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EU countries are all for Ukraine in its war against Russia, but they are all over the map when it comes to Ukraine’s demand to be recognized as a candidate for EU membership.
The European Commission on Friday is expected to recommend formal candidate status for Ukraine and for neighboring Moldova, but the final decision requires unanimity among the 27 EU heads of state and government who will gather for a European Council summit in Brussels next week but still don’t agree on what to do.
Rejecting Ukraine’s request — or even a fudge nodding to future “membership perspective” — would be a devastating blow for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, potentially demoralizing many of his more than 40 million citizens, and especially his military, which continues to take heavy causalities as it fights off Russian invaders who are now occupying large swathes of the south and east of the country.
Such a rejection would also further inflame Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fantasies about reclaiming a sphere of influence resembling that of the Soviet Union and its superpower status during the Cold War. Supporters of Ukraine’s membership bid say that anything less than candidate status would encourage Putin to prolong the war.
But officials in some EU governments — notably Denmark and Portugal — have voiced strong reluctance to granting candidate status, arguing that if Ukraine were not at war, it would not remotely meet the qualifications for starting membership talks. Moldova, they suggest, would be even further behind in the necessary preparations.
Other EU governments have voiced support for granting candidate status, but are pushing to set conditions making clear that actual accession negotiations could not begin until Ukraine is once again whole and at peace, and that Kyiv has taken greater strides in fighting corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and overhauling democratic institutions.
Most eastern EU countries, especially Poland and the Baltics, strongly favor granting Ukraine candidate status, and officials in some of those countries have even expressed a willingness to fast-track the accession process.
“There is no alternative to a clear and strong political message of EUCO granting Ukraine candidate status,” Poland’s Ambassador to the EU Andrzej Sadoś said, adding: “In my opinion, Ukraine will get candidate status next week at EUCO.”
As for the possibility of the European Council imposing strict conditions that Ukraine would have to meet in order to start accession talks, Sadoś said: “On necessary reforms and modernization, let’s wait for Commission’s opinion on Friday. It’s obvious and accession negotiations are about it, but to effectively reform we need first to stop the war.”
In a sign of the fierce and ongoing disagreement among member countries, a revised draft of the conclusions for next week’s European Council summit, prepared on Wednesday morning, included a section headlined: “MEMBERSHIP APPLICATIONS of UKRAINE, REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA AND GEORGIA” but there was no accompanying text at all.
Some diplomats, noting the particularly strident views in Warsaw, Vilnius, Tallinn and Riga, warned of a dangerous fault line between Eastern and Western Europe on the issue. But in fact, the divisions among the member states are hardly so clearly defined.
Courting the big states
On a very pragmatic level, Ukraine’s chances of candidate status would be nil without the support of France and Germany.
French President Emmanuel Macron has a particularly crucial role given that his country currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, and therefore is responsible for brokering any debate among the EU countries.
During a visit to Moldova on Wednesday, Macron appeared to throw his weight behind the membership bids of Moldova and Ukraine — while throwing cold water on Georgia’s prospects.
But he also cited the sensitive issue regarding long delays in membership negotiations with Western Balkan countries such as Albania and North Macedonia. Those delays have been cited by some officials skeptical of granting candidate status, saying it would be a mistake to give Ukrainians false hope of joining anytime soon.
Macron, at a news conference with Moldovan President Maia Sandu, said he expected the European Council to give a clear signal next week.
“I don’t think there’ll be an intermediate status, nor an intermediate answer,” Macron said. “I don’t want to anticipate the decision, because my role is to build a consensus. But my wish is to send a positive clear message on this topic. But we have to take into consideration other member states and countries that are already in the candidacy process in the Western Balkans.”
Macron’s comments were inherently contradictory and not only because he was both acknowledging his obligation as the Council’s “honest broker” while also staking out a firm position. Taking into consideration the views of more skeptical member states will potentially require giving a less than clear signal to Ukraine and Moldova.
As for Georgia’s membership bid, Macron suggested it was a non-starter at the moment. “I want us to send a clear and positive signal, but we have to build unanimity across the members,” Macron said, reiterating his stance. “I don’t think we can dissociate Moldova from Ukraine in the perspectives that we give.” But he added: “Georgia does not have the same place geopolitically.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also seemed to be moving cautiously toward support for Ukraine’s candidate status, but a bit less enthusiastically and with his Social Democrats under severe pressure from their government coalition partners, the Greens and liberals.
Still, it was not yet clear whether Scholz would wholeheartedly support the granting of candidate status, or would back a “potential” membership candidacy under conditions — a solution that is being described in Berlin as promising Ukraine a “membership perspective.”
Such wishy-washy language will only infuriate Kyiv, but other EU officials have cautioned that Zelenskyy would be wise to tone down some of his recent criticism of Germany, France and Italy — particularly if Scholz, Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi make a joint visit to Kyiv as is expected this week.
