The European Union’s foreign ministers decided on Monday (10 February) not to invoke the threat of sanctions against the Ukrainian authorities, opting instead to hold out the prospect of more generous EU backing in the future.
The wording of a late addendum to the ministers’ communiqué – that the EU’s member states are convinced that an agreement offered to Ukraine last year “does not constitute the final goal in EU-Ukraine co- operation” – strikes a compromise between member states who would like Ukraine to be offered the prospect of membership and those that are wary.
Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president, decided in November not to sign a framework political – ‘association’ – agreement with the EU or the accompanying free-trade deal. His decision triggered the demonstrations that have since 21 November occupied central Kiev. Efforts to curb the protests have led to deaths, the disappearance of protestors, torture and intimidation. Opposition forces have seized political control of a number of regions, mainly in the west, while an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin last Thursday (6 February) suggested that Ukraine should become a federal state.
In the run-up to Monday’s meeting, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, said that “we must now show sanctions as a threat”. However, another minister who has advocated threatening sanctions – Sweden’s Carl Bildt – said as he entered the meeting that “we are primarily in the carrots business, not in the sticks business”.
After their debate about Ukraine, which lasted two and a half hours, ministers limited their explicit calls for accountability to stressing the need for investigations, including for co-operation with the Council of Europe. The human-rights watchdog said on 6 December that it was willing to oversee investigations. However, it is only in recent days that the opposition has nominated a member to the Council’s proposed panel. The government has yet to put anyone forward.
However, Thierry Repentin, France’s minister for EU affairs, said that a statement that the EU “remains ready to respond quickly to any deterioration on the ground” should be interpreted as a threat of sanctions.
The ministers also confirmed that the EU is working on a package of financial support for Ukraine, whose economic position has become precarious since Russia announced in late January that it was suspending a bail-out. However, the package would require the Ukrainian government to commit itself to undertaking reforms and raising gas prices, demands that Yanukovych was unwilling to accept last year.
Eastern Partnership plans
Behind the scenes, a large coalition of member states has formed to shape debate about what – short of membership – the EU can offer Ukraine and the five other members of the EU’s Eastern Partnership: Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Significantly, in addition to the region’s immediate neighbours, Germany and the UK are among the 13 signatories of a discussion paper that has been distributed among member states.
The paper, which has 20 points, suggests the creation of a “common economic area” for neighbours that push ahead with economic reforms, and enhanced trading arrangements for less ambitious countries. It also talks of “exploring some sort of ‘European package’”, focused on students and on co-operation with municipalities and public agencies rather than with central government. Other proposals, including support to boost energy efficiency, are intended to make the countries in the region less vulnerable to Russian pressure.
Diplomats have also been working on ideas tailored to particular countries, including the possibility of additional support for Moldova’s agriculture sector. Cumulatively, the debate indicates that member states are looking at ways to work more closely with local governments and to increase the benefits for individuals of stronger ties with the EU. A diplomat likened the ideas to the Helsinki process of the 1970s, which emboldened elements of civil society in the Soviet bloc.
The European Commission on 30 January began talks with Belarus on early-stage agreements that could pave the way for easier travel to the EU for Belarusians. Beyond Ukraine, the most significant development in the EU’s relationship with its eastern neighbours this year may be the signing of association and free-trade deals with Moldova and Georgia. August is the target date.
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