EU, Ukraine Ties Fray as Crisis Lingers On
Russia Ukraine EU
BSSB.BE wsj.com 25.04.15
Senior European Union officials travel to Kiev on Monday for their first formal Ukraine summit since the crisis with Russia broke last spring. The top priority for the talks has been unspoken: stemming an erosion of trust between Kiev and its Western neighbors.
While Ukraine and the EU have deepened ties over the past year in the face of what both consider to be Russian aggression in Ukraine’s east, tensions that already lay under the surface have grown more prominent since February’s cease-fire agreement in Minsk, known as Minsk 2, which has at least for now quieted Kiev’s fighting with pro-Moscow separatists.
On the European side, there are sharpened concerns that Ukraine’s commitments to internal change—economic and political—haven’t been followed through. They fear this will, over time, intensify Kiev’s economic woes and possibly stoke tensions with Russia again.
Ukrainian officials are clear about their frustrations with the 28-nation bloc. The failure to advance toward visa-free access, open divisions within the EU over maintaining its sanctions on Russia and uncertainties about the EU’s determination to forge ahead with a bilateral trade pact in the face of Russian opposition are creating doubts about Europe’s commitment to Kiev.
“We are in a wait-and-see period,” said Ulrich Speck, visiting scholar at international-relations think tank Carnegie Europe. “The West is waiting for a clearer idea of where Ukraine is going—whether they are serious on the reforms, whether they can be a real partner. And of course everybody waits for Russia to move or not to move” in the east.
Among the EU officials who will head to Ukraine next week are European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk and EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini.
For Brussels, the meeting will be a chance to put the EU back in the forefront on Ukraine. While senior Brussels officials have spent much time working in and with Kiev, it was the French and German leaders who spearheaded the Minsk 2 cease-fire talks.
Yet there is a wide gulf between what Ukrainian authorities want and what the EU is likely to deliver.
On a trip to Paris on Wednesday, Mr. Poroshenko pushed for a visa-free access regime to be implemented by January 2016 and for May’s EU summit in Riga, Latvia, to open an eventual path for Ukraine’s EU membership. In a meeting with the head of France’s Senate, he urged lawmakers to speed the ratification of the trade and political Association Agreement with the EU signed in June 2014. And he reiterated his call for an EU peacekeeping mission for eastern Ukraine that would go beyond the current monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“Peacekeepers are not an alternative to the OSCE,” Mr. Poroshenko said. “Each of them has its own function.”
However, the prospects of rapid progress look dim. EU officials admit that movement on visa access is held up by Ukraine’s lack of control of its eastern borders because of the conflict with Russia. Under Minsk, that won’t change until December at the earliest when Moscow is obliged to return control of its side of the border to Kiev.
Top EU officials have balked at Ukraine’s proposal of an EU peacekeeping mission, viewing with alarm the prospect that EU “peacekeepers” could come under fire from Russian or pro-Russian forces.
Most EU governments in private remain opposed to opening any path for Ukrainian membership to the bloc. Even at the height of the crisis, this option was never seriously considered except in a few capitals.
Meanwhile, only half of EU governments have ratified the Ukraine trade and political pact.
A bigger worry, a Ukrainian diplomat said, concerns the possibility that the EU will listen to Russian demands to reopen negotiations over the pact to address Moscow’s concerns that it could damage its economy. The diplomat said Russia pushed for a further one-year delay in the full implementation of the agreement on Monday and Tuesday, in talks described by a senior EU official as “tense.”
Yet frustrations run in both directions. EU officials have repeatedly said that while Ukraine has done a good job of approving bills to fight corruption and improve the business climate, the follow-through has been faltering.
The EU has repeatedly postponed what was initially billed as a donors’ conference—it is now being called an investment forum—because it felt Ukraine had made too little headway in attracting foreign investors. The forum is now due in the autumn.
Some officials say the bloc’s nightmare scenario remains possible: Failed reforms and renewed conflict in the east precipitate a fresh financial crisis in Kiev that leaves EU loans worth more than €3 billion ($3.22 billion) unpaid and Ukraine’s pro-EU parties diminished.
There is another more immediate concern. In late March, Thornbjorn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, which is advising the Ukrainian government on constitutional reforms, told reporters he remains concerned about differences in Kiev over the extent to which power should be decentralized.
Mr. Poroshenko has said he won’t accept Russian demands to “federalize” the country, which he warns would be tantamount to dividing up Ukraine. He said he will push his own version of autonomy for eastern provinces.
Decentralizing power from Kiev is a key requirement of the Minsk accord. “If they fail to do it, it will be very difficult to implement Minsk 2 and continue reforms,” Mr. Jagland said.
By Laurence Norman