BRUSSELS -- Ukraine and the European Union, at a summit in Brussels today, agreed on an "action plan" that Kyiv hopes will lead to visa-free travel for Ukrainians within the 27-nation bloc.
Agreement was also reached on closer cooperation in other fields.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, flanked by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, made the announcement at the end of the talks.
"I'm very pleased that we can announce today an action plan for Ukraine toward the establishment of a visa-free regime for short-stay travel," he said. "We have also been able to sign a protocol to the current partnership and cooperation agreement permitting Ukraine's access to the EU programs. And we expressed our satisfaction at the progress achieved in EU-Ukraine relations."
The plan for visa-free travel calls on Kyiv to improve its border controls as well as its migration and asylum policies. No firm timetable was given for its implementation.
But in contrast to Yanukovych's previous visit to Brussels in September, when top EU officials expressed concern at political developments in Kyiv, Van Rompuy praised the current Ukrainian leadership.
"Ukraine is seeing a period of political stability with close coordination between the president and the government, based on a strong parliamentarian majority," Van Rompuy said. "This enables Ukraine to move forward with important reforms."
Both Van Rompuy and Barroso, who received Yanukovych at the castle of Val Duchesse on the outskirts of Brussels, said that if the reform process continues, Ukraine can hope to conclude a free-trade agreement with the EU by next summer.
In relations with Ukraine, the EU's energy concerns are always near the top of the list and Barroso acknowledged that today.
"I particularly welcomed the very strong political statement made by President Yanukovych during our summit today that we will never have a gas crisis like the one we had before," Barroso said. "That's one of the reasons why we believe that it's so important [to have] this triangular relationship between Ukraine, Russia, and the European Union."
Yanukovych assured his European partners that gas supplies would flow through the upcoming winter.
"I would like to tell our European friends once again that Ukraine guarantees an uninterrupted supply of energy resources to Europe," he said.
Separately in Brussels today, the EU hosted for the first time a meeting between the EU, Russia, and Ukraine on energy, with the participation of the Russian minister for energy, Sergei Shmatko, and the European commissioner for energy, Guenther Oettinger.
Despite the friendly atmosphere at today's summit, Van Rompuy said EU leaders did remind Yanukovych of the need to observe the rule of law and human rights.
"Democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights are the core values we share and strive to implement in practice," he said. "And we also discussed and emphasized the importance of respect for freedom of the media, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association, and the protection of human rights defenders."
Conflict In Transdniester
Yanukovych, for his part, underlined Ukraine's economic growth, which the World Bank forecast will hit 3.5 percent for 2010. He reiterated that Ukraine continues to seek EU membership as one of its top aims.
"I underscored once again that European Union membership remains Ukraine's strategic goal," he said.
Another topic for discussion during the summit was the frozen conflict in Transdniester, the separatist region of Moldova neighboring Ukraine.
Van Rompuy stated that the two sides have a common interest in the territorial unity of Moldova and that the year 2011 may see the start of formal negotiations about Transdniester's status to which Ukraine might bring what he called "active support."