EU Adopts Legal Basis For Ukraine Treaty

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Commission did on Wednesday (15 May) adopt a legal proposal for EU countries to sign a major treaty with Ukraine despite scant progress on reform.

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In what EU officials are calling a purely "technical" step, the decision will enable member states to sign a political association and free trade pact with Kiev later this year.

If they sign, the deal would still have to be ratified by all 27 national governments before it enters into life.

But the proposal includes arrangements for "provisional application" of the free trade treaty - a far-reaching document on aligning legal standards in trade and industry, described by some experts as "EU accession-lite."

It also comes amid an acceleration in bilateral contacts between Brussels and Kiev. 

Enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele in recent weeks met with Ukraine's deputy PM Serhiy Arbuzov and its national security chief Andriy Klyuev - two important behind-the-scenes figures - prompting media speculation the treaty signature is afoot.

Despite Brussels' low level of publicity for Wednesday's proposal, it does have political significance.

Fuele earlier this year said mid-May was a deadline for Ukraine to make reforms if it wants to sign the treaty at an EU summit with post-Soviet states in Vilnius in November.

But reforms have been few and far between.

On the number one topic of "selective justice" - the use of courts to hound opposition leaders - Ukraine has freed from jail former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko.

But the 58-year-old is a broken man in poor health and his pardon does not include rehabilitation, meaning he cannot take part in the next presidential elections. 

Meanwhile, former PM Yulia Tymoshenko - also in poor health in jail - has little chance of getting out before November.

Anna Herman, a close aide of President Viktor Yanukovych, on Monday told press Tymoshenko cannot be pardoned until two upcoming trials - on a contract killing and on embezzlement - are over.

Ukraine has also drafted a law on judicial reform - another EU demand - but the draft came too late to enable EU lawyers to make a proper analysis before the Vilnius event.

In what amounts to a game of brinksmanship between Brussels and Kiev, Fuele told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency on Tuesday that "one possibility" is for EU foreign ministers to decide on the signature at a meeting in late October.

He downplayed his Kluyev and Arbuzov meetings as part of an ongoing "assessment" process which includes weekly talks with EU ambassadors in Kiev.

He also said media reports that he told Kluyev the EU is happy to sign whether or not Tymoshenko goes free have "nothing to do with reality."

Poland and Lithuania have distanced themselves from the Tymoshenko cause, however.

Their diplomats are saying the future of Ukraine is more important than any one person, while highlighting alleged corruption in her time in office.

Germany, previously the most sceptical EU country on boosting Ukraine ties, has also moved closer to Poland's point of view.

Its diplomats are saying it would be useful to give Kiev a promise of future EU enlargement in order to entice it toward the West.

But doubts remain on Yanukovych's intentions.

The status quo - with Ukraine in a grey zone between the EU and Russia - has seen the President's family grow ever more rich.

His son, Olexander, doubled his income to $196 million a year in 2012, while Yanukovych himself lives in a mansion estimated to cost up to $100 million.

He has used the prospect of an EU deal to try to wangle cheaper gas from Russia, while using the prospect of joining a Russia-led Customs Union as a way to wangle EU concessions on reform.

Both the EU and Russia options pose a threat to his power.

If he goes down the path of pro-EU democratisation, he risks being unseated in elections.

But if he joins the Customs Union, he risks having his business interests gobbled up by Russian oligarchs.

"We are seeing signs of an attempt to derail the association agreement, but in such a way that he [Yanukovych] can blame it on the EU side in order to save face at home," one Kiev-based EU diplomat said.

Source: EU Observer