Konstantin Petrovich, recently a lot more emotional statements and comments are made regarding the fate of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, deadlines, the need for new round tables, assemblies. As someone with a considerable European integration experience, could you explain to us what is happening and where to find the key to the signing the AA?
I agree that the tension around the Association Agreement is growing every day. This is not surprising, given the historical significance of the document for the development strategy of the Ukrainian state and the change of the rules of the game at the regional level after its conclusion.
It is less than 5 months left until the famous Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in late November. However, the political decision on the fate of the Agreement will be made by the EU state-countries already in October on the basis of assessments of progress made by Ukraine in fulfillment of criteria set out in the Conclusions of the European Council on Foreign Affairs, on December 10, 2012.
I would like to note that these criteria are not a matter of one day. Some of them needed a few months of hard work of the involved authorities, for instance, in the context of improving the election law, and on some the Ukrainian society has been working since the days of its independence, including prosecution, judiciary, public finance management reforms, business and investment climate.
It is a painstaking and systematic work on all criteria: preparation of bills, the dialogue with the European institutions and civil society organizations, implementation of already adopted laws. These plans are reflected in the decisions of the President of Ukraine, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, the work plans of ministries and departments.
The Ukrainian side has already reached some progress. It is recognized in Brussels and some European capitals. However, at present it is difficult to confirm the achievement of a critical mass of progress, which may ultimately convince key skeptics and critics of the Ukrainian authorities in the possibility of signing of the AA in Vilnius. Today, time is our additional opponent.
As for any new initiatives such as convention of the national round tables or assemblies on performance criteria of signing of the AA, I would not like to give political assessment of such ideas. Instead, I would note the following: the time of the conversations and brainstorming is over. Brussels and 28 capitals are waiting for decisive actions and specific results of the coordinated efforts of all branches of the Ukrainian government.
You said that currently we still lack a critical mass of achievements. What is missing?
Everyone who is more or less familiar with the criteria of signing of the Association Agreement knows that it goes about three key areas: elections, justice and sectoral reforms.
In the context of election criteria the questions of re-elections date in problematic SMDs and considering the recommendations of the Venice Commission / Council of Europe and OSCE / ODIHR on improving the election legislation of MPs of Ukraine remain vital. We expect that the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine will manage to solve the reelections issue prior to the summer holidays, and the revised draft law on amendments to the Law on Elections of People's Deputies will be sent for examination to the Venice Commission and the OSCE and, in the case of a positive assessment on their part, it will be voted in the Parliament .
With regard to the justice system, the key issue is transfer for further expertise of the Venice Commission and approval in first reading of a draft law on the reform of the prosecution, which has to radically change the role of this institution in the justice system in Ukraine, bringing it in line with best European democratic practices. We expect the improvements in the preparation of bills on internal affairs bodies and the High Council of Justice. After getting the latest positive conclusions of the Venice Commission it is necessary to ensure the amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine regarding judicial reform. It also depends on the Parliament.
Special attention in the context of fulfillment of the criteria should be given to finding, together with the monitoring mission of the European Parliament led by Presidents Kwasniewski and Koks, a mutually acceptable political and legal solution in the situation with Tymoshenko.
In the context of the third sectoral criterion we expect the approval of the Strategy of reforming of public financial management system, improvement of the anti-corruption legislation aimed at bringing it into line with EU standards, the adoption of the final version of the Law on Amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine on the empowerment of Accounting Chamber.
A dialogue with the European Commission on compromise solutions to a number of trade irritants in relations between Ukraine and the EU should be finalized.
It is only the "minimum program" that will provide a positive assessment of signing criteria by the EU Member States. The time flies and you must act.
And how is the progress of Ukraine’s fulfillment of the criteria is being evaluated?
Of course, the Ukrainian side is trying to ensure the maximum objectivity of the evaluation of the progress made in implementing the criteria of the AA. A two-tier monitoring mechanism is working in Kyiv and Brussels, there is a constant exchange of detailed information on the status and implementation plans of each criterion, there are discussions of these issues during the events of political dialogue between Ukraine, the institutions and the Member States at all levels. The latest of such examples is the meeting of the Council on cooperation between Ukraine and the EU in Luxembourg on June 24, where the Ukrainian side was represented by the PM of Ukraine Mykola Azarov.
