EU divided over whether to let Ukraine into European club
by Francesco Guarascio
The EU is struggling to find a common position on the future of Ukraine, as the country emerges from a well-run Euro 2012 football championship but remains mired by the controversial case of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko - PublicServiceEurope.com reports from Kiev
The successful co-hosting with Poland of one of the biggest sporting events worldwide shone the spotlight on Ukraine, but also provided critics with a golden opportunity to reiterate their campaigns against the country's shaky respect for the rule of law. Europe remains profoundly divided on how to deal with this multifaceted country, which boasts many reasonable arguments in favour of it joining the European Union and yet still maintains some disreputable Soviet-era habits.
The EU's latest internal row concerns the extension of an agreement for facilitating travel visas for certain categories of Ukrainian citizens. The deal would make it easier for regular travellers such as truck drivers, journalists or representatives of civil society organisations to obtain the authorisation to temporarily access the EU. Businessmen and researchers already enjoy these privileges. The deal would normally be a minor issue, but Ukraine's media coverage during the last month has turned the deal into a delicate matter.
Internal documents seen by PublicServiceEurope.com show that the vice-president of the European Commission Viviane Reding had blocked the extension of the agreement at the beginning of June "for matters of political opportunity". Giving a green light to Kiev on the visa deal would not have been consistent with the tough line adopted by Brussels and shared in many EU capitals ahead of the Euro 2012 tournament. Reding's argument reflects the line of the European People's Party, the main political group in the European Parliament – and the political family to which former Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's party belongs.
Not everyone agrees, however. The commissioner in charge of the dossier Cecilia Malmström, who is responsible for home affairs policies, wants to press ahead with the deal. "It will facilitate people-to-people contacts and the life of ordinary Ukrainian citizens who want to travel to Europe," explains one of her aides. The European Commission's decision will be made public by the end of the week – possibly even today. It is expected to be positive, despite some strong internal lobbying involving several EPP commissioners. They were called into action by the prominent EPP MEP Elmar Brok earlier this week. "The commission is considering to propose a decision on the signature and conclusion of a visa facilitation agreement with Ukraine; this would be the wrong thing to do," he made clear in a press release.
The spat over the visa deal follows after the EU's cumbersome boycott of the Euro 2012, in Ukraine. The campaign started in April, once again led by Reding - who in a letter to the Union of European Football Associations' President Michel Platini, declined his invitation to the championship and expressed concern about "the human rights situation in Ukraine" and "especially the dramatic situation of Tymoshenko". Many European capitals jumped on the bandwagon, announcing that their country's participation in the tournament, in Ukraine, would not be at political level. No EU leaders were supposed to sit next to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in the VIP areas of the stadiums in Kiev, Lviv, Donetsk or Kharkiv. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was particularly keen in endorsing the boycott, as a powerful media campaign was mounted in Germany to free Tymoshenko - who is serving a seven-year jail term for alleged abuse of office.
Merkel was spared the dilemma of whether to attend the final by Germany's defeat to Italy in the semi-final of the tournament. Yet, her aides had already hinted that she may attend should Germany have beaten Italy. When faced to the same conundrum, Italy's Mario Monti and Spain's Mariano Rajoy had no doubt. They joined Yanukovich and his friends - including the Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko - in the Kiev Olympic Stadium to attend the final between Italy and Spain. They tried to save face in a letter to the Ukrainian authorities, where they reiterated the usual calls for the respect of the rule of law and requested a meeting with Tymoshenko for their ambassadors.
"We fully support the request to improve the rule of law, a change to the criminal procedure code will soon be in place," Ukraine's Foreign Minister Konstyantyn Gryshchenko told PublicServiceEurope.com in a restricted press briefing in Kiev. As for the visit to Tymoshenko, he said: "There is no problem. There have been already so many visits that it has become a regular event." And he added ironically that the only ones that are worried are Tymoshenko's "German doctors", who "may not be happy about the impact of these frequent visits on her health".
Brussels and Kiev have been flirting for years and many reasonable voices are pushing for stronger relations. However, Europe's ambivalent line is not helping the representatives of the moderate front within the Ukrainian authorities. On the other hand, Yanukovich's "obsession" with Tymoshenko - who co-ran the Orange Revolution against him and nearly beat him at the last presidential election in 2010 - is compromising Ukraine's road to Europe. As in many romances, lovers have to overcome many hurdles before realising their dream. The hope for all concerned is that the epilogue will not resemble William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
When will the sad EU members open their eyes and see Yanko does not want the EU. Without the EU, he can do everything he wishes. End of story
Gary - UK
Ukraine belongs to Europe yet, conmfort-wise, still lags behind.
Expet ua - kyiv