Solidarity with Ukraine
«Latviasupports close integration of Ukraine with the EU»
On the priorities of bilateral relations, promoting the European course of Ukraine, assistance in the reform and support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine – interview with Latvian Foreign Ministry State Secretary Andrejs Pildegovičs
Foreign Minister of Latvia Edgars Rinkevics recently emphasized the need to continue to supportUkraine in granting it visa free regime with the EU. What this opinion is based on?
– Ukraine is a European country; for us it is self-explanatory that Ukrainians are granted the opportunity to travel to the EU. Mobility is one of the main cooperation tracks between the EU and Eastern Partnership countries. Since 2015 tourist visa requests to Latvia are consistently increasing. We were pleased to see that in the first two months of this year tourist visa requests to Latvia increased by 42 % in comparison to 2016. However, we expect that soon travel statistics will go considerably higher, as hopefully this summer Ukrainians will be able to enjoy traveling to Schengen countries without visa.
According to the evaluation and official reports of the European Commission, Ukraine has fulfilled all the benchmarks and technical criteria that are necessary for the introduction of visa-free regime with Schengen countries. In our view, impressive progress is made in Ukraine in order to acquire visa-free travel for Ukrainians. No doubt, that these efforts should be rewarded by the EU and we expect that the upcoming political decision in this regard will be taken without further hesitation.
Today quite sensitive for Ukraine remains the ratification of the Association Agreement and the Agreement on free trade as well as the continuation of EU sanctions towards Russia. What would you recommend for the successful implementation of these important international instruments?
– The Association Agreement serves as a roadmap for an effective transformation of the Ukrainian state administration and economy. The baseline is implementation of the reforms by Ukraine for improving the well-being and everyday life of its own people. At the moment, parts of the Association Agreement (including Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) are provisionally applied. So, it means that Association Agreement is already working and both sides are getting benefits and tangible results from the enhanced cooperation. According to the latest calculations of the Ukrainian State Statistics Service exports from the Ukraine to the EU in 2016 rose 3.7% in comparison with 2015. While the increase might seem modest, we believe that the further boost in trade is expected as the DCFTA will be implemented in full over the course of the following seven years, as foreseen in the agreement. Regarding our bilateral economic cooperation I am also pleased to note that in 2016 there has been a considerable growth in our mutual trade and our cooperation has started to recover after decline that occurred due to the crisis. The volume of external trade in goods and services in 2016 showed 36% growth compared to 2015, reaching 198,70 million euros. Nevertheless, we see more opportunities for strengthening our economic relations, for example, by developing transport hubs between the countries in the Baltic, Black and Caspian Sea regions.
I can agree with Commissioner for Trade Ms Cecilia Malmström that the DCFTA is much more than just a classic tariff-cutting free trade agreement. It is also a tool for developing more favorable business climate in Ukraine. Clear and transparent rules facilitate and attract foreign investments; therefore, we expect that the ratification process on the EU side will soon be concluded and the agreement will come fully in force this year for the benefit of both Ukraine and the EU.
Regarding the sanctions. We think it is too early to discuss the lifting of sanctions against Russia. The recurring escalation of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine by Russia’s supported separatists clearly shows that we cannot speak about any progress regarding resolution of the conflict. The only precondition to reconsidering the sanctions is full implementation of the Minsk agreements on which Russia has to engage constructively.
The next Eastern Partnership Summit being held in November 2017 in Brussels will consider the results of the Eastern Partnership and discuss the ways of further strengthening of the cooperation between the partners. Tell us please, what decisions can Ukraine count for as a partner country, because the Council has repeatedly welcomed the progress made in the implementation of the Association Agreements and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with Ukraine?
– We think it is important to have a possibility of exchange of views on EaP at the highest level. We should not underestimate the fact that Heads of State and Government of 28+6 countries convene regularly both to assess the progress and set new milestones for further cooperation.
Even if the Summit declarations might not always sound exciting, the effect they have on the development of policy, mobilization of efforts and political signals they send are relevant.
