European Union leaders managed to find wording acceptable to all 28 EU member states on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement declaration requested by the Netherlands during a European Council meeting on December 15.
A major hurdle to the final adoption of the Association Agreement and its in-built deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU’s eastern neighbour has now been cleared. But there could be more bumps on the road back in the Netherlands, where more than 60% of Dutch voters in April rejected the ratification of the agreement with Ukraine in a non-binding referendum.
The text, which member states have called a “decision”, states exactly what the Dutch had called for. The government in The Hague proposed this solution after a consultative referendum in April rejected the agreement. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to follow through with the EU agreement had been the major trigger of the crisis there in 2014.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, initially low-key on the deal, has recently campaigned forcefully for it to get through in his country. Rutte has focused in particular on geopolitical arguments: the need for Europe to stick together vis-à-vis Russia in particular. The decision came the very day member states prolonged sanctions against Russia for its involvement in Eastern Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
The decision adopted on December 15 says: “While aiming to establish a close and lasting relationship between the parties to the agreement based on common values, the agreement does not confer on Ukraine the status of a candidate country for accession to the union, nor does it constitute a commitment to confer such status to Ukraine in the future.”
Further, the agreement “does not contain an obligation for the union or its member states to provide collective security guarantees or other military aid or assistance to Ukraine”. What is more, the Association Agreement “does not grant to Ukrainian nationals or union citizens, respectively, the right to reside and work freely within the territory of the member states or Ukraine”, member states say.
“The agreement does not require additional financial support by the member states to Ukraine, nor does it change each member state’s exclusive right to determine the nature and volume of its bilateral financial support”, council members add.
Finally, the text reiterates that the Association Agreement could be suspended if one of the parties does not fulfil its obligations.
The text now needs a final nod in The Hague’s parliament. The Association Agreement has been formally ratified by the government and parliament, but it has not been enacted. A new plenary session is scheduled next week in the Netherlands to debate the issue.
Rutte’s government appears to be able to muster a sufficient majority in the lower house, but it might be a tougher battle in the Senate, because the ruling coalition has no majority there. There, the government needs the support of the liberal group D66 – which appears guaranteed – and of the Christian Democrats, a group that appears split.
Dutch parties are in pre-election mode as general elections loom in March. The eurosceptic and populist party of Geert Wilders has threatened to trigger a no confidence vote next week in the Dutch Parliament, which could delay the decision over the Ukraine deal.
Meanwhile, the European Union member state leaders agreed in Brussels on December 15 to extend the economic sanctions against Russia by six more months.
The formal decision to extend the measures imposed in 2014 over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine is to be adopted within the next few days at the Committee of Permanent Representatives in the European Union.
The current term of sectoral economic sanctions against Russia expires on January 31, 2017. Under the reached agreements, they are expected to be extended until July 31, 2017.
“All member states understand that it is inevitable,” TASS quoted the Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite as saying upon her arrival in the Belgian capital for the year’s last summit.
The sanctions restrict Russian access to international financing and impose curbs on defence and energy cooperation with Russia. They were imposed because of Russia's annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsular and the way it fomented a separatist conflict in East Ukraine that has claimed almost 10,000 lives.
“This simple story has been repeating itself every six months,” Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told TASS earlier. According to Chizhov, the EU is extending sanctions for the sake of preserving unity, which has become a goal in itself.
“First, some big EU countries say that sanctions should be either cancelled or eased but immediately after that minor but vociferous states demand that sanctions be extended and expanded. And then, someone we all know [President of the European Council Donald Tusk] steps forward as an arbitrator and says: “Our unity is in danger so let’s leave it as it is’.”