Will the EU start to take Ukraine’s membership seriously?

Analysis: Zelenskiy once played a TV president turned down by Merkel, but how real are his country’s prospects?

The phone rings and Volodymyr Zelenskiy reaches into his pocket. The German chancellor is on the line, to inform him that “we decided to take your country into the European Union”.

“Oh fuck,” Zelenskiy says, as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the EU anthem, soars into life.

It is an old clip from Zelenskiy’s acting days, when he played Ukraine’s accidental president in the hit TV show Servant of the People. It was filmed several years before Russia’s all-out attack began, before bombs fell on a maternity hospital in besieged Mariupol, before a six-year-old girl died of dehydration under the rubble of her destroyed home, according to Ukrainian officials.

I can’t wrap my mind around the existence of this clip. pic.twitter.com/1XvBYWlMxg

— Vera Bergengruen (@VeraMBergen) March 2, 2022

The clip went viral last week, because the topic of Ukraine’s EU membership is no longer a joke in a TV show but an urgent question.

The real President Zelenskiy filed Ukraine’s application for EU membership five days into Russia’s invasion, calling for “immediate accession via a new special procedure”.

As EU leaders gathered on Thursday to discuss that bid in the historically charged setting of Versailles, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, urged them to make it happen. “Ukraine is a strong force for good, a brave and intelligent nation which will contribute greatly to the political, economic, cultural and social strength of the EU after this war is over,” he wrote in the Financial Times. “It will be a matter of prestige, as well as strength, for the EU to have a member like us.”

While the EU has surprised observers with its unity and readiness to cast aside old doctrines to stand against Russia’s aggression, EU membership for Ukraine appears to be a step too far.

This is not for lack of support. The EU remembers the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, when peaceful protesters lost their lives to defend Ukraine’s right to choose a European future. Eight member states, all in central and eastern Europe, have called on the EU to “immediately” grant Ukraine EU candidate status and open the process of negotiations.

But supporters know it is an uphill battle. “They have even more values than many of us, but, practically, it will be very challenging,” said one senior diplomat. Old member states, including France, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, do not want Ukraine to get a shortcut to EU membership.

Officials point out that Ukraine needs to be able to absorb the 80,000-page EU rule book, the acquis communautaire, encompassing everything from air pollution to the monitoring of zoonoses (infectious diseases from animals). Underpinning this mountain of technical regulations is a sound public administration, an independent judiciary and a market economy. “Let’s be fair, Ukraine is nowhere near that point, especially because of what Mr Putin has done,” a senior EU diplomat said, adding that even before the war, Ukraine was “not moving in the right direction” on the Copenhagen criteria – EU standards on democracy, the rule of law and the economy.

“We want to say yes to Ukraine as much as possible: moral support, show sympathy with the Ukrainian people, make clear they are part of our community of values,” the diplomat added, while suggesting that Ukraine could go well beyond its existing trade and association agreement, via participation in the EU Erasmus student exchange programme or ministerial attendance at EU meetings.

“I think Ukrainians are making [membership] too big an issue and by listening to others who are making this into an easy political decision,” the person said.

The EU diplomat ruled out the suggestion that the EU’s reluctance stemmed from concern over antagonising the Kremlin, but supporters of Ukraine’s EU membership fear this is the real reason. Like Nato, the EU also has its own mutual defence clause, where an attack on one is an attack on all. “There are governments [in old member states] who think we can negotiate with Putin and exchange Ukraine’s European aspirations for peace,” another senior diplomat told the Guardian. “And I just think this is an illusion.”

Long before Ukraine’s membership bid, the EU’s old member states were wary of EU enlargement and burned by democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary, or lingering corruption in Bulgaria and Romania. “Enlargement changes to a certain extent the nature of the European Union, so it is a question of fundamental existential importance for every leader, for every country,” an EU official said.

And a fast track for Ukraine risks antagonising six western Balkan countries that have been at various stages of the EU membership queue since leaders declared they had a “European perspective” nearly 20 years ago.

So far, the divisions have produced a classic Brussels compromise, where EU leaders will declare that “Ukraine belongs to our European family”, according to a draft text seen by the Guardian. EU leaders will call on the European Commission to give an opinion on Ukraine’s membership application, adding that “pending this and without delay, we will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership”.

Heather Grabbe, a former commission official who worked on EU enlargement, thinks the EU could do so much more. “What Ukraine really needs is reassurance that Europe will not abandon them in the face of Russian aggression, that Europe won’t force them to choose between Europe and Russia, that they are fundamentally European, whatever Russia does,” said Grabbe, now the director of the Open Society European Policy Institute.

“It would just be outrageous for the European Union to make Ukraine’s European future dependent on Russia’s will,” she told the Guardian, pointing out that if the EU defined its borders according to the Kremlin it would hand Putin victory in one of his war aims.

However, the EU’s demanding entry criteria should not be watered down for Ukraine, she said. More immediately, the EU should include Ukraine in its flagship policy: the green deal, which aims for net zero emissions by 2050. The green deal, Grabbe said, should be a core part of Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, in one move phasing out its reliance on Russian fossil fuels and deepening European integration. “That is very practical because it unlocks a lot of money for Ukraine and it also starts the transition of the Ukrainian economy where it would be much more in line with the European economy,” she said.

In the fictional clip, Ukraine’s membership dream ended when the German chancellor realised she had made a mistake: it was Montenegro she wanted in the EU. Ode to Joy cuts out abruptly, the president’s face crumples: “I see, OK – my congratulations, yes, to Montenegro.”

As Ukrainians die for what the real Zelenskiy has cast as a fight to be “equal members of Europe”, Ukraine’s government may be less understanding if they perceive the EU’s door to still be closed.


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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