BRUSSELS -- When is a door no longer closed, and yet not open?
That might be the riddle baffling officials in Kyiv as they ponder the European Union's latest failure to determine whether or not Ukraine is "European." The seemingly straightforward question is significant, since only "European states" are eligible for EU membership according to the bloc's founding treaty.
The trouble the EU is having in making up its mind was amply evident in the summary of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on July 22.
"We have [today] spoken of the European character -- although some contest it -- [the] European character [of Ukraine], without prejudging the future of Ukraine with regard to the European Union," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.
The majority of those attending the meeting responded in the affirmative. As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt put it, Ukraine is clearly not an Asian or African country and, as such, deserves acknowledgment that it will one day be eligible for EU membership.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Benelux countries and, on and off, Germany. This camp argues that the European Union is not ready to tackle what it calls the "political" issue of an increasingly impatient Ukraine's status.
The EU foreign ministers' failure to agree on Ukraine's status as a "European" country -- a precondition for consideration for EU membership -- places time at a premium, with Ukraine expecting an answer by this fall.
Geographically speaking, the issue is uncontroversial -- no one maintains that Ukraine is situated anywhere else than Europe. But politically, the definition would open the door for Ukraine to apply for EU membership, which critics say would be a step too far.
This argument is also made by the European Commission, the EU's executive arm. Diplomats in Brussels say the commission's line throughout sometimes heated meetings this month has been to warn that Ukraine could open a Pandora's box of further EU enlargement. The European public, the argument goes, is not ready for this, nor is Ukraine itself with its feuding leaders and deeply split public opinion when it comes to relations with the West.
After the July 22 foreign ministers' meeting, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Ukraine's internal stability remains one of the EU's leading concerns.
"We feel Ukraine has to do a lot in order to stabilize [its] interior politics," Ferroro-Waldner said. "That there are great frictions between the president and the prime minister -- these things, we would like to see them in a different way and I think this is also something that we will certainly discuss at the EU-Ukraine summit."
As a result of the July 22 meeting, it appears Ukraine will get its wish and conclude an Association Agreement with the EU sometime in 2009. However, the evocative title of the new cooperation accord is unlikely to be the symbolic breakthrough Kyiv is hoping for. The EU will try to nip in the bud any suggestions that, by getting an Association Agreement, Ukraine would be following in the footsteps of the bloc's newest postcommunist members, all of which signed such an agreement before joining.
While the preambles of those states' agreements all mentioned the EU's intention of helping them meet their objectives of gaining membership, Ukraine's agreement is unlikely to say anything of the kind. Instead, what the EU is seeking is a formulation that, in the words of diplomats in Brussels, "would not close the door."
The European Neighborhood Policy, with its studiedly noncommittal stance on the membership question, will in future still define the major parameters of Ukraine's relationship with the EU.
The closest the European Union will come to acknowledging Ukraine's ambitions will be in a joint declaration at the EU-Ukraine summit on September 9. The wording of the declaration is still open.
Officials in Brussels say a Ukrainian delegation walked out of a meeting in Brussels earlier this month when it became clear their country was going to be denied an explicit membership prospect.
But Brussels appears confident that it can secure Kyiv's acquiescence, however grudging, in return for an offer of talks on visa-free travel -- to be formally made at the upcoming summit at the French resort of Evian.