As I said, today we can say there is some progress in fulfilling the criteria of the agreement by Ukraine. A decision of the Board of the European Commission as of May 15 regarding the transfer of documents to sign the Agreement for the consideration of the EU Council can be considered as a good argument. I am convinced that in the absence of progress, the decision would have been impossible, and today we could have forgotten about the signing of Agreement in November.
However, EU Member States will make the final assessment and decision on the Association Agreement in October at a meeting of the EU Council.
And what are the sentiments in the European capitals today, as only a few days ago the community was agitated by the public critical position of Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski, one of the most loyal lobbyists ofEuropean aspirations of Ukraine, and prior to that by no less critical statement of the head of the foreign officeof Lithuania, that already holds presidency in the EU Council?
I am not inclined to dramatize the statements of true friends of Ukraine. I see them more as appeals to the Ukrainian side to not lose pace and ensure this necessary "critical mass" of the achievements in meeting the criteria of the AA.
Both Poland and Lithuania have always played and continue to play an important role in the agenda of EU-Ukraine relations.
I take this opportunity to congratulate our Lithuanian friends on the first ever Lithuanian presidency of the EU Council, the most critical and most difficult mission.
Getting back to your question, I would like to assure you that we are closely watching the positions of all European capitals. There are neither large nor small countries, there is no majority vote. Decisions will be made by consensus and therefore only one "no" at 27 "for" can ruin our prospects of signing. We have and hold individual strategy and tactics to ensure support, conduct active informational campaign in each of the country.
Today, I consider it inappropriate to name those who are in favor of signing or those who are still against.
I would say without exaggeration that today the diplomatic service of Ukraine in Europe "takes its most difficult test" in terms of the ability to protect state’s national interests. Each Ambassador, every diplomat is fully aware of his/her personal responsibility for the success of our common cause.
I would also like to see the same understanding in domestic politics.
What do you mean?
For me it is sad to observe that European integration is used as a "battlefield", as an instrument of struggle in the Ukrainian domestic politics, not as a platform for unity and implementation of reforms. There is a competition for who is most pro-European. However, unfortunately, it’s mostly only in words and statements that are shaking the air. Let’s take the example of the last Criminal Procedure Code of Ukraine. The CPC was developed from the best European democratic practices, approved by all European institutions, and today it is a kind of model of lawmaking at the regional level. What assessment and attitude do we hear from some political forces only because they were not the authors and Europe applauded not to them? Today, the same thing is happening with amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine on justice, empowerment of the Accounting Chamber. Just think: the power of the Accounting Chamber is one of the eleven key criteria for the signing of the agreement, a catalyst for a positive decision of the EU on the allocation of macro-financial assistance to Ukraine in the amount of 610 million euros, one of the bases for the recognition of PFM of Ukraine as one that complies with European standards. On June 20, the Verkhovna Rada voted for the draft law on amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine to expand powers of the Accounting Chamber: the Party of Regions – 187 votes, the Communist Party - 32, Batkivschyna – 2, UDAR – 0, Svoboda - 25. The result comments itself.
I would like to emphasize that today is one of the most important and crucial periods in the history of independent Ukraine. The Association Agreement is the key to our independent and prosperous future. And on the one hand, it is strange, but on the other hand, it is historically logical that the greatest danger to the future of Ukraine come from Ukrainians, internal fights and the primacy of their own political self-centeredness over the nationwide national interests.
Today, many say that Ukraine is at the crossroads between the Association Agreement with the EU and the Customs / Eurasian Union. What is the position of the European Union on this statement?
There is no crossroad. Ukraine chose the path to the united Europe. That’s all. This supports the people of Ukraine. It is written in the Ukrainian legislation. This complies with the long-term national interests of our country.
The Association Agreement is an important step in this long journey.
However, we cannot neglect and, on contrary, we should fully develop and deepen our dialogue and cooperation with countries-initiators of the so-called Eurasian integration process - Customs / Eurasian Union.
That was the aim of the recent signing of the memorandum between Ukraine and the Eurasian Economic Commission, which paves the way for Ukraine to become an observer in this association. Our European partners understand it and they calmly and deliberately accepted this event.
In this context I would like to draw attention to recent decisions of the Group of Eight Summit in Ireland, where the leaders of these countries welcomed the development of Eurasian integration process with the participation of the Russian Federation. This confirms the fact that current global players try to work out their positions and content of future relations with these entities. Ukraine has found such status and it is not contrary to its European aspirations.
