Tuesday

13th Apr 2021

EU adopts legal basis for Ukraine treaty

  • The EU-Ukraine summit in February: what does Yanukovych really want? (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The European Commission will on Wednesday (15 May) adopt a legal proposal for EU countries to sign a major treaty with Ukraine despite scant progress on reform.

In what EU officials are calling a purely "technical" step, the decision will enable member states to sign a political association and free trade pact with Kiev later this year.

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If they sign, the deal would still have to be ratified by 27 national governments before it enters into life.

But the proposal includes arrangements for "provisional application" of the free trade treaty - a far-reaching document on aligning legal standards in trade and industry, described by some experts as "EU accession-lite."

It also comes amid an acceleration in bilateral contacts.

Enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele recently met Ukraine's deputy PM Serhiy Arbuzov and its national security chief Andriy Klyuev - two important behind-the-scenes figures - prompting media speculation the treaty signature is afoot.

Despite Brussels' low publicity for Wednesday's proposal, it has political significance.

Fuele earlier this year said mid-May was a deadline for Ukraine to make reforms if it wants to sign the treaty at an EU summit with post-Soviet states in Vilnius in November.

But reforms have been few and far between.

On the number one topic of "selective justice" - the use of courts to hound opposition leaders - Ukraine has freed former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko.

But the 58-year-old is a broken man in poor health and his pardon does not include rehabilitation, meaning he cannot take part in the next presidential elections.

Meanwhile, former PM Yulia Tymoshenko - also in poor health in jail - has little chance of getting out before November.

Anna Herman, a close aide of President Viktor Yanukovych, on Monday told press Tymoshenko cannot be pardoned until two upcoming trials - on a contract killing and on embezzlement - are over.

Ukraine has also drafted a law on judicial reform, but the draft came too late to enable EU lawyers to make a proper analysis before the Vilnius event.

In a game of brinksmanship between Brussels and Kiev, Fuele told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency on Tuesday "one possibility" is for EU foreign ministers to decide on the signature in late October.

He downplayed his Kluyev and Arbuzov meetings as an ongoing "assessment" process.

He also said media reports he told Kluyev the EU is happy to sign whether or not Tymoshenko goes free have "nothing to do with reality."

Poland and Lithuania have distanced themselves from the Tymoshenko cause, however.

Their diplomats say the future of Ukraine is more important than one person, while highlighting alleged corruption in her time in office.

Germany, previously sceptical on boosting EU-Ukraine ties, has also moved closer to Poland's point of view.

Its diplomats say it would be useful to give Kiev a promise of future EU enlargement in order to entice it toward the West.

But doubts remain on Yanukovych's intentions.

The status quo - with Ukraine in a grey zone between the EU and Russia - has seen the President's family grow rich.

His son, Olexander, doubled his income to $196 million a year in 2012, while Yanukovych senior lives in a mansion estimated to cost up to $100 million.

He has used the prospect of an EU deal to try to wangle cheaper gas from Russia, while using threats of joining a Russia-led Customs Unions to wangle EU concessions on reform.

Both the EU and Russia pose a threat to his power.

If he goes down the path of pro-EU democratisation, he risks being unseated in elections. But if he joins the Customs Union, he risks having business interests gobbled up by Russian oligarchs.

"We are seeing signs of an attempt to derail the association agreement, but in such a way that he [Yanukovych] can blame it on the EU side in order to save face at home," one Kiev-based EU diplomat said.

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