainian EU membership.

The visas do not give their holders the right to work. Are you addressing movement of labour as well?

These issues are separate. We address this issue in the framework of negotiations on a deep and comprehensive free-trade area. I am emphasising 'deep' and 'comprehensive', because this is not a classical free-trade area.

Comprehensive means that this is an FTA which includes four major freedoms, among others the freedom of movement, which should include the freedom of finding employment, maybe on a gradual basis. And 'deep' means not axed on protectionist measures, but on approximation of policies, such as sanitary and phyto-sanitary, meaning abandoning technical obstacles to trade, etc.

This is one of the most advanced FTAs existing in EU practice. This why it takes a lot of time to put it in place. And we consider the FTA as way of gradually integrating Ukraine into the EU internal market.

Indeed, we can see the track between an FTA, then a customs union – like the one the EU has with Turkey – and is a bit more advanced than an FTA. Then, possibly, a membership perspective. However, it is not compatible for a country like Ukraine to have customs unions on both sides, also with Russia, as Moscow wishes. Will you lift this dilemma?

Our main aspiration is European integration. In this regard, an FTA with the EU is one of our priorities. You are right, an FTA with the EU and a customs union with some of the CIS countries is not compatible: for the simple reason that we are members of the WTO, and Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are not.  

If Russia joins the WTO, will there be any problems for customs unions from both sides?

I am unfortunately not working on assumptions, but only on the practical side of things. As from today, it is as I told you.

But would you welcome Russia joining the WTO?

Of course. Because this is a normal global trend, and such a big economy should be member of the WTO, as was the case for China.

As deputy foreign minister, are you also responsible for relations with Russia?

Not in a full-fledged capacity, but I'm ready to answer your questions.

My question is about the great ambitions that became obvious following a series of bilateral meetings between Ukraine and Russia. Figures like 100 billion dollars of turnover were mentioned at a very high political level. How does this fit with what you said before?

Good neighbourly, stable and predictable relations with Russia are an inalienable part of the European policy of Ukraine. The better the relations with Russia, the better for Ukraine's EU integration.

You mentioned 100 billion dollars. Because of the economic crisis, there is a decline in our turnover with the Russian Federation. It looks there are some positive moves and our goal is to achieve the results of 2008, when we had about 35 or 40 billion US dollars of trade turnover.

But let me remind you that the trade turnover of Ukraine with the EU is at 150 billion US dollars. Compare this with the turnover with our big neighbour Belarus, which is important, but is of 5 billion dollars.

Let me also say that if we unite our efforts, Ukraine and the Russian Federation, we could become the biggest producers of aircraft. Let me just mention the Antonov 70 [a next-generation medium-range transport aircraft, and the first large aircraft to be propelled by propfan engines]. The EU has similar aircrafts only on paper, while Ukraine is already using two such aircraft. I can give you many examples. Ukraine is a space country: let me mention the Cyclon programme of launching satellites from Alcantara, Brazil.

Obviously, you can provide many examples, but why is this little known in Europe? Ukraine is not very well known in this town…

You are completely right. But to communicate, we need not only money, we need a clear-cut state programme. Indeed, this is a field where a lot of efforts are needed. 

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