FROM BULB to military training and billions of euros, it is difficult to follow the evolution of European Union aid to Ukraine. Ursula von der Leyen and most of her European Commission, along with Charles Michel, President of the European Council, traveled to Kyiv on February 3 for meetings with Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of the beleaguered country, and members of his team. But help is one thing; joining the club is another. Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister, said earlier this week that his country had an “ambitious plan to join the European Union within the next two years”. It’s magical thinking. But this does not prevent Ukraine’s relationship with the club from changing dramatically in the coming years.
“We will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” von der Leyen said at the start of her visit. It came armed with an assistance package worth 450 million euros ($490 million), bringing the full support for wartime Ukraine from the EU, including its member states. , to 50 billion euros. (EU aid includes 35m low-power LED bulbs, a potent symbol when Russian missiles damaged much of Ukraine’s electricity supply.) But Ms von der Leyen took Care should be taken to avoid any promises regarding membership dates. “There are no rigid deadlines, but there are goals,” she told a news conference.
In his nightly program in the country on February 2, Zelensky said Ukraine “deserves” to start EU membership talks before the end of this year. It seems unlikely. But in any case, starting a negotiation is not the same as ending it. In June, Ukraine, along with Moldova, became an official candidate for EU membership, an idea that would have been dismissed as a fantasy before the invasion began on February 24, 2022. Apart from the Turkey, whose membership bid stalled long ago, before June the only countries with a promise of eventual membership were six in the Western Balkans. But their snail’s progress will hardly inspire hope in Kyiv. North Macedonia has been a candidate since 2005, Montenegro has been negotiating since 2012 and Serbia since 2014.
Yet Serhii Kuzan, chairman of the Ukrainian Center for Security and Cooperation, a think tank, believes his country can join within two years because Europe has already changed so much. When the invasion began, he said, it would have been hard to believe that the EU could stand together in the face of Russian aggression and pour so much aid into Ukraine. Why not fully open the club’s doors to Ukraine? The war has also accelerated Ukraine’s transformation “in all areas”. Mr Kuzan believes that most European leaders understand that “our fight and our resources are needed by the EU just as much as Ukraine needs the EU”.
But Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank, says it is “impossible” for Ukraine to join in two years. There would be too much opposition from current members who fear losing their funding and influence. For a new country to join, says Knaus, two things have to happen: it has to meet all EU standards and the EU itself has to change. Decision-making is difficult enough with 27 members; many others would risk making it impossible. This is why French and German leaders have argued that there can be no enlargement before EU reform.
This does not mean that Ukraine, or the Balkan Six, should abandon their ambitions. Indeed, among a flurry of deals signed in Kyiv was one that helped Ukrainian companies gain access to the EU single market. According to Mr Knaus, integrating Ukraine – together with the Western Balkans – into the single market as a first step is more realistic than aiming for immediate membership. This would provide these countries with enormous economic benefits without fundamentally changing the political structure of the EU.
Balkan leaders fear that simply joining the single market will become a waiting room with no way out. But if Ukraine and the EU opted for this option, says Mr Knaus, the Balkan countries would gladly follow. Ukrainian refugees already enjoy de facto freedom of movement inside the EU, under the club’s temporary protection regime, which was invoked after the start of the war. Full membership of the single market would not represent a big step forward. ■