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Thursday’s European Council will nominate Ukraine as a candidate for EU membership – even as Russia’s ongoing war raises questions about whether the country will exist long enough to join the club.
The decision on Ukraine’s candidate status, to be taken by the 27 EU heads of state and government at a two-day summit in Brussels, will give a huge boost to the morale of the war-torn country, said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. underlined in a speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday.
“It’s the only country where people have been shot because they wrapped themselves in a European flag,” von der Leyen said, explaining his Commission’s decision to officially recommend candidate status to just four. months after Ukraine submitted its candidacy at the start of the Russian invasion. . “Ukraine has gone through hell and floods for a simple reason: it is its desire to join the European Union.
But even as European Council leaders attempt to raise the hopes of millions of Ukrainians by adopting the Commission’s recommendation, they have little new help to offer Ukraine – other than words – in its immediate struggle for survival.
At a summit late last month, the European Council adopted a sixth sanctions package against Moscow, including plans to embargo most Russian oil imports. But at the current summit there will be little to no discussion of a seventh package, as leaders face the reality that punitive measures have so far had little deterrent effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite the high cost to European economies.
Instead, the latest draft summit conclusions vaguely state that “work will continue on sanctions, including to strengthen implementation and prevent circumvention.”
Mark Gitenstein, the US ambassador to the EU, said the priority should now be to enforce existing sanctions to ensure they bite.
“We’ve gone very, very far – farther than ever in history – we’ve got thousands of penalties,” Gitenstein recently told reporters. “The problem with sanctions is not adding new sanctions, it’s enforcing… the sanctions export controls that we have, which is a difficult problem.”
American and European officials, he noted, were already coordinating their efforts.
“If they were all fully implemented, they would have a devastating impact,” Gitenstein said. “And they’re starting to have a big impact.”
But the draft conclusions of the summit say the EU has yet to finalize a proposal “adding sanctions violations to the list of EU crimes”.
In their draft conclusions, EU Heads of State and Government also have little to say about the urgent need for arms, ammunition and military aid that Ukraine needs to resist attacks. relentless and push back the Russian invaders. Troops from Moscow now occupy large swathes of the country’s south and east, including a so-called land bridge to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014.
“The European Union remains firmly committed to providing additional military support to help Ukraine exercise its natural right to self-defence,” the draft conclusions state. “To this end, the European Council asks the Council to work rapidly on a further increase in military support.”
The disconnect between encouraging Ukraine’s future EU membership and vague rhetoric regarding Ukraine’s current needs has left Ukrainian officials and diplomats walking a political tightrope – expressing a deep and genuine gratitude while emphasizing that much more is needed to secure military victory, however that could be defined.
During a briefing with reporters this week, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the EU, Vsevolod Chentsov, bristled when asked about recent comments by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, that Western allies must be prepared for the war in Ukraine to last for many years.
“Well, I think the Secretary General of NATO can focus on something else, rather [than] you know, those predictions,” Chentsov said. ” This is not helpful. That’s my humble opinion. »
“Our people are quite strong and capable,” the ambassador added. “But, you know, it’s not enough to be inventive and courageous. We need a lot of weapons – and now – and that should change the situation.
It is not only because of the lack of weapons that Western aid fails to meet Ukraine’s current needs. Besides Russia’s continued military assault and occupation, Ukraine is on the brink of financial collapse. The draft conclusions note that the Commission “will soon present a proposal to grant Ukraine new exceptional macro-financial assistance of up to €9 billion in 2022”.
But 9 billion euros is less than two months of Ukraine’s current budget deficit, which financial experts have estimated at between 5 and 7 billion euros per month. The draft conclusions call for support for “reconstruction” in Ukraine, even knowing that Putin’s destruction of Ukraine will continue for the foreseeable future.
Uncertainty over Ukraine’s continued existence as a sovereign nation is not the only difficult issue that EU heads of state and government will avoid at their two-day summit.
The prospect of Ukraine joining — as well as neighboring Moldova, which is also expected to be granted EU candidate status at the summit — also risks fundamentally altering the balance of decision-making within the EU and could therefore lead to requests for major changes to its treaties.
Because of Ukraine’s relatively large population — it would probably become the fifth or sixth largest country in the EU depending on the number of inhabitants left after the war — it would be entitled to a large delegation to the European Parliament, and its membership would tip the mathematical balance in all the decisions taken by qualified majority voting.
But while the decision on candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova almost certainly means a tough conversation about treaty changes, heads of state and government seem determined to duck that discussion for now. Instead, they will give superficial recognition to the “Conference on the Future of Europe” – a French-led effort to reflect on how the EU might be structured in the decades to come.
The draft conclusions praise “the unique opportunity to engage with European citizens” and call for “effective follow-up”.
But the section of the draft conclusions on Ukraine and Moldova appears designed to give the EU an escape clause if the necessary institutional changes are not executed – noting that applications for membership could be blocked if the EU is not quite ready to expand.
“Each country’s progress towards the European Union will depend on its own merit,” the conclusions state, adding cryptically, “including the EU’s ability to absorb new members.”
It is far from clear how, or even if, such capability could or would be objectively measured, potentially leaving any determination to the whim of the leaders around the European Council table.
The long delays in the accession process of the Western Balkan countries, however, suggest that Ukraine and Moldova should be prepared for possible delays.
Some Western Balkan countries had threatened to boycott a pre-summit meeting on Thursday due to Bulgaria’s long-standing obstruction of North Macedonia’s membership talks. Ultimately, Balkan leaders will be at the meeting in Brussels, but diplomats said an agreement on a compromise proposal with Bulgaria, where Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s government lost a vote of no confidence on Wednesday, is unlikely.
For Ukraine and Moldova to secure the start of accession talks, the European Commission said the countries must first meet a series of conditions related to fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law.
For now, however, the Russian invasion and occupation prevents Ukraine from predicting what its borders will be or how many citizens it will have. The war makes Ukraine’s application for membership even more unpredictable than that of Cyprus, which was allowed to join the EU despite the island’s division in a long dispute with Turkey.
Chentsov, the Ukrainian ambassador, said that an end to the war and the restoration of peace were not preconditions for his country’s accession to the EU, and that the Kyiv government would continue to work on the administrative reforms, including of the country’s judicial system, that the European Commission has demanded.
“There are no preconditions for peace,” Chentsov said. “We have a clear understanding.”
He acknowledged, however, that some reforms would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement until the war was over.
“Systemic things like pursuing reform of the police or security services… [are] probably difficult or impossible to do before we stabilize the situation, and even I think it will take some time after the Russians stop firing,” he said.
But the ambassador said the decision to grant candidate status would be a clear show of faith that Ukraine can prevail in the war and move towards its rightful place in the EU.
“The idea of Ukraine is not in question,” he said. “The fact that the Commission has suggested – and Member States have also accepted – the very idea of doing it now, I think shows that they are quite confident in our ability to keep the situation under control.”