Netherlands’ tight fist now chokes Ukraine’s EU bid

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VERSAILLES, France — The Netherlands is once again leading a charge of frugal countries at a major European Council summit, but this time it’s not common debt the Dutch are blocking but generosity of spirit toward war-ravaged Ukraine’s bid to join the EU.

As EU heads of state and government gather at Versailles to discuss Russia’s war in Ukraine, Kyiv’s hastily-submitted membership application will be near the top of the agenda.

With his country facing invasion and bombardment, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy late last month pleaded for immediate admission under “a new special procedure.”

“Our goal is to be together with all Europeans,” he said, adding: “I’m sure it’s possible.”

But Dutch diplomats, at the direction of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, have thrown up obstacles to granting Ukraine status as a candidate country, or even to making references in the leaders’ statement to Article 49 of the EU treaties, which lays out the accession process, according to Dutch, Ukrainian and other EU diplomats and officials.

Arriving at the summit in Versailles, Rutte said that it was premature to discuss Ukraine’s application but that there was consensus in Western Europe against any special acceleration of the normal process.

“This is a year-long procedure; we have to look at what we can do in the short term,” Rutte said, adding: “All the countries in the western part of Europe that I speak to, say that you shouldn’t try to have an express train, a fast-track procedure or accelerated accession process. But the question of whether you are for or against membership for Ukraine is not an issue at this point.”

Dutch diplomats did not deny their country’s stance but insisted that Germany and other countries shared their position as well as the Netherlands’ view that any reference to Article 49 and formal membership for Ukraine would further provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin, however, has shown that he alone decides when he feels provoked — lashing out on the basis of a web of conspiracy theories that he has spun for years, divorced from reality about the West and its role in Ukraine.

The Hague’s position has delivered a particularly painful sting, given that 196 Dutch citizens died when Russian-backed separatists shot down a civilian passenger jet, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.

It also follows a nonbinding referendum in 2016 in which Dutch voters opposed a political association agreement between Ukraine and the EU. That campaign against the association agreement was led by far-right politician Thierry Baudet, who was later found to have financial ties to Russia.

Since the invasion, Baudet has continued to support Putin, one of the few European political figures to do so. “Putin is right,” Baudet wrote on Twitter last week. “The West IS behaving like a bandit.”  He said that NATO, the EU, and U.S. should stop escalating the fight with Russia and “accept neutrality” for Ukraine.

The Dutch parliament ultimately ratified the association agreement in May 2017, as well as a trade agreement with Ukraine. Since then, Kyiv has made steady, if at times slow, progress on reforms demanded by Brussels, including anti-corruption initiatives and overhauls of its banking and energy systems.

On March 1, with bombs falling and Russia’s full-scale invasion underway, Ukraine’s finance ministry made a $292 million coupon payment on a Eurobond with a 7.75 percent interest rate and maturity date of September 2022. A senior EU official pointed POLITICO to the payment as evidence of Ukraine’s commitment to meet its obligations.

On Thursday, as EU leaders began arriving at Versailles, Ukrainian officials were reeling from the latest failed ceasefire negotiations in Turkey, and they reacted with fury over the Dutch position on EU membership

“So, the Dutch having almost killed the association agreement because of their ‘tolerance’ towards Russian stooges now are ready punish Ukraine — people in war with Russia — for the second time, killing the hope,” a senior Ukrainian diplomat said.

Ukrainians often point out, accurately, that during their Maidan Revolution of 2013-2014, in which tens of thousands protested for months in support of the political and trade agreements with the EU, they became the only people who have ever died under the EU’s blue and yellow flag. And Putin has stated repeatedly that his invasion was based heavily on Ukraine’s westward trajectory, particularly its stated aspiration to join NATO.

“The message is very simple: The main players in the EU need to wake up,” the senior Ukrainian diplomat said. “They groomed the monster and they should take the responsibility now to stop the war and get Ukraine in.”

One Brussels-based diplomat familiar with The Hague’s position said that Rutte, holding fast to his pragmatic instincts, is more interested in helping Zelenskyy immediately rather than EU membership which would help in the distant future.

The immediate support means military assistance, money and aid for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the country. “Everybody in their emotion is concentrating on one issue which will take 20 years,” this diplomat said. “And it’s not going to help Zelenskyy today.”

As of now, the draft leaders’ statement notes that Ukraine’s application is under review and awaiting an opinion from the European Commission. “Pending this and without delay, we will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership,” the draft statement says. “Ukraine belongs to our European family.”

Poland and Estonia have led the campaign in favor of granting Ukraine quick membership to the EU. And European Council President Charles Michel proposed a compromise text that would make reference to Article 49, but the Netherlands insisted that it also make reference to a thicket of other treaty provisions related to the membership process.

Officials have noted that new member countries must comply with the EU’s legal “acquis” which runs to some 88,000 pages.

A day before Zelenskyy’s plea for immediate membership, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had raised Kyiv’s hopes saying in a televised interview: “They are one of us and we want them in,” she told the Euronews TV channel.

EU ambassadors on Monday formally transmitted Ukraine’s membership application to the Commission for its opinion, fast-tracking a process that normally takes months.

Diplomats said that while technically there is no existing process for instant admission, in the EU anything is possible if the 27 heads of state and government express unanimous support.

“True, fast track is not existing in our regulations,” said one EU diplomat in favor of admission for Ukraine. “However, if there is a political will then everything can be done.”

Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.

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