At this week's EU summit, diplomats plan to seal part of an association agreement with Ukraine. Some are even calling for EU accession. But the EU, critics fear, might be getting ahead of itself in Eastern Europe.
The crisis in Ukraine will undoubtedly dominate this week's summit of EU leaders. In what can be seen something of a pointed move, the EU will use the occasion to sign off on the association agreement with Ukraine - at least the political chapters. Economic components, such as the relaxation of customs procedures on both sides, are to follow later.
The agreement is the same one that was due to be signed last November, before former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided against it in favor of strengthening ties with Russia. His refusal triggered demonstrations in Kyiv, eventually leading to the fall of the Yanukovych government.
The EU is sending a clear signal with the agreement, said Werner Weidenfeld, a political scientist in Munich. "It's clear that the EU is upping the tempo," he told DW. Ukraine appears to be moving closer to the West at lightning speed, and many believe that the association agreement is only a first step for close cooperation in the future.
The EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, has explicitly promised full membership to Ukraine in the long term. Speaking with the Germany daily "Die Welt," he said the expansion of the EU was the strongest tool for change in Eastern Europe, adding that the EU was an "unprecedented force for change and stabilization."
Or rather not?
Fule's opinion, however, has not been met with universal approval in Brussels. The European Commission has said that there is still no common position on Ukraine's accession. Criticism on the EU's potential further eastward expansion has also been heard in the European Parliament.
"I won't hear of it," said Herbert Reul, who chairs the German contingent of the center-right European People's Party in EU parliament. "And anyone who thinks a bit knows that this is not on the table right now." Reul said that the priority now was to do everything possible to offer support to Ukraine - but the prospect of EU accession would do nothing to help the country. "It creates expectations that can not be fulfilled."
A country which does not meet strict criteria for inclusion cannot be admitted - and with Ukraine, that is not currently foreseeable, he says. "I am in favor of each resolution that helps keep [Russian President Vladimir] Putin from making advances. But to indicate that we want to accept a country into the EU as soon as it goes through the process is not likely to impress Putin."
An important symbol of the West
According to political scientist Weidenfeld, the EU making a clear move to open accession negotiations with Ukraine would send a strong signal to Russia. "At the moment there's a certain sense of symbolism: To what extent are the EU and the US ready to take care of Ukraine?"
And, he said, support can't be much more than a symbol for now. "Accession negotiations would, of course, drag on for years. And in a special case such as Ukraine, the EU cannot simply snap its fingers and make it a member."
When DW asked enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule for a statement, however, he backtracked on his earlier comments. "Accession for Ukraine is not currently on the table," he said, adding that he was merely repeating what the European Commission had said on several occasions in the past few months.
Moldova and Georgia?
The EU's reluctance with regard to Ukraine's possible accession can also be interpreted as a rejection of the other Eastern European countries currently feeling threatened by Putin's rhetoric. This is especially true for Georgia and Moldova, which have looked to the EU for more support, fearing that the conflict in Ukraine could spread over their borders. Long-simmering territorial and ethnic conflicts could flare up and be used by Putin to gain more influence in the region.
Shortly after independence in 1991, the eastern part of Moldova known as Transnistria broke away and is today calling for a stronger connection to Russia. A few weeks ago, the inhabitants of another breakaway part of the country, Gagauzia, voted in a referendum to join the Russian Customs Union. And in the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which seceded from Georgia in the Caucasus War of 2008 with Russia's help, Russian is already one of the official languages.
Like Ukraine, both Georgia and Moldova want to sign off on an association agreement with the EU, but both are heavily dependent on Russia economically. And Moscow is using all means at its disposal to position the two states against the EU.
But Weidenfeld believes that despite Russia's actions, this is still no reason to enter into negotiations with these countries, saying that the EU can't simply absorb every country where there might be a potential problem.