EU agrees on Dutch deal for Ukraine

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European Union leaders agreed on Thursday to additional Dutch demands over a landmark deal establishing closer ties with Ukraine, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.

The EU’s so-called association agreement with Ukraine is central to the former Soviet republic’s efforts to move closer to the West. Mass street protests toppled a pro-Russian Ukrainian president in 2014 after he tried to ditch it.

The Netherlands is the only EU country that has not ratified the deal, which fosters closer political ties and aims to free up trade between Ukraine and the bloc, after Dutch voters rejected it in a referendum last April.

The Hague has asked the EU for additional guarantees to ensure the deal does not lead to EU membership for Ukraine.

Asked if all 28 EU leaders have arrived to a common position on the Dutch demand, Muscat said:

“Yes, there is agreement.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will now take it to his parliament for approval, which would overwrite the referendum result.

Rutte told reporters before the talks that it was crucial to get a united European stance in the face of an emboldened Russia.

“Russia is an increasing risk, look what happened in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and rockets being placed between Poland and Lithuania. You cannot, as the Netherlands … break this unity, that is why I’m so motivated to get this done,” he said.

Russia responded to the toppling of Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich in 2014 by annexing the peninsula of Crimea. It then went on to back a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has killed nearly 10,000 people to date.

This has sent ties between Moscow and the EU to their lowest in decades, aggravating other disputes over trade, human rights and security, including the war in Syria.

The bloc slapped sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and the leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday also agreed to extend the main economic ones until mid-2017.

Moscow has responded by deploying more arms in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, which sits between EU member states Poland and Lithuania.

Rutte will now face an uphill battle pushing the agreement through his own parliament where he lacks the majority.

The Ukraine agreement is now being provisionally implemented but could cease to exist if The Hague withdraws its initial backing.