Furthermore, I would like to note that there is an agreement between the EU and Ukraine on an informal dialogue on cooperation with the Customs / Eurasian Union, during which we will discuss approaches and exchange information of common interest.
Let's go back to another question of no less interest for Ukrainian citizens. On July 1, amendments to the Agreement with the EU on visa facilitation entered into force. What are these amendments?
An agreement between Ukraine and the EU on visa facilitation was signed back in 2007 and entered into force on January 1, 2008.
It was a positive step that allowed harmonization of the procedure for issuing Schengen visas to citizens of Ukraine. Further application of the Agreement made it clear that there was a need for further improvement of its provisions and expansion of categories of citizens, to which the simplified procedure would be applied.
As a result of long negotiations, we managed to reach a compromise on a number of key provisions that, in our opinion, will significantly simplify the travel procedure for our citizens to the EU. Amendments to the Agreement were signed on July 22, 2012 and since then we call it ‘enhanced’ Agreement on visa facilitation.
First, the list of categories of citizens who can take advantage of simplified procedures - to get multiple visa or free-of-charge visa - significantly expands. These are members of NGOs, religious groups, representatives of professional associations (e.g. scientists, artists, academics, trade unions, etc.) who participate in international forums, participants of international exchange program and others. The procedure for obtaining visas for journalists and members of their teams (operators, sound engineers, etc.) improves.
Secondly, it excludes the possibility of arbitrary interpretation of the provisions of the Agreement on the term of multiple-entry visas by consular officers. 'Enhanced agreement' stipulates that visa is issued not "until one year", "until five years" but "for one year", "for five years" depending on the visa type. It is difficult not to agree that the five-year multiple visa eliminates a lot of inconvenience to persons who travel often due to certain circumstances.
In addition, the EU member states undertook commitments to provide an opportunity of submitting visa applications to embassies and consulates of the EU Member States without intermediaries in Ukraine. It ensures the reduction in waiting time for submission of visa application and limitation of the cost of services of intermediary companies.
We consider this agreement as another step towards our key objective - the introduction of the EU visa regime for Ukraine.
And what is the progress in this area? When will the citizens of Ukraine be able to travel to Europe without a visa?
Implementation of the EU visa regime for Ukraine remains our absolute priority of our dialogue with the EU.
In 2010, Ukraine developed the Action Plan to liberalize visa regime by the European Union for citizens of Ukraine for this purpose. The implementation of a document takes two stages; on the first stage, we need to bring our legislation into line with EU standards. On the second stage, experts of the European Commission and EU member states will check the quality of implementation of this legislation. The result of this dialogue should be the abolition of visa requirements for short trips of citizens of Ukraine to the Schengen area.
The path that Ukraine is passing proved its effectiveness. In 2010, by the results of fulfilling similar "road maps" the visa-free regime was introduced for a number of Balkan countries.
Ukraine is now on the final stage of the first phase of the Action Plan. We have adopted the majority of necessary laws relating to migration, border security, security of travel documents, personal data protection, and the fight against corruption. This work, in particular, was positively evaluated by the European Union.
However, to complete the legislative phase of the Action Plan the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine should adopt a number of legislative acts that will enable Ukraine's transition to the second phase.
First of all, it is the improvement of Ukraine legislation in the fight against discrimination, namely the adoption of amendments to the Law of Ukraine On Preventing and Combating Discrimination in Ukraine.
The draft law includes a number of short amendments that will bring the legislation of Ukraine in this area to a new European level. As you can see, the draft law has caused considerable public outcry over some of its provisions on prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
I would like to emphasize that the draft law does not provide either same-sex marriage or opportunities to adopt children by same-sex couples, or any other similar provisions that are not perceived by Ukrainian society. The main purpose of this draft law is bringing anti-discrimination legislation of Ukraine in line with the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, which has the provision of equal access to work.
Its adoption at one of the plenary sessions of Parliament would enable Ukraine's transition to the second phase of the Action Plan at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, which is to be held on November 28-29.
In this scenario, we could rely on the timely implementation of EU visa-free regime, of course, under the condition of further effective implementation of the adopted legislation in the framework of the Action Plan.