The representatives of the French Republicans in the EU institutions seem to have adjusted their position on Ukraine to be in line with the campaign rhetoric of Francois Fillon, their candidate running in the race for the Presidency of France which will hold its first round of elections on 23 April.
In an unusual move, the EU Parliamentarians of “Les Republicans” (LR) abstained in a vote in the European Parliament that approved visa exemptions for Ukrainian citizens. The positions of LR is unusual because all the rest of the European People’s Party group (26 countries), the continental political family they are affiliated to, voted to waive the visas.
Talks between Ukraine and the European Union (EU) on a visa deal started in 2008 but the liberalisation has only been approved last week by the European Parliament by 521 votes to 75 (with 36 abstentions). If adopted by the Member States in the Council of Ministers, the visa exemption for Ukrainians is likely to enter into force by June 2017.
In general, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted along political groups’ lines, with the largest political families supporting the proposal (EPP, S&D, ALDE and the Greens). The two Eurosceptic groups (EFDD and ENF) voted against visa exemption for Ukrainian citizens, while the two main delegations in the Conservative (ECR) group, the Polish and the British, had different views. In a time of strained relations between the EU and Russia, which annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, this vote was strongly symbolic and its result sends a positive signal to the current government in Kiev.
The outcome of the French Presidential race is decisive for EU’s future stance on the Ukrainian crisis
The French political party The Republicans is the only centre-right (EPP) party in the European Parliament that did not endorse the exemption of visa for Ukrainian citizens (5 of their EU Parliamentarians voted in favour, 1 against and 11 abstained). The LR delegation replied to an inquiry by VoteWatch Europe explaining that “the Risk Analysis for 2017 published by Frontex has risen doubts for some members of our delegation as to the capability of Ukraine to fulfil all the criteria”.
This hardening of the stance towards Kiev can be explained by the electoral developments in France, where Fillon, the former Prime Minister, who is now in third position in the polls behind Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, criticises EU economic sanctions over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and calls for “another way to talk” to President Putin.
Far-left and far-right presidential candidates, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen, also want to reconsider EU-Russian relations. On this particular vote, Left Front Parliamentarians agreed on the visa exemptions, while the National Front (FN) opposed it. “The EU has to stop being blinded by its hatred against Russia”, French National Front MEP Gilles Lebreton claimed.
These developments reveal that the outcome of the French elections will thus be decisive to determine the future stance of the EU on Russia, as the British views will weigh less and less at the EU table as a result of the Brexit process, while Germany prepares for its own electoral contest.
The British Conservatives abstained and Dutch mainstream political parties voted in favour
The majority of the Conservatives (ECR) in the European Parliament supported visa exemption, but Theresa May’s political party abstained. The Tory MEPs could have sent a positive signal to Ukraine, considering the rather strict position of Theresa Mary over economic sanctions against Russia. But they strongly oppose freedom of movement and abstained about visa exemption, even though the United Kingdom, as well as Ireland, is excluded from the text of the agreement.
Only one month after general elections in the Netherlands, the votes of Dutch political parties can be quite surprising. Some factions (far-left SP and far-right PVV) continue their campaign against strengthening EU-Ukraine relations, a campaign which produced results in 2015, when they triggered and won a referendum against the Association Agreement with Kiev. On the other hand, both the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy voted in favour of visa exemption for Ukrainians. During the electoral campaign, the leader of CDA, Sybrand van Haersma Buma, stated that he would “bin” the EU-Ukraine agreement if he were to become Prime Minister.
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