In Germany’s case, the Ukrainian president has complained of slow and inconsistent support, including on weapons deliveries, while France and Italy faced rebuke for expressing willingness to compromise with Putin. Macron’s repeated comments that Russia should not be “humiliated” have faced particular derision in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy has also irked EU leaders with his constant praise of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is viewed with disdain in Brussels and other EU capitals as untrustworthy and duplicitous for backtracking on aspects of the Brexit agreement, particularly the protocol on Northern Ireland that Johnson himself negotiated with the EU.
For Ukraine and its supporters, many leaders in Western Europe seem dangerously detached from reality, including Macron who proposed creating a “European political community” as a sort of alternative structure for countries to strengthen ties with the EU. Macron had said the community would be open to countries like Ukraine that want to join the EU, as well as to countries that had left the bloc — a clear reference to Britain.
The fact that the EU and U.K. were once again in a fierce conflict over the Northern Ireland protocol on Wednesday only offered further ammunition to Macron’s critics. On Wednesday, another EU diplomat echoed Macron’s proposal and even made the wild suggestion that Russia might one day join such a European community.
This diplomat said that the “European political community would not be an alternative to enlargement,” but “rather a type of coordination for those countries that don’t want to join EU or have left it, where we currently have no forum.” This diplomat said the U.K., Switzerland, Norway, Armenia and Azerbaijan could be potential members “and one day Russia — if and when it meets conditions such as not attacking another country and being democratic.”
If that sounds crazy, officials in Berlin suggested it would be equally nuts to expect that the EU would allow Ukraine to simply vault over the normal accession requirements and gain quick entry as an EU member.
Earlier this week, Scholz stressed during a news conference with Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger in Berlin that any potential enlargement of the EU must be “closely related to the question of the further development of the EU,” meaning the bloc’s ability to reform itself and take decisions in areas such as foreign policy without each individual member country being able to impose its veto.
Ukraine’s relatively large population, compared to many EU member countries, would mean that it would stand to gain a large delegation in the European Parliament, and substantial muscle in decisions based on qualified majority voting, in which population size is a factor. Ukraine’s economic weakness would also position it to receive a relatively large portion of EU budget money.
Scholz is facing pressure not only from eastern EU countries but also internally, including from his Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and ministers from the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), who are strongly pushing for Ukraine to have closer ties to the bloc.
The FDP’s European policy spokesperson Michael Link warned that a failure to decide on at least a “membership perspective” for Ukraine at next week’s EU leaders’ summit would be “a signal” to Putin “that he succeeds with his divisive, destructive policy. After all, his goal is to keep Ukraine away from Europe with all his might.”
Link added: “I’m really looking forward, and hoping, that the German Social Democrats will not miss this opportunity to give such an important signal now.”
Green MP Anton Hofreiter, the chair of the Bundestag’s European affairs committee, made similar remarks: “It is good that Olaf Scholz is going to Ukraine. It would be even better if he supports Ukraine getting candidate status,” he said.
Crucially, there are also signs that Scholz’s own Social Democrats are beginning to move on the issue: “I agree that a clearly formulated prospect for accession must be created at the summit” of EU leaders next week, said Markus Töns, a lawmaker from the SPD.
“However, this does not mean that negotiations for accession can begin immediately. That will only be possible once the war is over and there is a peace treaty between Ukraine and Russia,” Töns cautioned, adding that the EU must also “honestly tell Ukraine” that “this will be a very complex and lengthy process.”
Several EU officials and diplomats described the debate as chaotic and said it was impossible to predict the precise language that European Council heads would include in their conclusions.
Some said the European Commission was taking advantage of its role by issuing a positive recommendation without having to take responsibility for tackling tough questions about Ukraine’s readiness to become a candidate country.
“There are no clear landing zones in sight yet, but a lot will depend on what the Commission proposes in terms of conditionality,” one diplomat from a Western EU country said.
This diplomat said a reasonable approach would be to grant candidate status and impose realistic, necessary conditions. “You give a kind of political recognition of candidate status and then you start conditioning that,” the diplomat said, adding that some countries, including Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium, wanted to see a “clear timeframe.”
“Much will depend on the German position,” the Western diplomat added, “and that is linked to the Balkans.”
Two EU diplomats said that Bulgaria, which has blocked membership talks with North Macedonia — and by extension Albania, since their bids are linked — had signaled a potential softening in its position during a meeting of EU permanent representatives on Wednesday. Such a move could make it substantially easier for Scholz — who has warned that it would be difficult to start talks with new countries as long as the North Macedonia issue remains unresolved — to support candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova.
Looming in the background of the debate on Ukraine are profound questions about the future of decision-making in the EU — including the possibility that with Ukraine as a member, the EU’s biggest powers, France and Germany, could be outvoted on decisions made by qualified majority.
“Once Ukraine is a member of the Union, Germany and France can be overruled under QMV,” the Western EU diplomat said. “Ukraine is a locomotive that pulls a lot of trains.”
Lili Bayer and Clea Caulcutt contributed reporting.