Reuters | 15 December 2016
EU pushes for Dutch deal on Ukraine to fend off Russia
By Gabriela Baczynska and Robert-Jan Bartunek
European Union leaders expressed confidence on Thursday that they would clinch an agreement that addresses Dutch concerns over a deal establishing closer ties with Ukraine, mindful that any failure to do so would hand a victory to Russia.
The EU’s so-called association agreement with Ukraine is central to the former Soviet republic’s efforts to move closer to the West. Mass street protests toppled a pro-Russian Ukrainian president in 2014 after he tried to ditch it.
The Netherlands is the only EU country that has not ratified the deal, which fosters closer political ties and aims to free up trade between Ukraine and the bloc, after Dutch voters rejected it in a referendum last April.
The Hague has asked the EU for additional guarantees to ensure the deal does not lead to EU membership for Ukraine.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte would then take it to his parliament for approval, which would overwrite the referendum result.
"I’m sure we will find an agreement. It’s in the interest of all," Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said. "I’m sure we will find conclusions proposed by (Dutch Prime Minister) Mark Rutte that will be acceptable by all."
Rutte, arriving at the EU leaders meeting in Brussels, said he was "a bit more optimistic".
"I’m motivated to get this done," he told reporters, stressing the importance of a united European stance in the face of an emboldened Russia.
"Russia is an increasing risk, look what happened in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and rockets being placed between Poland and Lithuania. You cannot, as the Netherlands ... break this unity, that is why I’m so motivated to get this done," he said.
Russia responded to the toppling of Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich in 2014 by annexing the peninsula of Crimea. It then went on to back a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has killed nearly 10,000 people to date.
This has sent ties between Moscow and the EU to their lowest in decades, aggravating other disputes over trade, human rights and security, including the war in Syria.
The bloc slapped sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and they will be extended until mid-2017 after the Thursday summit.
Moscow has responded by deploying more arms in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, which sits between EU member states Poland and Lithuania.
Should Rutte fail to get extra guarantees from the EU leaders, or push it through his own parliament later on, the Ukraine agreement could cease to exist.