France’s view on the Association Agreement with Ukraine
France is attempting to act as an honest broker between Ukraine and Russia, writes Laure Delcour.
In sharp contrast to the Southern Mediterranean partners, the EU’s eastern neighbours are not a key priority for France’s foreign policy. Yet despite its initially low profile in the ENP’s eastern dimension, in recent years France has stepped up its engagement in the region. This is primarily a result of the two conflicts that have involved Russia and Georgia in 2008, and Russia and Ukraine since 2014: France indeed brokered the 2008 ceasefire deal on behalf of the EU and it participates in the Normandy format talks on a settlement to the situation in eastern Ukraine.
Despite this enhanced profile, the entry into force of the association agreement with Ukraine triggered only little public debate in France. This is primarily because of the French decision-makers’ awareness of the need for quick action. Given the importance of the agreement and the geopolitical context in Ukraine, the French government decided to resort to a fast-track procedure for the ratification process. Initiated in late March 2015, this procedure allows for only one reading in the Parliament. After both chambers gave their assent (the Senate on 7 May 2015 and the National Assembly on 25 June 2015), the law ratifying the agreement was passed on 7 July 2015.
A major tool for reform
The government’s official position has clearly been in favour of the association agreements and deep and comprehensive free-trade agreements (whether with Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia). The association agreement is broadly viewed as a major tool to foster political and economic reforms in Ukraine. This is because in France’s view, it offers substantial prospects both for a political rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU and for Ukraine’s integration in the EU’s single market, based upon regulatory convergence with EU acquis. Politically, France regards the association agreement as a major tool to keep up the momentum for reforms in Ukraine. Regarding the economic component of the agreement, France views the DCFTA as a driver for Eastern Partnership countries’ modernisation.
Nevertheless, according to the draft law authorising the ratification of the agreement, the DCFTA is seen as beneficial for the EU as well. France is currently Ukraine’s fourth EU trading partner; however, the potential of economic relations has yet to be fully tapped as Ukraine represents only a tiny share of French trade (0.22% of exports and 0.13% of imports). The entry into force of the agreement is seen as an important step forward to strengthen economic links. First, it will contribute to improving the business climate in Ukraine and facilitate the access of EU companies to the Ukrainian market, including by modernising public procurement. Second, it will ensure a much stronger protection of intellectual property rights as well as the geographical indications and rules of origin (a key element for France). Therefore, France will undoubtedly closely look at the implementation by Ukraine of the commitments taken as part of the association agreement/DCFTA.
The French decision-makers (whether the government or most members of the Parliament) have also taken a clear stand on the broader geopolitical consequences of the agreement. This is despite the fact that a few members of the French Parliament have raised concerns regarding the implications of the association agreement for relations with the Russian Federation and for Russia itself. Yet these worries have been explicitly addressed by the French government and the rapporteur of the law authorising the ratification of the association agreement. While relations with Russia have substantially deteriorated over the past few years, France remains in favour of a tight dialogue with the Russian Federation on all issues of common interest. It has therefore supported the trilateral talks that took place throughout 2015 to discuss Russia’s concerns on the EU-Ukraine DCFTA.
However, this does not mean that Russia should be given a say in the agreements signed between the European Union and third countries. In France’s view, trilateral talks are an important opportunity to defuse Russia’s concerns about possible negative consequences of a DCFTA and to highlight the compatibility between the DCFTA, on the one hand, and tight economic links between Ukraine and Russia, on the other hand. Therefore, the French authorities have repeatedly underlined that the EU agreed to these talks with a view to appeasing tensions and thereby contributing to the de-escalation in Eastern Ukraine. Thus, together with political and economic motivations geopolitics is yet another factor underlying France’s support for a ratification of the association agreement.
However, in sharp contrast to some other Member States France’s clear backing of the association agreement is not underpinned by an equivalent support for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union (whatever the timeframe envisaged for this process). While the French decision-makers stressed the need to provide a strong political signal to Ukrainian society by ratifying the agreement as quickly as possible, they also clearly underlined that the association agreement should not be envisaged as a first step toward EU accession. Indeed, France strongly opposes any further EU enlargement beyond those already foreseen. This position is broadly supported across the different political parties and the country should remain adamant on this point in the forthcoming years, whatever the political majority turns out to be.
Dr. Laure Delcour is visiting professor at the College of Europe, Bruges (specialising in EU Eastern Partnership and EU-Russia relations)