Wednesday

31st Aug 2016

EU-Ukraine summit to mark new chapter in relations

The EU aims to give Ukraine a stern warning about financial and political reform at an upcoming summit, as the two sides head into a new, more pragmatic chapter in bilateral relations.

In an anecdote told by one EU official, a close ally of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, Oleh Rybachuk, visited Brussels shortly after the Orange Revolution in November 2004. Following a marathon of meetings in various formats in the EU institutions, Mr Rybachuk's frustration came to a head. "He just said 'Look, who do I have to talk to round here to get Ukraine into the European Union?'" the EU official recalled.

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  • Yulia Tymoshenko (c), on the campaign trail at the Junior Eurovision final in Kiev on 21 November (Photo: tymoshenko.ua)

Five years down the line, the EU has a new "foreign minister" who is preparing to attend the summit in Kiev on 4 December.

But the event is likely to be the last of its kind for the Orange Revolution hero, Mr Yushchenko, who trails badly in polls ahead of presidential elections in January.

The question of EU accession remains firmly off the agenda despite romantic ideas among some Ukrainian diplomats that the country should submit a formal application for membership next year.

The EU is equally unwilling to open up borders with its eastern neighbour: At a meeting of foreign ministers last week, only Lithuania, Estonia and Slovakia backed a plan to offer Ukraine a "roadmap" for visa-free travel in the next few years.

Even Poland, traditionally Ukraine's biggest friend in Brussels, has become fed up with its internal instability and confrontational negotiating tactics.

If Ukraine embroils the EU in a fresh gas crisis with Russia in January, as feared, or fails to hold normal presidential elections, relations will deteriorate further.

The EU is keen to keep making progress on a technical Association Agreement and to help Ukraine cope with its recession.

But European Commission plans to offer €500 million in economic aid are under review because of Kiev's unwillingness to curb public spending or to clean up waste and corruption at its national gas company, Naftogaz.

Limited objectives

In this context, the union's main objective at the summit will be to "send clear messages on the need for determined and decisive action on reform," according to an internal EU paper. The union does not expect a quick reaction. "What kind of commitment can we ask from the Ukrainians in this regard even before the elections?" the internal paper said.

Ukraine's likely next president and current prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, stands accused of cultivating an authoritarian style reminiscent of the country's pre-Orange Revolution leader, Leonid Kuchma.

She is also building closer relations with Moscow: Her recent gas deals with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin could help Russia to gain control of Naftogaz' pipeline network. Nobody expects her to follow Mr Yushchenko's plan to evict the Russian navy from Crimea in 2017 or to steer Ukraine toward Nato.

The EU's lack of ambition to anchor Ukraine to the West is criticised by some.

"There is a lack of strategic political thinking in the EU as far as Ukraine is concerned," Ukraine's deputy foreign minister, Konstantin Yeliseyev, said on a visit to Brussels last week. "I hope the current bad weather with regard to our European aspirations does not lead to a permanent ice age."

Pragmatism sets in

But the passing of the heady days of colour revolutions is being increasingly welcomed inside the EU.

A senior diplomat from one former Communist EU country told EUobserver that Ukraine is likely to act as a model for EU relations with other post-Soviet states. The contact envisaged that in the coming years the union will roll out trade and visa deals with Belarus, Moldova and Georgia. But it will not push for a democratic government in Minsk or for Chisinau and Tbilisi to regain control of Russian-held regions.

"Under Tymoshenko Ukraine will be more Kuchma-like. But she is a rational person. Ukraine will be more stable and more predictable if she is in charge," the EU diplomat said.

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