BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU foreign ministers postponed ratifying a cooperation agreement with Ukraine on Monday in a protest over its human rights record, but were unable to agree on whether to snub Ukraine when it hosts the European soccer tournament next month.
The 27-nation bloc has become increasingly concerned by Kiev’s treatment of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko who has said she has been beaten and whose health has deteriorated sharply since she was convicted of allegedly abusing her powers as prime minister.
But at a meeting in Brussels, it proved impossible to formulate a common response among all ministers or to agree a mooted boycott by government ministers of next month’s high-profile Euro 2012 tournament which is co-hosted by Ukraine.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said, however, that the Tymoshenko case remained of crucial importance.
“Making sure that justice is done and seen to be done is core to the values of the European Union,” she told a news conference.
She said she had delayed a group decision on sending government representatives to Ukraine - partly in the hope of progress at a meeting on Tuesday between EU officials and Ukraine’s prime minister.
“We will ... consider what happens next in the light of developments in Ukraine,” she said.
The Tymoshenko case is seen as a test of whether the EU can send a unified message to a troublesome neighbor, and has divided EU member states into two camps: those who want to punish Ukraine for its abuses of civil rights and those who want to attempt to coax it into the European mainstream.
The Dutch, whose national team is scheduled to play a game in Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv on June 9, have said they will not send any political representatives. Nor will the European Commission, the EU’s executive. Matches in co-host Poland will not be affected.
“I think in these circumstances we need to have good football without many ministers being there,” said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, as he arrived at the meeting. “We have a problem: that Ukraine is one of the most important countries in terms of neighborhood politics.”
Other countries want to dangle the carrot of potential attendance in front of Ukraine, in the hope that it will improve its record on human rights and the rule of law.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he “personally had no plans” to attend football games that England is scheduled to play in Ukraine. “As far as ministerial attendance goes, that is under review for us.”
In March, the EU finished technical work on an association agreement for greater political and economic integration with Ukraine, a move meant to bring Kiev closer to adopting “European” values such as the rule of law.
Ashton said one criterion for signing the agreement would be the conduct of parliamentary elections in October, for which Ukraine’s two leading opposition parties have forged an alliance to try to defeat President Viktor Yanukovich’s party.
“We wish to sign it but Ukraine needs to show that it lives in the spirit of this political association,” she said. “The conditions of the electoral campaign and the voting process will be crucial for our assessment of these elections.”
Former prime minister Tymoshenko, 51, was jailed last October for abuse of office after a trial denounced by the EU and the United States as politically motivated. She denied the charges and said she was the victim of a vendetta by Yanukovich who narrowly beat her to the presidency in 2010.
Tymoshenko was a leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution which doomed Yanukovich’s first attempt at the presidency. Last month, she said prison guards had beaten her.
Ukrainian authorities deny Tymoshenko was ill-treated, however, saying they had been unable to verify her claims of physical mistreatment.
Some diplomats are concerned that punishing Ukraine could drive it closer to Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week Ukraine was a “dictatorship”, likening it to Belarus.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said over the weekend that Merkel had made “an inappropriate comment”.
“There is no dictatorship in Ukraine and there is no political repression going on,” he told Euronews.
Additional reporting by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn