The European Union will sign association agreements on June 27 with three countries in its Eastern Partnership – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – only seven months after the Vilnius summit that some observers saw as a major defeat for the EU in its bid to bring the former Soviet states into its fold and away from Russia’s sphere of influence.
Since the abrupt U-turn on the agreement with the EU from then-president Viktor Yanukovich, which came only a week before the scheduled signing, the country has been constantly in the headlines – from the Euromaydan pro-EU protests and violent clashes with the government forces to Yanukovich’s ousting and the loss of Crimea, annexed by Russia, followed by ongoing clashes with separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Throughout that period, the EU has always maintained its readiness to sign the association agreement with Ukraine, negotiated with the Yanukovich administration. Indeed, the EU did so in March with the political provisions of the agreement, shortly after Yanukovich fled Ukraine, saying that the economic provisions would be signed once the country elected a new president.
Moldova and Georgia initialled their agreements at the Vilnius summit, as scheduled, but that was seen as a consolation prize for the EU after Ukraine’s turnaround. Now, with new president Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv firmly on a pro-EU course, the two smaller former Soviet republics will benefit from changed circumstances, signing their agreements a few months earlier than initially expected.
Speaking ahead of the European Council summit on June 26-27, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso described the agreements as “a solemn commitment to accompany Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine each step of the way along the road of transforming their countries into stable, prosperous democracies.”
“The signature of the agreements is the logical outcome of a path started more than 20 years ago when these countries became independent states,” he said.
While it is true that all three countries have been among the former Soviet republics more keen to step out of Russia’s shadow – to an extent surpassed only by the three Baltic states that are already members of the EU – the signing comes at a time when Russia is both more able and willing to try and keep the three countries within its sphere of influence, the peculiarly-named “near abroad”, as it did with Armenia last year.
Russia’s reaction to the signing of the association agreement will also be discussed during the European Council, in particular as regards Ukraine, Barroso said.
In the past, Moscow has imposed trade restrictions on both Ukraine and Moldova (in the latter’s case, the EU moved swiftly to lift all restrictions on wine imports to the bloc to counter such moves) and it has warned that the deep and comprehensive free trade agreements signed with the EU could lead to further trade barriers in the future because they were incompatible with the terms of the customs union at the heart of the Eurasian Union championed by the Kremlin.
(European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, Russian president Vladimir Putin and European Council president Herman Van Rompuy chat amiably during the June 2013 EU-Russia summit in Yekaterinburg, before the Ukrainian crisis put a strain on the relations between Moscow and Brussels. Photo: European Commission)