This was a summit that delivered very little but promised a lot, including a deal on visa liberalization by the end of the year. Promises that might come true but that can turn empty depending on the shape of the European Union in months to come.
I, and many of the EU diplomats I spoke to after the meeting in Brussels on 24 November, maintained that possibly the most significant outcome of this Summit was that it happened at all. It might sound ridiculous but as a senior EU diplomat told me “don't underestimate the value that they all gathered here today.”
This was a meeting that was supposed to take place already back in May but due to governmental changes in Ukraine and the uncertainty that has reigned in the EU this year the meeting happened first now. The very fact that the Presidents of all the three institutions were present plus several Commissioners to meet the Ukrainian President and his team of ministers should be interpreted as a sign that Brussels still “care about Ukraine”. I am not convinced this is true.
Ukraine is no longer at the top of the agenda in Brussels. In fact it is not even near the top. Migration, terrorism, Brexit, economic woes and the implications of the upcoming Trump presidency all keep the Eurocrats very busy now. And very nervous. They also make the EU more vulnerable than ever before. There are elections coming up in both France and Germany next year as well as in the Netherlands and possibly in Italy. In all countries populists that want to get rid of the EU or parts of it will do well. This is also why so little could be promised in Brussels during the EU-Ukraine summit yesterday. Tusk, Juncker and Schulz simply are looking into a very uncertain, but possibly even bleaker future for their bloc.
There were promises that they will do the utmost to get visa liberalization for Ukraine as soon as possible. Juncker said that he was “convinced” that the differences that exist among EU member states and between the Council and the European Parliament will be solved before the end of the year. Tusk was more cautious and added that he “hoped to finalize this process this year and this is, I think, realistic and cautious optimism not an irresponsible prognosis or forecast.”
But doubts persist. It is still possible that France don't want to do anything regarding the suspension mechanism until after the presidential elections in France this spring. A deal on the mechanism would be a signal that the EU would be ready to offer Turkey visa free as well. And that would upset large part of the French electorate even more. To put it simply: The fear of a Le Pen triumph in May is all too real in Brussels. If it happened there will be no more Russia sanctions, no Schengen Zone and possibly no more EU.
The decision last week by EU ambassadors that they were ready to start negotiations with the European Parliament on Ukrainian visa lib was a way to pacify Kiev and offer at least something. The biggest hurdle, the suspension mechanism, still remains to be climbed. Negotiations will be intense in the run-up to Christmas and it might well be that a deal is found but that the actual implementation will happen later in the Spring.
So the EU leaders likewise said that they hope that the economic sanctions on Russia will be prolonged during the EU summit on 15-16 Brussels. At this moment it looks likely but in the current climate of uncertainty one cannot be too sure. Italy might raise objections and the outgoing US President Obama will not be able to twist arms in Europe as he did before.
At the same meeting in December the EU leaders also hope that they can get a legally-binding document signed by everyone which would allow the Netherlands to ratify the association agreement. Another promise to Poroshenko but a promise that just like the others above remain uncertain at this stage. The Dutch will ask for several assurances and according to several EU diplomats the other 27 member states will agree to it as long as the association agreement text remains untouched. The wording on the link between the association agreement and possible future EU membership for Ukraine will be the big sticking point. The Netherlands would like to make the link disappear, many eastern member states want it visible still.
So what was concretely agreed upon in Brussels yesterday?
The two sides confirmed a 104 million Euro in support of public administration reform which means that over the next four years the EU will contribute to the Ukrainian state budget to recruit new public servants among other things. Another 15 million Euro to support EU anti-corruption initiatives in Ukraine was also signed. This money will boost anti-corruption institutions to investigate, prosecute and sanction corruption.
The third concrete action was the signing of memorandum of understanding on energy. Such a document with Ukraine was last signed a decade ago but the big question is if this text is worth anything at all. There is no promise of any EU cash to invest in energy infrastructure but rather just proposals that Brussels might help Ukraine with such things as energy diversification and renewable energy. The most significant aspect of the memorandum is that it state that Ukraine remains a key energy partner for the EU and, perhaps more importantly, a key energy transit country. This all sounds very nice for Kyiv but the problem is if it actually mean anything in real terms. Several EU diplomats, notably from Eastern member states have already pointed out that Ukraine might be less and less of a transit country if Germany goes ahead with the construction of Nordstream II that will take Russian gas directly to the Western European energy market circumventing not only Ukraine but also the Baltic states and Poland. The European Commission isn't very keen on the project but the question is whether it has enough power to stop it. As in so many other issues concerning EU-Ukraine relations, the uncertainty is likely to last for a while yet.
On the energy field there was also discussions on a new energy trialogue between the EU, Ukraine and Russia in order to come up with a new winter energy package similar to those that was struck the previous two winters. The EU energy union commissioner Maros Sefcovic is expected in Moscow today (25 November) to get a sense of how the Russian side sees the situation. It is clear from the EU officials I have spoken to that the EU is the one in the trio that most desire to have a new agreement. The memories of gas shortages in the south-eastern part of the Union a few winters ago still lingers and Brussels is keen to show its restless member states that it can deliver at least on this. So expect some movement on this in the days and weeks to come and possible trialogues in Brussels or elsewhere in the run-up to Christmas.
The next meeting will take place in 2017 in Ukraine. How many of the promises made yesterday that has turned into concrete deliverables remain to be seen.