19th Feb 2019

Ukraine gets enlargement wink

Ukraine on Thursday (6 October) got the clearest signal so far that it is in the queue for enlargement, as well as the promise of an EU visa deal by December.

"Our door remains open. The future of Ukraine is in Europe", European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said after a meeting with Kiev's new prime minister Yuri Yekhanurov in Brussels.

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  • Mr Yekhanurov was on his first official visit to Brussels (Photo: Ukraine government)

The president cautioned that "the best way to achieve this" is to take concrete steps in terms of administrative and economic reforms, instead of "talking about accession all the time".

But his remarks were much more positive than recent comments from commission vice president Siim Kallas and enlargement chief Olli Rehn, who gave the impression that the door might close after Turkey and the western Balkans go in.

"We have hostility in Europe not only to possible future enlargement but even to the enlargement that we have already agreed, with popular demonstrations and politicians saying we made a mistake", Mr Kallas had said in meetings earlier the same day.

Brussels' economics and finance department director, Antonio de Lecca, was even starker. "There is real economic integration, but this process is entirely separate from any proposals of enlargement", he had indicated.

Member states push

Eastern European EU diplomats hovering on the fringes of Thursday's gatherings also indicated that there is plenty of interest in the Ukrainian enlargement idea away from the glare of public opinion.

"Many of us want this. It is the commission's job to be cautious and it is our job to push", a senior Polish source said.

But both sides are set to focus on small, practical steps toward closer relations in line with Mr Barroso's advice for now.

The commission president said that Brussels has completed preparations for a visa deal enabling easier travel for Ukrainian students and businessmen to the Schengen zone.

The agreement could form the keynote of the EU-Ukraine summit in Kiev this December, if member states give the green light in time.

On top of this, Ukraine claims to be on the verge of obtaining market economy status and joining the World Trade Organisation by the end of this year, with Mr Yekhanurov calling the WTO target "realistic".

The move would pave the way for starting talks on a free trade area (FTA) with the EU in January giving Ukrainian energy and steel firms access to the single market down the line.

Turkish diplomats revealed on Thursday that the commission has already begun work on a feasability study for the FTA talks.

Credibility problems

Mr Yekhanurov took over from former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko last month, after president Viktor Yushchenko sacked his government over corruption allegations.

The crisis has compounded the credibility problems of the post-Orange Revolution regime, with overall economic growth and foreign investment in Ukraine nosediving this year.

Some firms, such as power plant specialists EnerSys are still pouring hundreds of millions of euros into new facilities in the country.

But many businessmen swap anecdotes about the upsurge in corruption and the rise in the cost of bribes since the Yushchenko era began.

"The problem with the colour revolutions, is that they are clan revolutions, where one clan takes over from another", a Slovenian diplomat explained.

Mr Yekhanourov promised to boost the business climate by halting this month the renationalisation process begun by his predecessors, while saying property ownership is "sacred" in Kiev.

But Mr Barroso and Mr Kallas both stressed that the real "litmus test" in Ukraine's march toward deeper European integration will be the fair conduct of the parliamentary elections next March.

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