EU leaders to dampen Ukraine’s hopes of fast-track EU membership

EU leaders will try to temper Kyiv’s expectations while avoiding negative public statements that could weaken morale

EU leaders will seek to cool Ukraine’s expectations of a fast track to membership at a summit with Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday, as the bloc spars over how much encouragement to give its war-torn neighbour.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the head of the European Council, Charles Michel, are due to meet Zelenskiy in Kyiv on Friday for wide-ranging talks on the war, further sanctions on Russia and integrating Ukraine into the EU’s internal market.

It is understood that the EU leaders will seek in private to temper Ukraine’s expectations of a fast-tracked membership, while avoiding negative public statements that could weaken morale and damage Zelenskiy’s efforts to project a European future for Ukrainians.

Western EU member states are concerned that Kyiv’s expectations on speedy membership talks are unrealistic. Earlier this week, Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, told Politico his country had “a very ambitious plan to join the European Union within the next two years”.

The EU granted Ukraine candidate status last June, a historic decision taken with unprecedented speed for the post-1992 era.

But few member states expect Ukraine to join any time soon. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said last May it would probably take several decades for Ukraine to join the EU. Some diplomatic sources have expressed scepticism that Ukraine, which would become the poorest EU member state and the largest recipient of European funds, will ever attain membership.

A draft summit communique states that “the EU reiterated its commitment to support Ukraine’s further European integration” and “will decide on further steps once all the conditions specified in the commission’s opinion [on candidate status] are fully met.”

Language noting Ukraine’s “considerable progress” towards EU membership has been changed to “considerable efforts”, after complaints from Germany, the Netherlands and others that the EU had made no official assessment to justify such rosy comments.

“There is no fast track,” said one senior EU diplomat, adding it was “too early to tell” whether Ukraine would join the EU. “The path for any candidate country is a long one. Ukraine is no exception here.”

Poland and the Baltic states have been arguing for more encouraging language. Yet even these governments, which hope Ukraine will join swiftly, are avoiding endorsing specific dates.

Ahead of the summit, Von der Leyen travelled to Kyiv on Thursday with 15 EU commissioners, the first time so many senior Brussels officials have held talks with a government in a conflict zone.

Speaking alongside Zelenskiy on Thursday, she heaped praise on Ukraine’s efforts to join the EU, saying: “Your stamina and your people’s stamina and your determination to join the European Union is impressive.”

Ukraine’s president spelled out how important EU membership was. “We need the motivating European integration achievements that will show that the strength of our people on the battlefield – and that all levels of this very difficult fight is supported by the entire Europe,” Zelenskiy said.

The EU visits to Kyiv follow a series of arrests of senior Ukrainian officials accused of corruption. On Wednesday the head of Kyiv’s tax authority was accused of fraud, after investigators found expensive jewellery and piles of cash at one of her homes. Last week, several Ukrainian senior officials, including the deputy minister of infrastructure, resigned or were fired as part of anti-corruption investigations.

Von der Leyen praised Ukraine for “reacting so rapidly” to ensure the fight against corruption “is delivering tangible results and is further stepped up”.

She also praised Ukraine’s “impressive progress” to meet seven requirements set out in the commission’s opinion on Ukraine’s candidate status.

These seven steps include reforming Ukraine’s constitutional court, curbing the influence of oligarchs in public life, and tackling corruption with “proactive and efficient investigations”.

Yet EU member states – who expect to bear a large part of the cost of Ukraine’s reconstruction – are likely to remain concerned about fraud in a country that was named as the second most corrupt in Europe in 2022 by Transparency International. The World Bank estimated Ukraine’s reconstruction bill to be €349bn (£312bn) last September, but that figure is certainly higher following Russian attacks on Ukrainian housing and critical infrastructure over the autumn and winter.

While senior EU officials are impressed with Ukraine’s efforts to tackle endemic graft, there is also acknowledgment that war breeds corruption.

Several EU member states argue that Ukraine should not be allowed to open accession talks with the bloc – the next key decision point on the road to membership – until it has passed all seven requirements.


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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