Early March, a few days after the invasion of Crimea by Russia, I called an extra informal summit of EU leaders. Bringing 28 presidents and prime ministers together for a foreign affairs crisis meeting is not a decision one takes lightly. In fact, it only happened five times in fifteen years – for instance after "9/11", or to prepare the Libyan intervention. This time too, the stakes were high. The matter was again at the top of our agenda at the regular March European Council, little over two weeks ago.
As regards Ukraine, we took an important step. On 21 March, we signed the political parts of the Association Agreement with Ukraine. It was a strong way to recognise the aspirations of the people of Ukraine to live in a country governed by values, by democracy and the rule of law, where all citizens – and not just few – have a stake in national prosperity. We recognise the popular yearning for a decent life as a nation, for a European way of life. Last November, it was the refusal to sign that very Association Agreement with the European Union which triggered the Maidan movement – the “Euro Maidan”. A real democratic uprising by people who had had enough of how they were governed. A political and cultural shift. A clash of two political cultures.
With the Association Agreement – the remaining economic parts of which will also be signed soon – the European Union shows steadfast political support for the course the people of Ukraine have courageously pursued on the way to an open and inclusive democracy. Let me insist: it was their choice. It was neither imposed nor triggered by manipulation, provocation or violence. An Association Agreement does not come for free. The contracting country has to meet strict criteria and benchmarks. We are not offering unconditional loans, as Russia was.
We also decided a number of financial measures to assist the country: substantial macrofinancial assistance and the temporary and unilateral removal of customs duties for Ukrainian exports to Europe. We will make this happen as swiftly as possible. The IMF package comes on top of this. All this will help Ukraine on its path of economic and social reform. It is not an easy road, certainly not in this time of turmoil and tensions. But – as I said to the Ukrainian Prime Minister during the signing ceremony – we hope that along this road, the Association Agreement can serve as a compass.
As regards Russia, all European leaders and the international community have strongly condemned Crimea’s illegal annexation as a disgrace in the 21st century. Early on EU leaders decided unanimously on sanctions in three stages. We are in stage two (visa ban, asset freezes). But we made very clear that failure to settle the crisis peacefully, and any steps by Russia to destabilise Ukraine, will have far-reaching consequences. And by that we mean consequences on relations in a broad range of economic areas. In the last European Council meeting we asked the Commission and the member states to prepare possible further targeted measures. It is a matter of being ready. There still is unrest in Ukraine, as recent events show, and it must not be exploited by any party.
Of course, sanctions are not a goal in themselves; they are a means to a goal. The objective is a negotiated solution, in respect of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law. This foreign policy crisis already has internal consequences for Europe – including positive ones. Strikingly, the last European Council decided to deepen the Union's energy policy, towards a 'energy union' of sorts. Indeed, we all want to decrease our dependency from Russian gas (which is on average 30%). Gas is used by Russia as a political instrument. We asked the Commission to come up with a concrete plan to avoid this energy risk, for
instance by working more as a team on gas contracts.
As a matter of a fact, after what happened in Crimea, we must rethink the EU-Russia relationship. We invested a lot in good relations with Russia the last decade (by supporting its WTO membership; the Partnership for Modernisation). We were ready to engage on a New Agreement. Unfortunately, Russia has other objectives and tries to restore a foregone world. But the past will never come back.
Meanwhile, as European Union we will also continue to strengthen our ties with Georgia and Moldova. At the March European Council, we decided to bring forward the signature of their full Association Agreements – to no later than June. The determination is there on their side, and it is also there on ours, including to withstand likely pressure from Russia not to sign.
On the Ukrainian situation, we are in close contact with the United States. The extra G7 meeting in The Hague – in the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit two weeks ago – was a good forum to coordinate positions. G7 leaders agreed to cancel their participation to the G8 in Sotchi, and instead to convene for another G7 summit, to be held early June, in Brussels.
As I mentioned, we saw President Obama again two days later, at the EU-US summit in Brussels. Apart from Ukraine, we addressed many topics – from Iran to data protection to climate. Let me just mention two topics, that gain in urgency now.
- Energy security: for us it is important to see what we can do together with our American partners to reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian gas.
- And transatlantic trade: together with President Obama we reconfirmed our shared commitment to an ambitious transatlantic trade deal.
In days like these, forging even stronger economic ties across the Atlantic is also a powerful political sign. A way to show our public opinions and the world who we are at heart: economies based on rules, societies based on values, and proud of being so. It also shows that the Atlantic doesn’t belong to the past. The 'West' exists; not as in the Cold War, but as a driver for democracy. The Cold War was ideological and based on fear, obliging countries to make a choice. That world is no longer, once and for all.