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Brussels urged to rein in Ukraine’s ‘unrealistic’ EU hopes

EU member states are cautioning Brussels against unrealistic expectations for Ukraine to quickly join the bloc ahead of a summit in Kyiv where Volodymyr Zelenskiy is pushing for progress on accession and rebuilding.

This week, Zelenskiy is due to host his EU counterparts Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, where he is expected to lobby for the country’s EU membership, the use of frozen Russian assets to fund Ukraine’s reconstruction, and a legal mechanism to prosecute Russians for war crimes. .

Senior diplomats from EU capitals are concerned that Ukraine’s unfulfilled expectations, including joining the EU by 2026, are being encouraged rather than deterred by top Brussels officials.

“No political leader wants to be on the wrong side of history. . . Nobody wants to be accused of not doing enough,” said a senior EU diplomat. “So they tell them anything is possible.”

In response to Russia’s invasion last February, the EU has struggled to support Ukraine with military, humanitarian and financial packages, including sanctions against Russia that have hit the bloc’s own economy. The EU has also taken the unprecedented step of making Ukraine an official candidate for membership despite not meeting standard requirements.

But while some central and eastern European member states defend Ukraine’s demands, other northern and western capitals worry about how its large, poor population and vast agricultural sector can be integrated into the EU.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been particularly wary of Ukraine’s speed with the EU, warning in May, before the country officially became a candidate, that the process could take “several decades.”

The EU leadership is optimistic. European Commission President von der Leyen said during a visit to Kyiv in September that “the accession process is on the right track.” “Impressive is the speed, determination and precision with which you are moving forward,” she added.

Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and President of the European Council Charles Michel (second from left)
Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and President of the European Council Charles Michel (second from left) © Ruslan Kanyuka/Reuters

European Council President Michel said this month that “no effort should be spared to turn this promise into reality as quickly as possible.” “Ukraine is the EU, and the EU is Ukraine,” he told the Ukrainian parliament.

This rhetoric has created expectations in Kyiv that he deserves special privileges and quick entry into the bloc. Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmyhal said that he envisages a two-year schedule.

“There will be no fast track to Ukraine’s EU membership,” said a second EU diplomat. “There is a risk that rhetoric will collide with reality.”

Representatives from several member states told the Financial Times that the commission should make it clear to Ukraine that there are huge hurdles before formal accession talks can begin, which could themselves take a decade or more.

“This gap [between promises and reality] has been growing for some time. And we’re getting to the point where it’s getting too wide,” said a third EU diplomat. “They seem to believe they can become members tomorrow. And that’s clearly not the case.”

As part of the trip, von der Leyen and other commissioners will meet Ukrainian government officials, as well as the commission’s president and Michel, representing 27 member states, who are scheduled to meet with Zelenskiy on Friday.

“We have all noted the reform momentum that is ongoing in Ukraine,” one senior EU official said ahead of the meetings, pointing to work on the rule of law and anti-corruption efforts, for example. Discussions in Kyiv will highlight the need for further reforms, as well as economic cooperation and the reduction of trade barriers with the EU.

Michel and von der Leyen also actively urged member states to explore ways to use proceeds from Russian central bank assets frozen in European banks to rebuild Ukraine.

“Perhaps von der Leyen and Michel are competing with each other to see who can be more pro-Ukrainian,” one EU diplomat said.

The cost of reconstruction and rebuilding was estimated by Ukraine, Brussels and the World Bank at almost 350 billion euros last September, and the price has only risen since then as weekly Russian missile and drone attacks wreaked havoc on critical infrastructure.

But these calls for the deployment of assets were made despite big questions within the commission itself as to whether such a route would be feasible.

Didier Reynders, the EU justice commissioner, told the FT this week that the idea of ​​using Russian state assets is “a very difficult problem.” “I would say not only from the legal side, but also from the point of view of the good functioning of the monetary system,” he said.

The EU is also divided over the format of a potential tribunal to investigate and prosecute Russians for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

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