EU diplomats admitted that "time for reflection" was needed after Ukraine declined the opportunity to join the bloc at a two-day 'Eastern Partnership' summit in Vilnius that ended today (29 November), highlighting the EU’s weakness against an ever-more assertive Russia.
Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovich arrived in Vilnius without any intention to reach an agreement, said Dalia Grybauskaitė, the Lithuanian President and summit host.
EU was ready to sign with Tymoshenko in prison
EU diplomats told EurActiv that European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Council President Herman Van Rompuy had offered Yanukovich the opportunity to sign the Association Agreement (AA) at the summit, even though Kyiv did not fully comply with the EU’s benchmarks.
The most publicised such benchmark is 'selective justice', a reference to the imprisonment of former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, which Brussels sees as politically motivated.
A solution to the Tymoshenko case could have been found if Yanukovich had summoned the political will to sign the AA, EU diplomats believe. But he was offered the pen with Tymoshenko in jail, despite assurances by EU representatives that this would not happen.
EU leaders even offered Yanukovich a 'Plan B' by committing to sign the AA in the near future, possibly at the next EU-Ukraine summit early next year. But Yanukovich declined in advance of the 2015 presidential elections, which he hopes to win.
Barroso and Van Rompuy firmly rejected Yanukovich’s counter-proposal to hold trilateral trade talks with Russia as a way to overcome the stalemate. “The time of limited sovereignty is over,” Barroso said after the summit.
Yanukovich unimpressed by figures
EU leaders also failed to convince Yanukovich over the expected benefits of the agreement for Ukraine.
The Ukrainian President often quotes multi-billion euro figures when assessing the expected losses that Russian trade retaliation to any deal could cause. He also includes in such figures, the investment his country needs to upgrade to EU standards, and refers to losses which need to be “compensated”.
But this concept is flatly rejected by Brussels, which only underlines the expected benefits.
"This Agreement would save Ukrainian business some €500 million a year just in import duties,” Barroso underlined after the summit, adding that it "would increase Ukraine's GDP by more than 6% in the longer term”. It would also "give momentum to billion-euro loan negotiations with International Financial Institutions".
Despite the setback, EU officials keep reiterating that their door remains open for Ukraine. But they do not nourish much hope of advancing the talks any further before the March 2015 presidential elections. Moreover, as the Ukrainian pro-European opposition believes it can win this election, Brussels shouldn’t legitimate Yanukovich’s European alibi, one diplomat said.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Partnership, an initiative launched by the EU in 2009, appears crippled today, as four of the six participating countries have distanced themselves from the EU. Belarus, often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship, is a special case. Azerbaijan doesn’t want to engage in forms of cooperation which would touch upon human rights, and Armenia turned its back on EU association, choosing instead the Russia-led Customs Union. With Ukraine the latest to bite the bullet, only Moldova and Georgia are currently sailing in the direction of EU association.
Elephant in the room
A 14-page ‘joint declaration’ of the Eastern partnership summit was adopted, which does not mention Russia. The dialogue with Moscow will however continue, starting with an EU-Russia summit in late January.
EU diplomats said they would not engage in 'tit-for-tat' tactics with Russia, fearing a return of Cold War days. They claim to have good channels of communications with Moscow, mentioning in particular the bilateral contacts of EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
The two reportedly met last September to discuss the trade wars which Russia waged against countries in its neigbourhood, such as Moldova and Ukraine, but also EU member Lithuania.
EU officials said they will continue to closely monitor developments in Georgia and Moldova, the two countries that initialed Association Agreements, coupled with Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs) at the Vilnius summit.
The Ukrainian government announced on 21 November that it had decided to stop its preparations to sign an Association Agreement with the EU.
The statement made it clear that the decision was taken with a view to elaborating measures towards “Russia and other countries from the Community of Independent States”.
Ukraine said it would propose to the EU and Russia the formation of “a tripartite commission to handle complex issues”.