‘Winds of change’ in Europe as path to EU opens for Ukraine

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a special meeting of the European Council at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium May 30, 2022. Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool via REUTERS

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  • Summit to accept Ukraine and Moldova as candidates for EU membership
  • Concern about how to maintain EU coherence and unity as it grows
  • Balkan leaders head to Brussels, frustrated by wait to join
  • Summit to address concerns over inflation and energy crisis

BRUSSELS, June 23 (Reuters) – European leaders will formally accept Ukraine as a candidate for EU membership on Thursday, a bold geopolitical move sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but a reminder that the 27-nation bloc will need a major overhaul as it looks to get bigger again.

“History is on the march,” European Union Director-General Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday ahead of a two-day summit that will launch the EU’s most ambitious expansion since hosting states. of Eastern Europe after the Cold War.

“I’m not just talking about Putin’s war of aggression,” she said. “I’m talking about the winds of change that are once again blowing across our continent. With their candidacies, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are telling us that they want change.”

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Although it will take years for Ukraine and Moldova – and possibly more than a decade – to qualify for membership, the Brussels summit decision will be a symbolic step that signals the intention to the EU to reach deeply into the former Soviet Union. Read more

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his “special military operation” launched in Ukraine in late February was partly necessitated by Western encroachment on what Russia calls its legitimate geographic sphere of influence.

While Ukraine and neighboring Moldova are expected to be welcomed into the EU waiting room on Thursday, Georgia will be offered “a European perspective” but will have to meet conditions before gaining candidate status.

“The term historic is a term that goes around, but it can be called historic,” an EU diplomat said ahead of the summit. “Even a month ago, Ukraine’s EU candidacy might have seemed far-fetched.”

BALKAN FRUSTRATION

Behind the triumphant rhetoric, however, is concern within the EU about how the bloc can stay cohesive and united as it continues to expand.

Leaders know public discontent is mounting over soaring inflation and an energy crisis as Russia tightens gas supplies in response to Western sanctions, and those economic concerns will be hotly debated on the second day of the summit.

Having started in 1951 as an organization of six countries to jointly regulate their industrial production, the EU now has 27 members who face complex challenges ranging from climate change and the rise of China to war in China. right on their doorstep today.

Reluctance to enlarge has slowed the progress towards membership of a group of Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – whose leaders will meet their European counterparts in Brussels on Thursday morning.

A lack of progress on the milestones of joining the club led to such a sense of disillusionment that the leaders of Albania and Serbia briefly considered not attending the meeting.

They eventually agreed to make the trip, but Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama reluctantly tweeted: “We will attend the EU Council meeting. There won’t be much to hear.”

A draft statement from the summit seen by Reuters showed EU leaders will once again give “full and unequivocal commitment to the Western Balkans’ prospect of EU membership”.

But Ukraine’s fast track to official candidate status has only heightened their sense of being sidelined, which carries the risk for the EU of Russia and China expanding their influence. In the region.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Thursday that the EU needed to “reform its internal procedures” to prepare for the accession of new members, stressing the need to settle key issues by qualified majority rather than unanimity.

A recent report based on a year of consultations with EU citizens called on the EU to scrap the principle of unanimity in several areas, including foreign and security policy.

The unanimity requirement often runs counter to EU ambitions because member states can block decisions or reduce them to the lowest common denominator.

Despite waves of crises that have rocked the EU in recent years, from a wave of migration and Britain’s exit from the bloc to rising nationalism and tensions over democratic standards, the bloc remains widely popular.

According to a European Parliament poll published on Thursday, nearly two-thirds of Europeans see EU membership as a “good thing”, the highest result in 15 years.

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Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Francesco Guarascio; Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Charlotte van Campenhout and Sarah Marsh; Written by John Chalmers; Editing by Kim Coghill

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