EU vote boosts Ukraine membership hopes

By George Parker in Brussels, Raphael Minder in Strasbourg and Tom Warner in Kiev

Financial Times

Published: January 14 2005

Ukraine's long-term hopes of joining the European Union were boosted on Thursday when the European parliament voted overwhelmingly to open the door to possible membership.

Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine's new pro-western leader, also could receive a further boost from the EU next month when the European Commission is expected to designate his country a "market economy". That move would help Ukrainian exporters avoid stiff EU anti-dumping duties on such sensitive commodities as steel and fertilisers.

European leaders including Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, are planning a strong show of support for Mr Yushchenko at his inauguration, tentatively scheduled for next Tuesday. Likewise, Mr Yushchenko is expected to receive a warm welcome from European leaders when he comes to Brussels on a visit in February.

The market economy status would be granted to Ukraine conditionally, to send a positive signal while giving Mr Yushchenko time to pass laws addressing the EU's remaining complaints, an EU diplomat said.

Although the parliament's vote was non-binding, it was a surprisingly strong endorsement of Ukraine's membership aspirations by the EU's directly-elected assembly and the clearest sign yet to Kiev that the EU's door is open.

Deputies voted by 467 votes to 19 in favour of resolution calling for Ukraine to be given "a clear European perspective, possibly leading to EU membership".

Boris Tarasyuk, Mr Yushchenko's top foreign policy adviser, said in Kiev that the vote reflected "the great sympathy among the populations and governments of democratic countries towards the Orange Revolution", referring to the mass protests in November and December that forced the outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, to allow democratic elections.

Bronislaw Geremek, a Polish deputy and former Solidarity activist, said: "This resolution is of historic importance for Ukraine. It shows the path is open."

Mr Yushchenko was formally anointed as president-elect on Monday, but his victory is being challenged in Ukraine's Supreme Court, which could further delay his inauguration, originally planned for this week.

Mr Tarasyuk, who is expected to be Mr Yushchenko's foreign minister, said the democratic protests had helped reverse the negative image of Ukraine created by Mr Kuchma's government.

"Ukraine finally has a positive potential in its foreign relations," he said.

However, in contrast to the parliament, the European Council, representing EU member states, and the Commission, the EU executive, remain reluctant to accept that Ukraine could eventually join the bloc.

Many EU diplomats speak of "enlargement fatigue", following the accession of 10 new members last May, and last month's decision to start membership talks with Turkey.

However, the Commission is looking at a number of ways of sending welcoming signals to Ukraine.

European diplomats said it would not be the first time that market economy status was used as a political gesture, pointing to the EU's decision to grant Russia market status as part of a package agreement on the Kaliningrad region.

Likewise, Ukraine would be offered market economy status as part of a package of new offers being prepared by the Commission for Mr Yushchenko's visit to Brussels, which one diplomat said were being drawn up with "a real sense of urgency". But the Commission will hold back from explicitly designating Ukraine a potential EU member, instead vaguely offering "a new kind of [EU-Ukraine] relationship" after the government shows progress with reforms.