Community News

Monday, March 1, 2010

European integration a `priority`: Ukraine leader

Mon Mar 1, 8:12 am ET

BRUSSELS (AFP) – European integration is a priority for Ukraine's foreign policy, the country's new president said on Monday as he sought to reassure Europe by tempering his pro-Russia image.

"For Ukraine, European integration is a key foreign policy priority," President Viktor Yanukovych told a joint press conference with EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.

Yanukovych arrived in Brussels earlier in the day, markedly making the EU headquarters his first overseas destination since taking power last month.

His predecessor Viktor Yushchenko was a strong proponent for Ukraine joining both the European Union and NATO, prospects which have angered former Soviet overlord Russia.

Yanukovych appeared to retreat from that stance, at least as far as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is concerned.

He said he wanted to "maintain" his country's relationship with NATO at the current level, but that any further moves would depend on future negotiations.

He has previously said he sees the former Soviet republic as a "non-aligned European country", effectively putting an end to any ambitions to join NATO.

The Ukrainian leader and his host fixed the objective of sealing an association agreement -- for closer trade, political, social ties -- within a year.

Discussions on the agreement, which would include the key free-trade deal, are already underway but have made little progress so far.

Yanukovych also promised that his country would in future guarantee the safe transit of Russian natural gas to Europe, after problems in recent years.

Barroso, standing beside him, stressed that "Ukraine is already a European country" but added that it was more important to help Kiev make necessary reforms rather than setting any time-lines for EU membership.

"Ukraine is a European country... by its civilisation, by its culture and its history," said Barroso.

The prospect of inviting the former Soviet republic into the European club divides the EU nations.

Ukraine's EU neighbours and near neighbours, Poland and the Baltic states, are lobbying in favour of Ukraine's adhesion to the EU, to help it avoid being dominated by Russia.

Others feel the 27-nation bloc still has work to do to bed in all the central and east European nations which have gained membership since the 1990s, following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Barroso urged Ukraine to resume cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, a condition for the European Union to unblock key funding for Kiev.

The EU Commission chief also held out the prospect of future visa-free travel between Europe and Ukraine saying the EU executive would consider this possibility "in a favourable manner", a prospect which will concern those EU nations concerned at the prospect of large-scale immigration.

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