Ukrainian war forces a question: How far does Europe go in the East?

BRUSSELS — Ukrainians waved European Union flags when they risked their lives in 2014 during their revolution in Maidan Square in central Kiev sparked by their desire to draw closer to the West. It was a pivotal moment, choosing Europe over Russia and incurring the ire of the Kremlin.

Now, battling a Russian invasion and seeking significant help from the European Union, Ukrainians are asking for EU membership, and soon. The call is joined by two neighboring countries, Moldova and Georgia, which also feel vulnerable to Russia and seek shelter under the EU umbrella.

“The European Union is going to be stronger with us,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said via video link from his bunker during a special session in the European Parliament this week. “Prove you’re with us, and you won’t let us go.”

The European Union has already done a lot for Ukraine. In just a few weeks, the bloc began to grow into a military power, funneling in millions of euros in aid and weapons. Member States host hundreds of thousands of refugees from the conflict.

But if the European Union is unlikely to do one thing, it is to speed up its accession process, relax its rules and conditions of membership, or allow Ukraine and others who raised their hands urgently to enter the club by invitation only. the line, even now.

Ukraine was far from ready to start membership talks even before the invasion. The last EU report on the country’s reform progress, released in December 2020, said corruption and the rule of law remained problematic, despite efforts to improve institutions, particularly the courts.

Rapid expansion has never been easy for the European Union. For decades it was reluctant to push east, having struggled enough to expand after admitting large swaths of former Soviet satellite states, not all familiar with issues of democratic governance and corruption, after 2004 and 2007.

EU leaders were also aware that further encroachment, like that of NATO, into what Moscow once considered its domain was likely to antagonize Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Ties with Brussels were at the heart of the debate that culminated in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and subsequent Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine.

“The lukewarm policy towards Eastern Europe was justified by realists in European capitals as a desire not to antagonize Russia, because antagonizing Russia would have caused instability,” said Rosa Balfour, director of the Carnegie Research Institute in Brussels.

But Mr. Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine has shattered virtually every understanding between Russia and the West. Ideas for a new security architecture for the continent have been crushed under the tracks of Russian tanks. New spheres of influence are rapidly carving out areas that once stood, albeit awkwardly, on the fence between East and West.

But while there is no doubt that EU countries are united in the desire to provide significant support to Ukraine, it is virtually impossible to allow Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to become full members soon, officials and diplomats in Brussels insist.

Even granting them candidate member status soon seems to go too far for the European Union. The bloc’s origins date back to the 1950s with a core of six nations, and it has now grown to encompass 27. Some say it’s already too big to maintain a cohesive identity and set of principles, as tensions long standing with members such as Hungary and Poland attests to this.

Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, the EU institution that brings together the 27 national leaders, acknowledged that the mere thought is divisive.

“It will be up to us as the European Union to act according to our time. It will be difficult – we know that there are different points of view in Europe,” Michel said after the interview. Mr. Zelensky’s appeal: “The council will have to take a serious look at the symbolic, political and legitimate request that has been made. And we will have to make the appropriate choices in a determined and clear-headed way,” he added.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU’s other major institution – its executive, the European Commission – also spoke about the symbolism of the moment.

Even before Mr Zelensky gave his speech in the European Parliament, she said in an interview with the Euronews television channel that Ukraine is “one of us and we want it in the European Union”. .

A spokesperson for Ms von der Leyen cautiously backtracked from her more enthusiastic comments on Thursday. “These are countries that express a wish to join the European Union, which in fact shows the success of the European Union as part of a project of peace and prosperity,” the spokesperson said. , Eric Mamer. “So it is obviously welcome that others see the European Union as a successful model and want to join us.”

Joining the European Union is a long and arduous process. To obtain candidate status, a country must meet the so-called Copenhagen criteria, a set of standards relating to its democracy and economy.

But this is where the hardest part begins. The accession negotiations consist of 35 chapters, each dealing with a policy area in which the candidate country is asked to make changes – both legal and practical – to bring it into line with European Union standards.

Work on specific chapters can stall for years, and any progress is subject to constant scrutiny of the standards of the candidate country’s judicial and judicial systems, as well as the quality of its democratic institutions.

These include rule of law issues such as independent judges, rooting out corruption and protecting a free and vibrant press. Several current EU members, primarily Hungary and Poland, but also Bulgaria and Romania, fare poorly on some of these fronts.

And then there is the question of the five countries already on the list of candidates: Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Turkey’s request is effectively frozen and unlikely to be completed, but the others have gone through years of reforms and negotiations.

These countries are in the heart of Europe, in the Western Balkans, and have also been courted by Russia, so the rapid dispatch of other new demands on theirs is considered not only unfair but potentially dangerous.

The European Union has long been active in Ukraine, which is part of its Eastern Partnership with six former Soviet states, including Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Brussels has eased visa restrictions for Ukrainians and offered significant financial aid and technical advice, as well as regular summits.

But membership is another matter, and a former chairman of the commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking with brutal honesty in March 2016, said it would take at least 20 to 25 years for Ukraine joins the EU and NATO. Mr. Putin is trying to ensure that it will take much longer.

Experts believe that while full membership may not be achievable soon, Brussels needs to make a gesture of inclusion towards Ukraine and its two neighbours.

“There’s plenty of room to make a powerful move without making false promises,” Ms Balfour said. “What is unrealistic is the expectation of accelerated membership.”

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels.