BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is set to offer Ukraine encouragement about closer ties and the prospect of an easier visa regime at a summit on Tuesday but stop short of any explicit pledge on future membership.
Despite concern about Russia’s moves to roll back Western influence after intervening in Georgia, many EU states remain unwilling to offer such a pledge, given waning public support for EU expansion, Kiev’s poor record on reform and a desire to avoid further straining ties with Moscow.
Political crisis in Ukraine that saw the collapse last week of a shaky coalition between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has reinforced such caution.
At a summit in the French resort of Evian on Tuesday, the 27 EU states will at least hold out the prospect of gradually closer ties with a country that is a key energy transit route and seen as crucial to the bloc’s long-term strategy.
A draft summit text acknowledges Ukraine’s European aspirations and adds “that gradual convergence of Ukraine with the EU in political, economic and legal areas will contribute to further progress in EU-Ukraine relations”.
It describes a broad bilateral pact under negotiation as an “association agreement”, wording that can imply the possibility of future membership, and the leaders will announce the launch of a dialogue towards an eventual visa-free regime.
At an EU foreign ministers meeting in Avignon at the weekend, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called the relationship with Ukraine “very profound”. “They have demanded we deepen that relationship; we are going to do it,” he said.
But even among countries keen to see Ukraine as a future EU member — which include Britain, the Nordic states and former communist countries such as Poland — some caution remains.
“We have to take it one step at a time, be very careful,” Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said. “Ukraine is a European state, but at this stage it is too early to draw any conclusions about membership perspective or anything else.”
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in Avignon it was important to make sure the current political upheaval in Ukraine did not lead to national disunity.
“Equally, it is important that Europe’s leaders make clear that we are determined on a long-term relationship with Ukraine with membership as a long-term goal.”
However, an explicit statement of future membership prospects has been blocked by the Benelux countries, with Germany and Italy also not keen, not least to avoid further straining ties with Moscow, a key supplier of energy to Europe.
Russia has been incensed by the pledge of eventual NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, another former Soviet state, and many see this as the spur for its intervention in Georgia.
In Avignon, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner summed up the summit prospects by saying that while it would not offer Ukraine the explicit statement Kiev has been seeking, it would “not exclude any mood in the future”.
Some analysts argue Ukraine is key to EU security and economic strategy and should be given more encouragement.
Tomas Valasek, from the Centre for European Reform think tank, said the European Union needed to clarify the message it was sending to Ukraine.
He called Ukraine the EU’s most important neighbour given its size and location and ability to influence progress in other strategically important countries that have become vital to long-term EU plans to ensure future energy supplies.
“If it can successfully Europeanise ... it will clearly demonstrate to the Central Asian republics, to Azerbaijan and to Moldova and others that it’s possible to be a former Soviet republic and a modern Western country,” he said.
“It will show that there is nothing inevitable about former Soviet republics always being in the Russian orbit. That’s why it’s important for the EU to get it right.”
Editing by Ralph Boulton