25th Oct 2016

Legal quibble delays preparations for EU-Ukraine pact

  • EU diplomats expect to tidy up the legal language in time for a decision next week (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The EU has put off an internal decision on the Ukraine trade treaty over a technicality, amid a “nervous” atmosphere on the fate of the accord.

EU ambassadors meeting in Brussels on Wednesday (11 June) had planned to adopt a common decision to sign the text, paving the way for a signature ceremony by leaders at an EU summit on 27 June.

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But a verdict by the EU court in Luxembourg on Wednesday morning stopped them from going ahead.

The verdict, in a case on an EU-Philippines treaty from 2012, said the EU used the wrong formula to enshrine British, Danish, and Irish opt-outs from some parts of EU law into the legal basis of the Philippines pact.

With the EU planning to use the same formula in the Ukraine text, ambassadors put off their decision until next week, pending clarification.

The European Commission the same day published a statement saying the 27 June ceremony is not in doubt.

“The EU-Ukraine association agreement will be signed as soon as possible and at the latest on 27/6 at the June European Council together with the association agreements with Georgia and Moldova,” it noted.

One EU diplomat added: “Even those member states who were reluctant in the past are all saying: ‘We really want to sign on 27 June’. That’s the important thing”.

The technical glitch comes amid tension in Brussels and Kiev that either side could back out at the last minute due to Russian pressure.

“The [opt-out] countries affected will need to have some bilateral consultations with the EU Council’s legal services and I very much hope this isn’t an issue that will become a stumbling block,” a second EU diplomat said.

“We still have time to adopt the decision ahead of the summit. But this makes us a little nervous. Each and every day, or week, opens new possibilities to disrupt the process”.

The legal wobble came the same day Russia and Ukraine failed to reach agreement on gas prices, adding to uncertainty on the consequences of the EU-Ukraine deal.

Russia said if it does not get a first payment based on a price of $385 per thousand cubic metres by 9am on Monday, it might be forced to halt supplies, with knock-on effects for EU countries who get Russian gas via Ukraine.

Ukraine said it wants $268.5 and legal guarantees the new price will stay in place. It threatened to take the case to a tribunal in Stockholm if need be.

Russia is also see-sawing on whether it will impose trade penalties on Ukraine.

Last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he will impose protectionist measures “as soon as” Ukraine signs the EU pact. But on Tuesday foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said “we will not impose sanctions against Ukraine”.

Putin on Friday met Ukraine’s new leader, Petro Poroshenko.

The meeting raised EU hopes the crisis will abate. But fighting between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces in east Ukraine has continued to intensify.

The Reuters news agency says thousands of people have fled the city of Slaviansk amid an exchange of mortar and artillery fire. Ukraine says at least 270 people have died in the region since fighting began.

The US-based NGO, Human Rights Watch, last week warned that while rebels are “operating in populated residential areas” their “criminal conduct … does not relieve the Ukrainian forces of their obligations to act in accordance with international law”.

The rebels are suspected to be holding eight monitors and a Ukrainian interpreter working for the OSCE, a multilateral body based in Vienna.

Its secretary general, Lamberto Zannier, said in Moscow on Wednesday the kidnapping is “unacceptable - I think we should all keep insisting on their immediate and unconditional release”.

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