KIEV — Ukrainian and European Union leaders ended a two-day summit Thursday that celebrated their growing closeness while also highlighting points of tension between the two sides.
European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker arrived in Kiev on Wednesday evening for talks with President Petro Poroshenko and other top officials.
It should have been a victory lap after one of the most successful periods in relations with Brussels in Ukraine’s history. Last month, the EU granted Ukrainians the right to travel to Europe’s Schengen zone without visas — one of their most prized foreign policy goals. This week, the EU ratified a far-reaching Association Agreement with Kiev, which had been more than a decade in the making.
But a disagreement over wording, which left organizers without a final summit communiqué, cast a shadow over the gathering.
At issue was a line declaring that “the European Union acknowledges Ukraine’s European aspirations and welcomes its European choice” — which had been included in a statement after the EU’s 2015 Eastern Partnership summit, as well as written into the ratified political and trade agreement.
According to European diplomats, Dutch officials insisted additional language be inserted into the final statement, to reflect a 2016 European Council decision that the Association Agreement did not guarantee Ukraine a path to become an EU member. The Dutch parliament had earlier ratified the deal on the condition that this did not lead to “automatic” membership for Ukraine.
EU officials said Ukraine and its EU allies insisted the line must be included without alteration. So in the end, the seven-page document, which had been laboriously negotiated over weeks, was not issued.
Some observers were at a loss as to why a compromise could not be reached — perhaps by leaving out the line altogether.
“Practically, this is not a big deal,” said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But symbolically it’s damaging. It shows a lack of unity.”
At the moment this is more a question of language than policy. The Netherlands, officials say, is supportive of Ukraine in private discussions; however, Dutch officials take a harder line in public, fearful of providing political ammunition to the country’s far right.
Rocky road to agreement
Within the EU there’s a certain amount of unity, at least for the moment, over the policy toward Ukraine — reflected by the extension last month of sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and destabilization campaign within Ukraine.
The Association Agreement is viewed as the capstone of this consensus, though the path to ratification was strewn with rocks.
Moscow opposed the deal from the outset, pressuring Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president at the time, to reject it in 2013. This unleashed pro-Western protests and clashes in the capital, which ultimately drove Yanukovych from power.
The agreement was signed, but fighting broke out in Ukraine’s east, which grew into a conflict that’s killed more than 10,000 people and decimated the country’s economy. Meanwhile, Dutch voters rejected the Association Agreement in a referendum, concerned over what commitments it made to the Ukrainians.
After Dutch concerns were assuaged by fellow EU leaders, there was a sense of mission accomplished among European and Ukrainian officials in Kiev on Thursday. Tusk even handed Poroshenko a document formally confirming ratification.
“[This] was a kind of milestone summit, to summarize all the work that has been done,” said European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis. “Now we are discussing how to fully use the potential of the Association Agreement and deepen cooperation in a number of sectors.”
But though membership is not on the table at the moment, Ukrainian officials are keen to establish other incentives they can work toward — and hold out to the public as possibilities for the future. In remarks after the summit, Poroshenko expressed hopes for Ukraine to become a member of the EU customs union and Schengen open-border zone.
EU officials were noncommittal.
Furthermore, it remains to be seen how fully Ukraine implements the Association Agreement’s commitments, which come into full effect in September and involve wide-ranging political, legal, economic and quality-control reforms.
Ultimately, Ukraine’s endemic corruption was the biggest point of concern. EU leaders warned their Ukrainian counterparts that this had to be their primary focus, otherwise all the hard work of the past years could be undone.
“What we’re asking — we won’t be lecturing the country because this isn’t a country that needs to be lectured — is to increase the fight against corruption,” Juncker said. “Corruption is undermining all the efforts this great nation is undertaking.”
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