Ukraine’s EU membership could take decades, say diplomats

Placeholder while loading article actions

BRUSSELS — Ukraine is one of ours. It is marching towards a European future. The future of Europe is, in fact, the future of Ukraine.

These are the messages senior European Union officials have been delivering since Russia launched its full-scale invasion and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for a fast track to membership. But ahead of a European summit on the issue later this month, those messages seem increasingly at odds with the real position of member states.

It is not yet clear whether the 27 EU countries will grant Ukraine “candidate status” – a first step on the long road to membership – or some sort of symbolic pre-candidate status, diplomats said. What seems certain is that Ukraine, as it fights for its life, will be disappointed.

While several EU officials, lawmakers and leaders have pushed to fast-track Kyiv’s bid, others have tried to temper Ukraine’s expectations, pointing out that membership could be decades away. In private conversations, some EU diplomats admitted that their governments were nervous about starting the accession process with a country at war. A few wondered if Ukraine had a chance to join.

Zelensky on Friday urged the EU to pull his country out of the gray zone between Europe and Russia. Granting candidate status to Ukraine “would prove that words about the Ukrainian people’s desire to be part of the European family are not just words”, he said in a virtual address to the Copenhagen summit on democracy.

The gap between the wholehearted support of senior EU officials as they pose for photos with Zelensky and the quiet skepticism of many European diplomats weighs on preparations for the bloc’s June 23-24 summit – and does not did not go unnoticed in Kyiv.

“None of the 27 would say ‘no’ in front of the president, but what is happening behind the scenes is a clear desire to put obstacles in the way,” said Olha Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration and Euro-Atlantic. of Ukraine, said during a visit to Brussels.

If it joins, Ukraine would become the fifth most populous nation in the EU, and also by far the poorest, receiving subsidies from the rest of the bloc. Last year, its gross domestic product per capita was $4,872. The poorest country in the EU, Bulgaria, was $11,683, according to International Monetary Fund estimates.

The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, is expected to make a recommendation on Ukraine’s status next week. EU diplomats said the commission could recommend candidate status but with conditions – a compromise unlikely to please Ukraine.

Since the decision is ultimately up to member states, Stefanishyna and other Ukrainian officials have traveled to European capitals to argue that Ukraine needs and deserves unconditional candidate status. “The starting point for any discussion is the legal status of Ukraine,” she said.

How NATO and EU membership became Ukraine’s unattainable dream

The debate over Ukraine’s candidacy threatens to open a rift between the country and its European backers, dealing a blow to Kyiv’s aspirations to break free from Russia’s grip and integrate more closely with its neighbors to the west.

It also risks further fracturing European unity on aid to Ukraine, exacerbating tensions between Central European countries and the Baltic states, on the one hand, which support Ukraine’s “swift bid for EU”, and Western Europeans, who tend to have more reservations about Ukraine’s readiness. .

“It’s a country at war, and they need a moral boost,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said in an interview. “I can imagine what Russian propaganda will do with it.”

Witold Waszczykowski, a former Polish foreign minister who is now a member of the European Parliament, said the EU must do everything it can for Ukraine, including granting candidate status. “We understand that we are next,” he said. “If Ukraine collapses, Russia will be the winner and go further west.”

EU membership and fighter jets for Ukraine remain elusive as Zelensky says ‘prove you’re with us’

Stefanishyna said Ukrainian officials were trying to persuade resisters, including “some Nordic countries”, the Netherlands and Germany.

During a visit to Kyiv last month, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stressed that there were “no shortcuts” to membership. Privately, German leaders have expressed concern that if they now open accession talks with Ukraine, Zelensky will ask by August to be admitted immediately, although the process usually takes years, have said officials familiar with their position. But the German government has not offered an official view on whether Ukraine should soon be offered candidate status.

“Germany’s official position is that it has no formal position so far,” Stefanishyna said. “We are treating this as a positive signal.”

Joining the EU is extremely complex. All the legislation of a potential member must be taken over and brought into line with the standards set in Brussels.

The bloc is also well aware that it carries much more weight before a country joins than after. Once a country has entered, it is much more difficult to influence democratic commitments – as the backsliding of some EU members has clearly shown.

For Ukraine, decades of corruption pose a problem. The country ranked 122nd out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index. Although Ukrainian leaders point to progress on this front, several EU diplomats said their governments remained concerned.

“Ukraine was not close before and it is not now,” said an EU diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. “But if enlargement is not a direct option, what do you do?”

In a speech on Europe Day last month, French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to answer that question, outlining his vision for a “European Political Community” that would include an outer circle of democracies. who want to be part of the EU – like Ukraine, and even Britain after choosing to leave.

“We feel in our hearts that Ukraine, through its fight and its courage, is already today a member of our Europe, of our family and of our union,” Macron said.

“We all know perfectly well that the process for them to join would take several years – in truth, probably several decades,” he continued. “That is the truth, unless we decide to lower the standards of this membership and therefore completely rethink the unity of our Europe.”

Macron’s proposal did not receive a warm reaction within the EU and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba rejected it outright. He called European capitals anonymous, saying their strategic ambiguity over Ukraine’s status had “emboldened Putin”.

“We don’t need substitutes for EU candidate status that show second-class treatment of Ukraine and hurt Ukrainian feelings,” he said. tweeted.

Enlargement skeptics are quick to point out that other countries are in the lead. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia have all been in accession talks with the EU for years. Turkey applied in 1987 and remains an official candidate, although it has largely given up.

Some policymakers and diplomats recognize that Ukraine stands out because of the urgency of its situation. But they are still wary of alienating countries that applied earlier.

Ukraine has been pushing for years to integrate further into the EU, and a free trade agreement is already in place. But he formally applied for membership on February 28, four days after the Russian invasion.

The interpreter breaks down during Zelensky’s speech to the European Union

On March 1, Zelensky gave a virtual speech at an extraordinary session of the European Parliament. Speaking from a bunker in Kyiv as Russian forces pushed into Ukraine, he said his country was not just fighting for its “survival”, but “also to be equal members of Europe”.

“Prove that you are with us,” he said.

The speech landed strong. An EU interpreter was so moved by Zelensky’s evocation of the bombing of Kharkiv that he momentarily lost his temper. By the time the Ukrainian president finished speaking, the audience was on their feet.

At a March summit in Versailles, near Paris, EU leaders were more hesitant. Hours of debate culminated in a statement that the European Council “recognized Ukraine’s European aspirations and European choice” and would instruct officials in Brussels to provide an assessment.

EU announces sanctions against Russia and aid to Ukraine, but only a token on membership

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, regularly praises the country’s “European future”. During a visit to Kyiv in April, she handed Zelensky a questionnaire that marks the first stage of the candidacy process and offered words of support. “Dear Volodymyr, my message today is clear: Ukraine belongs to the European family,” she said. “This is where your path to the European Union begins.”

In Brussels, several EU diplomats said von der Leyen had made too many promises, either because she misjudged member states’ moods or because she was hoping to push them through.

More than one diplomat has put the odds of candidate status at “50/50”. A few were more skeptical, predicting a half-step, like the promise of candidate status at some point in the future, as long as the conditions are met.

Stefanishyna, Deputy Prime Minister, said the starting point for Ukraine was unconditional candidate status. “We are not playing the game of promises,” she said.

Birnbaum reported from Washington. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.

Comments are closed.