Ukrainian officials are embarking on a concerted diplomatic push to start the country’s journey towards EU membership, as scepticism remains in a number of western European capitals about a fast-track approach.
Since Russia’s invasion, many in Europe, including Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, have spoken in favour of putting Ukraine on a speedy path to EU accession by granting it candidate status.
However there are still doubts in Berlin, Paris and other capitals over whether it is possible to begin the formal process already, before a leaders’ summit later this month that is expected to decide on the issue.
“It will be very hard to say no, but it will be even harder to say yes,” said one European diplomat briefed on the discussions.
Ultimately, the decision is likely to come down to personal discussion between European leaders at the summit, with the positions of France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz seen as crucial.
Some people have floated alternatives, such as giving Ukraine a commitment to candidate status later, or admitting it to a broader and looser framework of countries without granting full membership.
Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister with responsibility for European integration, said either of these outcomes would be extremely disappointing. “If European leaders keep going in the same way they were before 24 February, in terms of speed, ambiguity and a lack of willingness to irritate Putin, this would be a major failure of Europe as a project,” she said, in a telephone interview from Paris, which she was visiting as part of a European tour to shore up support for candidate status.
“Ukraine wants a legal commitment and not a political promise,” she added, citing the 1994 Budapest memorandum – under which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons – and the 2008 promise of future membership in Nato as pledges the west had not fulfilled, which had made Ukraine weaker politically.
“There have been three wars since 2008, so we call on leaders to refrain from more political promises, and instead to start the legal decisions which would pave the way for a European track for Ukraine and ensure we are members of the European family,” she said.
A month ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine should be granted candidate status “right now, in the condition of war, within the framework of a special shortened procedure for obtaining EU membership”.
He was backed by von der Leyen, who in April had visited Kyiv and handed Zelenskiy a questionnaire that forms the first stage of the EU candidacy process. Von der Leyen had told the Ukrainian president: “Dear Volodymyr, my message today is clear: Ukraine belongs in the European family. We have heard your request, loud and clear. And today, we are here to give you a first, positive answer.”
Candidate status is just the first step in a long process of obtaining full membership, but even that decision is under question, with France, Germany the Netherlands and the Nordic nations among sceptics. Macron has said it could take 20 years for Ukraine to become an EU member.
One argument made in conversations with Ukrainian officials is that it would be unfair on some of the western Balkan nations, who have been “in the queue” for longer, to fast-track Ukraine’s application. Others cite issues around the rule of law with Hungary and Poland.
One European diplomat said: “It’s clear already that EU decision-making is not working well, and we see Hungary holding the other 26 members hostage. We need to reform our internal processes first before we start talking about other members.”
Alyona Getmanchuk, the founder and director of New Europe Center, a Kyiv-based thinktank, said she had heard another reason for scepticism, particularly in Germany, on a recent visit to lobby for candidate status. “We heard informally that there is a fear of provoking Putin. We heard that especially in Germany: that by granting Ukraine candidacy, it could provoke Putin more and there would be more escalation.”
Recent polls suggest that support for EU membership among Ukrainians has soared to 91% since the start of the invasion, with a strong majority backing it even in the east and south of Ukraine, which traditionally has been more sceptical.
Getmanchuk noted that for the first time, most people in European countries supported Ukrainian membership. “If this decision is not taken in June it could be more difficult to take it later, when there will be more disappointment in European societies as gas prices rise and so on,” she said.