A path to the EU for Ukraine?

The passionate appeal by Ukraine’s courageous President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, for his country to have a special procedure leading to rapid EU accession, and the lodging of Ukraine’s EU application with Brussels at the start of the week, has provoked different reactions in the Union, writes Kirsty Hughes.

Yes, we have seen extraordinary shifts by the EU in the first week of Russia’s invasion, including in agreeing to supply weapons to Ukraine, the plan to allow Ukrainian refugees to live and work in the EU for up to three years, and the growing range of EU sanctions on Russia. And Germany’s defence and foreign policy shifted dramatically too with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s speech on Sunday, also agreeing to provide weapons to Ukraine.

But there are substantive differences across member states on an EU accession route for Ukraine. The European Parliament on Tuesday approved a resolution which called on the EU to “work towards granting EU candidate status to Ukraine”. Nine of the EU’s central and eastern European member states went further, on Monday, calling on the EU to take “steps to immediately grant Ukraine an EU candidate country status & start negotiations”. Since then Hungary, Greece and Ireland have all spoken out positively on giving Ukraine the prospect of EU membership.

European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has stressed, more vaguely, that Ukraine belongs in the European family. Meanwhile, both French and German politicians and officials have been much more circumspect, emphasising the political, technical and legal aspects of EU accession and with other EU member states and officials clearly pushing back on the idea of rapid movement in briefings to the media.

What remains unclear is how fast the EU will respond to Ukraine’s membership application and whether enlargement sceptics like France will show or be pushed into more positive responses. There will clearly be considerable debate across the member states as to whether the technical and political process whereby an applicant gets to candidate – or even potential candidate – status can be shortened. This looks unlikely as of now.

Yet the key thing to watch out for here is not really whether Ukraine gets fast-tracked to being a candidate, after which it would anyway – and depending on the outcome of the current war – take several years to go through the negotiations process. The real question is, and always has been, whether there is a genuine EU path for Ukraine.

Back in the 1990s, the EU took the narrow decision to give an EU path to ten of the central and east European countries (and later and slowly to the rest of the western Balkans). But it deliberately did not give Ukraine or other former Soviet bloc countries (other than the Baltics) a clear EU path. This looked like the wrong decision at the time and now much more so with hindsight. The EU also moved rather slowly even with the central and east European states – 15 years from the fall of the Berlin Wall until membership. Ideas of some sort of affiliate political membership were around in the early 1990s but never seriously taken up in Brussels. The western Balkans are now seeing steps to their EU goal looking close to stalled.

So, the big challenge to France, Germany and other more cautious EU member states is whether they face up to the immediate political and historical challenge they face with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and make publicly clear that Ukraine is welcome, in time, as an EU member state. Or they stick to the negative obfuscation of calling Ukraine European without opening the EU accession process to Ukraine at this moment of its most urgent need for full political and moral support. The choice needs to be made and now.

Images via EU Newsroom, European Commission and European Council