Brussels, 13 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- European Parliament members (MEPs) in Strasbourg were angered today by an announcement by the European Commission that cooperation with Ukraine will proceed on the basis of an "action plan" negotiated with the government of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
Speakers representing all major political groupings said the three-year action plan must be reviewed. It is due to be officially presented to Kyiv by External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner later this month. Nearly all of those deputies who spoke also said Ukraine must be told as soon as possible that it can someday join the European Union.
It is an open secret that there is little or no interest in southern EU capitals in the bloc's further eastward expansion.
One of the most outspoken critics of the EU's current action plan for Ukraine was Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, vice president of the European Parliament. He spoke on behalf of the largest faction, the conservative European People's Party.
According to Saryusz-Wolski, the action plan negotiated with Yanukovych is "outdated" and a new strategy is needed. "We must offer Ukraine the prospect of EU membership. This will encourage Ukraine to maintain the momentum of [political and economic] reforms. [This] is in our best interests, and it is in the interests of democracy across Eastern Europe," Saryusz-Wolski said.
Saryusz-Wolski said "time is of the essence" for Ukraine. He said the EU must start negotiating an "association agreement" with Ukraine as soon as possible. Association agreements are generally seen as precursors to accession.
Another senior conservative deputy, Elmar Brok, who heads the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said the commission's action plan amounts to "a few modest crumbs."
However, the parliament's criticisms are unlikely to sway the current plans of the European Commission. The parliament has no say in EU foreign policy. The European Commission plays an executive role, but important decisions rest with member states alone.
It is an open secret that there is little or no interest in southern EU capitals in the bloc's further eastward expansion. There are fears that such a move would draw aid funds away from the Mediterranean region.
The anger of Saryusz-Wolski and numerous other MEPs was sparked by a statement by Commissioner Janez Potocnik. Potocnik, whose remit covers science and research, was standing in for External Affairs Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner, who is visiting the United States. In his opening speech, Potocnik described European neighborhood action plans as "sufficiently comprehensive and flexible" for Ukraine. In addition to Ukraine, six other action plans have been prepared by the commission. Beneficiaries include Moldova, as well as Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco.
Potocnik made clear today that EU membership is "not on the agenda" for Ukraine. "The question of Ukrainian entry into the European Union is not on the agenda," he said. "[The] European Neighborhood Policy is a policy which is distinct from membership. It will allow us to shift to a higher gear of cooperation with Ukraine."
Ukraine's ambitions enjoy warmest support among conservatives in the European Parliament. Yushchenko is seen by the conservatives as an ideological ally. He attended a meeting in December of like-minded EU prime ministers. The European People's Party faction in the European Parliament has extended an invitation to Yushchenko to visit the parliament "as soon as possible."
The parliament's liberals, too, strongly support giving Ukraine a perspective of future membership. The socialists, although less outspoken, also criticized the European Commission's plans for Ukraine as insufficient.
Responding to the criticism, Commissioner Potocnik said he had taken "careful critical note" of the debate. However, he stood by his earlier statement that the action plan is a sufficiently flexible framework for cooperation with Ukraine. He said each country receiving an action plan "can go as far as it wants," adding that in Ukraine's case, the commission is "ready to go far."[For more RFE/RL coverage and analysis of the political crisis in Ukraine, click here.]