Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, arrives for the “5th Eastern Partnership Summit” between the leaders of EU member states and those of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, in Brussels on 24 November 2017
Photo: European Council
(Reuters) - EU leaders pressed Ukraine on Friday to speed up reforms that Europe and the United States hope will bring Kiev closer to the West and allow more aid into the shattered country.
As fighting escalated in Ukraine’s industrial east, EU leaders held a summit with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and five other former Soviet republics to also send the message that economic cooperation need not antagonise Moscow.
Still, the European Union is wary of promising too much to Kiev, which is seeking membership of the bloc, and has warned Ukraine of pushing too hard when governments are seeking to curb immigration and face down far right political parties at home.
“Stubbornness is good, but the most important thing is not guarantees on entering (the EU), but to be stubborn about reforms,” Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters at the biennial summit with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus.
“Any membership is only as valuable as it is beneficial for Ukraine,” she said, referring to the country’s need to reform to meet EU business, health and other trade standards.
Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel echoed that position, saying it was “not the right moment” to be discussing any future Ukrainian membership to the European Union and that an EU “perspective” was enough for now.
EU leaders are expected to “acknowledge the European aspirations” of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova in a summit statement - EU code for closer ties but not membership.
Ukraine, which ousted a Russian-backed president in a pro-European uprising in 2014, is anxious for a promise of membership. EU diplomats said Kiev had not confirmed it would sign the summit statement: Failure to sign would be a blow to EU policy.
Backed by Washington, the European Union is seeking to build an outer ring of market democracies from the Caucasus to the Sahara without offering EU membership, a policy that has had limited success so far.
While an International Monetary Fund programme has saved Ukraine from bankruptcy, and Kiev has restructured its banking system, 600 million euros ($712.14 million) in financial-sector loans from the EU is still held up by a failure to lift a ban on Ukrainian wood exports and other conditions.
EU governments now fear the political opportunity to implement anti-corruption reforms is passing Kiev by as Ukraine approaches elections in 2019.
European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who oversees EU integration, said it was “ridiculous” that 1.5 million Ukrainians signed up to a wealth declarations register last year but only 100 people had been assessed to date.
“The fight against corruption needs to get much more serious,” Hahn told a pre-summit news conference on Thursday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would discuss the violence in eastern Ukraine with Poroshenko, as an almost three-year-old peace agreement has failed to stop fighting, with each side accusing the other of violating the terms of a ceasefire on a near-daily basis.
The West accuses Russia of directly supporting rebels in the east since March 2014, fuelling a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people. Moscow denies any involvement.
(Additional reporting by Peter Maushagen and Francesco Guarascio, Editing by William Maclean)