EU greenlights visa-free regime for Ukraine as it signals Russia sanctions to be extended

EU greenlights visa-free regime for Ukraine as it signals Russia sanctions to be extended
Jean-Claude JUNCKER, President of the European Commission; Petro POROSHENKO, President of Ukraine; Donald TUSK, President of the European Council.
By bne IntelliNews November 25, 2016

EU member states agreed that Ukraine is ready for a visa-free regime with the bloc, European Council President Donald Tusk told journalists during a breafing following the EU-Ukraine summit in Brussels on November 24.

“I am happy that all EU member states decided Ukraine is ready for a visa-free regime. This decision is a recognition of Ukraine’s achievements in meeting European standards,” Tusk said. ”It will enter into force once the European Parliament and the Council find an agreement on the reform of the EU’s visa policy, which is on track.”

Seven days earlier, the EU Council explained that the EU will grant visa-free travel rights to Ukrainians as it simultaneously adopts a mechanism to suspend the scheme in an emergency. The legislation, which could still take time to agree, will not grant Ukrainian citizens working rights, however, with many members states concerned about a possible wave of official or unofficial migrant workers from the war-torn country.

“We discussed this [adoption of the mechanism to suspend the scheme] with President Schulz today and we will intensify work with the Parliament to make it happen. But I want to underline that this discussion does not concern Ukraine any more, as Ukraine has already done its work perfectly,” Tusk added. ”Now the discussion concerns relations between the EU member states and the European Parliament with regard to the EU’s visa policy.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko added that Ukraine had fulfilled its part of obligations regarding implementation of the visa-free regime, and finally got the “green light” on that path.

“This is the first summit when questions are addressed not to Ukraine,” Poroshenko added. ”We, the Ukrainian delegation, ask our European partners questions with a request to fulfill the undertaken obligations in time.”

Ghosts of Donbas war

The EU’s move appears to signal the imminent accomplishment of one of Kyiv’s major foreign policy goals of the past two years. It is also seen by observers as reflecting greater EU support for Ukraine against Russia ahead of a possible slackening or removal of US sanctions against Moscow by the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, Poroshenko expressed confidence that the EU sanctions against Russia will be continued for another period. This decision must be considered and adopted at the EU summit in Brussels in mid-December, according to Poroshenko’s media office.

Tusk said he expected the EU to agree on a renewal of economic sanctions against Russia before the summit, Reuters reported.

The president also expressed gratitude to the EU for the clear position of non-recognition of the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, as well as stressed the importance of speeding up the process of liberation of Ukrainian hostages in Russia and the rebel-held territories of Donbas.

“Ukraine has gone through very difficult times, with Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, and its aggression in eastern Ukraine. Europe must do everything in its power to make sure that Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and stability are preserved,” Tusk, in turn, said. “We continue to support the Minsk process and our sanctions are linked with the complete implementation of the Minsk [peace] agreements.”

Meanwhile, Poroshenko’s media office said the participants of the Ukraine-EU summit stated that Russian aggression has continued and urged the Kremlin to finally terminate shelling of Ukrainian territory, ensure a sustainable ceasefire and provide unhindered access for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission to the entire rebel-held territories, including the uncontrolled area of the Ukraine-Russia border and areas for the withdrawal of heavy artillery.

The dispute over security and elections has stymied the Donbas peace process over the past year. Citing the Minsk peace accords reached in the Belarusian capital in 2015, the Ukrainian authorities demand control over the frontier with Russia in the east to prevent supplies of Russian weapons and personnel before there can be elections in rebel-held areas.

In October, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France agreed in Berlin to deploy an armed police mission of the OSCE in the war–torn Donbas region to secure preparations for local elections.

Dutch dilemma

Tusk also undelined that his mission is to finish the ratification process of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement despite the fact that during April’s non-binding referendum more than 60% of Dutch voters rejected the treaty’s ratification.

“This agreement is not only of mutual economic benefit, but – more importantly – it carries great geopolitical significance,” Tusk said. “After having spoken to [Dutch] Prime Minister [Mark] Rutte and President Poroshenko, I can report that we are working hard to find a solution that will allow the Dutch to ratify, by addressing all their concerns, while fully respecting the interests of Ukraine and making sure that the remaining 27 do not need to ratify again.”

According to Tusk, it is “his hope and intention” to find such a solution at the European Council meeting, which is scheduled for December.

Signed in 2014, the free trade and association agreement with Ukraine is one of several undergoing ratification or still in negotiation with various countries to help converge economic policy, legislation and regulation across areas including labour rights, visa-free movement, and exchange of information and staff in the justice sphere.

Earlier, Rutte said the Netherlands is unlikely to ratify the Ukrainian treaty in view of the results of the referendum. On April 6, more than 60% of Dutch voters rejected the agreement’s passage, while only around 38% supported the deal. Turnout was estimated at 32%, above the 30% threshold of voters needed for the referendum to be valid.

President Poroshenko signed the deal after his predecessor, the pro-Moscow leader Viktor Yanukovych, refused to approve it in November 2013. Yanukovych was subsequently ousted in early 2014 in an uprising in Kyiv and western regions of the country over his moves to ally more closely with Moscow.