EU Amb. Matti Maasikas Signals Closer Cooperation with Ukraine (INTERVIEW)
20 January, 2020

Matti Maasikas, an Estonian diplomat, was appointed as the new Ambassador of the European Union to Ukraine in autumn of 2019. Previously the Deputy Foreign Minister of Estonia, Maasikas signed a decision granting Ukraine preferences in trade with the EU during Estonia's presidency of the EU Council in 2017. Hromadske discussed with Matti Maasikas the Ukrainian relations with the EU, namely the implementation of the Association Agreement and the reforms in Ukraine, as well as the progress towards peace in the Donbas and the political context of the downing of the Ukrainian airplane in Iran.

Ambassador, great to have you here. But you’ve come up to this studio, to Hromadske today. There was news that the prime minister might resign. Of course, in Ukraine with such a short term of government’s existence, it looks disturbing. How do you look at this news? How critical is it? We don't know the result yet, but in any case.

And do we know fully the prime minister's motivation? And we definitely haven't heard yet anything from the president, who needs then to deal with that – either to accept it or then see how to move further. We have had, and me personally, a very good working relationship with the government of Honcharuk, with several ministers. And whatever way the political developments now go, this cooperation with the Ukrainian government will continue.

READ MORE: EU Will Continue Working with Ukraine Regardless of Whether Government Resigns - EU Ambassador

Generally the fact that you have sometimes such news – to what extent does it create conditions for good cooperation, regardless of whether the government resigns in the end?

Domestic politics is domestic politics. In a democracy, it matters a lot, and things may happen overnight – it's only a proof of the vitality of the Ukrainian democracy.

We found ourselves unfortunately in this tragedy with the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet in Iran. And of course, it's a super difficult situation for Ukraine, there would be an investigation, however, Iran is a difficult counterpart as well. At the same time, we see that there is pressure from the U.S. to the European Union to put more sanctions on Iran. At the same time, there is the discussion about the nuclear deal, where the EU has a different stance compared to President Trump. EU wants to maintain the nuclear deal and proper relations with Iran and wants Iran to do what it has to do to provide the necessary ground for the independent investigation, let the people be there. Because our concern in the end is that it won't be properly investigated without the pressure of, for instance, the EU and other countries.

First of all, again, my condolences on this tragic downing of the Ukrainian airplane. Secondly, I very much appreciated the way that Ukrainian authorities have dealt with this extremely complex situation. Thirdly, on international politics – these are separate issues. The nuclear deal and Iran's recently escalated relations with the U.S., and the investigation that needs to be conducted with full cooperation by the Iranians.

And that is something that the EU has been consistent of, has called the Iranian authorities to cooperate, and we have worked quite well with the Ukrainian authorities in that sense as well. You have our full support in pursuing this, and justice needs to be done.

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So there is no discussion in EU about further sanctions on Iran generally now?

The EU stance towards the nuclear deal has been quite clear. As one of the initiators of this agreement, the EU feels very strong ownership of this agreement, and we absolutely maintain that this agreement is worth to be preserved.

And the High representative for EU’s foreign policy, Josep Borrell, has issued statements, has called on Iran to de-escalate on that front as well, and not make statements of threats that could further jeopardize disagreement. These are very complex and tense foreign policy processes, and I hope you understand that I will not go into more detail on that.

There is a new European Commission, it's quite unknown for Ukrainians so far. What can we expect and what signs of reassurance Ukrainians can have from Brussels in such a period when you have very difficult relations with President Trump. Honestly, it’s quite clear for Ukrainians that despite everything it's not the strongest ally any longer – I'm speaking about President Trump. Ukrainians are concerned by the notes of French president Macron about NATO, about Nord Stream 2 deal with Germany, the Brexit is there. And it feels that you can't count much in this volatile period on the strong big powers.

This all says logically that the EU must take more responsibility for the developments on the European continent. And that includes all neighboring countries, like Ukraine.

So that's what president [Ursula] von der Leyen of the European Commission means when she says that hers will be a geopolitical Commission.

You quite correctly listed several developments that hint on the EU’s need to take more responsibility for things that happen in Europe, and that includes Ukraine as well.

