24th Sep 2023

EU and Ukraine to clinch visa deal amid doubt on future relations

The EU is set to relax visa rules for Ukraine at a summit in Helsinki today (27 October) but bilateral relations are becoming increasingly ambiguous as Brussels refuses to clarify its position on Kiev's EU accession hopes and Ukraine prime minister Viktor Yanukovych begins to rebuild relations with Russia.

"I am very pleased that the agreements on visa and readmission have been agreed," European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said on Thursday. "This means that Ukrainians will now be able to travel more freely and easily while maintaining efforts to clamp down on illegal migration."

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The move means Ukrainians will continue to pay €35 to enter the EU from 2007 onward, avoiding scheduled price hikes to €70, in return for taking back any illegal migrants found to have entered the EU via Ukraine after a two year grace period on "readmission" expires in 2009.

Experts clinched the visa deal on Wednesday after bitter haggling over the grace period - the EU wanted one year and Ukraine three years in line with what Brussels gave Moscow - that saw Ukraine diplomats complaining the EU was giving Russia favourable treatment while denigrating Ukraine support for EU policies in the region.

The visa debate points to wider tension in EU-Ukraine relations, with Kiev pushing Brussels to insert the phrase "the EU recognises the European aspirations of Ukraine" into the preamble of a new post-2007 "Enhanced Agreement."

"We hope that the discussions tomorrow will present us with a good initiative, with a clear mandate...for our role in the future negotiations with the EU," Ukraine president Viktor Yushchenko said in Helsinki on Thursday night, AP reports. "One of the strategic goals is to get a European perspective in our foreign policy."

Mr Yushchenko's camp has been pressing for an EU accession promise since the Orange Revolution in 2004, arguing that his transitional country needs an EU goal to stay on track with painful reforms after severing historical ties with major energy supplier Russia.

President Barroso said merely that "the EU has greatly appreciated the progress Ukraine has made since the Orange Revolution in the field of political reform" on Thursday. "On this basis, the EU and Ukraine can aspire to a qualitatively higher level in their relationship."

Earlier in the week he told Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza that "[Ukraine] is a European country and as such must have a European perspective," with the remarks prompting commission spokespeople to explain that Mr Barroso meant "European" in the "geographic" rather than political sense.

The Yanukovych question

The return to power in September this year of Kremlin-friendly PM Viktor Yanukovych - accused of cheating in the 2004 elections and tainted with suspicion over a plot to poison president Yushchenko - has also injected a new element of uncertainty into future EU-Ukraine relations.

Addressing MEPs this week, external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said "we were worried if the new Ukrainian government would change tack on the issue" of supporting EU border monitors [EUBAM] in the breakaway Moldova region of Transdniestria - an operation disliked by Russia.

EUBAM is safe for now, with analysts such as CEPS' Michael Emerson saying Mr Yanukovych is too canny to push a hard pro-Russia line due to the strong sense of independence and national identity that unfolded in post-revolutionary Ukraine.

Time will tell

But Europe has to wait and see if Mr Yanukovych's pro-EU rhetoric will translate into pushing EU-compliant and WTO-compliant bills through parliament and if the prime minister's political camp will be able to work with the strongly pro-western party of president Yushchenko.

Moscow gave Mr Yanukovych a soft deal on Russian gas prices for 2007 this week, but the deal appeared to come with strings attached on delaying Ukraine's NATO-entry process and tying Ukraine's WTO-entry to Russia's WTO agenda, The Times' Moscow correspondent reports.

"I would say quite openly that we need to synchronise the negotiation process of our countries on WTO," Russian prime minister Mikhail Fradkov said after clearing the gas price deal, with Ukraine WTO entry forming a pre-requisite for opening a free trade zone with the EU in future.

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