ROME – Remember how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine quickly escalated into a massacre on February 24? It was the first full-scale invasion of Europe since the end of World War II, with the EU scrambling to offer support and commitments that seem increasingly hollow.
On April 8, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Kyiv to bypass Bucha’s road with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky corpse, promising him speedy accession to the EU. “It’s not going to take years as usual to form that opinion, but I think it’s going to take a few weeks,” she said. “Dear Volodymyr, my message today is clear: Ukraine belongs to the European family.”
Isha Sesay (left) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (center) stand up for Ukraine on April 9, 2022 in Warsaw, Poland.
(Photo by Brian Dowling/Getty Images)
But with the deadline looming for a meeting at the end of May ahead of next month’s key summit, some of Europe’s most powerful member states have poured cold water on Ukraine’s membership – it must be noted – which they agreed nearly 20 years ago. Start trying. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said fast-tracking a country “like Ukraine” was unfair to other Western Balkan countries that were also knocking on the door of European clubs. “There are no shortcuts on the road to the EU,” Scholz said last week when asked about Ukraine. “The joining process is not a matter of months or years.”
French President Emmanuel Macron was more precise about what Europe might think, saying it would take “decades” for a “candidate like Ukraine” to join the EU. Macron suggested that a mini-club-style coalition would need to be created that would also bring Britain back after Brexit, although at the end of the war Ukraine would put a stop to key benefits desperately needed in terms of support, funding and structural reforms.
Emily Channell-Justice, director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard’s Ukraine Institute, told The Daily Beast that she was disappointed, but ultimately not surprised, by the EU’s hesitancy to introduce Ukraine. “This is not surprising in many ways, because before the war, Ukraine’s European future was not without problems,” she said. “The war didn’t derail it, but now Ukraine can say to the EU, ‘We’re basically the ones who protect all of you from the greatest threat.’ They set a great example for the rest of us in many areas, That’s the least we can do for them.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz waits for the arrival of the Bulgarian president after the EU flag is reflected in the window of the Chancellery on May 16, 2022.
(Photo by John McDougall/AFP via Getty Images)
She said that, in addition to the concrete support provided by EU member states, it would show that what the EU said at the start of the war was serious. “There are obligations that might help, any symbolic step the EU can take would be helpful,” she said. “But some countries fear a clean break with Russia, especially given how unpredictable Putin is.”
The problem holding many European countries back is twofold. Some countries, notably Italy, Hungary and Germany, are working on a workable plan to wean themselves off Russian oil. Italy recently opened a ruble account to ensure they would not be cut off. The EU also failed to agree on a boycott of Russian oil, sending a signal that they may be willing to continue doing business with Putin despite his actions in Ukraine.
Another issue for many is the pending membership of six other candidates: Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo, who are ahead of Ukraine in the process. “Over the years, they have been carrying out deep reforms and preparing for membership,” the German chancellor said. “It’s not just a matter of our credibility that we keep our promises to them. Today, more than ever, their integration is also in our strategic interest.”
Still, given Ukraine’s particular vulnerability, not everyone sees the playing field as level. “What people don’t understand is that this is not a new idea, this is something that many people have wanted in Ukraine since 2004, and that most Ukrainians have wanted and worked for since 2014,” Channell-Justice said . “And I think it’s a matter of recognizing that it’s not always about how you evaluate the country as a whole, and they’ve built an effective civil society that challenges the elites to do better.”
The EU has said it will not abandon Ukraine entirely, even if it fails to become a full member in the near future. The European Union has welcomed millions of war refugees in unprecedented ways and has provided billions of dollars in aid to the Ukrainian military in the form of military equipment and cash. But – it seems – the help ends there.