On February 28, four days after Russia invaded his country, Ukrainian President Zelensky applied for membership in the European Union. The European Commission will give its advice on Friday, which has not happened so quickly with any other request. All indications are that the Commission will recommend member states to grant Ukraine the much-aspired candidate status. During Monday’s “exploratory discussion,” none of the supervisory directors present raised any objection. The status of the candidate may be accompanied by correctional demands. Who wins this tip? and what?
With an unconditional “yes” from the commission, Zelensky is the big winner. Before the Russian invasion, his country was seen as a hideout for criminals and oligarchs, and now it immediately places itself in the leading group of countries eager to join the European Union. A success of Zelensky’s sophisticated PR campaign in which he met with EU leaders, he addressed EU summits and national parliaments for months and is not afraid of strong words.
Last weekend, during a lightning visit to Kyiv by Commission President von der Leyen, Zelensky stated that all of Europe was being targeted by Russia. Unity is required and that is why his country must become part of the European Union as soon as possible. “Membership in Ukraine is the answer to the future of the European project,” Zelensky said.
The popular president would be less enthusiastic if obtaining candidate status were associated with demands to fight corruption and strengthen the rule of law. This will be portrayed as a betrayal of the Ukrainians dying on the battlefield.
Zelensky knows that candidate status is a purely symbolic title, which in practice only results in recognition that the country could one day become a member of the European Union. The candidate’s status marks the beginning of at least ten years of negotiations with the EU on the implementation of all EU laws and painful reforms, in which member states always have the last word. Zelensky’s job is to temper the expectations of Ukrainians if such status is granted.
For the European Union, the positive opinion of the Commission leads to the exercise of political balancing act. Next Thursday and Friday the heads of government will be in Brussels: they decide on the status of the candidate, but they are divided and everyone has a veto. Leaders understand that controversy damages the Union’s image. Why solidarity with Ukraine? Why the geopolitical ambitions of the European Union? A vigilant EU summit without results is a powerful boost to Russian President Putin.
Poland, the Baltic states, Italy and Romania are the main proponents of the status of the Ukrainian candidate. The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Austria are very reluctant to do so. French President Macron and German Chancellor Schulz have also applied the brakes until recently, but they are expected to be taken on a visit to Kyiv by Italian Prime Minister Draghi and his Romanian counterpart Iohannis.
EU President Michel will have to use all his verbal talents to find a text that both sides can live with. But even if a “yes with conditions” compromise is offered, leaders will face another difficult debate: Is the EU ready for more members? Because in addition to Ukraine, eight other countries are knocking on the European front door. What size should the EU budget be? Does all this money go to the new member states? Will the commission soon include 35 commissioners? Can the EU+30 veto be defended? Portuguese Prime Minister Costa questions the status of Ukraine’s candidate for these reasons.
Ukraine is a nuisance to Prime Minister Rutte. In 2016, the Netherlands rejected the Kyiv-Brussels trade agreement by referendum. That treaty was signed anyway, but Rutte promised that this was not at all a precursor to Ukraine’s membership in the European Union. In any case, EU enlargement always faces resistance in the Chamber of Deputies, especially from VVD Root.
Last month, the prime minister considered it unlikely that Ukraine would gain candidate status at the upcoming EU summit. Kyiv wants the necessary reforms to be implemented first. Ruti noted that Bosnia and Herzegovina must meet fourteen conditions before the application for candidate status made in 2016 can be honored.
Rutte and Minister Hoekstra for External Affairs are eagerly awaiting the commission’s advice. It is not unimportant in this respect that Commission Chairperson von der Leyen is personally committed to Ukraine. “Ukraine is a strong and solid democracy,” she said in Kyiv last week. The government works even in wartime. Sure, there is still a lot to do, but that is exactly what these years of negotiations are aiming for.
EU officials anticipate a scenario in which Rutte is the last remaining opponent next week. The question is whether he will veto it next.
Finally, there are the Balkan countries that are already in the EU waiting room, where a quick grant to Ukraine will raise eyebrows. Bosnia, which has been waiting for six years, sees itself surpassed. North Macedonia was granted candidate status in 2005 but negotiations have not yet begun. The same applies to Albania, which acquired the status in 2012. Negotiations are underway with Montenegro, but after ten years little progress has been made. Talks with Serbia have continued unsuccessfully since 2014, Turkey (candidate status in 1999) is no longer spoken of at all.
Then there are Moldova and Georgia, which applied for EU membership in Ukraine. The fear among all these countries is that Ukraine will move forward. Commission officials insist that each country is judged on its merits. Ukraine can actually speed up the process for other candidates to avoid suspicion of preferential treatment.
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