Europe Day will be celebrated in Kyiv on 11 May. What have you got planned this year?
This will be the sixth year we are celebrating Europe Day in Ukraine, and we are really proud that we’ve kept this tradition going for such a long time. Every year we introduce some new elements, but we of course try to keep the traditional elements too. This year once again we have a big European village on Kreschatyk which will open at 11.00 in the morning. There will be more than 40 tents, with 28 member states and candidate countries of the EU and Ukraine represented. They will be presenting their national features, traditions, culture and language. This will be followed by the welcoming ceremony where the ambassadors of the member states and candidate countries and government representatives of Ukraine will officially open Europe Day 2008. Then there will be the usual rock concert, and this year we have a great band from Italy called Vanilla Sky coming to play along with InCulto from Lithuania. And our old friend Oleg Skrypka and his band VV will be there too, which is always a pleasure.
What is the purpose of Europe Day, and what do you hope to achieve?
The idea for Europe Day goes way back to 9 May 1950 and the so-called Schuman Declaration. It was on that day the then Minister of Foreign Affairs of France, Robert Schuman, announced in a speech that the coal and steel sectors of both France and Western Germany, as it was then, should be under joint control in order to launch a new, peaceful and progressive Europe after World War II. This declaration is considered to be the beginning of the European UNI0N, because only one year later the European Coal and Steel Community was founded with six member states. The ECSC was one of the founding organisations of the European Community. 35 years later, in 1985, at the European summit in Milan, it was decided to celebrate Europe Day every year on 9 May in memory of Schuman’s speech, and it has been an official celebration ever since. We introduced this in Ukraine for the first time six years ago, because we wanted to celebrate this day with our Ukrainian friends, and it has proved very successful. The idea is to show what we call Europe’s ‘Unity in Diversity’ and to allow the different countries of Europe to show their cultural heritage, and to celebrate this with Ukrainians, who are of course Europeans themselves. We offer a cultural exchange between member states and Ukraine, not just in Kyiv but in other towns throughout Ukraine, many of which organise their own Europe Day celebrations. We not only want to present our values and cultures but also our different languages, and this year – as in previous years - people will have the chance to learn some words in one of the many Europe has to offer, so if you want to learn some Lithuanian, Portuguese or Spanish, among many other languages, you can. There will be two language schools in Kyiv this year. There will also be a Food Corner where you can sample different cuisines from across the EU. So we are not just presenting our values, but how we live as well. On top of all this there will also be two discussion tents, one on economics and one on politics. One of the topics which I am sure will be of great interest to Ukrainian citizens is the new visa facilitation regime.
What is the current situation regarding Ukraine’s cooperation with the EU?
We are progressing steadily. We have just published our progress report on the implementation of the EU-Ukraine Action Plan. It takes stock of what has been achieved in the three years since the action plan was introduced. Ukraine has achieved a lot, and is certainly one of the front-runners in the European Neighbourhood Policy. All the achievements gained through the Action Plan have had a very positive effect on the general approximation process of Ukraine towards the EU.
You mentioned the new visa facilitation system which was introduced in January of this year. How is that going?
The new agreement has made it easier for Ukrainian citizens to travel to Europe. We had the first meeting of the joint implementation committee on 9 April here in Kyiv, where experts from the European Commission discussed with the Ukrainian authorities in the presence of member states representatives how the first three months of the new system have worked, and I think we can draw positive conclusions. Of course, there are a few elements that need to be looked at, but in general terms, the implementation works well and there haven’t been any major hiccups.
How are the free trade agreement discussions going between Ukraine and the EU?
Negotiations on a free trade agreement are part of the negotiations on a broader enhanced agreement. We have been working on this process for over a year now, but the working group dealing with the free trade agreement could only commence talks after the negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the WTO had been finalised. This was the case in early February, and our Commissioner for Trade, Peter Mandelson, came to Kyiv to launch the negotiations on the free trade agreement officially just two weeks later. On 22 and 23 April, the second round of negotiations took place in Brussels, and there will be another round of negotiations in June here in Kyiv, so we can say things are advancing well, but it is still very early days.
How long will negotiations on a free trade agreement take to complete?
That is the one million dollar question. It is very difficult to tell how long the process will take. Some Ukrainian politicians have
Negotiations on a common aviation area between Ukraine and the EU commenced earlier this year, and we hope that these will be finalised by the end of 2008
the ambitious aim that the negotiations should be finalised before the end of the year, but I think this will be very difficult to achieve. However, if both sides remain committed and there are no major unforeseen hurdles to overcome, then a reasonable timescale would be for negotiations to be finalised at the end of 2009 or in 2010.
One thing that’s been talked about a lot recently is budget airlines coming to Ukraine, but that can’t happen at the moment because there is no open skies policy in Ukraine. Is this part of a free trade agreement, or a completely separate issue?
In general terms, the opening up of the Ukrainian aviation market can only be welcomed as it will give consumers more options when travelling and it is also likely to reduce prices, which is of course a positive thing. Negotiations on a common aviation area between Ukraine and the EU are also ongoing. We launched these negotiations earlier this year and we hope that these will be finalised by the end of 2008, and this will make the Ukrainian aviation sector approximate even more closely with that of the EU.
Ukraine fully participates in Europe Day, and the enhanced agreement is progressing well. Once completed, will the next stage be full EU membership for Ukraine?
Another million dollar question. We are well on the way to bringing Ukraine closer to the EU. Ukraine is putting in a lot of effort itself and we are happy to help. The task we are focusing on at the moment is bringing Ukraine to the door of Europe. The conclusion of the Enhanced Agreement will be a big step towards achieving this objective.