EU trying to relaunch Ukraine peace process
By Eric Maurice
The EU is seeking ways to secure a continued ceasefire and organisation of local elections in eastern Ukraine as well as to relaunch talks between Ukraine and Russia on a peace agreement.
Foreign ministers meeting in Bratislava on Friday (2 September) restated that the Minsk ceasefire pact remained the "key reference and key way of solving the conflict," EU diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini said.
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The pact was agreed in February 2015 by Ukraine and Russian presidents Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin after negotiations with German and French leaders Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande.
A meeting of the so-called Normandy Format, the group of the four leaders set up to follow how the Minsk accord is implemented, was planned in the margins of the G20 summit in China next week. But it was cancelled after increased fighting in eastern Ukraine during summer and a Russian military build-up near the Ukrainian border.
"For now we feel reluctance on the Russian side about the Normandy format," French minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Friday.
Merkel and Hollande will meet Putin at the G20 anyway to try to bring him back to the negotiation table. And Ayrault and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier were looking for a date to go to Kiev.
The French minister said that France and Germany were going to take initiatives "to get out of this situation which is not good, which is not acceptable".
The lack of progress in the peace process led to some discussion about the role of the Berlin-Paris tandem. "Not everyone agrees with Germany and France," an EU source told EUobserver.
Mogherini before the meeting suggested that the EU played a more important role in the process. But Ayrault insisted that "France and Germany have responsibility for the Normandy format," and after the meeting Mogherini expressed "full support for the Normandy format".
Part of the problem is that the parties in the Minsk talks do not have the same interpretation of the ceasefire, said the Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak, whose country currently chairs the Council of the EU.
"Moscow's reading of the set of steps is different from the Kiev's reading," he said.
“As long as we have different interpretations, there is no chance to have a progress," he said, adding that he expected from the Normandy four a clear view of who should do what and when.
'Keep pressure on Russia'
The situation on the ground improved in recent days with a truce signed for the restart of the school year.
"We see in these hours in the east of Ukraine a ceasefire that is holding," Mogherini noted.
But implementation of the accord has been stumbling for months on the issue of local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk regions under pro-Russian separatists control.
Ministers in Bratislava said the EU was ready to provide support for the vote in certain areas of the two regions "once the preconditions set by OSCE are met," Mogherini said, referring to the pan-European security organisation that monitors the situation on the ground.
Mogherini said that the EU in particular could support the OSCE's police or monitoring missions, but she said there would be "definitively no" EU peacekeeping mission.
She said the EU could also in the short term provide "financial and technical support to activities to improve living conditions of the population."
Frustration with Ukraine
In the long term, the EU is also ready to help Ukraine to reconstruct and reform.
Next to the political and military side of the country's future, which is the domain of the Normandy powers, the EU should focus on the economic side, the EU source said.
But "Ukraine doesn't seem to be very interested in going forward," and there is frustration from the EU, he said.
"What is happening in the East [of Ukraine] should not be used as a pretext to delay reforms," he added.
Ministers also talked about sanctions against Russia, ahead of a discussion on EU-Russia relations by EU leaders at their next summit in October.
"There were no major different positions," Mogherini said, repeating that lifting of sanctions would be linked to the full implementation of Minsk.
"It's important to keep the pressure on Russia until we see progress on the Minsk agreement," British minister Boris Johnson said.
Mogherini said that leaders would talk "not only about sanctions but also abut what sanctions are connected to, which is the situation on the ground."
"The issue is not the sanctions themselves, the issue is the solution of the conflict," she said.