Ukraine appears to be a natural frontrunner to take advantage of the EU's offer of what could become a full stake in its single market -- comprising the free movement of goods, money, services, and people. Moldova is stymied by the Transdniester conflict, Belarus courts isolation, and Russia pursues ties unique to itself.
Yet officials said in Brussels yesterday that it is "unlikely" that last-minute EU efforts could bring the Ukrainian leadership around to signing the action plan.
In an indication of EU resolve, however, Reijo Kemppinen, chief spokesman of the European Commission, said the bloc is intent to press the issue at the summit. "We seek to reach an early agreement on the action plan with measures to ensure the application of the highest democratic standards in Ukraine and to promote efforts for continued economic and structural reforms," he said.
Speaking privately, one EU official told RFE/RL that the best the bloc can hope for today is a "general endorsement of approach." That endorsement would stress both sides' appreciation of the action plan as a token of the important strategic partnership between the EU and Ukraine. The summit may also formally agree to strive for the finalization of the details of the action plan as early as possible.
The official acknowledged that the main stumbling block is Ukraine's steadfast demand for some form of EU membership perspective. The EU has made clear that its European Neighborhood Policy and the action plans will not address the issue of eventual membership. In effect, this could mean deferring such decisions for at least 10 to 15 years.
The official said the EU, for its part, is seeking a clearer Ukrainian commitment to democracy and media freedom, indicating, though, that differences do not amount to much more than a "question of wording."
Spokesman Kemppinen said EU concerns are likely to sharpen in the run-up to Ukraine's presidential elections. "We will also recall the importance of ensuring the democratic conduct of the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine in October 2004, and underline the importance of impartial, unhindered, and balanced media coverage during the election campaign," he said.
However, the fact that the EU is seeking to improve ties with Ukraine's current administration is a measure of the importance the bloc places on its evolving strategic partnership with the country.
Closer ties with Kyiv are favored by most of the new member states, whereas some of the larger old member states value the country's potential contribution to the EU defense project.
Yesterday, Kemppinen underlined that such strategic considerations would play an important part in today's summit. "In the margins of the summit, there will be an agreement signed on the EU police mission in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the summit will discuss efforts to support a settlement to the Transdniester conflict in Moldova," he said
The EU-Ukraine trade relationship will be another key topic on the summit agenda.
Kemppinen said the EU will deliver a clear message of support for Ukraine's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). "As far as trade is concerned, having now completed bilateral negotiations with Ukraine, the EU will reiterate its support to Ukraine's WTO accessio," he said.
However, officials say Ukraine must demonstrate greater ability to adopt and implement WTO-compliant legislation. The EU is also critical of certain nontariff measures applied by Ukraine.
Ukraine's request for market-economy status is said to be held back by renewed government involvement in price setting in certain sectors, as well as the immunity from bankruptcy apparently enjoyed by some enterprises.