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Ukraine: EU Commissioner Pours Cold Water On Kyiv's Immediate Membership Hopes

President Viktor Yushchenko will visit Brussels next week. (file photo) Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union's external relations commissioner, will visit Kyiv tomorrow to meet President Viktor Yushchenko and other top officials in his new administration. Ferrero-Waldner will present an updated action plan for strengthening EU-Ukraine ties. But she is expected to firmly discourage Kyiv's aim of becoming a full EU member anytime in the foreseeable future.

Brussels, 16 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Benita Ferrero-Waldner will present the new government in Kyiv with a compromise proposal that is likely to remain EU policy for some time to come.

One the one hand, she will tell Viktor Yushchenko the EU wants ties with Ukraine to be as close as possible. On the other, she will stress that membership is not on the agenda.

Instead, Ukraine will get an action plan as part of the EU's neighborhood policy, which encompasses countries ranging from Morocco to Moldova and Ukraine.

The EU has rewarded Yushchenko's opposition victory by adding more favorable conditions to the action plan. But the plan makes no mention of potential EU membership -- something that is Kyiv's foremost foreign-policy aim.

Speaking to correspondents in Brussels yesterday, Ferrero-Waldner said the EU is not rebuffing Ukraine.

"I'm keen to stress that, despite what some commentators have said, this plan is really designed to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union and not to hold it at arm's length," she said. "I think this is very important. We have taken significant steps to recognize the new political reality in Ukraine."

Ferrero-Waldner said Kyiv is due this weekend to endorse the action plan, which will be formally signed when Yushchenko visits Brussels on 22 February 22.

The initial EU action plan was negotiated with former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. It has since been upgraded to include the possibility of quicker free trade, easier EU visas, larger aid packages, and closer political cooperation.

Ferrero-Waldner said overall, the EU has accommodated Ukraine's desires. But at the same time, she was adamant that Ukraine should n-o-t be given even distant membership prospects.

The external relations commissioner appeared to make a significant gesture, referring to Ukraine as a European country. EU treaties say all European states have the right to membership.

But at the same time, Ferrero-Waldner made it clear the EU will not initiate membership talks anytime soon.

"I can tell you [that], of course, Ukraine is in Europe, but at the same time I can also tell you that [the] European Neighborhood Policy is not about membership," she said. "That's a very clear answer."

Ferrero-Waldner said the three-year action plan, which will be reviewed annually, has n-o bearing -- either positive or negative -- on Ukraine's future EU aspirations.

But she added that, realistically, there are two main obstacles blocking Ukraine's path to membership.

"There are two things to it. First, Ukraine is a huge country that still has a lot to do, and it has to start there," she said. "And second, I think also, the European Union is a European Union that has just been enlarged by 10 member countries. This has to be digested. And there is also a very important [point] in the Copenhagen criteria [of laying out terms for what it takes to acquire EU membership] that you should never forget. The European Union has to have the capacity to absorb new member countries."

Ferrero-Waldner said a substantial number of EU member states are not yet ready to contemplate Ukrainian entry -- and she dismisses comparisons between Ukraine and Turkey, which will soon begin EU accession talks.

"We have been working with Turkey from [1964] onwards, and Turkey has [been through] all the different stages," she noted. "[It] has been [in] a customs union [with the EU], it has had a free trade area with us, and has done a lot of reforms -- not all the reforms that we want, but a lot of reforms."

Ferrero-Waldner rejects suggestions that the EU's cautious approach on Ukraine could encourage Russia to reassert its influence there -- or that Kyiv will threaten closer ties with Moscow if Brussels fails to speed its path to accession.