- Let’s talk about the forthcoming Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit, to be held on 28-29 November. There have been a number of statements by Russian politicians, basically threatening countries like Ukraine, Moldova. I think Armenia has already changed its mind and will not pursue European integration. Basically Russia looks like the villain. How would you comment?
- Well, politicians are there to make statements. And they are free to do that. Allow me not to comment on specific politicians’ statements. I can refer to the official position of the Russian Federation, as expressed by President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov.
Russia is not threatening anybody in this world, on any issue. We haven’t been threatening Syria with cruise missiles strikes. We haven’t been threatening the US with reprisals should they launch cruise missile strikes. We believe in diplomacy.
As far as the upcoming Vilnius summit is concerned, we all know it is not the first Eastern Partnership summit, it is the third summit. But the first two were barely noticed by the wide circles of public opinion since they didn’t produce much.
There is a lot more attention now regarding the upcoming summit in Vilnius, for a simple reason: not that Eastern Partnership has suddenly become a very successful policy of the EU, or it has acquired a separate budget line in the EU budget, which is still not the case. But for a different reason: the EU is planning to sign one and perhaps initial two other association agreements (AA) with focus countries, as they are called. The list of six countries are now down to three: Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Armenia as you rightly mentioned has made a different choice, Azerbaijan was not interested from the outset, and Belarus was never offered one. Regarding the three draft agreements, one has been made public, the Ukrainian one, but there is no transparency on the other two, and the Ukrainian AA was only announced after it was initiated.
Therefore it’s difficult to me to judge the Moldovan and Georgian AAs, but I have read the draft Ukrainian AA which includes the so-called Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Frankly I have never heard of a shallow and incomprehensive FTA anywhere (laughs).
But the issue is that Ukraine will by signing and ratifying the AA, sign up to a number of contractual obligations which will be legally binding, vis-à-vis the EU. It will have to incorporate parts of the EU’s acquis communautaire into its legislation. Which signifies a point of no return.
Let’s look at the broader picture: Ukraine and other focus countries have been offered an alternative: the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, one that’s developing into an Eurasian Economic Union by the end of next year.
It may be an exciting game to try to sit on two chairs.
- Well, you say it is not possible, and the EU says it’s not possible to sit on both.
- But let’s take Ukraine then: it is their choice. They have chosen to sign this AA. So why threaten Ukraine with statements, saying they’ll lose a lot and not get enough from the EU in response? Because it is this language Russia has used, this is why it looks like the villain…
- Russia throughout its history has been portrayed by many as the villain. But this has never been the case. Russia is a friend of the EU and a friend of Ukraine. What we’re trying to explain to the Ukrainians is: yes, it’s their choice, but they should fully understand the consequences: if they take up on themselves those obligations, then Russia and other members of the Customs Union will have to take certain measures to protect their own market.
Let me clarify this: a product originating in the EU will be exported to Ukraine duty-free. But if we maintain a duty-free regime with the Ukraine, then it will end up duty-free in the Russian market, which would of course be detrimental to Russian economic interests. Another example: Ukraine is a major agricultural producer. I listened to some statements on Euronews this morning including by the local representative in Ukraine of the French firm Danone, and he said 80% of milk in Ukraine is produced by non-industrial producers, by “babushkas”, as he said. Danone has been investing a lot to bring the quality of the milk to EU standards, but has not reached that goal yet.
So whatever someone in Kiev might think, their agricultural products will not be able to compete in this free trade area – not immediately at least. Again they will end up in the Russian market. And of course one has to understand the basic difference between a free trade area and a customs union. Any country can establish a free trade area with any other country or group of countries. Each country can have a hundred of free trade agreements, saying “country A will trade with country B on a duty-free basis.” That is their choice.
But if you enter a customs union, within a group of countries, you establish a single customs tariff. And if you try to enter a different customs union, you cannot simultaneously have two different custom tariffs. So that is where the two chairs drift apart.
And that is one point where we have the same position with the European Commission, saying this will no longer be possible.
It is an important choice that Ukraine should make. We explain to them the risks this would entail. Also, in terms of an alternative, what we offer is full membership of our Customs Union. The EU has never offered Ukraine or any other focus country of the Eastern Partnership, full membership or even a perspective of one.
- Well, it is politically difficult for the EU to offer any country prospect of membership, but experts say that the signing of the AA is a major step towards what could be one day membership.
- You will not find a single official statement on the part of the EU confirming that.