In less than two weeks' time, an association committee between the EU and Ukraine will gather. Some first visits have already been agreed upon. We expect the Enlargement and Neighborhood commissioner Olivér Várhelyi visiting soon. So things are happening.

There was the Normandy meeting, and there was the first meeting by France and Germany. Things have been agreed. However, we see that there is no real full ceasefire after the New Year. Ukrainians are seeing that the process is slow regarding for instance the checkpoints which should be created. So there is little hope that there would be positive signs from Russia, apart from the prisoner exchange which was painful with the release of the suspects of the Maidan crimes. How do you see that, and what are the instruments on the part of the European Union apart from the Normandy format to press on Russia to go for that, for the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and more or less resolution. Because at this moment it looks like the Ukrainians should wait for some positive change from the Kremlin, but we don't see many signs.

At the same time the Ukrainians are working with their partners, including the EU, and of course, most notably the member states involved directly – France and Germany – also working vis-à-vis Russia.

I mean the EU has been very consistent in calling for full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Even more so, it has become a part of EU’s policy towards Russia. As you know, the first guiding principle for our policy towards Russia is the full implementation of Minsk and respect for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

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This is one thing. For any diplomat looking at the common statement of the Paris summit, you see that at least there was this understanding that things need to be taken forward. You are quite right in pointing some concrete, quite measurable things that need to be done.

So you have something to work on, you have a process. You may correct me, but it hasn't really happened that the leaders at the meeting immediately agree on the next meeting, which they have done. And this shows at least some degree of willingness of both participants had to move forward.

You’re right, not all the things that were in the common statement have been done, or have not been done fully. They need to be done, and Russia needs to be reminded all the time of that, which is happening. You saw what Chancellor Merkel said last Saturday (on January 11 – ed.) after the meeting with President Putin. So this dialogue is there.

Still, the concern is that if something is moving but not fully implemented the sanctions would be over. Can you explain it to the Ukrainian audience?

I was there in Brussels representing Estonia in 2014 when the sanctions were agreed upon for the first time. Now, this has been repeated for 11th time, saying that this sanctions regime is dependent on Russia’s full implementation of the Minsk agreements. You don't expect the EU leaders playing games or being wrong collectively for 11 times.

So they are there?

They are there.

Matti Maasikas, Ambassador of the European Union to Ukraine, at Hromadske's studio, January 17, 2020. Photo: Hromadske

Going back to your issue which is the implementation of the Association Agreement by Ukraine and of course the reforms which are there. How do you generally assess it and what are the priorities for Ukraine for the year?

The agreements that we have, provide for a very comprehensive framework for a very deep relationship, especially in the economic field but not only. And in the economic field, many things have been done under the current government and under the current composition of the Verkhovna Rada.

Surprisingly to many, the unbundling in the gas sector was done that paved the way for this gas transit deal where the EU Commission worked very well with our Ukrainian friends.

In the field of the economy, there are several things that have been done and several laws, like the law against money laundering, electricity regulator law – the things that enable our closer cooperation.

Economy and trade is definitely the area where this relationship can be deepened much, much, much more.

And I happen to know the Ukrainian government, and the Deputy Prime Minister [Dmytro] Kuleba has made no secret that this is one of the priorities for the Ukrainian government, for a smoother movement for industrial products between EU and Ukraine. And I am hopeful that at the forthcoming association council meeting we will hear news of this process.

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When would it take place?

On January 28.

Agreements, treaties are good. But the most important thing is that these agreements open for us a way to see each other more, to work together on many, many issues. Start with the cooperation between businessmen who do this trade. On the Erasmus+ student exchange Ukraine is a star performer, and so on. All these things would bring us closer together, we get to use to each other more and more, and that's what paves the way for further deepening of this relationship.

There are some reforms and changes where there are concerns from the society. For instance, the whole reform of the law enforcement agencies and the justice reform, the really independent courts. How do you see that, the reform of the security service, the High court, and these things about having fewer judges which are quite a bit of concern? What’s your take on this, and probably on land reform? We see that there are concerns in society about to what extent it would benefit the citizens, and how to make such an unpopular reform real.

