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21st Jul 2018

EU-Ukraine deal to be decided at the 'last minute'

The fate of EU-Ukraine relations, and the EU's broader efforts to reform post-Soviet countries on its eastern borders, is likely to be decided at the "last minute" before a summit at the end of the month.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday (18 November) again urged Ukraine to free its former PM, Yulia Tymoshenko, so that they can sign a strategic treaty with Kiev at a summit in Vilnius on 28 November.

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"I know the time is melting away, but there is still time," Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius told press.

"We have warned Ukrainian authorities several times not to leave things to the last minute, but here we are," Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski noted.

"Time is running out," Germany's Guido Westerwelle said.

Deadlines for the Tymoshenko decision have come and gone in recent days.

Two European Parliament envoys were due to file their final report on "selective justice" in Ukraine last week, but they will now do it on Tuesday instead.

The foreign ministers' meeting on Monday was also due to make a final decision on the treaty.

But European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in a phone call with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last Friday persuaded him to meet with neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele in Kiev, also on Tuesday, to try to salvage the EU political association and free trade pact.

The Ukrainian parliament is holding another extraordinary session on Tuesday to pass laws on electoral reform and judicial independence in line with EU demands.

But Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, who drew up the Union's "Eastern Partnership" policy together with Sikorski, said on Monday that Tymoshenko is the real problem.

"Everything is in the hands of President Yanukovych. We have a policy. I'm not so sure he has a policy," he told media.

For their part, Ukrainian diplomats say that signing the EU treaty is more complicated than it looks.

One Ukrainian source noted that Russia is putting enormous pressure on Ukraine not to go down the EU path.

"We don't want a new Cold War in our region," the contact said, referring to Russian threats to impose trade barriers on Ukrainian exports and to cut off gas.

The source said the EU should use its influence to get the International Monetary Fund to release financial assistance to Ukraine to prevent a potential economic meltdown.

The contact admitted that even senior Ukrainian officials do not know what Russian leader Vladimir Putin is saying to Yanukovych in their recent series of "man-to-man" meetings.

Echoing Sikorski, the Ukrainian contact added that a final decision on the EU treaty will probably be taken at the Vilnius summit itself.

But some EU diplomats and politicians have already given up hope.

A leading Polish MEP from the ruling centre-right Civic Platform party told Polish daily Rzeczpospolita over the weekend that Yanukovych is negotiating with the EU in "bad faith."

"It's a sad fact … but it seems the decision has already been made. The Russian offer and the talks with President Vladimir Putin is what Viktor Yanukovych has chosen," he said.

If Ukraine does not sign the treaty in Vilnius, the pact risks being put on the shelf until at least Ukrainian presidential elections in 2015.

It also risks going in the bin permanently if Yanukovych joins Putin's Customs Union instead.

If Ukraine does not sign the pact in Vilnius, it will represent a major blow for the Eastern Partnership idea of pulling the six former Soviet republics on the EU's eastern flank out of Russia's sphere of influence.

Belarus is in any case a lost cause due to the intransigence of its long-serving dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Armenia has said it will join the Customs Union after Putin threatened to make trouble in its frozen conflict with Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is just as bad as Belarus in terms of democratic standards, even if it does sign a "Strategic Modernisation Partnership" with the European Union in Vilnius - a largely empty document designed to gratify its leader's ego so that he pumps his gas to the EU in a new pipeline.

Georgia and Moldova are likely to initial association pacts and move a step closer to EU visa-free travel.

But both of them still play unwilling host to thousands of Putin's soldiers, putting any real chance of future EU integration in doubt.

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