Europe say they love Ukraine, but not enough to let them join the club

ROME—Remember February 24 when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine quickly degenerated into a bloodbath? It was the first large-scale invasion of Europe since the end of World War II, and the European Union has been quick to offer support and promises that seem increasingly empty.

On April 8, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Kyiv where she walked around Bucha’s corpses alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, promising him a fast track to EU membership. “It won’t be, as usual, a matter of years to form that opinion, but I think it’s a matter of weeks,” she said. “Dear Volodymyr, my message today is clear: Ukraine belongs to the European family.”

Isha Sesay (L) and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (C) speak on stage during Stand Up For Ukraine on April 09, 2022 in Warsaw, Poland.

(Photo by Brian Dowling/Getty Images)

But as the deadline draws near for a meeting at the end of May ahead of a crucial summit next month, some of Europe’s most influential member states have thrown cold water on Ukraine’s membership, which we must say it, they started working almost two decades ago. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the acceleration of a country “like Ukraine” would be unfair to other Western Balkan countries that have also knocked on the door of the euro pavilion. “There are no shortcuts on the way to the EU,” said Scholz, when asked about Ukraine last week. “The membership process is not a matter of months or years.”

French President Emmanuel Macron was more specific about what Europe might think, saying it would take “decades” for a “candidate like Ukraine” to join the bloc. Macron has suggested that what is needed is a mini-club type alliance that would also bring the UK back into the fold post-Brexit, while stopping short of the crucial benefits Ukraine will so badly need in terms of support, financing and structural reforms when the war finally ends.

Emily Channell-Justice, who heads the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine program at Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute, told The Daily Beast she was disappointed but not ultimately surprised by the EU’s reluctance to bring Ukraine in. . “It’s not that surprising in many ways because it’s not like Ukraine didn’t have issues about its European future before the war started,” she said. “The war hasn’t upset him, but now Ukraine is able to say to the EU: ‘We are basically the ones protecting you all from your greatest threat.’ They set a great example for the rest of us in so many areas, it’s the least we can do for them.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is pictured behind the reflection of an EU flag on the window of the chancellery as he awaits the arrival of the Bulgarian president ahead of their meeting in Berlin, Germany, May 16, 2022.

(Photo by John MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)

She says that even more than the concrete support EU membership would bring, it would be a sign that the EU meant what it said when the war started. “There are certain obligations that could be useful, any kind of symbolic movement that the EU can make is useful,” she says. “But some countries are afraid to break completely with Russia, especially since Putin is so unpredictable.”

The problems holding back many European countries are twofold. Some countries, including Italy, Hungary and Germany, are grappling with a viable plan to wean themselves off Russian oil. Italy recently opened a ruble account to ensure they won’t be cut. The EU has also been unable to agree on a boycott of Russian oil, which sends a signal that it may be willing to continue doing business with Putin despite his actions in Ukraine.

The other problem for many is the imminent accession of six other candidates: Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo, which are ahead of Ukraine in the process. “For years they have been undertaking intensive reforms and preparing for membership,” said the German Chancellor. “It’s not just a question of credibility that we keep our promises to them. Today more than ever, their integration is also in our strategic interest.

Still, not everyone thinks the game is level playing field given Ukraine’s particular vulnerability. “What people don’t understand is that it’s not a new idea, it’s something a lot of people have wanted in Ukraine since 2004, and the majority of Ukrainians have wanted and worked since 2014,” says Channell-Justice. “And I think it’s about recognizing that it’s not always about how you rate the country as a whole, they’ve built a functioning civil society that challenges elites to do a better job. .”

For its part, the EU has indicated that while full membership is not in the near future, it will not abandon Ukraine entirely. Millions of war refugees have been welcomed across the bloc like no other war refugees, and billions of dollars in aid in the form of military equipment and cash to pay the Ukrainian army have been sent. But, it seems, the help stops there.