Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg who currently chairs the EU Presidency, said the bloc is committed to supporting the "ambitious program of political and economic reforms" launched by the administration of President Viktor Yushchenko.
Asselborn said the reforms will open a "new perspective" in EU-Ukrainian relations. He said the EU offers immediate support to Ukraine, but he made it clear this will happen within the European Neighborhood Policy and not a with a membership perspective.
"The European Union has underscored its commitment to support Ukraine at this key moment -- really a key moment -- in its history," Asselborn said. "We have adopted an EU-Ukrainian Action Plan within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy. The putting into practice of this plan must start immediately."
Asselborn and other EU officials studiously sidestepped questions of whether or when Ukraine might be able to join the bloc. They repeatedly pointed to the need first to see the "action plan" put into practice. The plan will run over three years and the EU has previously made clear it will not take a stand one way or the other until then.
Yushchenko and other top Ukrainian officials have, in recent weeks, said the country hopes to start talks with the EU on a closer relationship eventually leading to full membership, as soon as 2007.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleh Rybachuk, who represented his country at the Action Plan signing ceremony in Brussels yesterday, was careful not to offend his hosts' sensibilities and refrained from restating the time frame.
He praised the "friendly smiles" he saw yesterday and limited himself to comments about the reform challenge facing the new government.
"I'll tell you that one message that I'm getting to Brussels -- now you have a very responsible Ukrainian government, you have very responsible partners, and if we put our signatures on something, there is no way we're not going to deliver it," Rybachuk said. "So I would repeat, again, our commitment to this Action Plan."
Rybachuk said if Ukraine "proves itself" it could receive more concrete offers, without specifying what those might be. Rybachuk also said he "does not want to spoil" the relationship with the EU by moving too fast.
One EU official said privately after the meeting that the bloc was very satisfied with Rybachuk's low-profile approach.
Diplomats say giving Ukraine an EU-membership perspective is not a popular idea among the bloc's 25 member states. Only Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania fought -- and failed -- to upgrade the key reference in yesterday's EU foreign ministers' declaration to Ukraine's membership ambitions. It reads: "The EU acknowledges Ukraine's European aspirations and welcomes Ukraine's European choice." This is a formulation used in situations where the EU wants to keep its options open.
The ministers yesterday approved a 10-item list of additional late concessions to Ukraine, which is attached to the Action Plan. The country is promised support in its bid to join the World Trade Organization, recognition as a market economy -- which would help its exports -- as well as extra funds.
Diplomats say recent developments in Germany caused one late hiccup as the list was finalized. The country's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, currently faces accusations of complicity in long-term visa fraud involving thousands of Ukrainian citizens, among others. As a result, Germany forced a change in the part of the text that refers to the possibility of easing EU visa restrictions vis-a-vis Ukraine. It now mentions unspecified "security requirements," the fulfillment of which is an additional condition for obtaining a visa.