The EaP has provided a good framework for a dialogue between the EU and Ukraine. In our view implementation of the Association Agreement currently is a highlight of this dialogue. Many efforts have been made in order to put this agreement in place. Association Agreement is a major tool for advancement of fundamental changes in Ukraine. It also provides the EU support framework for Ukraine to streamline and advance necessary reforms. Hence, the implementation of the provisions of the Association Agreement will be one of the key discussion points during the process of preparation for the Summit. Furthermore, from our experience we can tell that it will require even more determination from Ukraine to implement this comprehensive document.
In December 2016 the European Commission and the European External Action Service came up with a comprehensive document that comprises 20 key priorities for the EaP to be implemented until 2020. The paper includes a wide spectrum of areas, just to name few – economic development, good governance, including resilience building, connectivity, energy efficiency, mobility, as well as people-to-people contacts and communication. This document will bring specific and practical proposals for the future EaP cooperation. The EU member states and EaP partner countries have already started work on fine-tuning the tasks and I think it will be something that we will jointly be able to put forward in the upcoming Summit in Brussels.
The last Eastern Partnership Summit was held in Riga in May 2015. Tell us, please, what important decisions of the summit were realized during these two years? Did Ukraine helped as a partner country in the implementation of pan-European projects?
– The EU and partner countries share the joint ownership of the EaP. I am pleased that during regular EaP Summits we have succeeded in adjusting decisions and tasks to the needs and interests of individual countries and constantly developing international environment.
The EU wants to see stability and prosperity also in its neighborhood. Thus, the EaP platform has been developed to facilitate the channeling of the EU support to partner countries in order to help them to achieve these goals.
I would like to emphasize Ukraine’s constructive role in the implementation of the Summit declaration. Your determination to achieve tangible reform results cannot be underestimated. I am pleased to note that during this inter-summit period we are moving forward with the implementation of the decisions reached in 2015 in Riga. Since January 1, 2016 Ukraine is able to benefit from the implementation of the DCFTA part of the Association Agreement with the EU.
We also welcome the full entry into force on 1 July 2016 of the Association Agreements between the EU and Georgia and Moldova. The easing of sanctions against Belarus in February 2016 provided the opportunity to deepen our cooperation according to the 29 Step Plan. An agreement was reached on a mandate to start negotiations on a Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement with Azerbaijan. Multiple rounds of negotiations have been successfully conducted in order to foster the new Framework Agreement with Armenia.
All Baltic countries, including Latvia in a difficult for Ukraine time contribute to solving the conflict in the east of the country and provide support to Ukraine. Tell us what has been done and how the Latvian authorities can help the Ukrainians in solving this conflict?
– Latvia’s position on Ukraine is clear and unchanging. We are vocal supporters of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and free foreign policy choice of your country. We consistently reject the illegal annexation of Crimea and condemn Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine.
We support Ukraine’s closer integration with the EU and we are ready to share our own reform experience. We continue to provide practical and technical support to the reform process, including development cooperation projects financed by Latvia in such areas as good governance, anticorruption, agriculture and regional development. Since 2014 Ukraine has become the main receiver of Latvia’s development assistance. In 2016 we allocated 40% of the MFA’s administrated development assistance funds to projects in Ukraine. Close collaboration has been established with Chernihiv region in northern Ukraine where our projects in the areas of decentralization and agriculture were started in 2015 and are still ongoing. Another long-term project that with time has attracted even more donors is enrolment of Ukrainian students for studies in Latvia that has been implemented in cooperation with Riga Graduate School of Law and University of Latvia.
We are also engaged in rehabilitation and medical treatment of the Ukrainian soldiers that have suffered injuries in the ATO zone. Latvia provides support to the defense sector reforms and strengthening of Ukraine’s military capabilities through military expert and instructor courses and training.
In conclusion, I would like to reaffirm that Latvia will remain one of vocal supporters of Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and freedom to choose its foreign course. I would like to encourage the government and people of Ukraine to continue the reforms and work towards their tangible results. That would be the best approach to consolidate international community’s continued support for your chosen transformation path.