22nd Oct 2016

Uncertainty on date of EU-Ukraine treaty signature

Ukraine has asked to sign a landmark EU treaty this weekend, but EU countries expect to do it at the end of the month.

The “deep and comprehensive free trade agreement” - a 5kg box of technical documents - is at the heart of the Ukraine crisis.

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Its signature means Ukraine can have free trade with Russia but is legally bound to stay out of its Eurasian Union.

More than 100 people died in the “EuroMaidan” revolution over the way of life it symbolises: rule of law; democracy; and prosperity.

Dozens more have died since Russia attacked Ukraine in February and the conflict could escalate if that is how Russia decides to stop Ukraine-EU integration.

For his part, Ukraine’s president-elect, Petro Poroshenko, has asked EU institutions to sign the pact in the margins of his inauguration ceremony in Kiev on Saturday (7 June).

The original plan was to sign together with Georgia and Moldova treaties in the margins of an EU summit in Brussels on 27 June.

Poroshenko’s people say only that he wants to sign “as soon as possible”.

Some EU diplomats say he wants to do it on his big day for PR purposes. But they warn that the longer the EU waits, the more time Russia has for “tricks or surprises” to stop it happening. “Even if Poroshenko is doing it to boost his popularity at home, the main thing is to have the signature in the bag,” an EU source said.

The EU can sign on Saturday, but the clock is ticking.

EU ambassadors meeting in Brussels on Wednesday would have to agree. EU ministers of transport or home affairs, in Brussels on Thursday, would then have to rubber stamp the decision.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian and EU diplomats need to insert a new line on the territorial scope of the pact, taking into account Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

In a final step, EU leaders who are not going to Kiev on Saturday would have to empower ambassadors or ministers to sign on their behalf.

EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy and Polish PM Donald Tusk are among 20 foreign VIPs who will attend. But French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are not going, while the UK says it is "unlikely" PM David Cameron will be there.

“I'm not sure we can push it through in time. We [the EU] are a slow tanker and it takes us a while to change direction,” an EU official said.

Several EU countries, including France, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and the UK, expect the signature to take place on 27 June despite Poroshenko’s idea.

A diplomat from one leading EU state defended the delay.

He told EUobserver that Poroshenko should first appoint pro-Western people in his cabinet and launch reforms to show he is serious. “We need a predictable partner … Poroshenko looks positive, but if he is capable of changing his mind because of something that happens in the next 20 or so days, then he would not be much different from [ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor] Yanukovych. Better wait and make sure”, the source said.

Another EU diplomat added: “The EU doesn’t want this historic moment [the treaty signature] to have relatively low visibility in Kiev.”

A third EU diplomat said Ukraine’s future might be decided when Poroshenko, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, US President Barack Obama, and EU leaders mingle at WWII and Cold War anniversary events in Europe this week.

Poroshenko’s invitation to D-Day solemnities in France is in itself a novelty: In the past, Russia used to come to such events as the representative of all former Soviet republics, except the Baltic states, who fought Hitler.

But the EU diplomat said “the West would be very happy to appease Putin if possible.”

He added that Poroshenko knows the EU treaty is a “red line” for Russia and he might also barter with it to stop escalation or get lower gas prices.

The diplomat recalled last November, when Yanukovych opted not to sign at the last moment before a summit in Vilnius. “We might have to live with the same uncertainty again until the last minute before the signature in Kiev or in Brussels,” he said.

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