Arthur Beesley, The Financial Times, 28.10.2016
Dispute over deal with Kiev comes as EU gets green light for Ceta trade pact
Just as Europe managed to pull its stalled trade pact with Canada from the brink of collapse, political strife in the Netherlands is threatening to scupper another important treaty: this time with Ukraine.
A vote on Friday in the parliament of Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, finally removed the primary obstacle to the delayed Ceta deal between the EU and Canada. The vote to allow Belgium’s government to proceed with Ceta followed a last-minute agreement with the country’s regional leaders, who had threatened to sink a pact that many had believed was already sealed.
But relief in Brussels at the rescue of Ceta is tempered with a new wave of apprehension, this time over an “association agreement” to deepen trade, political ties and security co-operation between the EU and Ukraine. The treaty is seen as a crucial bulwark against Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and continued support for separatist rebels in the east of the country.
While Europe has been focused on securing the progress of Ceta, the “insoluble Rubik’s Cube” of the Ukrainian treaty has loomed large. “It’s a joker. Everyone is talking about Ceta, but it’s the other one that’s smouldering in the background,” said a senior diplomat.
At issue is a referendum in April in which Dutch voters rejected the Ukraine treaty by a margin of nearly two-to-one. On the same day that Belgian objectors to Ceta finally relented, the government of the Netherlands said it would be forced to revoke its support for the Ukraine treaty if it cannot reach a deal to continue its implementation.
All the other EU member states have already ratified the Ukraine treaty, raising the prospect of the Dutch potentially scuppering the deal.
Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister, wants EU leaders to issue a binding declaration giving his country an opt-out from co-operation with the Ukraine military. According to a Dutch official familiar with the government’s position, such a declaration would also make it clear that the treaty will not lead to financial transfers to Kiev.
There have been indications of support from other member states. But Mr Rutte’s minority Liberal-Labour coalition needs opposition support to ensure a declaration from European leaders would provide sufficient comfort to those who rejected the Ukraine deal. Such support is not yet forthcoming.
Mr Rutte has been told by the Dutch parliament to clarify his stance on the Ukraine treaty within the next three days. He raised the stakes on Friday by saying a Dutch repudiation of the deal would cause great damage and weaken European unity.
“This is larger than the Netherlands alone. We’re part of a broader international community acting as one front for stability on our borders and against aggression,” he told reporters. “I need to do everything to bring that view across and to convince the parties still not convinced.”