Wednesday

24th Apr 2019

EU to deepen ties with former Soviet states

  • Events at, and subsequent to, the last Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius caused shock (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU states are to launch free trade with Ukraine - the centrepiece of the “Eastern Partnership” - in January despite Russian objections.

They plan to say at a summit in Riga on 21 May that “the provisional application of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with Ukraine will start on 1 January 2016” and that “implementation” of the pact, as well as similar treaties with Georgia and Moldova, “will be a top priority of the EU and the partners concerned for the coming years”.

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The draft declaration, seen by EUobserver, notes “the importance of continuing trilateral consultations” with Ukraine and Russia and of “using the existing flexibilities available to the contracting parties [the EU and Ukraine]”.

Russia, at the last trilateral meeting on 21 April, floated the idea of postponing the pact until 2017.

Its ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told press this week Moscow plans to “come back to the issue”, possibly at a ministerial-level meeting, by the end of the month.

He noted “the problem is that this agreement goes much further than just free trade” and he cast doubt on whether Ukraine is ready for implementation, in terms of technical compliance, adding “whether that is indeed the case, we’ll know by the end of the year”.

Germany has also urged the European Commission to show flexibility on Russian concerns.

But an EU source told this website that Berlin doesn’t support delaying the pact or changing its content at this stage.

The Riga summit takes place almost two years after a similar event, in Vilnius in November 2013, in which the former Ukrainian leader rejected the EU trade deal in favour of closer ties with Russia.

His rejection caused shock.

But subsequent events caused more shock. Ukraine’s revolution, in February, saw people shot in the streets of Kiev while waving EU flags. Russia’s covert invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea has created fear of a new Cold War and of a military confrontation with Nato.

The Riga summit text urges Russia and Ukraine to abide by the “Minsk” ceasefire pact, which is in danger of collapse amid ongoing fighting.

It says “summit participants do not recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by the Russian Federation” and calls on “all parties to fully co-operate with the international investigations ... to hold to account those who are responsible for the downing of [flight] MH17” last July.

The text acknowledges that the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy, in Chizhov’s words, “goes much further than just free trade”.

It says the DCFTAs with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are “means of achieving sustainable democracy and the deep modernisation of these partner countries' economies and societies”.

The Eastern Partnership also includes Armenia (which, due to Russian pressure, opted to join Russia’s Eurasian Union), Azerbaijan (mostly interested in selling oil and gas to Europe), and Belarus (which shows no sign of reform, but which wants better EU ties to protect itself from Russian influence).

The Riga text adds that despite differences in “partners' ambitions and needs”, summit participants aim to create “a wider area of economic prosperity based on WTO [World Trade Organisation] rules and sovereign choices”.

It notes that EU business with Georgia and Moldova has increased since they signed their trade pacts.

It doesn’t offer visa-free travel to Georgia or Ukraine, as they had hoped. But it says Moldova visa-free travel, which started in April last year, is “operating effectively” and it hails progress in talks on a “mobility partnership” with Belarus.

It says the former Soviet states “welcome the EU's strengthened role in conflict resolution” in the region, “including through field presence when appropriate”.

It notes relations with the six former Soviet republics are also deepening in other areas.

The list includes Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine’s participation in EU military missions; EU assistance on “civilian security sector reform and cyber security”; EU help with “civil protection and disaster management”; joint work on “major energy infrastructure projects and interconnectivity” infrastructure; as well as joint aviation pacts.

The draft text says the EU should focus on “practical projects” which “contribute to demonstrating to citizens the tangible benefits brought about by the partnership”.

Amid a Russian propaganda campaign to rubbish the EU, it adds the six countries agree “to strengthen strategic communication efforts”.

Member states’ diplomats will, in an EU Council working group in Brussels on Thursday, begin work on amending the declaration in the run-up to Riga.

The main points are unlikely to change.

But one EU contact said: “This is really the first draft, from mid-April, so after talks with EU states and with the partners, we’ll know better what the real basis [for a joint statement] is”.

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Russian president celebrated WWII victory saying a 1939 pact - which included plans to invade Poland - was the only way to guarantee security for an isolated Soviet Union.

Eastern Partnership: In search of meaning

Twenty-five EU leaders and six former Soviet states are meeting in the shadow of the Ukraine crisis and amid divergent views on future relations.

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