The EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said after meeting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Tarasyuk that the EU is ready to upgrade ties with the country. However, she stressed that will happen on the clear understanding that the move will not grant Ukraine a clear membership perspective.
Ferrero-Waldner said talks on replacing the current EU-Ukraine Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which expires in 2008, could start this year: "In principle I could imagine these consultations to happen still this year. And then, of course, it [is] as always, a matter [for] the two parties to see where we go. Until now, we have been working very well and quite speedily with the Ukrainian partners, so hopefully we can also go along speedily, but this [can] not be foreseen now."
The commissioner said that before the talks could begin, some outstanding PCA "priorities" must be achieved. She went on to identify the fulfillment by Ukraine of requirements set by the World Trade Organization as being of paramount importance. Ferrero-Waldner noted that the Ukrainian parliament is currently blocking this, but said she expects the situation to change after the elections.
EU Membership Hopes
The Ukrainians didn't quite get what they wanted. Speaking at the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament on 31 January, Foreign Minister Tarasyuk said Ukraine wants the new treaty with the EU to recognize the country's aspirations for membership.
Today, Ferrero-Waldner made clear that will not happen. She said that while the EU does not want to "prejudge" the chance of Ukraine joining, relations with the country will for the foreseeable future be pursued under the EU's European Neighborhood Policy. That policy explicitly avoids addressing the issue of EU membership.
Speaking briefly about the possible content of the new cooperation agreement, Ferrero-Waldner said it could lead to the creation of a free trade area between the EU and Ukraine.
Also in Brussels today, the European Parliament's "rapporteur" on the neighborhood policy, Charles Tannock, said the parliament continues to support Ukraine's EU membership and believes the recent political upheavals have not affected the country's direction.
"In my report, which was passed in the plenary only a couple of weeks ago, this parliament reconfirmed a European perspective for Ukraine and we are obviously watching the elections very, very closely," Tannock said. "We believe in the parliament, and I do personally as the rapporteur, that the democratic elements of the Orange Revolution and the birth of civil society and the freedom of the press are intact."
Ukraine's upcoming elections could be a crucial turning point. Ferrero-Waldner underlined that the 26 March parliamentary polls will be a milestone for Ukraine: "These will be really very important elections and we do look forward to seeing free and really fair elections in Ukraine. We know that [and] the Ukrainian foreign minister told me [that] this government [and] President Yuschenko are absolutely committed to having this happen."
The question of visas was also discussed. Ferrero-Waldner said the EU-Ukrainian visa-facilitation negotiations could come to an end "rather soon." EU sources said an agreement could be signed in late February or early March.
Foreign Minister Tarasyuk today indicated Ukraine expects the easing of EU visa rules to be the first step on the road towards a complete abolition of the visa requirement by the bloc: "As to the non-visa regime as an ultimate objective of both Ukraine and the European Union, as far as I'm informed this is the understanding of both delegations [and] certainly this is an objective which requires a lot of time and effort."
Ukraine's Domestic Politics
Also in Brussels, former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko today sharply criticized President Viktor Yushchenko and the current government for the deal that brought a temporary halt to the Russian-Ukrainian standoff over gas prices in early January.
Tymoshenko said the agreement is "extremely damaging" for Ukraine, making the country more dependent on Russia. Tymoshenko also called for an international inquiry looking into the origins of RosUkrEnergo, the company mediating the gas deliveries between Russia and Ukraine.
However, both Tymoshenko and Tarasyuk indicated that differences over the deal do not rule out another alliance between forces led by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko herself after the elections.