- But why does Russia use its consumer rights services for creating problems to those countries? Why did Ukrainian chocolate suddenly became poisonous? Why wine from Moldova became bad for health?
Well, it is not that Ukrainian chocolate is poisonous… no. At least not yet. (laughs). But we have to be mindful of the quality. And of course, this is an issue of public health which has nothing to do with Eastern Partnership.
For Moldovan wine, I’ve seen statements that the EU will be ready and willing to buy up Moldovan wines. Do you really expect me to believe that these will be freely sold in France and other EU member states? Where the market is struggling with overproduction on local wines?
You know the EU spends half a billion euros annually to transform surplus wine into technical alcohol? 500 million euros a year. And on top of that you want people to allow Moldovan wine in the European market – I don’t believe that. That is a political move, a clear case of political interference into market relationships.
- I happen to know how much Russians love Moldovan wine. Why suddenly it became bad?
There are indeed some very good wines in Moldova, Georgia and elsewhere. The problem is of a different nature. We know those countries, we know the size of their territory, we know how much grapes they produce of a certain type. Those are relatively small regions. If a certain brand of grapes in a certain valley can lead to a production of, let’s say, 50 thousand bottles a year, then when we see 200,000 bottles of this wine entering the Russian market, naturally we have a question: where do the other bottles come from? And what do they contain?
- You mentioned the “point of no return”. Does it mean that Russia will not be able to build its great geopolitical project: the Eurasian Union?
- No, we will just have to build the Eurasian Union without Ukraine.
- Experts say the Union cannot fly without Ukraine.
- Well, it has been flying so far. Ukraine, by the way, is an observer in the Customs Union. But observer is something different from full member. There are several countries that have applied to join the Customs Union. But we try to learn from other people’s mistakes. Including mistakes that the EU has made in the course of its enlargement process.
With all due respect to countries that have recently joined the EU – when looking at the processes of widening and deepening of EU integration, I have the feeling that at some point, the EU has focused a lot on widening at the expense of deepening. That’s one of the reasons they’re having problems today.
- I will disagree with you there. It’s true that the EU has enlarged and that there were doubts if the West and East could go along together. But then it turned out that this process was rather successful, and that real problem appears to be the divide between the North and the South. Which is very different.
- It is really not geographical. It is rather between different concepts of EU integration. Whether it should be – as was written in the founding documents – “an ever closer union”, or something else, as we hear from London on a regular basis.
- You say countries have applied to the Customs Union. Could you name these countries?
- Formal applications are from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and other countries are looking into this issue. Including a statement by the Georgian Prime Minister, who was speaking of a long term perspective, that he would not exclude Georgia joining the Customs union.
- You refer to the interview Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili gave to Radio Free Europe?
- Perhaps. I was quoting from memory.
- But you interpret this as a readiness to join?
- Maybe not today, but perhaps at a later stage. You know, Russia is not pulling anybody into the Customs Union.
- That is not the impression that comes out of the developments.
- We are just trying to open everybody’s eyes to the opportunities of joining the Customs union. And the risks that taking certain obligations as associate members of the EU might entail.
- Some said the Ukrainians changed their minds, if they ever had hesitations before, and decided to go for the AA because of the bad treatment Belarus has been getting in the Customs union.
- I am surprised to hear that. Belarus is a full member. You know, when the Eurasian Economic Commission was created, we didn’t make the mistake the EU did, and corrected later, that the number of commissioners should be smaller than the number of member countries. We followed the basic principle of equal representation. So the Eurasian Economic Commission consist today of nine members, including its president. Three from each of the three countries: full equality.
- Could you comment this opinion we can see in the media, that Russia has basically accepted that Ukraine will sign the AA in Vilnius, but that this is only the first half-time of the match, and that perhaps the situation will deteriorate for a number of reasons, and Ukrainians will have second thoughts. Besides, there will be presidential elections in 2015…
- Well, then you should say this is the second of three rounds, because the first one ended with initialing the document. The second round ends in Vilnius.
- Maybe it’s a volleyball match, not football.
- Maybe it’s basketball where one needs to be tall enough to win.
- But how will it end?
- That’s a good question. As you rightly say, they will have elections. As to ratification, by that time there might be a different parliament in Ukraine. But your guess is as good as mine on this, regarding internal developments. We believe that the unanimous decision of the Ukrainian government to proceed with the signing [of AA] may not fully reflect the range of opinions that exist among the population of Ukraine.