The November EU/Ukraine summit: Grounds for caution

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

As predicted, the latest summit between EU and Ukraine (24-25 November) ended with a lot of warm words about “strengthening the partnership” and “EU support for Ukraine’s reformist efforts”.  This is almost verbatim what was heard during numerous previous meetings, notably during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, another leader elected on the enthusiasm of a Maidan revolution,  who has since vanished in oblivion.At the same time, Europeans are unhappy with Ukraine’s slow pace of reforms and of its fight against corruption. Their congratulations for Kiev’s decision to oblige high-ranking officials to declare their wealth were quickly followed by consternation, when declarations showed that starting from the prime minister downwards they possessed millions in cash, properties and collection of valuables.
Then came the bizarre appointments in less than a week of very young inexperienced women to key posts: 24-years-old Anastasia Deeva, whose risqué pictures circulate on social media, as deputy of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov (rumors speak of more than professional relations) and 23-years-old Anna Kalynchuk, hired by Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko “strictly on merit” to lead the government’s anti-corruption office and to purge the public services.
Deeva will be in charge of Ukraine’s integration with Europe.
And all this is in a country which ousted the previous regime voicing demands for a fight against corruption and nepotism.

Reason top pause

In such conditions, it is not surprising that EU found  reason to refrain from releasing more financial aid and from moving ahead on the visa-waiver at this summit.
Visa liberalisation for a limited period has a solid symbolic dimension because it is seen as a sign of Ukraine being recognised as part of Europe, and is a political bonus for president Poroshenko to come back home with. But the risk of abuse is especially important now that EU members’ voters are highly sensitive to the migrant questions. There is also the problem that once given to Ukrainians it will be more difficult not to give it to the five other countries involved in the Eastern Partnership.
In consequence, the decision has been postponed later this year, depending of  negotiations over  the “suspension mechanism” , i.e. the possibility of suspending visa-free access if abuses are recorded. Due to uncertainties in many EU countries, especially those facing elections, this looks as a classical retreat of the EU – with political leaders sheltering themselves behind the public servants due to finalise the text of the suspension mechanism.
Ambiguity is also the rule concerning financial assistance. Money is mostly distributed according to EU priorities with an emphasis on transparent governance, the fight against corruption, decentralisation, reform of public administration, and the rule of law. Attention has been devoted to the involvement of civil society in reforms, but in a country facing a disastrous economic and social situation, this is not necessarily the priority for the majority of Ukrainians.
They would prefer social measures which often go counter to conditions put by EU for disbursing its ambitious reform-orientated financial assistance. The reasons for EU not disbursing macro-financial aid worth 600 million euros have been finally linked to two decisions by the Ukrainian government: one concerning the export of timber and the other the cessation of social aid to displaced persons.
The trade question now depends on the negotiations between the government and the opposition in the Netherlands after a referendum by which the majority of Dutch citizens  rejected the EU-Ukraine trade agreement.


Progress in the energy field is mostly symbolic too. Much has been said about the importance of the signature of a new 10-year Memorandum of Understanding on a Strategic Energy Partnership. But the text simply rephrases most of the 2005 memorandum and does not solve the decade-old problem of investors so long as the obvious Russia-EU-Ukraine troika cannot work for political reasons. The declaration by vice-president Sefcovic that EU wants to maintain Ukraine as an important transit for the EU seems to ignore the fact that the energy policy of Russia consists of reducing its dependency on transit countries, first of all Ukraine.
Despite of all that, one can expect President Poroshenko to do his utmost to present his visit to Brussels as a personal success. For instance, he can point to the reinforcement of EU support for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (an additional 5 million euros has been announced); continued support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity; and promises to lift sanctions against Russia only after the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements.
Maintaining the sanctions is seen as a diplomatic key issue by Kiev, especially now that it will lose its main lobbyist in Washington (vice-president Jo Bidden). But despite their insistence on the importance of EU support, the Ukrainian authorities are well aware that the key decision will come from the president Trump, and Ukraine is sparing no efforts to convince the US president-elect of the danger to switch to a Moscow-Washington axis (witness an article on 29 November in the International New York Times by Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin).


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