Article by: Serhiy Sydorenko
European Pravda ( unit of Ukrainska Pravda — Ed.) spoke with Sir Simon Fraser, who holds hold the position of Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the United Kingdom, as he was completing a visit to Ukraine last week.
Fraser is the head of the diplomatic service of the United Kingdom. He is the most senior diplomat and, according to British law, remains in that position even with the change of ministers.
It is worth noting that European Pravda journalists have not have the opportunity to meet such a high level non-public diplomat. Fraser has been in his position for more than four years but rarely gives interviews and rarely makes official visits, leaving the more public profile for the ministers.
However, despite the diplomatic caution of our interlocutor, this interview adds a lot to the understanding of the politics of the United Kingdom (as well as Europe in general) regarding Ukraine.
Sir Simon Fraser acknowledged that currently there is no discussion of new sanctions against Russia. He does not consider the decision of the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit that Ukraine would someday become a NATO member germane under current conditions. The view in Europe is that this simply will not happen.
However, Fraser insists that pressure on Russia must continue. And the Kremlin’s demands that Kyiv not implement the Free Trade Agreement with the EU can be completely ignored. “Only Ukraine determines when it needs to carry out reforms,” he says.
Britain “does not want to be drawn into the conflict”
Can Ukraine expect military assistance from Britain?
We’re already providing such assistance to Ukraine and we want to reinforce it. We’re providing advice. Our special military adviser is already working with the Ministry of Defense, advising Ukrainian colleagues on how to improve the effectiveness of their actions. In addition, we are preparing to announce the granting of a new package of non-lethal military equipment (largely helmets, body armor and clothing worth UAH 17 million, as reported by EP on October 17).
How about modern weapons? Is it possible that one day the West will supply them to Ukraine?
I can only speak about my country. Currently we are not providing such assistance. The reason is that we do not want to be drawn into the conflict. And this means that we have the possibility of supplying only defensive military equipment and technical support. Also — and this is an important point — we believe that there is no military solution to this conflict. The conflict in the east of Ukraine needs to be resolved only through political and diplomatic means.
Quite a few people in Ukraine believe that membership in NATO can guarantee a required level of security for Ukraine. Do you believe that one day Ukraine will become a member of the alliance?
I don’t want to speculate about the future, but I do not think this is a topic of discussion today.(In the alliance) there has been no decision that Ukraine would become a NATO member. Of course, Ukraine may apply for membership, but there have been no definite decision on the matter.
I understand that this is an important issue for you. But I think the key issue that needs to be addressed now is how to find a way out of the current crisis. And I don’t think that discussing the prospects of NATO membership will help you in this matter.
First, I want to emphasize that the agreement itself has not been postponed. It has been ratified in the Verkhovna Rada and in the European Parliament. This is very positive. The implementation of the trade portion of the agreement has been postponed. At the same time, the EU has given Ukraine certain preferential treatment regarding access to the European market. This kind of delay is understandable, and perhaps it is a reasonable action.
What was the reason for the postponement?
You know that Russia had raised certain questions about the Association Agreement even earlier. But, at the same time, we (EU) support the development of the Ukrainian economy and its relations with the EU. So we had to find a balance between these aspirations while not giving up on the agreement.
Therefore, the economic section of the document was partially implemented unilaterally by the EU. And Ukraine has immediately begun to benefit from a preferential trade regime with the EU.
In your view, should Kyiv begin implementing the trade portion of the agreement without waiting for 2016?
Yes, and this is important. The Association Agreement, including the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) section, gives Ukraine a way to reform the economy in order to make it more competitive on the European market. Ukraine must do it and must take advantage of this opportunity right now — before the beginning of the full implementation of the Agreement.
But you are aware that the Russian Federation is insisting that we must not carry out the economic reforms envisaged by the text of the Association Agreement during the deferral period — in other words, until 2016.
You know, Ukraine has the right to decide when it wants to reform the economy. Therefore, these decisions will be made by the government of Ukraine, not Russia. And we will support Ukraine’s government on this path.
No discussion of new sanctions against Russia
No, absolutely not. Moreover, they assured me that they will carry out the reforms, that they will take advantage of the opportunity that exists today. Of course, we understand that the resolution of the crisis in Eastern Ukraine requires a great deal of effort from the government. But this is no reason not to carry out political and economic reforms.
