Speaking at a conference organized by the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, Oleg Shamshur said the inclusion of Ukraine in the EU's "New Neighborhood" program amounts to little more than a "perennial exercise" allowing countries to inch closer toward the EU without ever actually entering.
"While asking for the clear elaboration of a clear, long-term EU vision toward Ukraine, we have been hearing that, at present, the union is too preoccupied with the enlargement and the problems it entails. Moreover, [a number] of EU figures seem to believe that Ukraine might be satisfied with a place [in] the 'ring of friends' that the EU wishes to establish on its eastern and southern periphery," Shamshur said.
Shamshur said Ukraine understands it needs to demonstrate progress in democratic and economic reforms. But, he added, such progress was difficult without a clear indication of Kyiv's EU membership prospects.
Shamshur's plea won support from Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Truszczynski.
"We, of course, understand and have always understood the sensitivities within the European Union [on further enlargement]. But we also know from our own experience that having a prospect [of membership] -- even a distant one, even a conditional one -- could be vitally important to mobilize resolve and will, and generate efforts to pursue difficult reforms to complete such reforms, and to move consistently toward the long-term goals," Truszczynski said.
Truszczynski then said Poland would like to see Ukraine's current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with the EU upgraded to an "association agreement," potentially leading to candidate status.
The EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, flanking the Ukrainian and Polish ministers, said that although a membership perspective could be an important incentive for reform, it is too early to extend it to Ukraine.
"The message that I can send today [is] that we have started, now, a very realistic and pragmatic approach, and I repeated what I have said -- that it depends on the political willingness and preparedness of Ukraine, how far we can go and how much time we will need to meet our objectives. I repeated what I have said in my [earlier] presentation -- the process is a process with an open end. So we're not closing doors. We're not telling Ukraine you're too ambitious. [But] we cannot make promises today," Verheugen said.
Verheugen said the EU acknowledges Ukraine as a "key European country" that belongs to Europe and has an important contribution to make to the continent's security.
However, the commissioner went on to say that Ukraine is still struggling with even the most basic of reforms. He cited grave concerns over the situation of fundamental rights, democracy, rule of law, and media freedom. Verheugen said there is "not only room, but also a strong need for improvement."
Verheugen said this year's presidential elections in Ukraine will be a key test, alluding to the parliament's recent attempts to change the constitution in ways critics say would benefit Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his allies.
"Let me stress that the year 2004 will see important events here. And I guess that the way Ukraine will conduct the coming elections this year will be a kind of benchmark, and we will watch it very, very closely. And I shall not hide the fact that I'm deeply concerned after the tumultuous situations which we've seen in the [parliament] in Kyiv in December  and in January," Verheugen said.
EU-Ukrainian relations face two key challenges in the short and medium term. Although Brussels is expected to approve an action plan in June for bilateral relations that pledges Kyiv closer ties and more aid, much will depend on how Ukraine handles the bloc's present enlargement.
Like Russia, Ukraine rejects EU claims that enlargement will boost trade, arguing it needs compensation and a number of exemptions from EU quotas, tariffs, and standards. Although Shamshur today said Ukraine is not interested in raising the issue to the level of confrontation, he did not confirm that Kyiv will extend its PCA with the EU to the 10 new member states by 1 May.
The second major issue for the EU is Ukraine's cooperation on curbing illegal immigration. The EU has long pushed for Kyiv to sign a readmission agreement for illegal immigrants, arguing it would help Ukraine secure a more flexible application of the Schengen visa regime to its citizens.
Shamshur today said Ukraine considers such an agreement feasible only if Russia and Belarus join it as well.
"Ukraine can only confirm its readiness to work with the EU on the readmission agreement. At the same time, we [have] also made it known that we cannot allow Ukraine to become a sort of accumulator, a staying ground for illegal migrants transiting through its territory to Western Europe. In this respect, we think we should be approaching and looking at a package approach in the sense of forwarding our initiative of creating a common readmission space in Europe, which would involve agreements on readmission [with the] EU, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia," Shamshur said.
Verheugen did not appear to find that a likely proposal, saying Belarus lacks "everything" to enforce it and that Russia remains "not very happy" about the whole idea.
In other fields, Verheugen said, the EU is looking for cooperation on trans-border crime, common border management, transport, energy, and research.
Shamshur, in turn, stressed Ukraine's interest in participating in EU police and military missions in the Balkans and elsewhere.
He said Ukraine is also keen on moving ahead with talks on establishing a free trade area with the EU. But Verheugen said this remains impossible as long as Ukraine is not a member of the World Trade Organization.