EU leaders to back Ukraine’s membership bid while skirting tough questions on war

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The European Council on Thursday will designate Ukraine a candidate for EU membership — even as Russia’s ongoing war raises questions about whether the country will exist long enough to ever join the club.

The decision on Ukraine’s candidate status, to be made by the 27 EU heads of state and government at a two-day summit in Brussels, will deliver a giant morale boost to the war-torn country — a point European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed in a speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday.

“It is the only country where people got shot because they wrapped themselves in a European flag,” von der Leyen said, explaining her Commission’s decision to formally recommend candidate status a scant four months after Ukraine submitted its application in the early days of Russia’s invasion. “Ukraine has gone through hell and high water for one simple reason: and that’s their desire to join the European Union.”

But even as the heads on the European Council move to elevate the hopes of millions of Ukrainians by adopting the Commission’s recommendation, they have little new assistance to offer Ukraine — other than words — in its immediate struggle for survival.

At a summit late last month, the European Council adopted a sixth package of sanctions against Moscow, including plans to embargo most imports of Russian oil. But at the current summit, there will be little or no discussion of a seventh package, as leaders confront the reality that punitive measures so far have had little deterrent effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite the heavy cost to European economies.

Instead, the latest draft summit conclusions state vaguely that “work will continue on sanctions, including to strengthen implementation and prevent circumvention.”

Mark Gitenstein, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, said that the priority now should be enforcing the existing sanctions to make certain that they bite.

“We have gone very, very far — further than any time in history — we have thousands of sanctions,” Gitenstein told reporters recently. “The problem with sanctions is not adding new sanctions, it’s enforcing … the sanctions export controls we have, which is a difficult problem.”

U.S. and EU officials, he noted, were already coordinating their efforts.

“If they were all fully enforced, they would have a devastating impact,” Gitenstein said. “And they are beginning to have a big impact.”

But the draft summit conclusions state that the EU has not yet finalized a proposal “adding the violation of sanctions to the list of EU crimes.”

Arming Ukraine

In their draft conclusions, the EU’s heads of state and government also have little concrete to say about the urgent need for the weapons, ammunition and military aid Ukraine needs to withstand the continuing attacks and to repel the Russian invaders. Moscow’s troops are now occupying large swaths of the south and east of the country, including a so-called land bridge to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Russia invaded and annexed in 2014.

“The European Union remains strongly committed to providing further military support to help Ukraine exercise its inherent right of self-defense,” the draft conclusions state. “To this end, the European Council calls on the Council to swiftly work on a further increase of military support.”

The disconnect between encouragement of Ukraine’s future EU membership and vague rhetoric when it comes to Ukraine’s present needs has left Ukrainian officials and diplomats walking a political tightrope — expressing deep and genuine gratitude while also pointing out that much more is required to guarantee military victory, however that might be defined.

At a briefing with reporters this week, Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Vsevolod Chentsov bristled when asked about NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s recent comments that Western allies must be prepared for the war in Ukraine to grind on for many years.  

“Well, I think NATO secretary-general can concentrate on something else, rather [than] you know, those predictions,” Chentsov said. “It’s not helpful. This is my humble opinion.”

“Our people, they’re quite strong and capable,” the ambassador added. “But, you know, it’s not enough to be inventive and brave. We need a lot of weapons — and now — and this should change the situation.”

It’s not only in the lack of weapons that Western assistance is falling short of meeting Ukraine’s current needs. Apart from Russia’s continuing military onslaught and occupation, Ukraine is teetering 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 is less than even two months of Ukraine’s current budget shortfall, which financial experts have estimated at €5 billion to €7 billion per month. The draft conclusions call for supporting “reconstruction” in Ukraine, even with the knowledge that Putin’s destruction of Ukraine will continue for the foreseeable future.

Treaty troubles

The uncertainty of Ukraine’s continued existence as a sovereign nation is hardly the only tough question EU heads of state and government will skirt past during their two-day summit.

The prospect of membership for Ukraine — as well as for neighboring Moldova, which is also expected to be granted EU candidate status at the summit — also stands to fundamentally alter the balance of decision-making in the EU, and therefore may result in demands for major changes to its treaties.

Because of Ukraine’s relatively big population — it would likely enter as the EU’s fifth- or sixth-largest country depending on how many people remain after the war — it would be entitled to a large delegation in the European Parliament, and its accession would tilt the math in any decisions made by qualified majority voting.

But while the decision on candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova almost certainly means a difficult conversation about treaty changes, the heads of state and government seem intent on ducking that discussion for now. Instead, they will give cursory acknowledgment to the “Conference on the Future of Europe” — a French-led effort to ponder how the EU might be structured in the decades ahead.

The draft conclusions praise the “unique opportunity to engage with European citizens” and call for “an effective follow-up.”

But the section in the draft conclusions on Ukraine and Moldova does seem designed to give the EU an escape clause if needed institutional changes are not executed — noting that the membership bids could be stalled if the EU is not quite ready to expand.

“The progress of each country towards the European Union will depend on its own merit,” the conclusions state, adding cryptically, “including the EU’s capacity to absorb new members.”

It is far from clear how, or even if, such a capacity could or would be measured in any objective fashion, potentially leaving any determination to the caprice of the leaders around the European Council table.

The long delays in the accession process for Western Balkans countries, however, suggest Ukraine and Moldova should be prepared for potential delays.

Some Western Balkans nations had threatened to boycott a pre-summit meeting on Thursday because of Bulgaria’s longstanding obstruction of North Macedonia’s accession talks. In the end, the Balkans leaders will be at the meeting in Brussels, but diplomats said an agreement on a proposed compromise with Bulgaria, where the government of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov lost a no-confidence vote on Wednesday, is unlikely.

For Ukraine and Moldova to secure the start of accession talks, the European Commission has said the countries must first meet a series of conditions related to fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law.

At the moment, however, Russia’s invasion and occupation make it impossible for Ukraine to predict what its borders will be, or how many citizens it will have. The war makes Ukraine’s membership bid even more unpredictable than that of Cyprus, which was allowed to join the EU despite the island being divided in a long conflict with Türkiye.

Chentsov, the Ukrainian ambassador, said that ending the war and restoring peace were not preconditions for his country to join the EU, and that the government in Kyiv would continue working on administrative reforms, including to the country’s justice system, that the European Commission has demanded.

“There is no precondition for peace,” Chentsov said. “We have a clear understanding.”

He acknowledged however that certain reforms would be difficult, or even impossible, to implement until the war is over.  

“Systemic things like a continuation of police reform 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 shooting,” 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 toward its rightful place in the EU.

“The idea of Ukraine is not questioned,” he said. “The fact that Commission suggested — and member states also accepted — the whole idea of doing it now, I think it shows that they’re quite confident of our ability to keep the situation under control.”