As Ukraine struggles, should the EU become a member?

BRUSSELS – As Ukraine defends European values ​​and security against a blatant Russian invasion, what obligation do the European Union a...


BRUSSELS – As Ukraine defends European values ​​and security against a blatant Russian invasion, what obligation do the European Union and NATO have towards Ukraine?

The moral answer may be obvious, as European and American governments swear to support Kyiv and pour money and arms into Ukraine. But the practical answers are complicated and divide Europe.

Defying expectations, the European Union has provided significant military aid to Ukraine and imposed huge sanctions on Russia, acting with speed and authority. But now he is faced with a more difficult question – how to link vulnerable countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to Europe in a way that helps them and does not create an additional security risk on the road.

It’s a question that will hover over a summit meeting of EU leaders from Monday, and one made more urgent by Ukraine’s demand to speed up accession talks to join the bloc, which may not be decided until another meeting at the end of June.

Despite pressure to fast-track Ukraine, full membership of it or other countries on Europe’s periphery in NATO or the European Union is unlikely for many years. But European leaders have already started discussing ways to slowly integrate them and protect them.

President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy have both spoken in recent weeks of a new confederation with the European Union, as opposed to the old notion of a central group and a periphery, or of a “two-speed Europe”. which new members reject as creating second-class status.

In his speech on the occasion of “Europe Day”, On May 9, in the European Parliament, Mr. Macron presented a more structured, if still vague, proposal for a new type of arrangement.

“The war in Ukraine and the legitimate aspiration of its people, like that of Moldova and Georgia, to join the European Union prompt us to rethink our geography and the organization of our continent”, he said. he declares.

Mr Macron has proposed a comprehensive vision of a new European Political Community – an outer circle of European states, including Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Britain – which would be linked to the European Union but not wouldn’t be part of it.

Such a wide circle of European states would allow Brussels to bring vulnerable countries along the Russian border into the European fold faster than full EU membership, which “would actually take several years , and most likely decades,” Macron said.

Such a “political community”, he said, “will allow democratic European countries that believe in our core values ​​a new space for political cooperation on security, energy, transport, infrastructure investment and free movement of people, especially our young people”.

The idea of ​​concentric rings or “tiers” of European states, of a “multi-speed Europe”, has already been suggested several times, including by a former French president, François Mitterrand, in 1989. But at the time, the idea included Russia; it was going nowhere. Mr. Macron himself mentioned it before. But now, with Russia on the march, it’s time to make it happen, he said.

In February, four days after the Russian invasion, Ukraine formally applied to join the bloc, and in March EU leaders “recognized Ukraine’s European aspirations and European choice”.

On April 8, in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, told President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, “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.

But even if European leaders decide to open negotiations with Ukraine, the process will be long, despite support for immediate membership from countries like Poland and the Baltic states.

On May 22, Clément Beaune, French Minister for Europe, declared on French radio: “I don’t want to offer Ukrainians illusions or lies.” He added: “We have to be honest. If you say that Ukraine will join the EU in six months, or a year or two, you are lying. It’s probably in 15 or 20 years, it takes a long time.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said that given the difficulties, Ukraine should be offered “another way” in its relations with Brussels.

Mr. Zelensky categorically rejected any path other than Ukraine’s accelerated full membership of the European Union. But his request is unlikely to be met.

Even opening accession talks with Ukraine is controversial as Georgia and Moldova also applied after the invasion, and other countries have long been stuck in the process. Turkey applied in 1987, North Macedonia in 2004, Montenegro in 2008 and Albania and Serbia in 2009. All have started accession negotiations.

Even Bosnia and Herzegovina applied, and Kosovo wants it.

And yet, there has been no EU enlargement since 2013, partly because of the difficulty of integrating already poorer members like Romania and Bulgaria, and because the membership criteria are so expensive.

The current 27 Member States have enough economic problems themselves, let alone trying to keep Hungary and Poland in line with European values ​​and the rule of law.

“Countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are fragile and won’t be joining the EU or NATO anytime soon,” said Claudia Major, defense analyst at the German Institute for International Affairs. and security. “If we’re being honest, we don’t have any security guarantees for them.”

There can be closer relations with Brussels in sectoral areas like education, power grids, trade and the economy, in a sort of partnership below membership, she said. “But I’m not sure that would deter Russia,” she continued. “After all, why do Finland and Sweden want NATO? Because over there they have the United States.

The lesson, she said, is that “nuclear deterrence and American capabilities keep us safe in Europe.”

“We can offer these countries all kinds of support, but not enough to save them,” Ms Major said. “We can’t give them the life insurance they want.

A fast-track for Ukraine would likely further alienate Western Balkan states, where the slow and cumbersome enlargement process “has disappointed many while Russia and China have increased their influence in the region as a result”, he said. Julia De Clerck-Sachsse. of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.

Proposals like Mr Macron’s “can help start a wider discussion” among European leaders on how to better help and protect those who are not yet members, she said.

“At the same time, they must ensure that such ideas are not interpreted as a sort of ‘enlargement light’ which would undermine aspirations for full membership and further alienate countries already disillusioned with the process.

A harsher view is that Mr Macron is trying to herd new aspirants into a permanent paddock to preserve French influence in Brussels.

“To this end, he launched the idea of ​​a Brussels Limbo in which the candidate countries could simmer until the day of judgment,” wrote Eric Gujer, editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. “He calls it a ‘European political community’ in addition to the European Union. It sounds nice and sufficiently vague, but the ultimate goal is obvious.

“The debate has only just begun,” said Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe. “Don’t expect a plan.” There are talks, she said, to “integrate these countries more gradually, or sector by sector”, including entering the single market.

But there are also fears that a certain “accession light” is undermining the powerful internal reform force of candidate countries to meet the EU’s tough membership criteria, undermining the soft power of the bloc.

Pierre Vimont, former French ambassador in Washington and member of Carnegie Europe, thinks it would be better to simply open the European Union to all applicants. But the “real problem”, he said, “is that a 35-member EU cannot continue in the same way”, requiring serious institutional reform and treaty change to work.

Right now, he says, “no one has the answer.” But he warned that ‘we can’t neglect Russia or forget about it – we’ve been doing it for years, and it hasn’t gone so well’.

“We need to face this issue openly,” he said, “and come up with new ideas.”

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