EU says door remains open to Ukraine, reassures Russia

Adrian Croft and Justyna Pawlak
Pro-EU Ukrainians protest in Kiev
A protester wearing a mask of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich warms himself near a fire burning in a steel drum, during a gathering of pro-European integration protesters in central Kiev December 16, 2013. The opposition went ahead with preparations for another big rally for Tuesday against what they see as moves by Yanukovich to sell out national interests to Russia after backing away from a landmark deal with the European Union that would have shifted their country westwards. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

By Adrian Croft and Justyna Pawlak

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union said on Monday it remained ready to sign a trade agreement with Ukraine, despite a snub by President Viktor Yanukovich, and it tried to reassure Moscow that closer EU-Ukraine relations posed no threat to Russia.

Brussels also sought to paper over apparent divisions in its approach to Ukraine, as the Dutch foreign minister slapped down a senior EU official for announcing on Twitter that he had suspended work on the trade pact.

Yanukovich stunned the EU last month by abandoning at the last moment plans to sign a far-reaching trade and cooperation pact with the 28-nation bloc in favor of closer ties with Russia.

His decision to spurn the so-called association agreement triggered mass protests in Ukraine, which is close to bankruptcy. It also prompted angry exchanges, with Brussels and Moscow accusing each other of pressuring Kiev.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels said the door remained open to closer EU-Ukraine ties and they tried to clear the air with Moscow at lunchtime talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"Ministers confirmed again today the EU's readiness to sign the association agreement ... as soon as Ukraine is ready and the relevant conditions are met," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told a news conference after the talks.

"We believe the agreement provides the best way to address Ukraine's short-term economic challenges. Its signature too would send a powerful signal of confidence to international markets and to financial institutions," she said.

Ministers had told Lavrov it "would not have a detrimental effect on relationships with Russia in any way" if Ukraine signed the agreement with the EU, she said.

Lavrov told reporters he had agreed with the EU ministers that "everyone should respect the sovereignty of any country, including Ukraine, and everyone should allow the peoples to make their free choice of how they want to develop their country."

The talks came as Russia signaled it was about to agree a loan deal with Ukraine to help its indebted neighbor stave off economic chaos and keep it in its former Soviet master's orbit.

DIVISIONS

Apparent divisions had earlier emerged in the EU's policy towards Ukraine after EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele, in charge of negotiations with Ukraine, announced on Twitter on Sunday that he was suspending work on the accord because of Kiev's failure to give a firm commitment to sign it.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans criticized Fuele, saying "making policy on the basis of a Twitter notice ... is perhaps not the best way of approaching this issue."

"There was no reason from a Dutch point of view to suspend talks," he said.

Fuele's decision reflected growing frustration among EU officials at what they see as the inconsistent position taken by Yanukovich, who sometimes appears to be veering towards Brussels and at others towards Moscow.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt accused Yanukovich of "double speak".

"Sometimes he says ... he wants to sign it in the near future. The other day he said he was going to fire those who negotiated the agreement," he said. "If there's a clear message from Kiev, we are ready to sign tomorrow."

Ukraine sent first deputy prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov to Brussels for talks last week on reviving the pact following reports that Ukraine had asked the EU for 20 billion euros ($27 billion) in aid to offset the cost of signing the deal.

The EU held out the prospect of increased aid and help with negotiating an International Monetary Fund loan if Ukraine gave a firm commitment to sign the EU accord, but Ukraine had not replied, Fuele said on Sunday.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)