The EU wants former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko freed before it strikes a deal with Ukraine. A partnership and customs union with the 28-member bloc hangs in the balance.
The European Union foreign ministers have been discussing their plans for the forthcoming summit on the EU's Eastern Partnership at a meeting in Luxembourg. They intend to sign deals at the end of November to form closer ties with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. But Ukraine is a difficult case. Almost all the EU's foreign ministers are demanding the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is imprisoned on charges of abuse of power, before the association agreement is signed.
According to the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, time is slowly running out: "Last-minute moves are not reasonable, they are extremely risky."
The Ukrainian government has introduced a bill that would allow Tymoshenko to leave the country briefly for medical treatment. But Ukrainian Prime Minster Mykola Azarov demanded in an interview with German business magazine "Wirtschaftswoche" that the EU accept the legality of the Tymoshenko verdict, something the EU foreign ministers refuse to do. They see her imprisonment as politically motivated.
Ukraine has to make the move
"This is a case of great symbolic importance. We expect that the case of Ms. Tymoshenko will be resolved soon. Germany is ready to receive Ms. Tymoshenko so that she can receive medical treatment," Westerwelle said. He made the same offer a few days ago on a trip to Ukraine.
But that is not the only crucial point, British Foreign Minster William Hague said at the meeting. "We want to see them fulfill the conditions set in December last year by the Foreign Affairs Council, so that an association agreement can be signed with Ukraine. But there are still conditions to be met, particularly in judicial reform, selective justice and electoral reform," he said.
It is now up to Ukraine to act, Austria's Foreign Minister Martin Spindelegger said: "They have to decide if they want to belong to Europe or to Russia."
In contrast, Lithuania is an enthusiastic backer of the Eastern Partnership, due to the country's geographical location on the Eastern edge of the EU. Foreign Minister Antanas Linas Linkevicius said, "Ukraine has already moved on very important segments with regard to the electoral system and with regard to the prosecutors' office, and the Commission has provided a quite positive assessment, so this is good news."
Russia wants influence over Ukraine
Negotiations have been underway on the association agreement since 2007 and its completion would be an important step towards a future accession of Ukraine to the European Union. The EU hopes such an agreement would bind Ukraine to the West and ensure the transit of natural gas through Ukrainian territory. But Russia does not want to lose its hold on Ukraine and has offered the government in Kyiv membership in a Russian-led customs union.
On the fringes of the ministers' meeting, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt announced another attempt to bring the Ukrainian government to a compromise ahead of the Eastern Partnership summit. "It's obvious that Ukraine has not yet fulfilled the conditions that are there. Immediately after this meeting, Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, and myself will go to Chisinau, Kyiv and Tblisi to review those things in the next few days in anticipation of the further moves that might be happening."
Syria conference aims for a political solution
Syria continued to be a major issue for the ministers. Bildt welcomed the renewed attempt to hold a peace conference for Syria in Geneva in November. Westerwelle again called for dialog to end the conflict between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the armed opposition: "We urge all parties to participate in this conference and to do their utmost to come to a political solution." In Geneva, the government and rebels are set to meet in direct talks for the first time.
On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague plans to make preparations for the second conference on Syria together with John Kerry, his US counterpart, and European and Arab colleagues. Hague announced that he also wanted to talk about the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and the political future of the country. But, he said, it was important the suffering of the civilian population was not forgotten: "Of course we must also discuss the desperate humanitarian situation in Syria, which is getting worse. It is very important that humanitarian access is provided to areas where people are literally starving, as well as short on medical supplies."
EU wants to speak with Turkey on accession again
There was good news for Turkey from the EU foreign ministers' meeting. On November 5, accession negotiations are set to resume after a three-year hiatus. The chapter on regional policy will be opened. In June, the foreign ministers had postponed the continuation of the negotiations because of the violence of the Turkish police against demonstrators in Istanbul. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans declared in Luxembourg that his country was now ready for further accession talks, after parliament in The Hague had approved.
The EU and Turkey have been negotiating since 2005. None of the chapters has been formally completed so far, because Turkey refuses to recognize EU member Cyprus. Turkish troops occupy northern Cyprus in contravention of international law.
The German government also wants further negotiations, even though the current coalition government - which remains in office until a new government is formed in Germany - came out against full membership in the EU for Turkey. Westerwelle said it was a good decision for Europe and Turkey, and called for more chapters in the area of fundamental rights to be quickly opened: "It is even more urgent to accelerate the negotiations, especially in the chapters on rights and the rule of law, and here, too, to pursue this more vigorously."
Austrian Foreign Minister Martin Spindelegger also supports the German position: "This creates clarity that a Turkey working towards Europe will enact reforms in this area so that human rights are respected." But the EU foreign ministers were not able to agree on expanding the negotiations to include this new area. The formal decision on Turkey will be issued on Tuesday.