Little to celebrate at EU-Ukraine summit
EU leaders have pledged to uphold sanctions on Russia in the run-up to the Ukraine summit this week, but the declaration comes amid multiplying uncertainties over the future of Ukraine ties.
The German, French, Italian and Spanish leaders, at a meeting with outgoing US president Barack Obama in Berlin on Friday (18 November) promised to extend the life of economic sanctions on Russia before they expire on 31 January.
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The formal decision is likely to be taken at an EU summit on 15 December, EU diplomats said, despite on and off grumblings by Russia-friendly states, such as Greece, Hungary, and Italy that the EU should normalise ties with Moscow.
Speaking in Berlin on Friday, British leader Theresa May indicated the EU might even blacklist more Russian officials over Russia’s escalating air strikes against civilians in rebel enclaves in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
“On Syria, of course looking at Aleppo, we were united in our condemnation of the atrocities that are taking place there … We agreed the need to keep up pressure on Russia, including the possibility of sanctions on those who breach international humanitarian law”, she said.
The statements come ahead of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s visit to the EU capital on Thursday (24 November).
They also come amid uncertainty over Western solidarity on Russia after US president-elect Donald Trump comes into office on 20 January.
Trump, in his campaign speeches, repeated the Russian propaganda line that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is “not going into Ukraine” and said that he would “look into” recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Putin, speaking at a summit in Lima on Sunday, said that Trump had not changed his mind.
"The president-elect confirmed he is willing to normalise Russian-American relations. I told him the same”, the Russian leader said.
Poroshenko’s agenda in Brussels will also include talks on the “reform process and [the] EU-Ukraine association agreement”, on visa-free travel for Ukrainian nationals to the EU, and on “Moldova/Transnistria”, the Ukrainian embassy to the EU has said.
The “reform process” centres around measures to rein in corruption in Ukrainian politics.
Ukraine, in late October, brought into life a new online system in which officials declare their private assets.
That was one of the key EU demands in order to release more financial aid and to move ahead on the visa-waiver.
It showed the extent to which even the new generation of post-revolutionary officials have accumulated vast private wealth despite their meagre salaries, however.
Prime minister Volodymyr Groysman declared $1.2 million and €460,000 in cash and a collection of luxury watches. Roman Nasirov, the head of the state fiscal service, said he and his wife owned Swiss watches, diamonds, and fur coats as well as $2 million in cash.
Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, brought in as governor of the Odessa region in order to fight graft, also resigned two weeks ago while accusing Poroshenko himself of protecting mafia structures.
The EU is preparing to release another €600 million in aid on Thursday to invest in transport infrastructure in Ukraine despite the revelations.
The summit will have to put a positive spin on the fact that the future of EU-Ukraine ties - the association agreement - remains in doubt as the Netherlands continues to ponder how to handle a referendum, in April, in which people voted to block ratification of the accord.
Dutch PM Mark Rutte is in talks with opposition politicians at home, his EU colleagues, and Ukrainian diplomats on a solution that could entail attaching a new declaration to the accord.
No one has yet seen Rutte’s draft text, but a Ukrainian source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Dutch leader wants the statement to say that Ukraine is not in line to join the EU, should not engage in military cooperation, and should not receive any extra funds.
The referendum was non-binding, but the source said that Rutte’s team has seized on the opportunity to shrink the scope of future cooperation.
The EU visa-free deal also remains in suspension.
EU ambassadors last week said that member states had agreed to go ahead, but only once a new EU law is put in place that would allow states to freeze the waiver in the event of mass overstays.
The Ukraine summit, which had been due earlier this year, was delayed, in part, to enable Europe to announce the visa-free accord at the Poroshenko meeting, but that is no longer possible due to the EU conditionality.
Mykola Tochytskyi, Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, told the Financial Times newspaper that the summit will be needed to send a good “signal” to the Ukrainian people on future relations.
Roman Sohn, a Ukrainian civil society activist and a columnist for the Ukrainska Parvda news website, told EUobserver: “It is certainly too early to celebrate the visa-free regime. The EU is further undermining its trustworthiness as a reliable partner with the Ukrainian people”.
With Moldova, last weekend, having also elected a pro-Russia candidate, Igor Dodon, there will also be little good to say on the “Moldova/Transnistria” point on Thursday’s agenda.
Moldova had been the front-runner in the EU’s “eastern partnership” policy to build closer ties with former Soviet states.
It already has EU visa-free perks, but even that concession, enacted despite widespread corruption allegations, appears to have done little to stop the EU’s allure from fading on its eastern flank.