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Ukraine must join the European Union

Ukraine must join the European Union

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Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the founder and chairman of Rasmussen Global and is currently working pro bono with the Ukrainian President’s Office on security issues. He is former NATO secretary-general (2009-2014) and former prime minister of Denmark (2001-2009). 

“Today we have closed one of the bloodiest and darkest chapters in European history. Today we have opened a new chapter. Europe is spreading its wings. In freedom. In prosperity. And in peace. It is a truly proud moment for the European Union. It is a triumph for liberty and democracy.”

Twenty-one years ago today, I uttered these words to a group of journalists gathered in Copenhagen. I had just presided over the European Council summit in which European leaders agreed to invite the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to join the EU.

It wasn’t a decision we took lightly, but ultimately all of us assembled in that room recognized the historic moment we faced. We saw that despite the challenges, expanding the EU eastward was the best way to deliver security and prosperity to our Continent. It is a decision that has been venerated by history.

This week, the latest generation of European leaders face their own historic moment. And as they gather in Brussels for another European Council, they must recognize that lasting peace and stability relies on bringing Ukraine into the EU.

Back in 2002, many vehemently argued against the bloc’s enlargement. They said that the expansion to 10 new member countries would lead to chaos, that the new members were too poor to integrate and that institutions would become ungovernable. To the contrary, in fact, enlargement remains the EU’s most successful foreign policy. It helped embed and strengthen democracy across our Continent, bring stability to the Eastern flank and spur an economic miracle.

Now, two decades on, faced with an increasingly autocratic and militaristic Russia, is there anyone who can credibly argue that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, or the EU itself, would have been better off without this enlargement?

Unfortunately, however, it seems that now faced with the question of Ukraine’s membership, Europe risks letting history slip through its fingers. The threat of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s veto looks set to postpone the decision over opening negotiations with Ukraine, going against last month’s recommendations by the European Commission as well as the overwhelming majority of leaders in the Council room.

Under the leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Kyiv has gone well beyond the conditions set out for opening membership negotiations. And Ukrainians have managed all of this at a time of war.

This is because both Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine are clear that their future lies at the heart of Europe. Ten years ago, demonstrators took to the streets of Kyiv draped in EU flags, protesting corruption and calling for an end to Russia’s malign influence. Ukrainians have now been fighting not only for their country but for the fundamental European values of freedom and democracy for almost two years.

They are showing an entire Continent what it means to be European. They are showing the will to fight, and it is on us to deliver a future worth fighting for.

Ukraine’s EU accession isn’t an act of charity. Just as with the expansion to Central and Eastern Europe, Ukraine’s membership would greatly expand Europe’s industrial base and single market, helping us keep apace in an era of geopolitical competition.

Ukraine in the EU, and eventually NATO, could be the cornerstone of Europe’s new security architecture as well. If Ukraine is left in a gray zone between Russia and the EU, it will mean continued destruction and instability. Appeasing Russian President Vladimir Putin will again mean never-ending conflicts on our Continent.

This is why EU leaders must call Orbán’s bluff. Orbán can only afford to play Putin’s cheerleader because NATO and Europe underwrite Hungary’s security and prosperity, and leaders must be clear that he won’t be allowed to block a decision so fundamental to Europe’s strategic interests.

Twenty-one years ago, I said the decision to welcome 10 new countries into our bloc closed a dark chapter in Europe’s history — one of war and division. The reality is that this struggle never ends. It relies on every generation being prepared to stand up for freedom and democracy when they are threatened. On leaders having the vision to focus on our values and strategic interests, and not be derailed by political calculations or short-term interests. That is what the European Council must grapple with this week.  

Ukraine won’t join our bloc overnight. But by opening membership negotiations, EU leaders can send a loud and clear message to Putin: You won’t outlast us. Ukraine’s future is at the heart of Europe. The wheels are now in motion, and there is nothing you can do to stop them.

If they have the courage to do that, this will also be a decision venerated by history.

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