First of all, many things have happened recently in the fight against corruption as well. That’s something that the EU most wholeheartedly supports because it’s so important for Ukrainian people and Ukrainian society.

That’s one thing. Those developments like the High Anti-Corruption Court starting working, adoption of the law criminalizing illicit enrichment, and so on. It’s extremely important. 

Two days ago I was honored by the government to speak on the occasion of the nomination of the director to the National Agency on Corruption Prevention. The reform, that Rouslan Riaboshapka is conducting in the Prosecutor General’s Office is a very positive thing. 

Yes, we have had concerns but I want to underline: the EU supports that, but it’s for you, it’s for Ukraine, for your society.

There have been areas or laws that the EU has not been fully happy with. You pointed out the judicial reform. It’s now in the process of a new reflection and we hope that some elements of the law will be amended so that the EU could support this further.

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I can not stress enough how important it is to have reformed and the well-functioning court system. Look at almost anything! Sometimes in internal discussions, we see intentions… Like the land reform that you mentioned. One part of the concerns of the society are not economical, they are about justice – whether these ceilings that are there will be upheld, whether some powerful, influential individuals will not, under false names using shell companies would not try to gather much land. These are areas that rely on a working justice system as well.

So all this must be done in parallel. You could say on many reforms in Ukraine that first they should reform the court system, otherwise there are no guarantees. But it can not be working that way. These things need to be done in parallel.

On the land reform, that you asked. We are not deaf and blind to the concerns that are there in the Ukrainian society. The EU supports the aim of this reform that would unleash such a potential for your economy. According to the World Bank calculations, from 1 to 1,5% of the GDP, if the safeguards for the small farmers are there. That’s very important, and these concerns are very legitimate.

READ MORE: "Land Reform Would Be Revolutionary for Ukraine" – Timothy Ash

Matti Maasikas, Ambassador of the European Union to Ukraine, at Hromadske's studio, January 17, 2020. Photo: Hromadske

Just to finalize and summarize. It’s already four months of the government. During the first months, you were saying things like, “We still need time to look at what is going on”. Do you still need the time to understand this government, few more months, or you’ve already understood what this team is up to?

Communication-wise, they’ve been doing quite a good job – the president and the government. I think it’s pretty clear what the aims on. 

[What are] Your concerns, your hopes?

All the reforms that are being conducted in this country are for this country, for Ukrainians by the legitimate democratically-elected president and the government. We see very right aims: to stop the war, to boost the economy and to have more justice in this country. These are very commendable aims.

Have you understood how important are the oligarchs for the country and how influential are they? Because that was something to test as well.

The colleagues who have worked previously in Ukraine or with Ukraine tell me that earlier some powerful individuals were much more visible in the daily life of Ukrainian society. They are not at this moment. However, it is not to deny that some structures of the economy are still very much open to unhealthy influence or some powerful businessmen. And I can not hide that for me looking at the media landscape, where the TV channels, as if must be owned by some big businessmen. It is a peculiar thing. Personally, I can not imagine a fully-functioning democracy without strong independent media and a strong public broadcaster either.

The Ukrainians are concerned about this regulation which was announced – about the fact that the Ukrainians and the people who are from the third countries traveling to the EU territory since 2021 would need to register. That’s a very practical thing for many, not political. What do you say? Why is it needed? What should people expect? Because this is probably the issue that our audience is concerned with the most.

In one word – security. In two words – security and predictability. It’s the same kind of system that the United States of America has for more than 10 years, that Canada has. Especially, after the terrorist attacks in Europe, it was pretty clear, and I was working in Brussels at that time, that the information-gathering and sharing between the EU member states and the EU overall must be strengthened. And this new system ensures overall for the EU, or to be more precise the Schengen area, ensures that all Schengen partners know who is entering the Schengen territory. It will take a couple of minutes to register and it costs 7 euros, which is less than any visa fee if you need a visa. And it’s valid for several years. I hope, that it is not such a burden.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Text by Vladyslav Kudryk and Sasha Lytvyn