Ahead of the EU-Ukraine summit, on 22 November, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the EU Kostyantyn Yeliseyev talks toEuropolitics about his country’s new more pragmatic approach towards integration into the EU. He is strongly in favour of a quick conclusion to the free trade negotiations with the EU and is confident that Ukraine fully deserves to be granted a visa-free regime action plan at the summit next week. According to Yeliseyev, recently reported cases of violation of the freedom of expression in Ukraineare not systemic and will be thoroughly investigated.
— How would you describe the current relationship between the EU and Ukraine?
— Generally speaking, our relations are very intensive and of good quality.Ukraine’s main objective is to gradually integrate with the EU through sectoral cooperation in such areas as aviation, energy and trade (deep and comprehensive free trade area). We of course would like to have more successes in our cooperation, especially in terms of trade and providing access to the EU market for Ukrainian goods. In my view, there is good dynamism in our relations with the EU, with numerous meetings at different levels covering different areas of cooperation. From 1 September to mid-December, some 90 different meetings will be held in total between Ukraineand the EU.
— You used the terms “gradual integration” and “pragmatism”. Does this mean that Kiev has changed its strategy from pushing for membership of the EU to something more pragmatic?
— In previous years, we behaved like Euro-romantics. Now we can call ourselves Euro-pragmatics. We decided to stop proclaiming general political declarations and requesting deadlines for possible membership. All of that was not moving us closer to accession but was only creating false expectations in our society. We believe that only by concrete deeds and doing our ‘homework’ can we move closer to the EU. In our work we are trying to concentrate on pragmatic topics, which could bear fruit for our citizens, such as visa-free travel, business and people-to-people contacts, cultural exchanges and sectoral cooperation. At the same time, EU membership remains our long-term goal and a top priority of our foreign policy.
— You said a free trade agreement with the EU remains a priority for Ukraine. But are you truly interested in this in view of recent comments by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who said that your country simply cannot afford full liberalisation of trade with the EU?
— I do not want to interpret the statements of the president. But I have never heard from him that we are not interested any more in concluding a free trade agreement with the EU. Just recently, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov paid a visit toBrusselsin order to clearly state that we are very eager to wrap up the talks as soon as possible. There is a consensus on this goal also among our business elites, who want to play by clear and solid rules. The difficulties we’ve been encountering in the negotiations stem partly from the fact that this is a unique agreement. Never before has the EU negotiated such an ambitious free trade deal with a third country. So we both are pioneers in this field. Once signed, the agreement on a deep and comprehensive free trade area (DCFTA) will provide for four freedoms: free movement of goods, services, capital and to some extent people. It will also enable a far-reaching regulatory approximation between the EU andUkraine. Eventually, it will lay the foundations forUkraine’s economic integration into the EU, paving the way towards political integration at a later stage.
— At what stage are the negotiations on a free trade agreement?
— We’ve been negotiating the association agreement, which will include a free trade deal, since 2007. Since February 2008, we have also been discussing trade-related issues. The political part of the association agreement has been agreed in about 97%. The only part that remains to be agreed is the free trade area. Most importantly, there is a political will on both sides to wrap up the free trade talks as soon as possible. I’m very happy to tell you that the latest round of negotiations, held at the beginning of October inKiev, was very successful. We made significant progress on such issues as intellectual property rights and services. Therefore I’m looking forward with great optimism to continuing these talks.
— Meanwhile, Russia has offered your country participation in its customs union alongside Kazakhstan and Belarus. Is Kiev interested in this proposal?
— Even theoretically, it is impossible that Ukrainetakes part in the customs union withRussiaand signs a free trade agreement with the EU. Never ever have Ukrainian officials declared any intention to participate in the customs union withRussia,KazakhstanandBelarusas unlike Ukrainethose countries are not part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). To enter into such a customs union, Ukrainewould need to withdraw from the WTO, which is not our intention. For me, such speculations amount to sheer provocation. For many years, we were in a union withRussia, which was theSoviet Union, and that was enough for us.
— The EU is considering offering Ukraine an action plan on a visa-free regime at the forthcoming summit. However, some member states are not very keen on opening their borders to Ukrainian travellers. What decision do you expect?
— We do believe that Ukrainefully deserves to be granted a-visa free regime. Indeed, the action plan for Ukraineis currently under consideration by the member states. We very much hope that they will approve it for an endorsement at the EU-Ukraine summit. We consider this document as a road map for reforms in the areas of migration, readmission and security of documents. Several member states are sceptical, but in my view their concerns are politically motivated. Visa policy is not an effective instrument to tackle such problems as terrorism or organised crime. On the contrary, it prevents ordinary people, including youngsters, from travelling to the EU. By implementing an action plan, we hope to increase trust among the member states.
— Is your country technically prepared to introduce a visa-free regime?
— Eventually, this will require a political decision. I do not think that those countries that now enjoy a visa-free regime with the EU are better prepared thanUkraine. The introduction of biometric passports is a major challenge for us. There are other technical requirements we need to meet, such as the ratification of certain conventions. We have done a lot in recent months. We have ratified the conventions of the Council of Europe on human trafficking and on data protection and related legislation. Work is in progress on establishing a body dedicated to migration policy inUkraine. We are also about to adopt a migration strategy.
— Recent reports hint that freedom of expression is under threat in Ukraine. How would you comment on these allegations?
— We are not a perfect country. Ukraineis only 19 years old – a teenager with all its weak and strong points. However, the problems in the area of democracy are not systemic. There are individual cases of violation of freedom of expression that are taken by the Ukrainian authorities very seriously. Investigations are carried out to bring the perpetrators of harassment against journalists to justice. In the coming months, further steps will be taken to strengthen the fundamental freedoms in Ukraine. Talks are underway on introducing public television in the country. It will bring more pluralism into public life and increase the freedom of expression.
— What will be on the agenda of the forthcoming EU-Ukraine summit and what are your expectations of this meeting?
— The visa-free regime will of course feature high on the agenda of the summit. We hope very much that the summit will endorse the action plan for visa-free travel. We will also discuss ways to stimulate the negotiations on an association agreement, including a free trade deal. We will try to find compromises on some sensitive issues in this regard. Energy security will be the third most important item on the summit’s agenda. We will also discuss regional security issues related to Transnistria’s frozen conflict and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.