February was a fruitful month for Ukrainian diplomacy, during which Ukrainian representatives held a series of meetings with partner countries to discuss current issues of bilateral cooperation and to outline future formats of cooperation. The working visit of the Prime Minister of Ukraine Denis Shmygal to Brussels on February 9, 2021 deserves special attention. The Minister's agenda included meetings with the leadership of the European Union and NATO, in particular, with the President of the European Council Charles Michel and with the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Alliance Jens Stoltenberg. Also, a meeting was held with the leaders of Ukrainian NGOs in Belgium and Luxembourg and with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium Sophie Wilmes, during which they discussed the prospects of trade cooperation and investment in Ukraine. Also, a meeting of the EU-Ukraine Association Council was held, chaired by Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Prime Minister Denis Shmygal.
The meeting resulted in a Joint Statement in which the parties reaffirmed their continued commitment to strengthening political association and economic integration between Ukraine and the European Union. An important point for the Ukrainian government was the confirmation of the EU's support in the context of the decision of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine. The EU commended Ukraine’s commitment to fully restore the electronic asset declaration system and stressed the importance of adopting deterrent sanctions. The EU also drew attention to the need for reliable checks on the integrity of judges.
The Association Council has confirmed the start of Ukraine-EU cyber-dialogues in 2021. The parties noted the importance of strengthening cooperation in the field of the Common Security and Defense Policy and coordination in the field of the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy. According to Mykola Tochytskyi, Ambassador of Ukraine to the Kingdom of Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, participation in cybersecurity projects may, in the long run, contribute to Ukraine's accession to EU security projects (PESCO).
Particular attention was paid to the Association Agreement and the DCFTA. The parties agreed to work towards changing certain provisions of this Agreement, which is important, first of all, for Ukraine. Over the past year, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine made great efforts in forming its position on the revision of the Association Agreement with the EU, in particular, for better understanding of the needs of Ukrainian business, a big number of events and meetings with business representatives from different regions were organized.
Along with the positive developments in cooperation, there are significant misunderstandings between Ukraine and the EU, which were mentioned in a recent EU report on Ukraine's implementation of the Association Agreement. In the report, besides the progress in reforms, the European Union noted some critical points. For example, attempts to use protectionism in the context of the draft law on localization requirements in public procurement were mentioned. The EU has repeatedly warned against it. According to Mykola Tochytsky, Ukraine needs to continue the dialogue with the EU on controversial issues and work on searching for a mechanism that will allow to support the national producer without violating international obligations.
In addition, the parties have discussed issues related to climate change, intensification of cooperation in the field of critical raw materials and batteries, decentralization reform, concluding the Common Aviation Area Agreement, inclusion of inland waterways (Dnipro and Southern Bug) in the regional Trans-European transport network and cooperation in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the issue of deoccupation of Ukrainian territories and the concept of the «International Crimean Platform» were discussed. Ukraine has invited the EU to take part in a high-level inaugural meeting of this initiative on 23 August 2021 in Kyiv.
The issue of Russian aggression was also raised during a meeting with Charles Michel, President of the European Council. After meeting with Denis Shmygal, Mr. Michel announced his trip to Kyiv. The European Council's website stated that Michel is going to travel to Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine from Sunday, February 28, to Wednesday, March 3.… Together with President Zelensky, he will visit Eastern Ukraine, discuss EU-Ukraine relations in Kyiv and meet with representatives of institutions involved in the fight against corruption. This visit is of great importance for the future of the Eastern Partnership, since the member states of this format expect for its reform. On February 1, 2021, the Foreign Ministers of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova sent a joint letter to the EU and its member states calling for «new horizons of cooperation» to strengthen political dialogue, greater economic and sectoral integration with the EU. Agreements on the format of further cooperation can be formally approved in March at the Eastern Partnership summit.
Also during his visit, the Prime Minister of Ukraine met with Jens Stoltenberg. At a joint press conference following the meeting, Denis Shmygal announced plans to hold joint military exercises of Ukraine and NATO in Odesa in 2021. In addition, the Prime Minister noted that the main short-term goal of Ukraine is to obtain The Membership Action Plan together with Georgia. Late last year, NATO Secretary General's Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai in an interview with Georgia's First Channel said that the MAP issue for Georgia in the North Atlantic Alliance will be considered at the 2021 summit. Georgia has long been considered to be the main contender for membership in the Alliance, but after the recent arrest of the leader of the country's largest opposition party, «United National Movement», Nika Melia, the prospect of joining NATO has been jeopardized. Regarding Ukraine, unlike Georgia, Jens Stoltenberg does not make loud statements and does not comment on the possibility of providing a MAP to Ukraine. Similarly, this time the Secretary General, in response to Shmygal's words about the possible provision of the MAP, only reaffirmed the NATO’s commitment to the principle of open doors, in accordance with the decisions of the Bucharest Summit, and stressed the importance of continuing reforms in Ukraine. It is worth noting that James Appathurai, who announced a MAP for Georgia last year, published an article in February reiterating Stoltenberg's rhetoric, never mentioning the possibility of giving Ukraine a NATO Membership Action Plan. Taking this into account, the Government of Ukraine should now focus on implementing the Annual National Program under the auspices of the NATO-Ukraine Commission and deepening bilateral relations with NATO member states.
The European direction is of strategic importance for Ukraine's foreign policy. The Prime Minister's meetings held this February and the agreements reached are a logical continuation of Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration. It is important for Ukraine to strengthen international support and to keep the issue of Russian aggression on the agenda, as well as to maintain a dialogue on the whole range of issues with partner countries. Denis Shmygal's visit confirmed the intentions of Ukraine and the EU to develop and deepen cooperation, as well as identified further prospects for cooperation in the near future. In particular, the undoubted success of Shmigal's visit is reaching an agreement on the revision of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. At the same time, during the meeting of the Prime Minister of Ukraine with the Secretary General of NATO, no significant agreements contributing to the further integration of Ukraine into North Atlantic Treaty Organization were reached. Therefore, for the time being, the government should focus on the implementation of the ANP, as well as the development and deepening of bilateral and multilateral security relations with NATO member states.