Ukraine's Poroshenko faces calls to do more on reform at summit with EU

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 24, 2016 3:51 AM

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders and Ukraine's president met on Thursday to build on a deal on closer relations but progress has faltered amid EU divisions over how far to go with a country mired in intractable corruption and conflict.

For their part, some in Ukraine feel the EU has not shown enough support in its confrontation with Russia and worry that promises by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to mend Washington's ties with Moscow could come at their expense.

On top of that, a provision to lift EU visas for Ukrainians is snagged and the Netherlands is struggling to work around the results of a national referendum that rejected the EU's agreement on closer trade and political ties with Kiev.

Three years after a pro-EU uprising overthrew the Moscow-allied leadership in Kiev, President Petro Poroshenko was in Brussels seeking to flesh out more of the commitments on trade and energy relations with the EU.

European Council President Donald Tusk cast the state of EU-Ukrainian ties in a positive light ahead of the summit.

"3 years since EuroMaidan," he said on Twitter, referring to the 2014 street revolt. "Ukraine on right track under President Poroshenko's leadership. EU support remains strong."

But the former Soviet republic's Western aspirations have exacted a high cost, and EU officials are dissatisfied with Kiev's pace on reforms pledged as part of the agreement.

Scores were killed during clashes between protesters and Ukrainian security forces. Shortly after President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and went on to back a pro-Russian insurgency in east Ukraine.

The EU slapped sanctions on Russia over Ukraine but the conflict in the industrial east - which killed nearly 10,000 people to date - remains unresolved and peacemaking led by Germany and France has stalled.

The two invited Ukraine and Russia to another joint meeting on the crisis next week.

The EU is likely to extend economic sanctions on Russia over Ukraine's conflict next month. But their future has become murky as internal EU splits over isolating Russia have deepened, and Trump's rise may only weaken the bloc's resolve.

CORRUPTION, ENERGY, TRADE AND VISAS

The EU recognizes that Poroshenko has implemented some energy, economic and police reforms under tough circumstances.

But corruption remains rife in Ukraine. Public declarations revealed recently vast wealth accumulated by officials, dismaying both the EU and Poroshenko's supporters at home.

EU leaders will dub Ukraine the bloc's strategic partner in gas transit, a message to Russia which has strived for years to bypass Ukraine in selling more of its gas to Europe, including by the Nord Stream pipeline.

That, however, is unlikely to assuage Ukrainian concerns after the EU executive lifted a cap on Gazprom's Opal pipeline, opening the way for Russia to expand Nord Stream's capacity even without a new extension.

The EU has also dragged its feet on granting visa-free travel to Ukrainians, mainly due to hesitation from Germany and France, which both face elections next year in which increasing anti-immigration feeling will be a burning issue.

Brussels says Ukrainian exports to the EU have risen 5.2 percent this year thanks to the association deal's clauses on freer trade. But the future of the entire accord is now uncertain after Dutch voters rejected it in a referendum.

While the pact is being provisionally applied, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is negotiating a legally-binding decision by an EU summit on Dec. 15-16 that would allow the Dutch parliament to override the negative referendum result.

Getting enough votes may prove tricky as Rutte lacks a parliamentary majority.

The document would spell out that the agreement does not prejudge Ukraine's eventual membership in the EU, does not oblige the bloc to provide military or financial support to Kiev and does not give Ukrainians access to European jobs.

All agree they do not want to renegotiate the entire deal.

But some EU states are not keen to bring Ukraine closer to the bloc for fear of alienating Russia while others want to give the former Soviet republic of 45 million people a firm European perspective.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)