Despite concern about Russia`s moves to roll back Western influence after intervening in Georgia, many EU states remain unwilling to offer such a pledge, given waning public support for EU expansion, Kyiv`s poor record on reform and a desire to avoid further straining ties with Moscow.
A political crisis in Ukraine that saw the collapse last week of a shaky coalition between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has reinforced such caution.
The 27 EU states, meeting in Paris, will hold out the prospect of gradually closer ties with a country that is a key energy transit route and seen as crucial to the bloc`s long-term security and energy strategy.
A draft text acknowledges Ukraine`s European aspirations and adds that "gradual convergence of Ukraine with the EU in political, economic and legal areas will contribute to further progress in EU-Ukraine relations".
It describes a broad bilateral pact under negotiation as an "association agreement", wording that can imply the possibility of future membership, and the leaders will announce the launch of a dialogue towards an eventual visa-free regime.
An explicit statement of future membership prospects has been blocked by the Benelux countries, with Germany and Italy also not keen, not least to avoid further straining ties with Moscow, a key supplier of energy to Europe.
Russia has been incensed by the pledge of eventual NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, another former Soviet state, an many see this as the spur for its intervention in Georgia.
The meeting follows a mission to Russia and Georgia by President Nicolas Sarkozy, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Russia agreed with Sarkozy on Monday to withdraw its troops from Georgia`s heartland within a month, but there was no commitment to scale back its military presence in two Georgian separatist regions.
Some analysts see EU policy towards Ukraine as a means to influence Russia, but even among states keen to see Kyiv as a future EU member -- which include Britain, the Nordic states and former communist countries such as Poland -- there was some caution at a weekend meeting of EU foreign ministers in Avignon.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said it was important to ensure Ukraine`s political upheaval did not lead to national disunity.
"Equally, it is important that Europe`s leaders make clear that we are determined on a long-term relationship with Ukraine with membership as a long-term goal," he said.
Ukraine`s ambassador to Moscow, Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, told a Brussels seminar the EU should send a strong signal to Russia not to repeat its moves in Georgia elsewhere by making clear Ukraine would one day be accepted as a member.
"It is not that difficult after the events in Georgia to explain to the public why this particular message is needed," he said. "Europe should awaken to new realities."
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