Ukraine Strives For Closer Ties To Europe At Summit With European Union

HELSINKI, Finland -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko will seek to bolster ties with European Union leaders on Friday, hoping to improve his country's prospects of eventual EU membership.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko meets Finland's President Tarja Halonen (R) in Helsinki. Yushchenko is in Finland to participate in the EU-Ukraine meeting on Friday.

"One of the strategic goals is to get a European perspective in our foreign policy," Yushchenko said on the eve of the meeting, after talks with Finnish President Tarja Halonen.

The annual EU-Ukraine summit, being held in current EU president Finland, is expected to launch negotiations on a new economic and political cooperation agreement. The two parties also will sign agreements on cross-border cooperation to ease visa requirements and the readmission of illegal immigrants.

Yushchenko said Ukraine was on the "final stretch" of talks to join NATO and was making progress on membership of the World Trade Organization. He hoped the Helsinki meeting would open the way for EU membership talks to begin, possibly in 2008.

"In these talks my aim is to make progress so that we could start some kind of accession negotiations in 2008 which would eventually lead to Ukraine's membership in the European Union," Yushchenko said at a news conference with Halonen.

But the EU has been more cautious, shying away from setting any date for staring such talks.

After admitting 10 new countries in 2004, and preparing to absorb Romania and Bulgaria on Jan. 1, there has been a growing wariness in the bloc about further expansion.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has urged Ukraine for reforms.

"The reform of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and improving the business climate are highest priorities, together with the finalization of Ukraine's WTO accession," Barroso said in Brussels. "This is not only crucial for Ukraine, but will also strengthen EU-Ukraine relations."

Halonen was even more blunt.

"We all know Ukraine will still have a lot to do in the future," she said. "Concerning the reforms, it's not how to please somebody else, but it's the issue of how Ukraine can become capable in international relations, in globalization and in bilateral relations."

So far, the EU has refused to grant Ukraine a "membership perspective," including the former Soviet republic in its "neighborhood policy" along with Belarus, Israel, the south Caucasus countries and several Arab nations around the Mediterranean Sea.

Governments from the 25 EU nations are currently mulling a proposal from the Commission to deepen relations with Ukraine by setting up a free trade zone, strengthening diplomatic ties and boosting collaboration in areas such as energy, justice, nuclear safety, and environment protection.

In Helsinki, the two parties are expected to sign agreements to make it easier for Ukrainians to travel, work and study in the EU and to increase cooperation in customs and border control, including easing the return to Ukraine of illegal immigrants arriving into the bloc from that country.

Source: AP