By Gabriela Baczynska and Toby Sterling

 

BRUSSELS/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - European Union leaders, anxious to preserve a landmark cooperation agreement with Ukraine, will address Dutch concerns on Thursday by saying the deal does not give Kiev the status of a candidate for membership of the bloc, diplomats said.

 

The Netherlands demanded caveats on the EU-Ukraine agreement, which establishes closer political ties and envisages a gradual freeing-up of trade, after Dutch voters rejected it in a referendum last April.

 

The so-called association agreement, designed to bind Ukraine closer to western Europe as it tries to move away from Russia's orbit, is now being provisionally implemented.

 

But it would unravel if Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte withdrew his support, which he had vowed to do should he fail to get a meeting of 28 EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday to agree to limit the promised benefits to Ukraine.

Several senior EU diplomats said on Wednesday that the Brussels summit would approve a deal endorsing Dutch demands that Rutte would then take to his parliament for a vote to overrule the referendum result.

"It should be OK," one senior EU diplomat said. "We are more or less there. Even though many people around the table are not very happy."

Poland and the Czech Republic are among those annoyed with the additional Dutch demands, as they want to keep open the prospect of future EU membership for Ukraine. But both have now decided that their priority is to ensure the full ratification of the association agreement, the sources said.

CHALLENGE AHEAD

Rutte will still face challenges getting the treaty approved at home as his teetering coalition lacks a majority in either of two chambers of parliament, whose parties are gearing up for an election on March 15.

A final vote in parliament would not come until February, when campaigning will be in full swing.

"Everyone wants to be done with this," Rutte said in a debate on Wednesday.

Approval will hinge on support from the opposition Christian Democrat party, which backed the original Ukraine deal but has changed its mind since Dutch voters rejected it.

"If you hold a referendum, you can't pretend it was just an opinion of the Dutch people," Christian Democrat lawmaker Pieter Omtzigt told the debate in The Hague.

He added, however, that members of his party may still back the agreement with the additional caveats from Brussels. While the association agreement does not specifically promise EU membership to Ukraine, Rutte wants the extra guarantees in order to reassure Dutch voters.

(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)