On the contrary, I’m hopeful that there will be a new parliament 10 days after the elections in Ukraine and this will provide the impetus for carrying out reforms. Naturally, money is being spent now on military activity. But this should not stop reforms. After all, they are what will ensure the future stability and strength of your country.
Can you name the notable successes or shortcomings of Ukraine in carrying out reforms?
I am genuinely pleased that the anti-corruption legislation has been adopted. And the ratification of the Association Agreement can only be welcomed. Given the fact that this agreement is the result of many years of negotiations, it is an achievement in itself. But there is the flip side. Without a doubt questions remain regarding the management of public funds. There are concerns about corruption and economic management, and it is necessary to address all these aspects of government. We talked openly about these things with your officials.
Are we to expect substantial financial support for reforms from the EU?
You already have strong Western support for reforms. The EU is providing practical, consultative support. You are also receiving support from the IMF, and the Fund’s program requirements are specifically based on reforms. Yes, the reforms have a certain price. But the economic benefits that you will realize some time in the future are much higher.
All the countries of Europe that have gone through a period of reform have had to pay a price; they all had short-term economic difficulties. But look at the benefits they have received.
In December a donor conference will be held in Ukraine. What are your expectations for it?
First of all, we welcome the idea of holding such a conference. But, in my view, we need to pay close attention to the timing. You will hold elections soon. Then you will need to choose a government, and that also will take a certain amount of time. If the conference is to be successful, the donors have to see definite progress in carrying out reforms. There must be clarity regarding the direction of the path you have chosen.
Therefore, you suspect the donor conference may not take place this year?
The decision on the date must be made by the Ukrainian government. But I emphasize that keeping to a specific date in not as important as achieving success at the conference.
Is it possible that one of the results of the conference will be financial aid for rebuilding the infrastructure of the Donbas?
Yes, this is being discussed during the negotiations. But, first of all, the Minsk agreements must be implemented in the Donbas. There must be a real truce and Russian regular troops must be withdrawn. The situation must be stabilized, refugees must receive effective aid. Thus, there is still much that needs to happen.
And, of course, the plan must include the rebuilding of the infrastructure. Of course, it is legitimate to raise questions on the aid to rebuild the Donbas even now. Certain sums are being mentioned. But in the current situation we cannot say with certainty what funds will be required for the Donbas. Certainly you agree that if situation stabilizes the rebuilding of the infrastructure will be much easier. This is why the entire diplomatic pressure now should be directed first of all on forcing Russia to respect the Minsk agreement.
Perhaps the EU should strengthen sanctions against Russia?
First of all, let me remind you that recently — in September — the EU agreed on a new packet of sanctions that expands the existing sanctions and adds additional people. We believe these decisions are the right ones and that these sanctions should be in place until the Minsk agreements are fully implemented. At present, this is obviously not the case, and this is why we must maintain pressure on Russia.
Maintain but not increase?
Currently there is no active discussion on introducing additional sanctions, but I would not rule them out. As you know, Great Britain is a leader in the EU regarding the support for sanctions, including their expansion. We believe that sanctions remain a very important instrument of pressure on Russia.
No plans to remove UK visa requirements
There is no visa center for Great Britain in Ukraine. All the passports are submitted for approval to Warsaw, and this is somewhat strange since Polish citizens have no need to obtain visas for limited, short-term trips to Britain.
I recognize that this problem exists and that it is worrisome. In many countries visa issues are sensitive topics.
We have a policy of centralizing the visa process. We create hub consulates covering several countries. This is why we have no visa office in Ukraine. However, statistics show that the percentage of visa issuances is very high. About 93% of those who apply for a visa receive it.
But this is a terrible rate. It means that you have 7% refusals. This is much higher than at any other European consulate! (For example, the average rate of refusal in the Schengen consulates in Ukraine in 2013 was 1.86%.)
I admit that it would be desirable to issue visas in your country — at least the Ukrainian citizens would like it. But we have limited resources. And if we do not issue visas, this is not due to the inefficiency of our service. It means there was a reason for the refusal.
Is there any expectation for easing the visa regime for Ukraine? All the EU countries, except Britain, are carrying out such a process.
I’m afraid that we currently have no plans to reduce the requirements for British visa applicants. We have our own requirements and we observe them. And as you can see, the vast majority of applicants receive a visa.