Written by Naja Bentzen,
Three years ago, on 21 November 2013, Ukraine’s then President, Viktor Yanukovich, caved in to Russian pressure and decided against signing the EU-Ukraine association agreement. The following ‘dignity revolution’ paved the way for Yanukovich’s own ousting on 22 February 2014, igniting hope among Ukrainian citizens for a future closer to the European Union.
The Ukraine crisis catapulted the country to the forefront of the EU policy agenda, triggering sanctions on Russia over its illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and its role in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Since then, the EU has significantly boosted its support to Ukraine, which – despite the ongoing hybrid war – has taken important steps on the path towards European integration, not least by signing the association agreement (which includes agreement on a deep and comprehensive free trade area (DCFTA) in June 2014, and applying it provisionally.
The way forward in EU-Ukraine relations – including visa liberalisation, and implementation of the February 2015 Minsk peace deal, as well as reforms and anti-corruption measures in Ukraine – will be the focus of the EU-Ukraine summit due to be held on 24 November 2016. The summit takes place amid uncertainty over future US policy vis-à-vis NATO, Russia and Ukraine, increasing the pressure on both Ukraine and the EU to keep a steady hand.
In December, EU leaders will decide on the extension of European sanctions against Russia over its role in Ukraine, against the background of the forthcoming US leadership change. President-elect Donald Trump has made a number of comments suggesting that he may soften US policy towards Moscow, sparking concern among Ukrainians over a potential weakening of US support for their country.
Visa liberalisation: A ‘positive signal’ ahead of the EU-Ukraine summit
Enhanced mobility of citizens is a core objective of the eastern partnership (EaP), in which Ukraine is a priority country. Popular among EaP citizens, visa-free access to Europe is seen as a ‘carrot’ for authorities to implement key reforms. The Commission presented its proposal for visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens on 20 April 2016.
In its 14 November conclusions on the eastern partnership, the Council underlined the importance of a ‘timely finalisation of the decision-making processes required for visa liberalisation for both Georgia and Ukraine’. On 17 November, the Permanent Representatives Committee confirmed, on behalf of the Council, its negotiation position and support for the Commission proposal to provide for visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the EU. Once a new ‘suspension mechanism’ – an emergency brake in case visa-free travel is abused by non-EU nationals – has been agreed, the Slovak Presidency will start negotiations with the European Parliament. This explicit ‘positive message in the run up to the EU-Ukraine Summit on 24 November’ is a signal of support for Ukraine in the light of uncertainty over the direction of the new US administration vis-à-vis Russia.
Minsk agreements: Military situation remains unpredictable
Despite an October 2016 agreement in Berlin among France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia (‘Normandy four’) to draw up a roadmap by the end of November on how to implement the 2015 Minsk peace deal, the security situation in eastern Ukraine remains tense and unpredictable, with no improvement in sight. According to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) special monitoring mission to Ukraine (SMM), ‘sophisticated’ military supply lines enable either side to ‘quickly turn on or off’ their ceasefire violations.
Anti-corruption: new large-scale project to be launched
Over the past two years, reforms have moved forward with support from the EU, including eliminating energy subsidies and establishing a new police force, as well as adopting new legislation on anti-corruption measures and establishing anti-corruption institutions. Nevertheless, corruption remains a persistent source of internal and external disillusionment, leading to a number of resignations of high-ranking reformers. Corruption also played a key role for Dutch voters who rejected the EU-Ukraine association agreement in the 6 April 2016 referendum.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities have implemented a new e-declaration system which aims to make public officials criminally liable for providing false information. More than 100 000 officials have made their (partly controversially significant) assets publicly available. As part of the EU’s efforts to help Ukraine combat corruption, in September 2016 EU Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, and Danish Foreign Affairs Minister, Kristian Jensen, presented a €16 million project to fight corruption in Ukraine. The ‘support to combat corruption in Ukraine 2017-2019’ programme will run over three years from early 2017.
Recent developments in the European Parliament: MEPs press for visa liberalisation
The Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE) adopted a report on 26 September 2016, which recommended waiving visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens entering the Schengen area. In its opinion on the visa-free regime with Ukraine, the EP’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) called for Ukraine to be granted a visa-free regime ‘without any further delays, in recognition of the progress the country has achieved on its European path since the Euromaidan protests’.
Members of a delegation of the European Parliament’s Security and Defence Subcommittee (SEDE), led by its chair Anna Fotyga (ECR, Poland), conducted a field trip to eastern Ukraine on 4-11 November 2016. During their trip, the MEPs condemned the illegal annexation of Crimea, and urged all relevant EU institutions to make visa liberalisation a reality for the citizens of Ukraine.
On 17 November 2016, the LIBE Committee backed an agreement on operational and strategic cooperation between Ukraine and Europol (2016/0811(CNS)), following the recommendation expressed in the report by Mariya Gabriel (EPP, Bulgaria). The plenary vote is scheduled for 22 November 2016.
Read also our briefing: Ahead of the EU-Ukraine Summit: Increasing pressure for progress.