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European Commissioner suggests cooperation with Customs Union 16 сентября 2014, 18:45

EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy suggested in Ukraine expanding cooperation with the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
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Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule ©REUTERS Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule ©REUTERS

Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule said that it was time for the EU to start negotiating a free trade agreement with the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Tengrinews cites RIA Novosti report about the 11th Yalta European Strategy forum that took place in Kiev, Ukraine on 11-13 September. Petro Poroshenko opened the event, which gathered political figures from more than 20 countries to find solution to the difficult economic situation in Ukraine.

Commissioner Fule expressed his opinion that it was time to start negotiating a free trade agreement between the EU and the CU. He added that in addition to trade, other sectors, such as security, had to be put on the agenda.

“We need a consistent policy towards Russia. It is time to stop hiding behind slogans such as 'free economic zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok'. We should bring content to this notion. I believe we should increase the stake,” UNIAN quoted Fule as saying.

In his eyebrow-raising statement Fule repeated the phase “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” that Vladimir Putin said back in 2010, when he was Russian Prime Minister. On his official visit to Germany, Putin spoke about expanding economic ties between Russia and the EU.

This was years before the Ukrainian crisis started unfolding and long before the European leaders started imposing sanctions on Russia for its actions in Crimea and the east of Ukraine.

But Fule made his last week's statement in a completely different reality and right after a new wave of sanction from the West, and his calls sounded pro-Russian, puzzling and misplaced.

On the one hand, the EU introduced a new round of sanctions against Russia, on the other it’s Commissioner said cooperation between the block and the Customs Union should be stepped up.

One the one hand, Fule attended the event aiming to address the economic situation in Ukraine resulting from the conflict that the West blames on Russia. On the other hand, Fule proposed deeper cooperation with the very country that the West held responsible for bringing the conflict about.

This may be one of Fule’s last major statements in the position of EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, since he will soon be leaving office. Johannes Hahn is to replace him in November as the European Commission announced the composition of the new College of Commissioners to be led by Jean-Claude Juncker.

Was Fule trying to win himself a position of Russian lobby in the future or was there something more sophisticated at play?

On April 3, Fule said according to euplus.info:

“It (the Customs Union) erodes sovereignty and is based upon economic and trade relations which are depending on subsidies controlled by Gazprom and the Kremlin. Political cooperation is based on Moscow’s demands. And the events in Crimea, the illegal referendum and annexation, which are much regretted by me, are another confirmation to that.”

Why would a person who openly criticized Russia and the Customs Union suddenly talk about cooperation with them?

All this may have a different reasoning, however.

Last year, before the Ukrainian crisis, Fule said that the Customs Union membership was not compatible with the DCFTA - the EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreement:

“Let me emphasise that AA/DCFTAs are not conceived at Russia's expense. (…) Our vision is that these agreements should contribute in the long term to the eventual creation of a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, based on WTO rules. So we encourage our partners to deepen their ties with Russia, as we do ourselves, but in a way which is compatible with AA/DCFTA obligations. The European Union is ready to work with its neighbors to find ways to promote greater regulatory convergence between the EU and members of the Customs Union. The last thing we want to see is a protectionist wall cutting our continent in two. In today's ever-more-competitive global economy, we cannot afford to waste our efforts on a regional geopolitical rivalry,” Fule was quoted by PanArmenian Net as saying.

But on September 12 the EU and Ukraine decided to postpone the implementation of DCFTA until December 2015 from the initial deadline of November 2014. This created a window of opportunity for the Russia-led Customs Union. And the next day, on September 13, Fule made his statement that raised eyebrows.

DCFTA is part to the Association Agreement, which is the very agreement at the heart of the conflict in Ukraine. It was when Yanukovich had turned away from signing the Association Agreement protesters took to the streets and organized the Maidan. Yanukovich fled and a time of instability set upon Ukraine.

Russia said DCFTA would hurt its economy, decrease exports to Ukraine, and undermine the two countries' relations. Now Fule says cooperation between the EU and Russia should resume.

Fule’s remarks at the Yalta European Strategy forum in Kyiv may make one wonder whether he confirms the gravity of Russian threats, whether the EU has had to back out.

What about Ukraine? The Association Agreement has been ratified only hours ago today both by the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada and the European Parliament. It will come into force, however, only in 2016.

By Dinara Urazova

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